Colonizers vs. Pirates vs. Egyptians!
In the month since I published Greenwashing History, my examination of how Martin Wallace’s A Study in Emerald and AuZtralia portray certain historical figures as aliens in order to justify their extermination, one question has bobbed to the surface more than any other:
Do I care as much about the ancient Egyptians?
Oh, it could be anyone. Egyptians. Pirates. Ancient Roman slaves. Atlanteans. It isn’t exactly a new question. It’s come up under varying degrees of good faith over the years. One suspects its regularity betrays an agenda. That maybe someone would prefer I shut up about some topic. But since I don’t like to presume, today I’d like to offer, sans the usual degree of snark I’d normally reserve for such a question, the three informal criteria that I use to determine whether I’ll write about a particular historical topic in board games.
I know this is going to surprise some of you, but I’m not good at everything.
Formally speaking, I’m fully trained as a historian of Christian history, halfway trained as a bioethicist, and roughly one-sixteenth trained as a clinical worker. I’m also an Eagle Scout, but I consider that a ding on my reputation more than a bonus star.
Christian history covers roughly, oh, two thousand and twenty-one years. Plus some Jewish, Greek, and Roman history for background. That’s a lot of ground to cover. And I haven’t covered all of it. If you need to know something about changing attitudes toward materialism in Christianity, including burial practices, the accumulation of wealth, and the interactions between bishops and sovereigns, I’m your guy. Schisms, periods of transition, and ideological conflicts, absolutely. Bad popes? I’ll spill the tea.
That’s a tiny fraction of human history. A golden thread, frayed and discolored and sometimes broken, winding a course through the last two millennia. This isn’t to say I don’t have an interest in other periods or places; I absolutely do. But in many cases, my understanding is superficial. I may know the outline, but that’s not enough to write anything relevant.
So when I’m asked why I write about colonialism, I have two thoughts.
First, this type of question makes a huge leap of logic. Because I’ve written a few pieces on colonialism, maybe I should be consistent in my values by covering these other topics! Isn’t piracy bad? Wasn’t ancient Egyptian slavery bad? Why don’t I care about those board games?
Except… who’s saying I don’t care? Because there’s a good chance I do. Maybe not to the same degree — we’ll talk about that in a moment — but if somebody wants to write about how Friedemann Friese’s Faiyum doesn’t give Egyptian slaves their due, I’d be more than happy to read it.
The difference, of course, is that I’m an expert in one thing, not everything. If I had the expertise to write about the Mayans and Egyptians, maybe I would. Until then, I’ll leave that to somebody who knows what they’re talking about. That theoretical historian-slash-game-critic will likely be aware of the developing body of archaeological evidence that Egyptian slavery was more limited than previously understood, including the possibility that the Great Pyramids were built by free artisans rather than forced labor, and will inform our asker that their entire question is built on faulty premises, at which point I’m absolutely certain they won’t simply add, “But what about pirates, huh?”
Since I’m not that historian, I’ll stay in my lane. Topics dealing with Christianity it is!
Here’s the second, more uncomfortable part: while colonialism wasn’t solely a Christian phenomenon, a significant proportion of its undertakings were uniquely Christian.
I know, I know, somebody is already opening a tab to write me an email about how that can’t possibly be true. But look at Latin America. It’s called Latin America, for crying out loud. The majority of its population identifies as Christian. How much of a majority?
89.7% as of 2015.
Look, I’m not telling you that just shy of ninety percent is “bad.” Really, I’m not. I’m a Christian. When I visited El Salvador a few years back, it was remarkable being able to sit across from people I could barely communicate with, yet still having a shared vocabulary that transcended language. Our clinic was an interdenominational effort. We worked with priests, nuns, and volunteers from churches that under normal circumstances might be caught saying nasty things about each other.
At the same time, it was hard not to escape the signs of colonialism all around us. The wreckage of ancient structures. The mestizo culture’s blend of indigenous and European culture. The bullet holes left unpatched as a reminder of the revolution. The informal patron sainthood of Óscar Romero, the Catholic archbishop who spoke out against Christian violence, including the death squads trained and armed by the United States, and was himself martyred for it. The reminders were inescapable.
And yeah, that hits closer to home, both temporally and geographically, than Egyptian slavery. I touched upon this issue in my piece on Scope and Relevance. The main reason I write about some topics and not others is because some of them are more relevant. This isn’t to say that Egyptian slavery isn’t a loaded topic for some — I know very well that it is. But for me personally, as somebody who teaches English as a second language to refugees, who lived on a Native American reservation, who’s done volunteer work in Latin America, and who teaches the history of Christianity, the impact of colonialism isn’t only recent. It’s ongoing.
Frankly, that’s what always surprises me the most about this question. Yes, bad things have happened across the entire scope of the human experience. And yes, I’m interested in all sorts of suffering. Not because I’m creepy. The creepiness is a bonus. Rather, because it teaches me about both our species’ most desirable and despicable traits. It shows how far we’ve come. It shows how far we’ve yet to go. Liz Davidson’s series about the tricky details of Roman gladiatorial combat that go missing from board games is a current favorite of mine, precisely because it gives a voice to people whose lives are often reduced to a second round of entertainment.
But half-recalled suffering is not the same as the needle under your fingernail right now. That should be obvious to anybody who’s, like, been alive. Since I can’t write about every historical niggle in every board game, I prioritize the issues that strike me as having some ongoing impact on our lives today.
On one level, I understand the complaint, even if it’s shrouded behind a veil of deception. Nobody likes it when somebody walks up and starts throwing around the P-word.
It’s a scold’s word. Too vague. Too often deployed by people who don’t know what they’re talking about. Not long ago, somebody was venting their frustration on social media over yet another board game about colonialism. Someone pointed out that games are just math, so retheme the thing. The chorus in the background wailed about “how is this even allowed,” as though some Board Game Registrar would descend from the clouds to slap the wrist of the insensitive designer. Everybody felt very righteous. Because of their grousing, the world was made better.
Except the game in question was Cole Wehrle’s John Company, one of the most explicitly anti-colonial games I’ve ever played. I mean that quite literally. Not only as an academic exercise, but also as a game that’s helped ordinary people, some of whom were colonial apologists beforehand, to recognize the abuses of colonial mercantilism. It models the why that goes missing from so many board games. Not “why are you doing this,” although that’s in there too. But also “why didn’t this work,” and “why it couldn’t work,” and “why this didn’t leave its subjects better off than they were before.” It guts one of colonialism’s central defenses right down to the bone.
If you’re interested in what board games can accomplish as historical arguments, John Company is an essential play. To paste something else over the top would lessen the impact. Maybe even ruin it entirely. It is not “just math.” Help me, it’s even fun to play.
But its existence hinges on criticism of colonial-set games. It owes its existence, in part, to the conversation surrounding how historical board games should depict difficult subjects. It is, itself, an act of critique.
That’s thrilling. Perhaps more relevant to someone else’s interests, it’s an example of criticism leading to better games. More interesting and more enjoyable.
In simpler terms, I write about board games because I enjoy board games. For me, critically assessing a game is a sheer delight, whether we’re talking about whether a particular title is a standout among its peers or discussing the mixed success of Martin Wallace transforming historical figures into aliens. Digging into the aspects of a game that appealed to me, or made me think, or made me feel uncomfortable — that’s enjoyable for me. “Outrage” doesn’t even factor into it. When something outrages me, I write my congressperson or attend a county council meeting.
Meanwhile, when somebody insinuates that I’m ruining their fun because I got more out of a board game than they did, that’s also enjoyable. Consider me a Fun Vampire; the less you enjoy a board game because of something I wrote, the better the game becomes for me. I probably won’t write about the slave-holding systems of ancient Egypt anytime soon. But don’t hold me to that. Because the question has me thinking about what I’d like to tackle next.
My next piece, the first in a series on Root as an expression of Foucauldian power dynamics, is already up on Patreon! You can read it over here.