Space-Cast! #12. Slavery and Emancipation

Wee Aquinas is trying very hard to be overlooked so as to avoid a nuanced discussion of his namesake's approach to slavery.

This month on the Space-Cast!, we’re investigating a difficult topic — the representation of slavery in board games. To help navigate these waters, we’re joined by Patrick Rael, Professor of History at Bowdoin College, to discuss how board games have depicted slavery in the past, what they’re doing right now, and how we can use them to learn about sensitive historical issues.

Listen over here or download here. Timestamps and further notes can be found after the jump.


0:20 — introducing Patrick Rael
4:36 — the distinct problem of the Atlantic Slave Trade
10:11 — where do games come in?
16:10 — Rael’s model for categorizing slavery in board games
33:08 — the uses and limitations of such a model
53:11 — Freedom: The Underground Railroad
1:01:58 — This Guilty Land & three rhetorics for examining games
1:15:38 — Pax Emancipation
1:31:49 — how are games useful in education?
1:45:30 — Rael’s historical game request

Further Notes

1. Listeners may note that the designer of This Guilty Land is Amabel Holland. This podcast was recorded in mid-February 2021, before we were made aware of Amabel’s name. Apologies for any confusion.
2. Patrick Rael’s page at Bowdoin College can be found here. The video depicting his model for categorizing slavery in board games can be found here. And finally, his interview with Amabel Russell can be found here. Honestly, this section could include many more worthwhile links.

(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

Posted on April 29, 2021, in Podcast and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. What would the woke board game world do without Eklund to kick around?

    • As someone who’s been both critical and supportive of Eklund in equal measure, it certainly seems like he draws a disproportionate amount of ire. I figure that’s what he wants. Aren’t his footnotes and other statements deliberately provocative?

      • I do give you guys credit for actually thinking about the guy’s games rather than the automatic “RAAAACIIIST!” that often passes for discussion. I quit listening to So Very Wrong About Games when they put Eklund games on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

        I read Rael’s article on the subject, and while I don’t buy all of it, “Eklund is a Whig and here’s why he’s wrong” is more productive than “Eklund is a racist, and we must never speak of him again.”

    • Speaking of kicking people around, did you see that Reddit today? Cluster. Fuck.

  2. A very nice discussion so far (I’m 1:10 in)! Two quick thoughts.

    1. I don’t agree with Patrick’s idea that games should come with disclaimers a la “hey, just so you know, I don’t actually approve of [slavery/the holocaust/whatever]”. We can pretty safely assume no one is pro-slavery at this point. But more importantly I think it’s asking designers to be heavy-handed and to pat players’ heads instead of doing what games are supposed to do, make the players /think/!

    2. I don’t think there is enough attention paid in conversations like these to “mental furniture”, internalized thought processes that people of a particular place and time would have had and would not likely have questioned. To what extent does entering the magic circle mean that we also inhabit a role that we ourselves may not find sympathetic or that espouses values alien to our own?

    Someone will say “I won’t play Puerto Rico, because I refuse to take in-game actions that benefit from or actively promote slavery”, and it’s like, hey person, of all the things you do in your daily life that promote /present-day slavery/, playing a game is probably close to the least of them.

    • Jeff! You’re the first person to discuss the topic of this episode!

      (1) I’m curious if you feel that way about the games that fall in the top-right quadrant of Rael’s graph, i.e., Pax Emancipation, Freedom: The Underground Railroad, and This Guilty Land? All of these games are explicit in labeling slavery as “bad,” but I’m not sure I’d argue that they’re patting anybody on the head. If anything, they strike me as more challenging and thought-provoking material than the usual fare.

      At any rate, I stick by my comparison to the Bechdel Test. This is a tool of categorization, not a marker of rightness or moral fiber.

      (2) I’m often discouraged by how seriously we take minor offenses when there are plenty of major offenses that go untreated. Leaving that aside, however, I’m not sure there’s an answer to this one. The magic circle isn’t one thing. It isn’t even limited to the number of people at the table. What would you recommend as an exercise to strengthen the durability of the magic circle? It seems to me that disclaimers are one way that can be accomplished. If somebody doesn’t want to play a game that includes a difficult topic, then by all means. I have no interest in forcing them.

      • Sure thing!

        With point 1 I was reacting to something Patrick said at about 1:10 or so, that a designer should include discursive arguments to make clear to the audience that you do, indeed, disapprove of slavery, because otherwise you can expect blowback. I think that’s the gist of what I heard him saying. I don’t like this putative assumption that hypothetical game-buyers are making, that we must hear you say “slavery is bad” or we can’t be sure, and shouldn’t assume, that you think otherwise. That smacks of purity culture thinking to me.

        That said I don’t object to a designer including a discursive statement, I just don’t want to get to a place where it is to be (perceived as) obligatory. We talked a bit about games I have in progress, The Cause and The Mission, both of which are a bit charged, but I don’t want to and wouldn’t plan to provide an introductory/explanatory essay about either. Just play the game and come to your own conclusions about its subject! My own opinions don’t matter, just as I wouldn’t want every movie to start with a 10 minute lecture about what the director or writer thinks about the film’s subject.

        For 2 I guess I just mean that if we’re playing a rail game (say), it’s kind of a given that within the magic circle, we are not very nice people, and it’s ok if the game doesn’t explicitly include the bad practices our characters engaged in, if that’s not within the scope of the kinds of decisions the designer wants to present us with. (Of course it’s fine for someone to say “nevertheless I don’t care to play such a game”.) But even beyond that, it’s that some things that we now believe to be bad would seem to people in some historical times as just the way the world was.

        My point, which I’m making poorly, is that I hear people say “PR is bad, it elides slavery”, or “Struggle is bad, it includes slavery”, but what I don’t ever hear those arguments engaging is what the internalized worldviews of those we play in those games would have been. For example, maybe someone in the present thinks that missionary activity is immoral and that my game The Mission is ipso facto immoral because it depicts what that person considers immoral conduct. Whereas, to the missionaries and the worldview in which they operated, it was the height of moral conduct. To the detractors, there’s rarely the sense that this should even be part of the conversation. I suggest that maybe it should be part of the conversation.

  3. Higly interesting, as usual. It is frustrating when those conversations end and you realise you could easily have listened to it for hours more. Thank you very much for this.

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