Published on August 20th, 2014 | by Luke Turpeinen15
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.
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.
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.
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:
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!