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Published on August 20th, 2014 | by Luke Turpeinen

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Representation & Theme

Representation is not a word you hear used very often in conjunction with board games. Board gamers, both players and designers, tend to use words like “mechanics”, “components” or “theme” to represent the fundamental parts and essential elements of a board game. But a large part of what makes up a theme is the way that it portrays aspects of its world or characters- especially when they have real world counterparts. Because theme is important to board games, we should be really digging into the way that we represent (that is, re-present) our setting’s “reality” whenever we make or play a board game.

If we are to make a game with a great theme then we really need to understand board games as a form of entertainment, and truly understanding the idea of representation is key to understanding any form of media. “What world is the creator showing me?” and “What assumptions does the creator intentionally and unintentionally use to build their characters, settings and narratives?” are both essential questions in analyzing any piece of art or interactive media (which board games definitely are).

Game creators should also think about the influence their game has on the people playing in it. (I say “creator” instead of “designer” because this applies to all artistic and creative fields involved in the process of making a work). Ask yourself, “What would someone who comes from a different background than me think of this game?” Often creators make the assumption that people who play their games or consume their media have the same cultural viewpoint that they do, which is not necessarily true. Misunderstanding that point can lead to unfortunate results and is a situation that with a bit of foresight and empathy can be avoided entirely.

vasco da gama board game cover

Take, for example, the game Vasco da Gama- based on the voyages of the famous Portuguese explorer of the same name. The game describes what you do as, “Recruit workers, buy projects, build ships. And use the ships to open new commercial routes to eastern Africa and India, to earn money and glory.” These new commercial routes to India and Africa were “opened” by acts of unprovoked warfare and unprecedented cruelness- including an instance where da Gama ordered the burning of 400 people (including women and children) alive in their ship just for being Muslim; he also cut off the ears and lips of an Indian messenger and sent him back to his master with dog ears sewn on to his head.

Knowing this, it should be easy to see how in the Indian cultural narrative, Vasco da Gama is a villain and not a hero. Using this as an example, it’s possible to see why selling the game as one where opening new commercial routes to India is a way “to earn money and glory” is distasteful, as the assumption of the game’s narrative is that the pillaging and murdering that da Gama actually did is something praiseworthy. The game’s creators have taken a historical incident and re-presented it devoid of almost all context, sanitized the narrative and presented someone as a hero that many others call a monster. In this way re-presentation in media, even one as benign as games, is a very powerful tool of changing the narrative of real history.

When most historical games are played from the viewpoint of imperialist European cultures, and those histories are sanitized and simplified, we begin to present that one cultural viewpoint as the “right” one. More insidiously we assert that the European, or at least Western, viewpoint of history is the default or standard way to look at the world and that other viewpoints are intentional deviations from that standard. By making Western civilization “standard” we tend to either alienate or exoticize other cultures. Alienating another culture refers to presenting that culture in media as an alien or “bad” other, which could be as simple as Hollywood films casting British actors as villains. Exoticizing a culture is the opposite- where a culture is portrayed just to titillate the senses, a phenomenon so common in Western countries towards the Far East that it has its own name: Orientalism.

tiny epic defenders

In some cases black or brown skinned people are removed entirely from the game, being wholly replaced by “humanoids” that may take visual elements from the real world cultures they’ve displaced. This is called “erasure” and it refers to the exclusion of a group from media. An example of this could be the complete erasure of Native American inspired human civilizations from the Warhammer setting- who instead gives their Mesoamerican visual elements to the non-human Lizardmen faction. Another example could be the Tiny Epic Kingdom/Defenders games which managed to produce 23 different factions (including 9 white people factions and 3 green people factions) without producing a single brown person.

In a different sense, representation can also be an issue in worlds not our own. In D&D inspired fantasy games, similar assumptions are made about fantasy cultures that have ties to real world traditions. In these fantasy worlds there are usually several fantasy “races” that draw inspiration from real world cultures, but these depictions are not typically favorable.

Consider the fact that most of the “good” or “heroic” races presented in fantasy gaming are white-skinned (elves, dwarves, halflings, gnomes and the vast majority of humans that are depicted in fantasy art) and these all have distinctly European based cultures and societies. On the other hand, many of the “evil” races are depicted using stereotypes of non-European cultures. In the most simplistic games, good guys have priests, paladins and knights while bad guys have shaman, witch doctors and barbarians. These games use superficial trappings of non-European culture as a short hand for something “other” and then assign negative qualities to them- this is a textbook example of stereotyping.

For example consider World of Warcraft, the most popular MMO in the world which became a card game published by Upper Deck/Cryptozoic, a world that now lives on in a digital card game format: Hearthstone. The premise of the World of Warcraft is essentially a never-ending, violent race-based conflict between two opposing sides: the Alliance and the Horde. Just from the names of the factions, you know that one side is organized and “cultured” and the other one is not.

lizardman warhammer fantasy

When shown this world, most Americans would consider it to be fairly diverse and applaud the inclusion and representation of non-European cultures into the game, but let’s dig a little deeper. Say you are someone who is not white and not ethnically European and you want to play a D&D-inspired fantasy game like World of Warcraft. If you want to make a character “like yourself” then you have a couple of options. You could make a Human, turn their skin color to a non-white tone and try that out. There’s a problem though- all Humans in Warcraft are distinctly European in culture, architecture, religion and thought.

You could try another method, perhaps choosing a non-human race that incorporates elements of your ethnic background, like the Pandaran, Tauren or Trolls. Except now read that back: Humans in Warcraft are European. If you want to play as a non-European you have to play as a non-Human. European culture is being re-presented to the players as default Human culture. Non-european culture is being re-presented to the players as being “other”, non-human. Let me ask again, “What would someone who comes from a radically different background than you think of this game when presented to them?” and “What assumptions does the creator intentionally and unintentionally use to build their characters, settings and narratives?” If you are a game creator these are definitely very relevant questions for you to consider while crafting your games.

 


Join us next time, when I’ll add more to my thoughts here and talk about some companies and designers that are making games that bring representation to a higher priority in their work. This article was mainly focused on race representation, and that is currently a very pressing topic in America’s national news scene. I hope that this article can help people to remember that representation is always an issue, not just during times when the media has decided to show it prominently. If you’d like to do some further reading into the intersection between games and representation, here are some resources I consulted for this article:

Daniel Chandler is a Visual Semiotician and has some simple explanations of terms and ideas in his modules, as well as a great bibliography.

Tanner Higgin has a whole site based on exploring race in video games, a lot of which crosses over into our fandom. The article “Blackless Fantasy” (pdf alert) was especially useful.

 

Do you have any comments on representation in tabletop games? Have a story or an experience about RPGs, board or cards games and how that relates to your identity? Share it in the comments below or Tweet at us!

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About the Author

Luke Turpeinen

was raised by lava wolves deep in the Vesuvian sulfur jungles. He played board games with his family often. The discovery of games like Risk led him to the 1993 TSR classic Dragon Strike which fueled a life long love of games. Luke tends to like games that have high production values, quick-to-learn rules and hard-to-master strategies. Current Favorite Game: Argent: the Consortium.



15 Responses to Representation & Theme

  1. John Coveyou says:

    Very informative and many interesting points. I think a good example of a well done game with a very sensitive theme related to this topic is Freedom: The Underground Railroad by Academy Games. Great article Luke!

    • Yes! We mentioned that in an older Kickstarter update once. I thought it was really great that it was a Civil War game that focused on something other than violent, aristocratic white power struggles. It’s nice to see companies realize that there is a market for interesting board games that re-present the world from a perspective that we rarely get to see in media.

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  4. Alan Skinner says:

    I agree that representation is a major issue, but I caution against carrying the argument too far. For example, this article repeatedly implies that “European culture” is monolithic, when in reality there is no “European” culture (or race, for that matter). The World of Warcraft game included non-white skin tones for human characters from day 1, and the game’s human culture doesn’t map especially well to any specific real-world culture. The most “European” culture in the game belongs to the Dwarves, who are a parody mishmash of American and Scottish stereotypes.

    Making broad assertions that minorities are underrepresented, without accurately citing any of the thousands of real world examples, risks undermining the entire push for better representation of diversity in popular culture.

    • Maybe I misunderstood, but are you saying there is no such thing as European culture? I think it’s pretty obvious that the architecture, clothing, religion and organization of society in World of Warcraft (for example) are fantastical representations of what modern European cultures (and their descendents in the rest of the Western world) imagine the middle ages to have been like. If you have a suggestion on what else the designers were trying to evoke when they made the city of Stormwind that isn’t a stereotypical feudal european city, then by all means I’d like to hear it. Just because you can’t point to Stormwind and say “those guys are English” or “those guys are Polish” doesn’t mean that they weren’t using types and allegories for things that are exclusively from nothern and western europe. You’d never mistake the city of Stormwind as a Mesoamerican city, or a Chinese city or and Indian city would you?

      As far as the issue of skin tone goes, I brought that up in the article. Just because black skin is an option for humans doesn’t mean that there is cultural diversity in the setting- it just means that there is skin color diversity. It’s better than making all humans only white, but when the only human culture is white culture it’s just set dressing, nothing substantial.

      • Alan Skinner says:

        I could very easily imagine Stormwind as a Roman city, or an Egyptian city, or a Persian city from the Middle Ages.

        • Jake says:

          As long as you’re playing devil’s advocate, you can imagine Stormwind as an Egyptian or Persian city, or anything else you want, but I don’t buy it at all.

  5. okoniktek says:

    This is a really excellent post. As a game designer it’s really made me think about the use of theme in my own creations. Greater cultural diversity and a more honest approach to historical narratives in gaming is much needed.

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  10. T-Ray says:

    Well…

    D&D is (or at least started as) a European Medieval Fantasy game. Being Eurocentric in its presentation then would of necessity be white and western. In medieval times, barbarians were considered uncultured, mysterious outsiders, gays were burned at the stake, and a lot of things now considered beyond the pale were taken for granted. Re-presenting these things in game form support its concept and theme. D&D has expanded its base by adding sourcebooks for other cultures (both actual and fantasy). And other games have come along with different settings and assumptions.

    But remember that these are just games. If they have elements that you consider “hate speech” then by all means refuse to buy and play them. Let these things die of neglect by their own accord. Or make your own game: light a candle instead of cursing the darkness.

    • Luke Turpeinen Luke Turpeinen says:

      Thanks for the reply T-Ray. It’s good to remember that history is actually a lot more diverse than we often give it credit for. Buddhist missionaries visited the court of Caesar Augustus- one of them had a memorial built in his honor by Caesar. Carthage was the ancient enemy of Rome, and they were an African city-state on the Mediterranean. Julius Caesar’s patron deity was the Egyptian goddess: Isis. The Moors, African Muslims, controlled Iberia from 711 CE – 1492 CE and it controlled Sicily for 100 years. The Huns were a central Asian group that shaped much of European history. Europe is largely white, and largely “western” but if we’re looking at historical accuracy there must needs be non-europeans and non-westerners involved.

      I never called these games hateful, let alone hate speech. The point of the article is “What would someone who comes from a radically different background than you think of this game when presented to them?” and “What assumptions does the creator intentionally and unintentionally use to build their characters, settings and narratives?” I’m not calling for anyone to stop playing Warhammer Fantasy, I’m asking people to critically examine the products they enjoy. What action you take upon examining your favorite media in that way is up to you, and you alone.

      Talking about these issues isn’t cursing the darkness, it’s enlightening people to new ways of thinking. These articles exist to help designers not make silly mistakes just because they didn’t think outside of themselves. That is lighting a candle. If you convince designers of something then their future games will change, the industry will change. Communication is essential to change, getting others apart from yourself on board is essential change. Just making your own game in a vacuum is not enough. Oh, but we are also published game designers, so we do “make our own games” with diverse characters. Thanks.

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