It Takes More Than a 'Tolerance' Mechanic to Make an Anti-Colonial RPG


#1

High school was Shadowrun. There weren’t a lot of games in the 90s that openly encouraged you to be brown, queer, and angry as hell. Our group was Somali, Mexican, Thai, Black, and Native. We were mixed and mestiza. The descendants of refugees, slaves, the subaltern. We were pissed-off teenage queers of color in an upper middle-class and exceptionally white suburb. In the “Capital of the Confederacy,” we were outsiders who had to keep our mouths shut all week long.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/a37a34/it-takes-more-than-a-tolerance-mechanic-to-make-an-anti-colonial-rpg

#2

This is quote left me aghast. I scanned through the kickstarter, but can’t seem to find where this was pulled from so my anger at it is lessened for now. However, this sentiment is just terrible. If they truly thought native cultures deserve their own game, they would make one. A game where the very premise is the impending destruction of those cultures and where there is really nothing that alleviates that is not a game native cultures “deserve”. If they respected these cultures to want to make a game about them, make one that celebrates them. Reducing the thousands of years of native cultures into the brief time of European conquest is as Euro-centric as you can get. We know a lot less about native history pre-European contact, but there is still enough to do justice and fantasy is great at filling in gaps.


#3

I’m not quite ready to declare “fuck this game” just yet, but I’m mighty close. Because games are supposed to be “fun”, there’s an unfortunate tendency to make sure that a game’s mechanics are fun, even if that’s super duper fucked. I’m pretty sure Zacny’s written about the brutal gamification of gentrification in city building sims, which always seem to simplify and idealize the concept into a series of knobs to optimize, regardless of the human cost. Likewise, gamifying tolerance can do nothing but encourage players to optimize the “correct” amount of empathy to confer upon indigenous peoples in order to persuade them to open the city gates for the invading Spaniards to slaughter them.


#4

Really awesome article! I’ve really been engaged with everything I’ve read from Dia Lacina (she’s written something on Polygon, also), I hope to see more of her writing! :slight_smile:

As for the subject, this is so frustrating. It’s so easy for white creators (like myself) to get excited and want to elevate subjugated and colonized cultures, but get so caught up in it that it ends up doing something with it’s own flavor of awful. I’m sure there’s a term for this kind of well-intentioned act that ends up being regressive, but I don’t know it. I think it’s especially telling that the game that intends to address the damage of indigenous cultures from European colonialism is still being produced from the perspective of colonization.

I found what Dia was saying about Shadowrun being clearly offensive, but still a great space to play in regardless really fascinating. I’ve always wanted to get into Shadowrun, but the racist undertones have added to reasons why I’ve failed to dig in. That, and a lack of any friends to play with. I would like to see future iterations work with indigenous writers, especially Salish, if I understand the lore right. (Someone yell at me if I’m saying something ignorant) You could probably write a whole book about tabletop RPGs and video games being play-spaces for subjugated groups to express themselves within. Has there been? I’d read it!


#5

I really liked this article, and as someone living in a former colonial country, I definitely agree with the author’s identification of the colonial approach of Burning Games. It makes no sense to claim that they are creating a gaming space for anti-colonial stories when the title itself already betrays whose perspective is being privileged. I would love to read Dia Lacina’s take on Magic: The Gathering’s latest expansion, Ixalan, which has a very similar theme as Dragons Conquer America, but one that I think is more creative and more post-colonial than Burning Games’ attempt.


#6

Reading this is a weird flashback to Shadowrun forums where people argued about whether the punk/activist side of the game really “was” the game, or whether the professional-hitman-for-hire type of game was what they were going for.

A lot of the SR1/SR2-era writers very much seemed to be on board with the former. Then SR3 came out and pretty much buttoned that one up in the opposite direction.


#7

Hey everyone, thanks for reading my piece! I came across this response to my article on Reddit from a member of the development team and I thought I’d link it here in case anyone was interested.


#8

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t want to fall closer to the side of “fuck this game.” Still don’t really, because, like…I want this game. I’m more “fuck parts of this game as currently written” and I hope as they sit down and reimagine this game as a more traditional core book, they take some of what I (and others) have written to heart, so I can have that game.


#9

Wow
His response basically boils down to like 20 different ways of saying “no, you’re wrong”


#10

That’s fair, though I’m definitely a “mechanic is the message” kind of person, so no amount of narrative hand-wringing would rehabilitate an abused and abusive mechanic for me. I also found it weird for a self-proclaimed production/logistics guy to do a close reading of your piece from a game design/writing perspective, which he admits is not his department.


#11

I feel like, having read all their materials and their responses to me, the team really doesn’t understand what they are actually making? And I think they believe they are making a fundamentally different game than they have produced up to this point. Or how the mechanics they’re laying out operate very differently than how they think they ought. Though these kinds of communication problems should probably not be happening in a team.of 4, I think that’s why this dude responded.


#12

Yeah, I’m refraining from reading too much into his response or holding it against the team because he’s clearly outside of his area of expertise (“we made this mechanic that lets you genocide everyone, but we don’t WANT you to use it, so that makes it okay!”). At any rate, the Kickstarter seems to be cancelled so it’s unclear what their next move is.


#13

That’s the impression I got from your article and their response only backs that up. It’s clear that they’re passionate about this and want to get it right, but they make all these missteps that seem pretty obvious. This is especially evident in their description of the tolerance mechanic:

…“a tool the GM has to get intolerant characters into trouble: You shouldn’t have insulted your native guide if you wanted him to take you somewhere, or you shouldn’t have spoken down on a spanish lady if you needed her help. The more tolerant your character is, the more control you have over him and the less likely you are to get into trouble just because you are not reasonable.”

“Remember to be polite to people. Otherwise your racism could get in the way of conquest and genocide, which you shouldn’t do because that would be wrong, but you can do because that’s the entire reason the Europeans are there in the first place.”

Projects like this need to be especially careful not only for their own sake, but also because of the audience it attracts. I just took a look at the kickstarter page and I’m not surprised the most recent comments are like this, referencing your article:

Sorry that you are taking heavy bombardment for this game, but virtual massacres with words are a thing to expect when you read the article below:

Aha! Finally, someone published a think piece in line with the modern trope of ruthlessly tearing down game designers and artists for daring to make a game that fails the 21st century “righteousness” test.

In case we all think we are immune to the sins of our ancestors, just know that, America, the most dominant 21st century culture only “righteously” exists after nearly wiping North America of all native cultural influences upon American society.


#15

Haha wow. That last sentence in the comment sure is something else.


#16

Isn’t it!? I mean, yeah, sure, they’re right, which is kind of the entire reason why we need to depict these historical atrocities with the gravity and nuance they deserve. I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised by the weird logic of people making disingenuous arguments.


#17

…Our game was never crafted to be anti-colonial, as I explained earlier. We just want to present the facts in a way that is as fair as possible, while keeping lighthearted with fantastical elements, to encourage critical thinking. We want people to read it and become anti-colonial because they understand the seriousness of these issues, not because we overtedly told them to be anti-colonial.

“We want to keep it lighthearted, but also be taken seriously, and we want it to be about facts, but also about fantasy.” What???

I really feel like the creators just aren’t really aware of the social implications of what they are creating. I think they are like, aware that they are making a game about colonization and about genocide, and they’ve clearly done their research (people are talking a lot about the sacrifice, in particular, in those comments), but they don’t seem aware what the subtext of that game can and will be based on how it’s crafted. Creating a system where players are enabled to be colonialists, not punishing them, and providing a success state is implicitly condoning colonialism. When you intend to create a system which supposes Spanish invaders as potentially kind folk to natives or somehow on equal footing, you are engaging in a form of historical revisionism. When you feed into these narratives, there’s a reason comments like this are in the discussion for the article:

Me, I am kind of OK with exterminating cultures who believed specifically in slowly torturing children to death because their tears made for abundant rains.

UGgghhhhhh I really hope they take a few step backs and reconsider some things.


#18

A related tangent, does anyone else remember Expeditions: Conquistador? Similar to Dragons Conquer America, it’s set in the 16th Century, it’s about colonialism and imperialism, and it had a Kickstarter. While not a fantasy RPG, it is a roleplaying and strategy game.

Also like in DCA, the player is a European outsider. You play as a conquistador, either as a man or woman, traveling from Spain to Hispaniola and Mexico. The difference is that Logic Artists (the developers behind E:C) at least did their research. If you knew nothing about the Taino going in, you unlock codex entries that describe their culture with a surprising level of accuracy. Indigenous peoples are depicted as complex, with different groups and individuals having their own concerns and agendas.

Unlike DCA, a somewhat common critical opinion about E:C appears to be that it’s about colonialism, but remains anti-colonialist. Mark Filipowich, at Big Tall Words, describes E:C like this:

With skill, luck and tact the player can avoid the absolute destruction of Mexico’s indigenous cultures; they can even create a situation that is inarguably better than Cortés’ legacy, but nonetheless the player must cause harm simply by being present where they don’t belong. The player must be an intervening force in a war they have no business in, they will be tempted to exploit natives to survive and there is a sense of accomplishment in colonial victories. Expeditions Conquistador posits that there is no action free from colonial influence: the oppressors may not “fix history.” They can only oppress to a lesser or a greater degree.

This, despite the player having the option to be a genocidal conqueror that owns slaves and travels with a party of racists. (Also, “racist” is an actual personality trait for party members; juxtaposed with “open-minded”). I do recall that even if you play as an “open-minded” Spaniard, you’re aware that the floodgates had been opened before your arrival; you’re only a drop in a wave of conquistadors King Carlos sends. Being “one of the good ones” will change nothing because you cannot be the white savior in this narrative. You can choose to be as nonviolent and non-interventionist as possible, but even that path inevitably dooms the indigenous people to their historical fates.

Yet, I don’t know how much more anti-colonialist it really is than DCA? You have no option to play as one of the Tainos, Totonacs, or Aztecs*. The story is ultimately about your adventures across Central America. Certain side quests felt ripped out of a Victorian adventure tale, when they could’ve pushed the anti-colonial narrative further.

Regardless of the game’s challenges—and exploring can feel like punishment as you struggle to fight starvation, disease, and mutiny—it’s still exciting in some ways. There’s a sense of achievement to leveling up, surviving encounters, winning battles, and accumulating wealth. The main story wants to be a warning against imperialism, but as even Filipowich notes, “The game offers its player substantial, uncomfortable power with only their personal ethics to keep it reined in. But the game does more than make colonialist behaviour justifiable, at times it makes it downright fun.” E:C, like DCA it seems, suffers from competing impulses. E:C goes further to remind the player that they’re part of the oppressive group, but it’s far from Spec Ops: The Line for the “Age of Discovery.”

So I don’t know that it truly escapes trappings of a power fantasy. The makers of E:C don’t seem as dense as the ones behind DCA. But neither developer seems able to escape the allure of imperialist fantasy altogether.

*Medieval II Total War, in the Total Kingdoms expansion, gives you the option to play as the Aztecs and defeat the Spanish, if you want to. Total War: the series devoted to military conquest arguably giving you a better opportunity to kick European imperialist ass than supposedly anti-colonist games do.


#19

Hello, I am the designer of this game.

We thought we would answer any questions about this controversy in an efford to clarify our position. We are hosting an AMA on reddit at the moment, you are welcome to ask us anything there:

Thank you.


#20

Folks that hang out on those subs: How much would I have to brace myself if I actually clicked through to /r/rpg, and/or how likely is it to be brigaded?


#22

Hey Carlos, I would like to at least thank you for being civil about our discussions here. The Waypoint community by design wades into uncomfortable territory to create dialogues and action. These conversations can be blunt, come from difficult places, and can appear harsh when the focus. Especially when these words need to be said. It’s refreshing to see the focus of a piece diplomatically offer their case in good faith without accusation.

At very least, ideas for future editions.