Thursday, April 15, 2010

King Philip's War Boardgame - Seriously? What the....?

Image from MultiManPublishing.

The year from 1675 to 1676 presented one of the darkest periods in New England, and American, history - a episode that set the precedent for European colonial conquest of North America in the coming centuries. After years of tenuous relations, sustained largely through the efforts of the Wampanoag Sachem, Massasoit, the Native Americans were running low on trade goods and the British colonies were growing more established and entrenched. Finally, Massasoit's son, Metacom (a.k.a. "King Philip"), saw the writing on the wall and decided to take a stand for his people against the expanding colonies. What ensued was an all-out war between a confederacy of Native American tribes, led by Metacom, against the New England colonists and their Native American allies, including the Pequot (who had been their enemies a generation before) and the Mohawks.

The Native Americans won some early victories, but they were surrounded and outnumbered. They were weakened by years of introduced European diseases. They were at a technological disadvantage. The war ended when the colonists, aided by sympathetic Native Americans, tracked Metacom to Assowamset Swamp, shot him. His body was drawn and quartered and beheaded. His head went on display in Plymouth.

The War remains in the popular conscious throughout New England. Markers call our attention to battles, such as the burning of Mendon, and various natural landmarks are named after Metacom, such as King Philip's Rock in Mendon and Lookout Rock in Uxbridge. Perhaps nothing has carried the conflict into our current moment so much as Mary Rowlandson's captivity narrative. That is, until now...

A Maryland company is set to release a board game called King Philip's War. Designed by a Maryland teacher, the two player game pits colonists against Native Americans in a battle game that appears to resemble Risk.

Some Native Americans are unhappy with the game, which they feel trivializes the conflict. It seems likely to me that Euro-American victor-consciousness will make the colonists the good guys and the Native Americans the villains to most players. There have been WWII games in which some players can opt to be German, but that doesn't level the moral/historical playing field; history is written by the winners and it's awfully hard for others to re-write it. The Native Americans who oppose the game are upset by this trivializing of a brutal colonial massacre, and also upset that they were not consulted in the game's creation. Some who are protesting the game are asking (I think rather magnanimously) that they be allowed to give their input in hopes of making it a valuable teaching tool. I don't believe that a game that is essentially whites vs Indians has any place in education or popular culture, but what do I know? Curt Schilling, the Red Sox pitcher who owns part of Multiman, thinks it's just fine. This AP article quotes him as saying,

"...historical events should not be whitewashed for fear of offending someone. King Philip's War helped forge early American identity, even if it "clearly exposed the horrible side of humans in some cases"
"If everyone intent on keeping historical events stopped at content that might seem offensive, we'd lose sight of the horrific mistakes this nation, the world and the human race are capable of, and that would be a horrific thing."

While these might be true statements about a book, or a film, or an exhibit, this doesn't extend to a board game.  There is something inherently trivial about games and Schilling's decision to ignore the genre clearly demonstrates either his ignorance about, or financial interest in, this situation. Historians have spent years trying to come to terms with the our colonial past and our conquest of native people. A major part of our identity, indeed, our nationhood, is unjustifiable; we stole our land by force from its legitimate owners because their military technology was less advanced. So, Schilling is saying the right things, just about the wrong subject. We do need to examine the darker parts of our history, but not by playing fun games based on bloody colonial conquest. In fact, it's pop culture trivializations of history, such as this game, that keep the true nature of history safely tucked behind a veil of years and that inoculates modern Americans against the stress, harm, and pain of having to critically examine who we are and where we came from.


Jennifer Lowe said...

Objects like these? Pretty much INVENTED for the use of "WTF."

Also, could I show this to my students as an example of the correct way to write an argument? :o)

Eric said...

It's not often that the morons get their hands on stuff from my era of study. Scholars spend years trying to illuminate the past and Curt Shilling comes along with an idiotic board game. Surreal.

Of course you're welcome to show this to students.

Sheikh Jahbooty said...

Curt Schilling made more money in one year of playing a game than we (in the comments of this post) combined will likely ever see, and you expect him to agree that, "There is something inherently trivial about games". That seems to me hopelessly naive. To him, there is nothing trivial about games. To him, games are worth paying him 14.5 million dollars in 2005.

Also, that's just not how most of the world sees games. Should I be afraid to read the rest of this blog because in another post you claim that Chunkey was not an important part of Mississippian culture and heritage? Will you claim that Go is not respected in Japan as highly as art?

King Philip's War might be a bad game. It might be short, or one sided, or offer no meaningful choices. Having not played the game I cannot say for certain if it is trivial or not. It might take a long time to play, and include include important moral choices. Even relatively simple games can include moral choices.


King Phillip's War might or might not include important historical contingencies. Is there a move that can cost the colonial player the Pequot alliance?

This might be a bad game, or it could be a very good and insightful game. But to say that it's bad because it's a game is a weak argument, and in some sense, a culturally imperialist argument.