[Content Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains images of people who have died.]
Back in June, the Utah Board of Education delivered five pages spelling out exactly what educators could (and could not) teach on the issues of race and racism. The inciting topic in the Utah Senate was — surprise, surprise — Critical Race Theory. The debate had been perfunctory. One side was staffed by professional historians and veteran educators. The other consisted of angry parents who insisted they’d heard firsthand accounts of teachers berating white children.
After producing neither any berated children nor a definition of Critical Race Theory — “It’s like a gas,” one sponsor noted — the Senate determined that the theory was probably anti-American. “We need fact, not theory,” insisted one signatory.
An admirable sentiment! Apart from the pesky detail that those supporting the resolution not only lacked a definition for the theory they were determined to blacklist, but also didn’t have a definition of history. Because while history collects many facts, history has never itself been a fact. History also brims with theories, but is not quite a theory.
History is a war.
I. Three Boys Wade into a River
Mormonism has a weird relationship with Christopher Columbus. Buckle up, because this is going to require some explaining.
Growing up Mormon in Utah fosters a keen connection to history. As a child attending Sunday school, we sat on the floor to get a sense for the “pioneer experience.” Because pioneers didn’t have chairs, you see. With toothpicks for spokes, marshmallow wheels, and graham cracker headboards, we fashioned handcarts and wagons, sang songs about gathering buffalo chips to fuel our campfires, and listened to the story of how three eighteen-year-old boys rescued the wintered-in members of the Willie and Martin handcart companies by carrying everybody across the frozen Sweetwater River. Not long afterward, our teacher said, her voice low to signal that she was about to tell us something reverent, those three boys died. But they died having saved all those souls from freezing. Surely there was no love greater than this.
Something settled over me. A shiver, a warmth. A courage. Years later, when I learned that those three boys had been spread across a range of ages, only carried a small portion of the five hundred pioneers across the Sweetwater, and lived long and healthy lives afterward, my feelings were more complicated. After some disbelief, some reckoning, and some bitterness, I finally settled on — well, why did they have to die to make the story better? They still saved people’s lives, didn’t they?
This is adolescence and, eventually, adulthood in Mormonism. Given enough time, it touches everything. Every story. Every practice.
Like attending a family reunion for the long-dead polygamists that hang in black and white on your grandparents’ wall. The opening prayer thanks Heavenly Father for your “noble blood.” Afterward, Mom leans over and whispers, “Don’t let it go to your head. Nobody’s blood is noble.”
Like being taught that a vague prophecy in the Book of Mormon was about how Christopher Columbus was inspired by the Holy Spirit to cross the Atlantic Ocean to bring the wrath of God upon the Natives Americans. Except this is portrayed as a good thing. Because the Native Americans were the descendants of the Lamanites, the antagonists of the Book of Mormon who rejected the Gospel. Never mind that Joseph Smith wrote as his church’s second article of faith, “We believe men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgressions.”
The arithmetic behind that distinction isn’t hard, especially rooted in the racial assumptions of the 1830s. Some people have noble blood. Noble blood doesn’t transmit sin. Others have indecent blood. Mixed-up blood. Mutt blood. Black blood. That blood deserves to be spilled for the crimes of people five centuries dead. If they ever existed at all.
Here is what I mean by history being a war.
As an adult, I listened to a Sunday school teacher praise Christopher Columbus. “I reject the revisionists who would tarnish the reputation of that noble man,” he said, finger stabbing at some invisible foe. Noble! Could we be thinking of the same person? The same Columbus who birthed the modern slave trade when he shipped five hundred Taíno back to Europe? Whose governorship saw the depletion of a third of its population, not only from disease and starvation, but also from brutality? Whose punishment for failing to accumulate enough gold for his ships was the dismemberment of unworking hands? The same Columbus who was imprisoned and stripped of his governorship by the same royal couple who instituted the Spanish Inquisition, under charges of brutality, slavery, and tyranny?
Noble! If this is the same nobility that courses in my own blood, I want none of it.
Don’t get me wrong. As a historian, I’m always wary of presentism. Checking my modern standards at the door when it’s time to evaluate past subjects is nothing new. I’m also fully aware of the “black legend,” the counter-Spanish and anti-Catholic propagandizing that became all the rage in Europe. Even as the Spanish extended the first protections to the indigenous peoples of the New World — in part because of their horror at Columbus’s abuses — their global image withered beneath a broadside of exaggerations, omissions, and fabrications.
Even this context, however, completes an unfortunate circle. Because the insults reserved for the Spanish had little to do with their overseas empire. According to the day’s writers, they were insular, superstitious, obsessed with personal honor, lacking in both empathy and taste — and crucially, they failed to meet the standard of being sufficiently European. Students of Orientalism will find these traits distressingly familiar. The principal crime of the Spanish had nothing to do with tangible offenses. Rather, it pulsed beneath the skin, mingled with the Moors during centuries of occupation.
Blood. In this case, blood a little too black.
When a professor at Brigham Young University, Mormonism’s largest educational institution, penned a hagiography defending the explorer, great care was given to the testimonials of those who knew Columbus, citing his leadership at sea, his talented navigation, his faith in God. When those same sources later outed him as a tyrant, our latter-day historian declined to relay their words. Please note, nothing this professor wrote was unfactual. It was pruned. Carcasses dutifully swept aside, all that remained was the statue of a noble man.
There is no such thing as “just the facts, ma’am.” Not with a subject as sprawling and complicated as history. Instead, we have models — always incomplete, always flawed, always myopic. Because models are all we have, truth is an approximation. And our best method for uncovering that truth is by pitting those models and interpretations against one another. Time and evidence and argumentation gradually sharpen these models. I suspect this process will never be complete.
This is one way in which history is a war.
Yet there’s another, more immediate sense. Because history is about smashing models and interpretations against one another, good history is by its very nature uncomfortable. Old, accepted ideas splinter as they’re tested against new evidence and new models. Therein lies the real war. Comfort versus discomfort. The easy road versus the winding bog. Heroes versus humans.
Comfortable history is easy. It exists to buoy our feelings and placate our desire for improvement. It is devoid of confrontations with the self or with society. And it is so shot through with omissions that it can barely hold its own weight, let alone the burdens of our expectations and identities. By some twist of irony, the fraught path is more secure. By embracing the messiness of history, we begin to see people instead of statues. Our idols are thrown down. So, too, is our reliance on them. Relieved of the burden of defending the indefensible, history becomes ours, a wellspring of lessons and warnings.
Mormonism was essential to my own immersion in history, but it doesn’t stand alone. Whether we’re talking about the worst excesses of religion or national tall-tales or state propaganda, myth-making is one of our oldest vocations. It births all of us into an ongoing war. Tidy but incomplete stories stand on one side. Rich but discomfiting history stands on the other. An easy choice, if only the soldiers of the first side weren’t so militant in safeguarding their bedtime stories. Critical Race Theory has become the latest battlefield — a bewildered conscript, given its absence from any modern educational program that isn’t law school. But it’s hardly the first, and it won’t be the last.
Look, I know what you’re thinking. “What does this have to do with board games?”
Would you believe everything?
Today, we’re looking at two board games by Martin Wallace. Set in the same “cinematic universe,” both titles employ the same technique to make their historical subject matter more palatable to players: greenwashing, a process by which historical figures are cast as literal aliens in order to expunge any guilt the player may have felt upon killing them. In these games, this greenwashing is tied directly to the works of H.P. Lovecraft. By now, Lovecraft’s personal and literary racism has been well documented, and in recent years there has been an effort to reclaim the genre of cosmic horror from its racist origins. In the case of Wallace’s games, this racial dynamic shouldn’t be forgotten. As we will see, it plays a non-negligible role in how greenwashing can transform its targets into victims.
Over the course of this discussion, I hope to expand on three motifs. First, that history is a war. Second, that the deadliest weapon in this war is erasure. And third, that the racist delineation between noble and savage blood is a recurring and intractable element of this war, whether consciously or unconsciously.
II. Their Blood Was Ichor
In Martin Wallace’s 2013 title A Study in Emerald, based on Neil Gaiman’s short story of the same name, things are not as they should be.
As of 1882, the Old Ones have occupied Earth for seven hundred years. For an alien occupation, this new normal looks shockingly like our own 19th century: the Old Ones rule as monarchs and despots, and the same anarchic figures who struck fear into our timeline’s royals are now determined to toss grenades into their passing carriages — albeit in the name of “restoration” to human rule rather than a revolution favoring anarchy, socialism, or constitution. Oh, and because the Old Ones are translated straight from the works of H.P. Lovecraft and his imitators, there’s a miasma of fraying sanity going around.
Transforming Europe’s royal families into alien invaders is a thin but effective shroud. One doesn’t need to squint too hard to see that the green mascara hasn’t been caked on too heavily. The geography of Europe has been preserved along with its central actors. London is ruled by “Gloriana,” one of the nicknames for Elizabeth I. The mummified pharaoh-inspired Nyarlathotep has helpfully settled in Cairo and spends his evenings strolling among the pyramids.
On a more human scale, players are given secret roles as either “restorationists” or “loyalists” — roles that map almost exactly to history’s revolutionaries and reactionaries. Each player is given a name from the days of the week, calling to mind The Man Who Was Thursday, G.K. Chesterton’s satirical retelling of the Old Testament’s Book of Job, in which a policeman goes undercover in an anarchist organization only to discover that the other anarchists are also double agents working for the government. In both the book and the game, players initially have little clue whether their fellows are working to unseat the monarchy or entrench it by having their coconspirators imprisoned or killed. This sense of paranoia is appropriate. In many cases, the violent acts of 19th century anarchist cells were encouraged by undercover police, whose superiors were all too happy to permit the murder of minor functionaries and interchangeable ministers if it gave them something to pin on the organization’s higher-ups.
Here’s a prime example. The above image shows a portion of the cards that can be acquired to players’ decks in A Study in Emerald. This is only a small selection, but I’ve chosen these cards to represent the game’s loyalists/reactionaries. The card on the bottom left is Yevno Azef. Azef is a type of card called an agent, which means that upon acquisition to somebody’s deck, that player also places a token on the map to represent Azef himself. Azef is notable because he’s one of the few agents in the game who can assassinate either royalty or another agent. The former is the ultimate goal of the game’s restorationists, exchanging spilled ichor for a large quantity of victory points. The latter can be undertaken by either side — removing rival agents from the table is never a bad thing — but it only scores points for the loyalists, as their goal is to cripple the restorationists.
Azef’s flexibility as a game counter is appropriate. As a young man, Azef contacted the Okhrana, the secret police of the Russian Tsar, and offered to betray his fellow students for money. Over the course of his undercover career, Azef became the right-hand man to Andrei Argunov, one of the leaders of the Socialist Revolutionary Party of Russia, only to betray him to the police. He was eventually made deputy to Grigory Gershuni, head of the Party’s combat and terrorist organization. Upon Gershuni’s arrest, Azef became the head of the organization. In that position, he spearheaded multiple assassinations. The most notable were the bombing of Vyacheslav von Plehve (the director of the emperor’s police and the one responsible for authorizing Azef’s infiltration in the first place) and Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, the Tsar’s beloved uncle.
Which is to say, Azef became both the most dangerous terrorist in Russia and the Okhrana’s best-paid double agent.
These are the acts portrayed in A Study in Emerald. Behind nearly every card lurks violence that’s often actualized on the table as royalty and agents alike are removed. The list is too long to mention everybody, but it bears pointing out that the entire spectrum of political activity is represented.
Sometimes the violence is revolutionary. There’s Vera Figner and Nicholas Kibalchich, the assassins of Emperor Alexander II, himself best known for liberating Russia’s serfs. Leon Czolgosz, who inflicted the killing gunshot on President William McKinley. Sergei Kravchinsky, who slashed the head of Russia’s Gendarme corps to death in the streets.
Other times the violence is institutional, as with Wilhelm Stieber, inventor of the modern surveillance state; Peter Rachkovsky and his Okhrana; Baron Ungern-Sternberg, with his taste for massacring Bolsheviks in Mongolia.
And sometimes it’s cultural, refusing to sidestep even Matvei Golovinski, the probable author of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the infamous anti-Semitic document that “exposed” a Jewish plot to dominate the world. The Black Hand, the organization that assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and precipitated the First World War, doubles the victory points earned for assassinating royalty — arguably a thematic misstep, since it’s the game’s loyalists who hope to usher in a devastating worldwide conflict. Amusingly, there’s an entire class of embittered intellectuals, consisting of figures such as Emma Goldman and Prince Kropotkin, who are more interested in promulgating ideas than throwing bombs. These agents are worth victory points to the restorationists while offering little tangible help when it comes to purging the Earth of its overlords from the depths of outer space.
If that last line snaps us from our historical reverie, the effect is intentional. Greenwashing serves a perpendicular function to whitewashing, easing the impact of the situation by dressing its antagonists in the board game equivalent of rubber masks. Transformed into existential threats to our species, these oppressive royals demand no empathy when blown apart. This suspends a gauze of fiction between the game’s players and the historical actions they’re asked to undertake. In his design notes, Wallace notes, “I had this feeling that some players might object to a game where your main occupation would be going around blowing up various world leaders.” The solution was Neil Gaiman’s short story, which served as a serendipitous means of fictionalizing history. For anyone who might balk at the idea of chucking a bomb at a Windsor, A Study in Emerald ensures that your target isn’t Queen Elizabeth II’s grandfather. It’s an Old One whose principal diet is babies. Unless, of course, your loyalties skew the other way. In which case, here’s your morning basket of babies, m’lord.
We’ll discuss the implications of this greenwashing momentarily. First, though, let’s take a look at Wallace’s sequel to A Study in Emerald, AuZtralia.
According to AuZtralia, the good guys won. The occupation that had begun in 1180 was at last thrown off in 1888 when the Old Ones disappeared from their palaces and fortresses. Of course, our extraterrestrial dictators had spent their seven centuries of preeminence working to extract resources from the known world, leaving entire swaths of the world charred and infertile.
The only solution was expansion. Embarking on great voyages of exploration, humanity eventually discovered an untouched continent. It was soon named Terra Australis, “the South Land” in Latin, after the work of the 5th-century writer Macrobius, who had posited that the continents of the Earth must be balanced in contrasting antipodean proportions. Early expeditions were encouraging: this was virgin territory, untouched by the ravishments of the Old Ones. Between fertile lowlands, grazing hills, and rich deposits of coal, iron, and gold, Australia seemed like it could be the answer to the slow starvation of humanity. This marks the beginning of the game. Players are given command of colonies on the coast, with orders to build rails to reach the continent’s interior, harvest deposits of resources, and establish life-saving farms.
Before we even consider the game’s greenwashing, it’s important to note how Wallace has already cast the history of colonization in a new light. Written in 1899, only a short eleven years after humanity’s fictional victory in A Study in Emerald, Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden” provides an instructional glimpse into the attitudes of imperialists in the late 19th century. It’s tempting to examine the entire thing through the lens of today’s topic, and I would encourage everybody to push through it all, but for now we’ll confine ourselves to its opening stanza.
Take up the White Man’s burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.
Some have argued that Kipling’s tone is satirical. While there’s an argument to be made along those lines, the context surrounding “The White Man’s Burden” doesn’t do it any favors. Its full title includes the subscript “The United States and the Philippine Islands.” Written during the Spanish-American War, its meaning was understood both by supporters and detractors of imperialism as urging the United States to take up the cause of annexing the Philippines. The barrage of parodies was immediate. English politician Henry Labouchère, an outspoken critic of imperial policies, responded:
Pile on the brown man’s burden
To gratify your greed;
Go, clear away the “niggers”
Who progress would impede:
Be very stern, for truly
’Tis useless to be mild
With new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.
(To muddy any newfound affection for Labouchère, he’s better known for his 1885 amendment criminalizing homosexuality. Remember, history is complicated — and rarely comfortable.)
Kipling’s thesis expands the remit of colonialism. Rather than solely serving its parent country, colonialism is cast as a benevolent force embarked upon a mission of civilization not unlike the role of a parent, meant to uplift the subjects of its occupation. Forced exports, taxation, corruption, wars of subjugation — these are unfortunate but inevitable side effects, not the principal functions of imperialism. As a later couplet puts it, the White Man’s reward for shouldering his burden is “The blame of those ye better, / The hate of those ye guard.” Contrary to accusations of presentism, such blunt paternalism was criticized even in its day. Mark Twain was disappointed when the United States colonized the Philippines. In his anti-imperial essay “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” he bitterly proposed that the flag for the Philippine Province could be “just our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones.” The notion of noble blood parenting over uncivilized blood may have been more widely accepted, but many regarded it as a travesty.
What makes AuZtralia so interesting is that Wallace rewrites all of that. First, he provides an absolute justification for colonialism rather than a flimsy excuse. Humanity’s lean times are the result of alien occupation. Most land has been left nonarable. There’s no reason to rationalize a European incursion by mythologizing the White Man’s Burden, because failure to settle the southern continent will spell disaster for millions. Furthermore, there’s no need to fret over the fate of the indigenous population; they were presumably already removed by the Old Ones, who have transformed the continent into their final holdout against the human uprising.
This is the second step of AuZtralia’s gameplay and internal fiction. As players expand inland, they risk stirring the slumbering Old Ones. These take a few forms: zombie hordes that are slow but plentiful, loyalist humans, ancient temples that fray the mind, swooping mi-gos and lurking shoggoths. It isn’t long before the Old Ones begin awakening in earnest, acting as an additional faction that burns farms and tries to drive the humans back into the sea.
And it’s hard not to regard them as stand-ins for indigenous Australians.
III. The History Wars & Greenwashing
History is a war. In some cases it’s such a war that there’s nothing else to call it.
You may have heard of Australia’s History Wars. In 1968, Australian anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner gave a lecture entitled “After the Dreaming,” in which he coined the phrase “the great Australian silence.” The topic was the erasure of Aboriginal peoples from Australian consciousness. As Stanner argued, “It is a structural matter, a view from a window which has been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape. What may well have begun as a simple forgetting of other possible views turned under habit and over time into something like a cult of forgetfulness practiced on a national scale. We have been able for so long to disremember the Aborigines that we are now hard put to keep them in mind even when we most want to do so… They typify so vividly the other side of a story over which the great Australian silence reigns; the story of the things we were unconsciously resolved not to discuss with them or treat with them about; the story, in short, of the unacknowledged relations between two racial groups within a single field of life supposedly unified by the principle of assimilation.”
Over the following decades, Stanner had his wish granted, although probably not in the manner he would have preferred. The debate over Australia’s national history reached as high as its prime ministers, with both Paul Keating (Labor Party, PM from 1991-1996) and John Howard (Liberal Party, PM from 1996-2007) beating the drum, amounting to nothing less than a struggle to define the country’s national character. This debate was characterized by two pejorative symbols. The label “black armband” was applied to those who argued that Australian history had been purged of its atrocities. According to their detractors, such arguments were exaggerated, cynical, and determined to overshadow the accomplishments of early settlers. In response, the black armbands labeled their opponents “white blindfolds,” determined to turn away from even the possibility of atrocity rather than face it head-on.
The History Wars are ongoing. Some deny that certain massacres took place at all, despite the existence of contemporary reports to the contrary. Still, public opinion seems to be bending, in part thanks to the Bringing Them Home report. The product of a national inquiry, Bringing Them Home confirmed that Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children had been forcibly removed from their families by government agencies and church missions. The issue, once again, was blood. On the assumption that full-blood Aboriginals were doomed to extinction, children of mixed descent were prioritized for placement in missions and reservations between 1910 and 1970. Some argued that their Aboriginal blood and darker skin would eventually be bred out, resulting in productive white-skinned adults two or three generations hence. The current estimate stands at northward of 100,000 children taken. Even after a federal apology in 2008 by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, many of the report’s recommendations have yet to be taken.
Erasure. In Australia’s case, erasure with twin meanings: first a people’s place in history; eventually, their very selfhood. The game fares better, but only just: of thirty-three personality cards, only two feature characters who are unambiguously Aboriginal.
Both A Study in Emerald and AuZtralia greenwash their subject matter. As I mentioned before, greenwashing is a process that takes human figures and transforms them into something alien. It is the very definition of othering. There are advantages and pitfalls to such a process. Martin Wallace’s titles illustrate both.
There’s a moment in Chesterton’s The Man Who Would Be Thursday when the heroes approach Sunday, the leader of the anarchist movement, to ask why they — “they” being protagonist Gabriel Syme and his fellow policemen — were made to go undercover as bomb-throwing anarchists and set against one another. The scene parallels the conclusion to the Book of Job, when God at last delivers a response to the title character’s agony (or rather, refuses to give a response). The answer in Thursday acts as Chesterton’s theodicy, a response to the question of human suffering. In a spasm of insight, Syme realizes that everything in the world, himself included, was made to wage war against everything else “So that each man fighting for order may be as brave and good a man as the dynamiter.” In this formulation, all of humanity suffers alike, good people and bad, in order to expose the best in the worst and the worst in the best.
That theodicy might also act as a mission statement for A Study in Emerald. Why are the royalty of Europe portrayed as monsters? So that you, the player, can experience the bravery, zeal, and isolation felt by the 19th-century radicals who wrote treatises against absolute monarchy, agitated for constitutions and concessions despite the danger posed to their bodies and property, and even lit fuses to annihilate the bodies of their rulers. Or, inversely, so that you can experience the horror of propagating a monstrous system. The object of the game’s greenwashing poses little danger to history; the personhood of European royalty isn’t in doubt, either then or now. But it presents a tremendous opportunity, taking the darker hues of political extremism and inverting them. What was previously “bad” is now permissible, even righteous. With some investigation, it becomes possible to see how anti-monarchism, socialism, and anarchist movements were dimensions of a complicated situation that shepherded Europe away from absolute rule and toward a more egalitarian and democratic society.
It helps that this is an inversion across the board. The blood being rendered ichorous is not the stuff typically considered savage — it’s the noble blood. If anything, A Study in Emerald expands the divine right of kings to its extreme conclusion. There’s no question that the Old Ones are suited to rule; by their very nature, they are more powerful and more intelligent than their human subjects. Their blood is made of sterner stuff, tracing beyond legend, bestowing powers that mustn’t be comingled with the human race. The question, then, isn’t one of suitability. It’s one of right. Of self-determination. The rulers of Europe should be cast down not because they aren’t capable of rule, but because it’s wrong for one entity, no matter how potent, to hold sway over countless others. At its core, A Study in Emerald is viciously democratic.
Of course, it might be possible to draw a similar thread through AuZtralia. By repurposing the indigenous population into aliens, doesn’t it also turn something “bad” into something permissible?
In one sense, yes. In another, AuZtralia’s argument is pedestrian.
At the heart of Australian colonialism is the concept of terra nullius— literally, “nobody’s land.” By coming into possession of an uninhabited continent, the English had lucked into a windfall: a land ripe for settlement, with none of the problems that attended their efforts elsewhere. This narrative relied on the non-personhood of the continent’s indigenous inhabitants. One of the sponsors of Lieutenant (later Captain) James Cook’s voyage stipulated that any local indigenous people were, “in the strictest sense of the word, the legal possessors of the several Regions they inhabit. No European Nation has a right to occupy any part of their country, or settle among them without their voluntary consent.”
This statement went unheeded. Colonial efforts in Australia rested on the assumption that Aboriginal people were not, in fact, people. The entire continent could be claimed because it was terra nullius. It belonged to nobody. Because non-persons cannot have borders, property, or individual rights, nothing stood between Australia’s colonists and the displacement, massacre, and kidnapping of its inhabitants. As always, the reality is more complicated than a single statement can account for. Governor Sir George Arthur made a proclamation that both whites and Aboriginals were to coexist peacefully. Illustrative panels were furnished to depict both races being hanged as punishment for killing the other. Even so, this proclamation was often used as pretext for removing or attacking indigenous enclaves. The violence was widespread and often decentralized. In the latter case, because colonists were more able to call upon the government’s intervention when attacked, there was often no recourse for an offended Aboriginal. Arthur’s proclamation may have been well-intentioned, but it overwhelmingly benefited white settlers.
One friend has jokingly suggested that the antagonists of AuZtralia might be upscaled versions of the migrating emus that pillaged Western Australia in the 1930s. Dubbed the “Great Emu War,” this peculiarity of Australian history saw twenty thousand emus rampaging through the farmlands of WWI veterans. The farmers eventually called upon the Seventh Heavy Battery of the Royal Australian Artillery, a force that numbered three soldiers and two machine guns. Accounts of the “war” are humorous, even slapstick, complete with inclement weather, jamming weaponry, and an early victory for the emus. The Major compared his foe to the Zulus of Southern Africa, and it’s telling that this incident became fodder for Australian national myth, while conflicts with its Aboriginal population were collectively forgotten. Better to recall defeat at the hands of flightless birds than victory against outnumbered and outgunned natives.
This is why AuZtralia’s greenwashing strikes such a different tone from that of A Study in Emerald. Historical erasure and xenophobia are replaced by xenophobia of a different stripe, one that’s acceptable because the aliens you’re stamping out are actual aliens. This is nothing new, either for Australia’s history, which alienated and erased its Aboriginal population, or for the work of H.P. Lovecraft, with its fear of pure blood breeding with corruption and degeneracy. These bedfellows make a distressing but unsurprising couple, inadvertently promulgating a wide range of ideas that are unfortunately still under discussion in the History Wars: the emptiness of Terra Australis, the non-personhood of its inhabitants, and the factuality and extent of massacres, kidnapping, and other injustices. It’s also hard to escape noticing that A Study in Emerald permits its players to advocate for the Old Ones — effectively, to stand in favor of greenwashed monarchism. Meanwhile, although a recent Kickstarter campaign has proposed an expansion to let somebody play the role of AuZtralia’s antagonists, as of yet no parallel dignity is paid to its greenwashed Aboriginals. Like the generations of Aboriginal peoples Stanner lectured about in 1968, they are silent.
To be clear, none of this is to speak to Wallace’s character or the intentions behind either of these games. Both greenwash history to cushion the roles and actions they ask of their players. A Study in Emerald uses greenwashing to remediate the omissions, misconceptions, and stereotypes of popular history — in effect, to shine a light into overlooked corners. By contrast, AuZtralia’s greenwashing reinforces omissions and misconceptions. No long-neglected corners are dusted.
This difference — between remediation and reinforcement, between inversion and the status quo — can sometimes appear slender, but it’s important to consider. Board games about history have often suffered a collective forgetfulness of their own, leaning closer to comfort than introspection, and leaving chalk outlines where once stood the recipients of colonial abuses. To Wallace’s credit, his duology experiments with an alternative brand of inclusion, one that allows him to define the parameters of the roles he bestows upon his players. By casting his foes as alien invaders, he commands a firm grip on issues that would otherwise be too morally fraught to consider in a commercial product. As you can see, the results speak to the difficulty of using greenwashing as a technique.
That said, even if the results are mixed in AuZtralia’s case, it succeeds at placing its players within reach of the colonizer’s mindset. Ravenous for natural resources, bent on expanding at all costs, yet terrified of the other, its players are spurred to violence at the slightest provocation. Here, those acts of violence are justified only because of the game’s greenwashing. Still, that mindset is achieved. Whether such an accomplishment is valuable when there’s no shortage of games about colonialism from the perspective of the colonizer, I’ll leave up to you.
History, after all, is a war. Whether we’re discussing pioneer mythology, political radicalism, or indigenous erasure, it’s worthwhile examining the role our games play in either entrenching comfortable narratives or splitting them open to reveal the complexities, self-examination, and richness within.
Many thanks to Eryck Tait for this essay’s header image, and to the many readers who were willing to suffer through early drafts.