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RANDOM MUSINGS on the fin-de-millénaire games scene . . .

21 May 2005 . . . Just wanted to send a big bouquet of Thanks to Iain Cheyne and Mikko Saari who have nominated me for a kind of Master of Pith award. :) I enjoy my visits to your excellent sites as well! Your comments though make me think of that quote from the ancient Roman Cicero: "My apologies for this letter being so long. Had I more time, it would have been shorter."

Pith does take a lot of time. On the other hand, sometimes it's possible to be too pithy, even if writing about colonial imperialists, you know, the fellows with the pith helmets. Jim Riegel writes in to expand on my comments on Struggle of Empires:
I was glad to see that you mentioned racism in games and some thoughts on Puerto Rico and Struggle of Empires. You mention that Puerto Rico doesn’t bother you as a racist game, and I would agree. Puerto Rico doesn’t bother me because they at least tried to abstract the pieces as “colonists,” and any player has the option of picturing them that way (as I do) and not as slaves (the use of dark brown for their color was a mistake, though). You also mentioned Struggle of Empires’ tendency to reward the player who is the best slaver as “troubling,” but you did not expand on this.

To me, the troubling aspect of the use of slavery in Struggle of Empires is not racism per se, it is that the game explicitly encourages all players to engage in African slavery for money and victory points, in a multi-player game that will be usually played in a casual and fun gaming environment. This borders on trivializing the subject, in my mind, and it should not be trivialized, considering that many people still feel the effects of this practice. I wouldn’t mind it so much if one player in the game could play the side of the slaves, but of course that is not possible in this type of game where players play empires.

People counter that the game is simply trying to be historically accurate and that African slavery should not be censored or covered up. I agree that African slavery should not be censored in general, but I scrutinize games more than other types of media, simply because a game promotes role-playing: you take on the role of slaver, as opposed to just learning about slavery as with books or movies. And in a casual gaming environment, you can joke around, threaten to engage in slavery before other players do, and treat it on the generic fun level of multi-player games, which to me is distasteful. There is potential educational value in the game by having players play European powers: you get a sense of how these empires got some of their income, via slavery. But that educational value seems undermined by the use of slavery in a casual and fun gaming atmosphere.

I would have preferred that the designer had abstracted slavery out of the game as more generic “trade” or “exploitation of resources,” and let the players decide if they want to picture their actions as including slavery or not. In fact, I have come up with a variant for the game which makes this abstraction. If the designer wanted to be more educational, I agree with your suggestion for the use of background notes which in SoE's case could explain that this abstracted trade historically included African slavery in the Americas. The game is so abstract and un-historical as it is (e.g., Russia or Prussia can conquer South America), that including African slavery as a historical accuracy is by no means mandatory to the game’s design. I am not bothered if in this game I go against history a little and picture myself as a trader, not an African slaver.

I have seen almost no comment against the use of slavery in the game online—it apparently does not bother the vast majority of those who have played it. Most players seem to defend its use in the game as an accurate historical depiction. They do have a point; but they seem to have a greater ability to separate their in-game actions from real life than I do. Everyone has a different threshold as to what is distasteful to them. Also, I think it can become easy to ignore/forget what your actions in the game represent—when playing, you focus on mechanisms as simply ways to score points.


by Rick Heli