From the Editor: the dangers of promoting land domination in boardgames

Games shouldn’t encourage the idea of exploration through colonialism

Colonialism is often normalised through popular board games. (Ben Stephenson/Flickr)

Colonialism has slithered its way into board games. It’s often masked with themes like exploration, domination, settling, and conquering.

Most of these games are themed around European historical events and are centred on conquering land while ignoring Indigenous peoples in the area. Since most game makers come from colonizing countries, they will learn about history from the perspective of those who held the most power in their country.

Being taught a one-sided view of history can be dangerous, as it can erase the experiences of people who were impacted by colonization. One example is how Canada tends to promote more British history education than Indigenous history or the country’s own colonial past.

Many board games are a perfect example of how a biased look at the history of colonialism can affect how we view the world.

The colonial ideology in board games is often brought by game makers who are predominantly white and were born in colonizing countries.

In 2018, Tanya Pobuda, a board game researcher from Ryerson University, found that out of the top 200 board games ranked by Board Game Geek, the majority of game creators were white males, compared to white females or BIPOC creators.

Some Eurogames have themes of exploration through colonialism, with players competing over resources and using more strategy than randomness. Some examples of Eurogames are Settlers of Catan and Puerto Rico, where characters take the “roles of colonial governors on the island of Puerto Rico,” reads the game description.

Risk isn’t considered a Eurogame, but it does have European history as its theme. The pieces included soldiers, soldiers on top of horses, and cannons. The gameboard featured a map of six continents divided into 42 territories and each continent contained four to 12 territories.

The game’s goal is global domination, so ultimately, when I played it with my family, we had to scatter our soldiers everywhere on the map until one of us had the most conquered land. By the end of the game, my red troops had covered Oceania, Africa, and Asia, and they were slowly making their way to North America when my family decided to retreat and give me the win.

I couldn’t enjoy my victory because the game was a reminder of the death and destruction that colonialism has played in the lives of people in Canada.

Risk isn’t the only game that turns colonization into entertainment. Okanagan: Valley of the Lakes is a board game whose predominantly white characters are tasked with taking resources from a land that isn’t their own. The game only shows the settlement side of history while ignoring the fact that Indigenous peoples occupied the ground before them.

“The Okanagan Valley, with its huge lakes and fertile meadows, awaits anyone willing to exploit it,” reads the game description.

Pobuda’s research found that out of the 100 ranked board games at BoardGameGeek, “white characters formed the significant majority at 83.7 percent, while representations of persons of color were 16.3 percent,” reads their article.

Settlers of Catan is another game that also makes Indigenous peoples invisible to the land. The game promotes the idea of settlers arriving on an “empty” territory that nobody owns, and the only living thing around it are white fluffy sheep.

When looking back at how some countries like Britain, Spain, and France colonized territories, it always came with war, death, and destruction. By ignoring those facts, the game portrays a peaceful look at settlement which wasn’t the case around many countries worldwide.

Pobuda’s research also identified the top 200 BGG game designers. “U.S. designers were represented at 40.5 percent, followed by designers from Germany at 21 percent, France at eight percent, Italy at four percent.”

In parallel, Risk was invented in 1957 by Albert Lamorisse, a French filmmaker. The creator of Okanagan: Valley of the Lakes is Emanuele Ornella, an Italian game designer and software engineer who released the game in 2017. Settlers of Catan came out in 1995 and was created by Klaus Teuber, a German dental technician.

I am not a big fan of cancel culture. I believe some people deserve a chance to redeem themselves. However, perhaps we can consider cancelling board games that idolize land domination, as they can encourage players to believe that colonialism was just a fun and consequence-free competition.