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I Played a Game About That
Recently, my sweetie and I were travelling. She
was temporarily relocating, and we needed to
transport her belongings from Point A to Point B,
a distance of nearly 2,000 miles. We decided to
make the best of the long road trip and see a few
sites and events of interest along the way. For the
most part, we would just drive until we grew tired,
or happened upon a town that seemed like a fun place to have dinner and spend the night. Traveling that way minimized the anxiety of having an agenda, and the flexibility kept us open to meeting new people and hearing their recommendations.
The one exception was a major metropolitan area in which we had each identified events we wanted to experience over a three day window. I booked us a room in a local’s home using a short-term vacation rental website. My sweetie and I agreed to explore our own interests each day, excitedly reconnecting at dinner time to share what we had seen and done and what we had planned for the next day.
Our host continued to live in the main part of the house while were renting a guest bedroom, and we would bump into him in shared spaces such as the kitchen and dining room. He was generally incredibly helpful and very responsive to requests for information or small items to make our stay more comfortable. It was clear from the stacks of games in the living room and guest bedroom that board games were something he spends a lot of time enjoying. He was notably socially awkward, but clearly a well-intentioned, kind-hearted person. Our interactions were minimal but pleasant for the first couple days.
Near the end of our stay, while I was getting ready to go out, I heard him chatting with my girlfriend in the next room. She is Native; he is not. My ears pricked up as I picked up on an increasingly uncomfortable conversation, revolving around him asking her what tribes she was and prodding for more details about her Peoples’ histories, specifically in terms of their interactions with colonial powers. As she delicately tried to finesse the conversation to more comfortable ground, he plodded along inarticulately, eventually revealing that much of his knowledge of Indigenous history and culture came from playing two board games that attempt to simulate the “Navajo Wars” and “Comancheria”, respectively. Referencing acts that were undeniably part of a larger campaign of genocide, he casually remarked, “Yeah, yeah, I know about that. I played a game about it. I had to learn battle techniques to play that. It was kind of hard”.
My jaw hit the floor on that one. A moment later, she popped back into our bedroom, and we exchanged raised eyebrows and a few silently mouthed phrases before making a beeline for the door. Once out of earshot of our host, we were able to verbalize our incredulity.
As a white woman myself, I try to be an informed ally, and know that I continuously have much to learn. Recognizing, naming, and combating privilege in all its forms is an ongoing struggle, and one that often puts me at odds with the “post-racial America” nonsense mantra types, including some in my own family of origin. This, however, was at a level even I was not accustomed to hearing.
After a bit of reflection, I turned to my girlfriend. “That was sort of the perfect metaphor in a way though, wasn’t it? I mean, that’s pretty much the epitome of what it means to be White, isn’t it – the option to be entertained by playing a game about another People’s genocide, to be able to view horrific historical events as ancient history to be learned “in a fun way” rather than as the sources of ongoing intergenerational trauma. That conversation with him describes it so much more succinctly than any lecture.”
Some days later, having reached our destination, I decided to do a bit of research about the two games our host had referenced. Both were designed by a White game developer. The first, “Navajo Wars”, was launched in 2013, followed by “Comancheria”. They are board games, made for 1-2 players, and cost between $40 and $60. In each game, the players play from the point of view of the Indigenous People, fighting against colonial powers, and in some cases, other Native Peoples, and “establishing trade routes and attempting to preserve culture”, while in theory learning about major historic events, including the Indian Removal Act. Perhaps most maddeningly, they include “ceremony cards” which attempt to prescribe in various situations what the “blessing way” and “enemy way” forward would be.
In an interview with a gaming website, Joel Toppen, the designer, stated, “The biggest challenge for me is marrying the “fun factor” with history. I want the game to be a serious representation of history but be fun to play at the same time.” I remain completely unable to square being entrenched in the realities of our atrocious history of genocide with an amusing form of entertainment.
Perhaps most telling is the author’s quote about the nature of the player’s role in Comancheria, “The player controls the initiative and will gradually lose the initiative.”
“That’s the long and the short of it right there”, I said tipping my laptop screen down to make eye contact with my sweetie. “A White guy designing a game in which other white guys will pretend to be Native, knowing all along that their destruction is guaranteed and the only success in the game being “skilled” enough to delay that inevitability for a time.”
“Well, of course”, she remarked. “The victors always write the history and own the narrative. Surely you didn’t expect anything else. By the way – our host compared these games to World War II-based games he also plays, in which the Nazis always lose. He said in both cases they had to be that way because that’s how history played out.”
And that has been our pattern. My outrage at some event or comment (indigenous Peoples being compared to Nazis, Jeff Session’s recent “Indian scalping party” statement – the list goes on and on) and her shock only at my shock, wondering how long it will take me and the rest of us supposed allies to realize that this is – and always has been – their daily reality.