Culture

‘You Lose Your Turn’

Board games on display at the 2012 American International Toy Fair (Photo: Eduardo Munoz)
The social-justice warriors are coming for your board games.

These are boom times for tabletop gaming. According to data released by the NPD Group, a market-research company, U.S. sales of games and puzzles posted an 18 percent growth rate in 2016 — this on top of growth near or above 10 percent in the two previous years. Worldwide sales are exploding as well, with consumer-research firm Technavio predicting a five-year compound annual growth rate in excess of 29 percent for the global market. Here at home, an influx of stylish and sophisticated European games (Settlers of Catan, Agricola) has done nothing to dampen the prospects of U.S. manufacturer Hasbro, which saw stock prices more than triple between 2010 and summer 2017. Nor has the gaming renaissance been enjoyed exclusively by the nation’s pre-teens. Those Millennials everyone’s so worried about? They’re down in the basement playing Risk.

Well, not Risk exactly. One of the hallmarks of the current craze has been the emergence of games that are far more complicated than their predecessors. Twilight Imperium, for example — once described by the digital journal Ars Technica as “a board game with meal breaks” — boasts not only 350 plastic pieces and 400 cards but a playing time that often exceeds eight hours. Through the Ages, to which the industry website BoardGameGeek.com awards a “complexity” rating of 4.33 out of 5, includes, among other components, a heavily illustrated 11,000-word “Code of Laws” (i.e., rulebook), whose decrees reference such abstractions as “the number depicted above the leftmost empty subsection” and “the lesser tactical strength” of “outdated armies with air forces.” The actual Greek-language version of this document, which I’ve just finished viewing online, is not markedly more confusing.

Alongside this explosion of paraphernalia and legalese has come an attendant diminishment of luck as an element of gameplay. In the board games of our childhood— Monopoly, Clue, Chutes and Ladders — one rolled the dice and took one’s chances. The 21st-century German import Puerto Rico, on the other hand, seemingly involves no luck at all, asking instead that its players, like participants in so many other contemporary games, employ advanced strategic thinking, balancing short- and long-term goals while taking into account the feints and fortunes of one’s tablemates. It isn’t four-dimensional chess, but neither is it far off the mark.

To observers of the culture, the board-game resurgence has been an overwhelmingly positive phenomenon — one that has the potential not only to renew communal bonds but to shape the very character of gaming participants. In her review of David Sax’s The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, Michiko Kakutani suggests that tabletop gaming might be one way to fulfill our “desire for human interaction — and a sense of community and place.” A recent article at Scholastic.com, meanwhile, argues that by “circumscribing the playing field,” board games can “help [a] child weave her wild and erratic side into a more organized, mature, and socially acceptable personality.”

Despite this high praise, however, all is not well in the land of dice and tokens. Rather, board games have emerged as the newest battleground in our seemingly endless war over what is “problematic” and what is not — what is harmless, victimless fun and what may be enjoyed only if one agrees to feel one’s requisite portion of guilt. To give but one example, the aforementioned Puerto Rico invites players to further the progress of their colonial administrations by moving about the board an allotment of workers, each represented by a small, round disc. As even the most cursory of Web searches reveals, it has not escaped the notice of the Left that these discs are brown.

The politicization of board games is not, of course, an entirely new phenomenon. For every game proceeding from the realm of pure fantasy (Candy Land, Sorry!), many others rely on a preexisting political context. Monopoly (1933), for example, is barely conceivable outside of its Depression-era origins, just as Battleship (1931), originally a pen-and-paper game, is perhaps best understood as a product of the First World War. Suffragetto (1909) pits young women (player one) against the police (player two), while Dictator (1939) invites participants, rather tastelessly, to mimic the totalitarians of its era.

In more recent years, the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter has become a veritable hive of politically resonant (and brazenly left-wing) board games, offering to the public such entries as Nasty Feminist (tag line: “Fight for your girl gang”), in which players must fend off attacks from such enemies as “mansplainers” and “All Lives Matter sympathizers”; Drag Ball (“An original game about drag queens!”), whose participants employ their chosen characters’ “specific Aesthetic, Sophistication, and Sass skills”; Rise Up (“The Game of People and Power”), in which combatants “lead a march of thousands of people” or “write a protest song that goes viral”; and Basket of Deplorables (“The Board Game!”), which asks players to dodge scandal while challenging President Trump in the 2020 election. Across the web at IndieGoGo, prospective games include not only The World Council, whose players “experience Global Cooperation, Horrible Leaders, Despicable Plans, and World Destruction,” but a set of playing cards designed to “Educate Uni[versity] Students About Homophobia.”

Given the human condition, it is perhaps unsurprising that history has seen far more troubling examples of this phenomenon as well. That Germans of a certain era passed their evenings with Juden Raus! (Jews Out!) feels as inevitable as it does horrifying; the same is true, to a lesser extent, of the fact that Americans living through the last year of the Carter administration could purchase Public Assistance (tag line: “Why bother working for a living?”), which takes players across such spaces as “Have illegitimate child” and “Hang out in front of liquor store.” Yet rather than giving the contemporary Left a sense of proportion, such plainly terrible relics act instead as harbingers, historical illustrations that prove by extension the bad faith of today’s hobbyists and designers. On one BoardGameGeek discussion thread dedicated to the game Puerto Rico’s alleged racism, it took less than two hours for someone to bring up the century-old abomination Darkies in the Melon Patch.

Which is an interesting move all by itself, because Darkies in the Melon Patch is now believed by some to be counterfeit: a grotesque invention of the 21st century printed on demand to satisfy the market for so-called “black Americana.” If true, such a story necessitates a subtler scare-quote policy than I find myself able to devise. The game is indisputably racist, but isn’t it also “racist”? Aren’t its purchasers likelier to be foolish, irony-addicted “bigots” than actual bigots?

Such distinctions become even more complicated when the board game under review is not obviously demented, or when objections to a particular game seem to be motivated by something other than a desire for justice. When Mashable contributor Laura Vitto complains, for example, that “the original version of Guess Who? seriously lacked diversity,” is she objecting to bias or “bias”? When BGG user Jpwoo argues that “there is something inherently wrong about unloading little brown people off a boat and into your fields and factories,” does he mean wrong or “wrong”? To what extent, in other words, can this kind of accusation be taken seriously at all? Aren’t the accusers just filing mindless progressive copy? Or disingenuously anticipating hurt feelings far beyond the bounds of what is reasonable or likely? One wonders, for example, Would Ms. Vitto truly have been happier with the 1970s-grade caricatures that would inevitably have accompanied a more inclusive version of Guess Who? Following that complaint to its conclusion would eventually force one to play the game with photographs. Very carefully chosen photographs.

Such ravings feed the broader culture of outrage as much as they are fed by it, a self-perpetuating exchange whose ramifications and echoes extend far beyond any one website.

What one learns quickly enough, surfing the waves of contemporary indignation, is that the logic of such a retort matters not a whit when one’s opponent is determined, or professionally obligated, to be offended (or, worse still, to predict the offendedness of unnamed others). What matters instead is the sport of the thing, as when BoardGameGeek users pool their efforts to create (on a special page) a list of all “problematic content” in popular games. As of this writing, BGG’s social-justice sleuths have catalogued the “strong classist undertones” of Lords of Waterdeep (“you play a ‘lord’ in a classist society/city”); the “potentially stereotypical depiction of Indians/Asians” in Jaipur; the fact that Castles of Mad King Ludwig “mocks mental health issues”; the depiction of “mines” on Splendor’s playing cards (“it’s unclear if workers are being exploited or not”); the fact that Eclipse “promotes imperial expansion as a way to win”; the use of “gender role stereotypes” in Agricola; the portrayal of a “pale/white race as superior and ‘good’” in War of the Ring; Terra Mystica’s “stereotypical depiction of desert-based groups”; and the fact that The Resistance’s “dystopian future is entirely populated by white people.”

Winking or not (and my own reading is that these allegations are almost entirely serious), such complaints cannot be dismissed as mere clowning — a case of cloistered “geeks” carrying idiotic standards to absurd conclusions. Rather, such ravings feed the broader culture of outrage as much as they are fed by it, a self-perpetuating exchange whose ramifications and echoes extend far beyond any one website. Consider, for example, Jarrah E. Hodge, who complains at Bitch Media that Age of Empires III makes “the conquering of indigenous peoples . . . one of the goals.” Or Cynthia Hornbeck, who laments in a Tumblr essay that the female characters in Conan: The Board Game are only “good for . . . being f***ed by men.” (“That’s the world that you’re choosing to have fun in,” Hornbeck insists.) Or Greg Loring-Albright, who writes in the digital journal Analog Game Studies that “every game of Settlers of Catan re-tells the American myth of White European settlers stumbling upon a fertile land that was theirs by right.” None of these platforms is the New York Times, but Hodge, Hornbeck, Loring-Albright, et al. do have readers. With every grievance, they’re adding another brick to a wall that is already looming over us, narrowing our range of thought and expression as it grows ever higher.

That this wall will eventually crumble by itself, brought down by its own oppressive weight, is the expectation of a great many conservatives of my acquaintance. I, on the other hand, see no reason to hope for it. Reading about the forthcoming generation of games (this past October saw the opening of Germany’s annual Internationale Spieltage, where thousands of new ideas debut), one sees far too clearly where new battle lines will be drawn. Pandemic Legacy: Season 2, which allows players to customize their characters’ traits and abilities, will lead inexorably to cultural appropriation, as participants step daringly out of their real-life genders and ethnicities. Transatlantic, which, according to Ars Technica, places players “in the age of mighty steamships,” will not be able to avoid the iceberg of that age’s bigotry, transphobia, and an ugly tendency to enrich white men.

Nor will my own gaming closet escape scrutiny, I’m sorry to say. Not The Game of Life, with its heteronormative assumptions and endless emphasis on child-rearing. Not Beyond Balderdash, in which players guess the plots of movies that, let’s face it, probably starred sexual predators. Certainly not Scrabble, whose rules allow gamers to spell any word they want.

Any word? Any word, really? That doesn’t sound even the least bit safe.

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