We need to have a talk about Indigenous representation in board games.
For most of my life, I’ve been lumped in with the majority of straight, white, cis male America, for better or worse. As a child, I was blissfully unaware of even the most basic concepts of racial bias, bigotry, racism or the dirty reality of American colonialism. Traveling in the military began to open my eyes to the rest of the world though and living in New Orleans for a decade completely changed my perspective. I believe, for the better.
But it took a little longer for me to begin to direct my attention directly to the concept of representation in board games and longer still for me to understand the representational void within board game design. One of my stated goals with Sub-Level 03 is to bring gaming to a wider audience and with that in mind, I reached out to to the folks at N.D.N. Players and asked if they’d have a chat with me.
N.D.N. Players are a group of Native American scholars and gamers based in the Pacific Northwest who combine their thorough education, knowledge of Indigenous communities and love of games. Taken directly from their webisite, they have a variety of aims:
• Bringing their indigeneity and social equity skills with them into the gaming aspect of popular culture
• Increasing a scholarly Indigenous presence within popular culture
• Using their Indigenous and their academic knowledge within their gaming
• Modeling Indigenous philosophies and understandings within gaming
With so many other minority voices rising up and being heard in current American political discourse, I felt like this was a great time to talk about Native American and Indigenous representation in board games and board game designs. What follows is my chat with Jeanette, Jonathan and Tylor. It’s a bit long, but I feel it’s well worth the read. I’ve edited in a few places for brevity but never for content or tone.
Jeanette Bushnell, PhD Jonathan S. Tomhave, PhD Tylor Prather
Connor: Hello to all of you! Let’s start out with introductions. What are your individual connections to native communities and what are your backgrounds with board games?
Jeanette: I am a citizen of the Anishinaabe nation – the U.S. government calls this “being enrolled” so I’d say that I’m also enrolled in or a citizen of the U.S.A.
Then as an Indigenous scholar, I am colleagues with other Indigenous scholars around the world mostly working with folks in the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. For the past forty years I’ve been involved with native activism beginning with the American Indian Movement and Women of All Red Nations. In the Salish Sea region, I do stuff socially and professionally with urban natives and nearby land-based nations.
My background with board games is about 99.9% playing them. Only in the past few years have I helped with the development of a board game that begins at the basic level with the card game, “Potlatch”. Earliest board games were the usual 1950’s fare – Monopoly, Clue, Parcheesi, Sorry, Life, and Risk. Most recent played are Tokaido and Killing Dr. Lucky.
Jonathan: I’ll answer the second question first. I’ve been playing board games for as long as I can remember. Like Jeanette, I began with playing typical family board games. What really got me into board games was Avalon Hill’s Luftwaffe. I’ve also been playing role playing games since AD&D 1st edition (THAC0, anyone?). Like Jeanette, I’ve spent most of my gaming career playing them. The latest game I picked up is Tiny Epic Quest, and I’ve been playing way too much Neverwinter online (PC).
Now, onto the first question. I’m an enrolled member of The Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold. On my mother’s side, I’m Ho-Chunk, and Prairie Band Potawatomi. And from my father’s I’m Hidatsa, French, and German. In one form or another, I’ve worked with, and for Indigenous peoples, and communities.
Tylor: Like the rest of the group, my connection is through family, school and colleagues , my family is mixed through and through and my schools have always had spaces for native youth where I either participated or worked. And my education has focused on many aspects of indigene.
My background with board games has been a lifelong venture.
Connor: Lately, there seems to be increased awareness and conversation regarding broader representation in board games (as well as in video games) when it comes to gender, ethnicity and culture. When it comes to Indigenous representation in mass published tabletop games, what recently released game would you say has set a good example? And on the opposite end, what’s been the biggest missed opportunity?
Jeanette: I got nothing here, Connor. I’ve not found any mass published tabletop game that has set a good example regarding representation. “Never Alone”, a video game, is a good example of a game that was developed with indigene and so portrays Inuit and their philosophies in a non-oppressive way. I would agree with Tylor. When non-Indigenous folks try to add our culture or anything about us to their games, it just becomes their notion of us without much basis in reality.
To be honest, I don’t keep up with the gaming market. As an Indigenous scholar and community academic, games are not my primary focus, except to play a bit and develop ones that teach about what I know of Indigenous philosophies in a non-oppressive way. Any game that I have played, except for “Never Alone” has not done a good job with equitable representations and philosophies.
Also, we were wonder what you mean by your first claim — “Lately, there seems to be increased awareness and conversation regarding broader representation in board games….” I’ve been aware of representations for about forever and have been talking about it publicly since at least 1980. Who is noticing it more lately? Are folks who have been the power holding privileged oppressors noticing more? Are they being forced to notice it more? Gamergate didn’t seem to have very much impact regarding gender violence and oppressions. The “Me Too” actions are being a bit more successful. But one of our colleagues who has successfully launched many games for handheld devices is getting personal attacks and threats to have their government grant funding cut off. Luckily, as a tenured professor, their university is supporting them but the negative media is having a marked negative effect on their life.
Jonathan: Like Jeanette, as far as I’m aware, there are no massed produced Indigenous tabletop games. While there are games out there, most of them as far as I’m aware of are designed for internal audiences or purposes. A prime example is Dr. Elizabeth LaPensee’s The Gift of Food. While information regarding the game can be found online, access to it is limited. Only those members of the tribe whose game it is can play it. I’ve also seen, heard, or read about other games that focus on language. Most of the games that I am aware of that are either available or under development are computer based.
Tylor: It’s hard to say really, as a baseline for existing titles when non Indigenous people add Indigenous culture to a game it falls short and any redeeming qualities quickly are overwashed by problematic aspects in the representation. Any game worth mentioning lately has an Indigenous person behind it.
On the point of representation in games lately, when we focus on good examples it seems to be framed around congratulating people who are outside a community on doing an adequate job of not using stereotypes when portraying that community in their works. Instead of praising good characters and good story we focus on the individuals who portray peoples different from themselves with the care and compassion that any human should. The onus seems to be on people of color and other marginalized communities to direct people in positions of power to portray them well in spaces they have not yet established studios or gaming companies themselves. Currently, the missed opportunity is to encourage and support groups of non-white people to create more games where AAA studios now are making profits by appearing to cater to the world’s current narrative of inclusiveness.
Connor: Jeanette, I was referring to two things and sort of mashing them into one. First, as you mentioned, there’s the larger media conversation going on with things like the #MeToo campaign or #OscarsSoWhite, the discussion around the inclusion of openly LGBTQ characters in Star Trek, etc. From my personal perspective, there is a parallel increase in conversation in the tabletop board gaming industry. Much of it regarding sexism and gender, but also a fair amount dealing with representation and cultural appropriation. The results of some of these conversations have led to some pretty deep lines being drawn as of late (certain designers being fired from projects for example), but I wouldn’t say it’s resulted in a sea change. The results have been mixed at best, in my opinion. I will say that I’ve seen a marked increase in intentional diversity when it comes to representation among board games. The characters in a series of games from Red Raven (specifically the games “Above and Below” and “Near and Far”) have done a good job at representing a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds and gender identities, for example. However, since they are set entirely in a fantasy world, the characters aren’t given much of a real world cultural context, so the example only goes so far.
But that actually leads me into my next question and it’s a hefty follow up to the last one.
Recently, two games have brought up Native American representation. The first, a tabletop board game, is Wendake from Placentia Games. It was released this year but hasn’t had a wide U.S. release yet. The second, a tabletop roleplaying game, is Dragons Conquer America from Burning Games, which suspended their Kickstarter after an article on the game’s representation started some debate. I’m including some links regarding both games. I’m guessing, based on your previous answers, that you haven’t heard of these two particular games but I’m wondering if you all would like to comment on them? (It seems that both of these games hit on exactly what Tylor was saying in his last response)
Basic game info on BGG HERE
YouTube play through HERE
- Dragons Conquer America:
Kickstarter ink HERE
Vice article link HERE
Reddit article link HERE
Jeanette: Just looked at the link you posted for Wendake. Whoever made it sure got it wrong. “In the game Wendake, you are placed in the shoes of a chief of a Native American tribe. You have to manage all of the most important aspects of their lives, earning points on the economic, military, ritual, and mask tracks.” This is about as far from how the political structure of Wyandot (who were part of the Haudenosaunee confederacy) as you could get.
Tylor: I don’t think there is much more that I can add about these two games that hasn’t been said by others in my group or others who have written about them specifically. These two games and the content they deal with all fall into the trap that many movies and media with any kind of representation for Indigenous people do. If you’re going to make a game/movie that features People of a specific region, race, tribe or nation first ask yourself why that story. Why does Dragons Conquer america need to take place when it does? The answer is it doesn’t, it could have easily been a game with dragons and Natives and it would be no less ludicrous than their original idea. Why does Wendake take place in 1756-1963? Why is there a need to frame the existence of Indigenous people around the involvement of White settlers? There is a rich history of 10,000 plus years to draw from for Indigenous peoples in north and south america that doesn’t involve colonization and very well could be the backing for an RPG that doesn’t need a mechanics centralized tension based on western European invasion. And it’s sad really that the creativity of game authors seems to abruptly pop into existence around 1492 or 999 if you’re going for a viking theme.
Jonathan: My first response is that you should read, Charles Mann’s 1491. In it, Mann constructs a narrative from a variety of academic fields, i.e. anthropology, history, geology, medicine, etc. that paints a different narrative than what is has been taught to the masses and widely accepted by many without any critical examination. Mann’s argument is that the narrative that European “explorers”, read, invaders did not win because of any form of superiority, be it technical, military, belief systems, etc. Instead, Mann argues that the reason for European success should be credited to disease and plague. That smallpox, anthrax, etc. were far more effective than anything Europe could muster. Mann argues that this was so devastating, that estimates of population lost of Indigenous peoples across what is now known as the Western Hemisphere where, if my memory serves somewhere between 90 to 95%. I’m including a link to where you can read about the Doctrine of Discovery, and how it justifies the Age of Imperialism, which I argue is still in praxis today.
The game links you’ve shared, in my opinion, are based off of these assumptions, and justifications which are extremely problematic. They perpetuate what Robert Berkhofer Jr. identified as the, “Indian of the White Imagination”, and relies on what Philip Deloria identified as the “authentic” Indian, that is, the Indian of the White Imagination” instead of the actual, which is learning and understanding how any given group of Indigenous people self identify. Alexander Saxton in his book, The Rise and Fall of the White Republic: Class Politics and Popular Culture in the Nineteenth Century argues, actually it’s one of his many arguments that popular culture often becomes to be seen as truth, and at times becomes myth. S. Elizabeth Bird’s Dressing in Feathers further accentuates this. A good example of the development of myth is the Battle of Greasy Grass, known as the Battle of Little Bighorn, aka, Custer’s Last Stand. The myth is that the 7th Cavalry fought to the last man atop the Little Bighorn, and that Custer was the last to fall. Well, that doesn’t fit with the testimony given by the surviving warriors there. Their testimony states that Custer fell early, because it makes tactical sense to take out the leadership, and he was easy to spot, and that it wasn’t a last stand, instead it was a rout. It wasn’t until researchers who read the accounts, and investigated the battlefield, and used good old fashioned forensic science proved the warrior accounts. You can watch the episode of Battlefield Detectives here. There are other countless examples of this happening, both in the past and in our present day.
What these practices do is perpetuate a process known as Otherizing, that is, marking someone or some group of people as alien, and different, which not always, but it tends to be more this way than not, a way to justify horrific actions and policies towards them. I will end with two final things. The first is Robert Gerbner’s symbolic annihilation. The second is Rento Rosaldo’s imperialist nostalgia. Symbolic annihilation posits that if it, or more specifically is someone is not represented in mass media, then they do not exist. This has been carried further by feminist, gender, queer, ethnic studies, etc, scholars that point out that continually showing people in limited forms, i.e. American Indians as alcoholics and drug addicts affects how everyone perceives American Indians. Imperialist nostalgia is a mood of nostalgia that makes racial domination appear innocent and pure; people mourning the passing or transformation of what they have caused to be transformed. It is a way to grant self-absolution, it also creates a delusion that, “Well, that stuff happened so long ago. I had nothing to do with it.”
Jeanette: First, I have yet to figure out the why of all this. Why do folks in the colonizer society believe that they are superior to Indigenous peoples? Why do folks in the colonizer society choose to commit personal and societal violence against indigene? Why present us as hypersexual savage ‘warrior’ fighters? Why discount our knowledges, arts, philosophies, and technologies as coarse, lesser, and valueless while at the same time appropriating it all as theirs? I fully understand the historical, sociological, and other Westernized academic research that explains that such representations are done to support the various colonial agendas and projects. I simply do not understand the logic of such projects.
Second, the demeaning representation of indigene in the games you mentioned is how folks in the colonizer’s society understand things – it is their systemically oppressive reality. This is found not only in games and popular culture but also in all levels of their society. For example, today I got notified of a one-day program sponsored by a local university that will be about Indigenous resistances with a focus on the on current #noDAPL work being done in the Dakotas. The university’s native studies department is having a white guy academic as the speaker and no invitations were sent out to local Indigenous leaders – lawyers, educators, politicians, activists, researchers, academics, etc. – who have spent significant amounts of time with #noDAPL and related issues. Again erased. Again silenced. And to add a bit more insult, the white guys in Nevada and Oregon who occupied and disrupted federal offices and caused general mayhem, did not even get a wrist slap while the Indigenous folks demanding that the same federal government abide by its international treaties were charged with felony offenses.
Connor: Thanks to all of you for those in depth answers. There’s so much there to digest. What would be your advice for publishers who are looking to include Indigenous elements in their games?
Jeanette: Hire indigene, ideally before beginning development.
Jonathan: My answer is pretty straight forward. There are a lot, and I mean a lot, of Indigenous developers out there, making their own things for their own audiences. Support what they’re doing and for goodness sakes, don’t even try to force it into an AAA title. Not because it isn’t possible for Indigenous developers to create something at that caliber, but when you lavish all that money and attention, there comes external pressure to emulate tired tropes, modalities, genres, objectives, you know all that sort of shit, in order to appeal to the imagined majority. Indigenous games are right now, and in my opinion should, live in the indie realm. They should live and thrive in the spaces where gamers, who are dissatisfied with the mainstream, wish to live in and explore truly different worlds.
Connor: Thank you so much for taking time to talk to me. I’d like to wrap this up by bringing in your own game, Potlach. It recently funded on Kickstarter and I’m sure people would like to know more. Why did you feel this was the game you wanted to make? And what would you like people to know about Potlatch?
Jeanette: Potlatch: A Cardgame About Economics was our first effort at game design. Partly we just wanted to see if we could make a game that worked. If we could do this simple cardgame, then we were interested in creating larger and more complex games.
The game is about an economic system used by Indigenous peoples on this continent. This game focuses on a complex, sharing-based economic system common on the west coast. We chose an economics based game design as resistance to notions of Indigenous peoples that are perpetuated within the colonizer’s society. Within colonizer agendas, much about our societies is ignored or misrepresented in a way that tends to devalue us as individuals and us collectively as functional communities and societies. We hope that our game will distribute some information about the complex institutions of society that we had developed prior to the invasion by Europeans.
Connor: What was it about this tradition that inspired you to develop a game around it?
Jeanette: Two things. First, to present information about a viable economic system that is not capitalism. As teachers, we have found that students can have trouble imagining things that are significantly different from what they know. Most of our students in public education here know only capitalism and are challenged to understand how a different economic system could work. Learning and practicing sharing-based economics helps them understand more about economic systems in general.
Second, as a lifelong resident of this region, I have attended many potlatches or giveaways so I had a fair amount of first hand information about these events. I have also learned from local elders about the process as well as studied extensively within the Westernized academy.
Connor: Is your intent to leave it as a Kickstarter project or are you looking to go into broader distribution?
Jeanette: The Kickstarter was mostly about getting some funds to give copies of the game to educators, schools and youth groups. The game will be available directly from DriveThruCards [http://www.drivethrucards.com/] momentarily. We got the final proof and ordered the 1,600 copies that will be distributed as kickstarter ‘rewards’.
Connor: Have you faced any criticisms from Native American communities at all?
Jeanette: When the kickstarter went live, we got some concerned questioners. Among our circles, folks are very supportive. Once the game gets out more, I am confident that we’ll be getting criticisms, either directly or folks just puffing us out of their circles.
Jonathan: I imagine that this, like so many other things will draw both favorable, and unfavorable responses, and criticisms. All in all, it will add to the discourse, and as a scholar and educator, that is my objective. So long as it is a civil discourse is rooted in thoughtfulness, and respect.
Connor: I feel like that’s a great note to leave things on. Thank you for your time and thoughts on all of this. I hope Potlatch is the success you want it to be and that it leads to even greater things for all you. I’m also looking forward to getting my copy and giving it a play!
A few final thoughts. This conversation really sparked a desire in me to write about my own feelings of inclusion and marginalization. But I’ll leave that for another time. I will say that, for the sake of full disclosure, I’m a member of the Cherokee Nation. If you’re a game designer or publisher and wish to include Indigenous elements of any kind in your game, please, please hire these folks, or people like them, to help you develop your game.
N.D.N. Players: www.ndnplayers.com
Potlatch on Kickstarter: http://kck.st/2l9jS7H
You can reach the N.D.N. Players through their email address which is on their website.
Article || Tags: Board Games, diversity, games, indigenous, native american, NDN Players, Pacific Northwest, PNW, representation