Should Board Gamers Play the Roles of Racists, Slavers and Nazis?

In the continuing explosion of tabletop board gaming, there are numerous World War II games in which players get to be Nazis. There are American Civil War games in which players take the role of the Confederacy. Some of these games confront the victims of the Holocaust and enslaved people head on; most don’t, though of course they’re right there if players choose to look.

But even poorly designed games with war themes often get the benefit of the doubt. They are generally created and played by people deeply interested in history. They prize accuracy over fun. Most games in this genre are accompanied by extensive reading lists and explanations; players often treat them as a way to learn that is more engaging than just reading a book.

Scramble for Africa was a new strategy game — what is called a “eurogame,” to contrast the genre with war games and more confrontational luck-based American board games. In it, the player would “take the role of one of six European powers with an eye toward exploring the unknown interior of Africa, discovering land and natural resources,” as the game’s description put it.

And with that, Scramble for Africa became board gaming’s entree into the very particular, sometimes confusing and very of-the-moment culture wars of 2019.

As a creative medium, board games are fundamentally different than film, theater or literature. While all great art is deeply engaging, the audience for those media are mostly bystanders. Watching “Schindler’s List” or reading “The Diary of Anne Frank” are different experiences than plotting like a Nazi in a board game.

The real life scramble for Africa was the pillaging of much of the African continent for its resources and its people.

Under Belgium’s King Leopold II, between 1885 and 1908 in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, historians estimate that anywhere between a few million and 10 million people died because of starvation, disease, murder and a falling birthrate.

It is largely recognized as one of history’s most bloodthirsty occupations. (“The list of specific massacres on record goes on and on,” Adam Hochschild writes in “King Leopold’s Ghost.” “The territory was awash in corpses, sometimes literally.”)

The Belgian colonizers were unusually barbaric, but the rule of the other European countries that carved up Africa differed only in scale, not in kind, across a wide swath of the continent.

Joe Chacon, the designer of Scramble for Africa, was accused of not treating this situation with appropriate seriousness. In his game, the savagery that was part and parcel of that exploration seems to be dealt with in minor and trivializing ways. The players must put down rebellions, and can slow their opponents by inciting native revolts. Random events include “penalties for atrocities” and rewards for ending slavery. Butchery is gameified.

Soon after the game’s announcement in February, debate played out across thousands of posts on BoardGameGeek, the hub of board gaming on the internet.

“The Holocaust could be a topic for a resource management game, but most people would rightly see that as reprehensible,” one BoardGameGeek user wrote. “The Scramble for Africa, as a historic episode, was marked by exploitation, chattel slavery, and brutalization of a racial group that their oppressors often considered lesser humans.”

“People deciding for you what historical topics you can and cannot play,” another countered. “That is called censorship.”

Some arguments were on topic and persuasive. Most were not. There were rhetorical appeals and quotes — many cited thinkers like George Bernard Shaw, Robert Heinlein and Heinrich Heine, accurately or not. There were frequent invocations of censorship and the First Amendment, and rejoinders that the First Amendment applies only to government actors and this was simply the free market in action.

There were slippery slopes, faulty analogies, straw men galore and the gleeful identifying of said fallacies that is endemic to any message board flame war. There were trolling posts, insulting references to “social justice warriors” and analogies to supposed censorship taking place on YouTube and Facebook.

Eventually, after a thousand posts — hundreds of them deleted — the largest thread on the game was locked. “At this point, the only thing happening is old embers being reignited, and now we’re definitely veering political,” a moderator wrote.

Sprinkled among this debate, however, were novel and provocative questions about who designs games, who plays games, whether games are art, which viewpoints are represented and what responsibility games have to historical verisimilitude.

These ideas have been at the heart of critical examination of literature, music, theater, film and even video games for decades, even centuries, but have only begun to be discussed in board gaming.

Gene Billingsley, the owner of GMT Games, the game’s publisher, responded to the criticism by pulling the game, two months after its announcement. “It’s clear to me that the game is out of step with what most eurogame players want from us, in terms of both topic and treatment,” he wrote in an email to GMT customers. (Neither he nor the game’s designer were willing to discuss the game and their experience with The New York Times.)

Most eurogames are designed to maximize the gameplay, or mechanics, with the theme an afterthought. A common criticism of many games is that the theme feels pasted on. With such little attention often paid to the story, the ranks of historically inaccurate or outright racist modern game are lengthy.

In the game Puerto Rico — for a long time ranked the best board game ever by BoardGameGeek users — brown pieces called “colonists” perform the roles that enslaved Taíno people did in Puerto Rico in real life.

In a game called Manitoba, players are Cree clan leaders, yet the game prominently features totem poles, made by Native American and First Nations peoples who lived thousands of miles away. (The Italian game designers of Manitoba have defended the inaccuracies, but also said it was their German publisher who chose the theme.)

And then there is King Phillip’s War, a game about a particularly bloody 17th-century conflict between European colonists and indigenous tribes in what is today New England. After the game was released in 2010, Julianne Jennings, an anthropology professor and member of the Cheroenhaka Nottoway tribe, organized a protest over it.

John Poniske, the middle-school social studies teacher who designed that game, said he doesn’t believe any of the people who objected to the game ever saw a copy of the rules, let alone played it. “I would wake up every morning to more comments from around the world,” he said. “It was fascinating, and it was also kind of scary.”

Mr. Poniske, who has created a number of games about lesser studied battles and wars, said he designed King Phillip’s War because the conflict was so influential, yet so little known. “It led to the foundation of today’s special forces,” he said. “It caused more casualties than any American war per capita at the time. It led directly to colonial protests.”

Despite firmly disagreeing that there is anything offensive about King Phillip’s War, Mr. Poniske said the episode made him think more deeply about the effect of his subsequent game designs. There are themes, he said, that he wouldn’t design a game about, like the Holocaust.

One of the best-selling strategy games of the last few years is Eric Reuss’s Spirit Island, in which players take the role of different spirits who cooperate to defend their fictional island against colonizers.

Mr. Reuss said he designed the game in reaction to Puerto Rico and others that celebrate colonialism; in Spirit Island the pieces representing colonizers are white, a choice that inverts the assumption that light colors are good and dark colors are evil.

Mr. Reuss believes Scramble for Africa would have passed without widespread criticism if it had been published years ago, and he is glad people are talking about its shortcomings. “Having a contentious conversation about it is still much better than however many decades ago when there wasn’t even a conversation,” he said.

Most board game reviewers recite a game’s mechanics and how it is played, seeking only to answer the questions of whether it is fun and worth buying. Few critically analyze games or ask what they are attempting to say. The hobby is still small enough that negative reviews are often regarded as personal attacks on designers.

“One of the odd things about the board game world is you don’t have anything like a mature media,” said Cole Wehrle, the designer of a number of well-regarded games about British colonialism. “There isn’t really an infrastructure for this conversation.”

Brenda Romero, the designer of Train, an educational Holocaust board game — called “the board game no one wants to play more than once” — pointed to an evolution in video games. There is still a dearth of mass-market games with art house bona fides, but there is a thriving indie scene with award-nominated games about cancer and the Syrian refugee crisis. Developers now expect their games to be dissected and criticized.

That doesn’t mean change, diversity and criticism were always welcomed with open arms. Female video game designers and critics in particular have been harassed and subjected to death threats, and much of the online discussion surrounding video games is toxic. Many video games and the associated YouTube culture surrounding them remain entry points for disaffected young men who become far-right radicals.

The board game hobby — especially in the United States — is overwhelmingly white and male, though, anecdotally, that seems to be changing. Mr. Wehrle and Mr. Reuss said they see more women and people of color playing games and attending board game conventions.

The ranks of board game designers, however, is changing more slowly. According to one study, 94 percent of the designers for the top 100 ranked games on BoardGameGeek were white men. This perhaps explains the viewpoint many games take. Their designers can more readily identify with the European colonizers, and not the colonized.

As long as Americans and Europeans dominate board gaming, themes of colonialism will likely abound. “You can make a game about anything, but you have to be responsible for the things you make,” said Mr. Wehrle, the designer.

Mr. Wehrle described board games a “little sympathy engines” because players directly embody a role. Designers should question who they have players sympathize with, and why, but he believes they should still make games with difficult themes. “There is value to letting players sympathize with a position that is morally objectionable, as long as it has some larger payoff,” he said.

In his game An Infamous Traffic, about the opium wars in China, Mr. Wehrle believes he achieves the payoff by juxtaposing sobriety with absurdity.

Players act as British merchants colonizing and becoming wealthy from a repugnant business, but they only score points by dominating the London Season, a sort of prestige competition among aristocrats to host balls, win regattas and dress the fanciest. (Mr. Wehrle has a doctorate in the literature of British colonialism, giving him a leg up in navigating this tricky balance. )

He believes Scramble for Africa was a failure because it lacked a similar, or any, payoff. “The story of globalization in the 17th to 19th century, that is the story everyone is already taught in high school, especially the West,” he said. “So when playing a game about that period you are not learning anything about it — you are re-enacting it.”

In most of Africa, strategy board games are not a regular pastime. Kenechukwu Ogbuagu is trying to change that. Mr. Ogbuagu is a board game designer, publisher and organizer of the first board game convention in West Africa. He also runs a board game cafe in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria.

That one person can do all of those things, that one person needs to do all of those things, speaks to how far board games are from being popularized in Nigeria.

Mr. Ogbuagu wasn’t aware of any board game scene in the Democratic Republic of Congo and none of the tens of thousands of active users on BoardGameGeek say they are from the country, but he did know of board gamers in Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda, Egypt and Kenya.

While Mr. Ogbuagu imports some games from Europe, his designs incorporate Nigerian themes because Nigerian players find those easier to relate to, he said. His game Irin Ajo features the geography and politics of Nigeria; Safe Journi is about uniquely Nigerian obstacles encountered while traveling.

“We want people to know that we make games too,” Mr. Ogbuagu said. “Even Nigerians and Africans can be in games.”