Warning: I’m about to express an unpopular opinion.
French publisher Days of Wonder recently announced their decision to remove the Slave cards from all future printings of their 1001 Nights-inspired board game Five Tribes, replacing the offending cards with Fakirs. Let me make one thing clear from the outset: I’m not here to argue that Days of Wonder shouldn’t have made this change, that the Fakir swap somehow devalues the game, that it was in any way better with slaves. From a purely pecuniary perspective, the deluge of approbation they’ve received from the board game community proves that Days of Wonder made the right call. I do believe, however, that it was an ethically unnecessary decision, that the offense so many people felt, leading to this act of Bowdlerization (because that’s exactly what it is), was entirely unfounded.
And I’m pretty sure the publisher agrees with me. Here’s their original response to the controversy, a position they still stand by:
In the thematic world of the Arabian Nights tales, in which Five Tribes is set, slaves were a frequent part of the story telling, sometimes even as a central character. In modern times, even the mention of slavery causes very strong reactions, but glossing over the historical fact that there were slaves in Persia in the 10th century felt like we were ignoring the realities of the world that Five Tribes takes place in. Calling them servants would have been the safer and politically correct decision, but in that time and place, nearly all servants were slaves. We felt that we wanted to stay true to the historical theme of the game.
This agrees with my position on the issue, which boils down to this: the depiction of something detestable in any medium does not equate to the approval, tacit or blatant, of that thing. Our society learned this lesson decades ago when it comes to literature, although there will always be extremists claiming that J.K. Rowling’s depiction of young people engaging in (an fabulous and allegorical form of) “witchcraft” is immoral and should be banned, or that the n-word has no place in Huck Finn. (In response to both these examples, I hope I don’t need to explain that reading about something, whether it’s fortunetelling or enculturated racism, is not the same thing as doing it.) Most people who actually read for pleasure or edification recognize that Nabokov does not condone pedophilia in Lolita any more than Bret Easton Ellis condones violence against women, men, animals, etc. in…well, anything he’s written, really.
As a culture, however, we seem reticent to apply this line of thinking to other media, or at least we have a sliding scale of tolerance for offensive material that depends on the “seriousness” of the medium in question. Obscenity in art is generally considered okay as long as it’s readily recognizable as such, as long as one can make out the brushstrokes or feel the chisel-marks on the marble. Depiction of the detestable in photographic or visual art marks a line many people are unwilling to cross, and its depiction in live performance alienates an even larger portion of the general public. I should emphasize that I’m talking about everybody here, not just those in the “art world.” The same applies to the movies: most scholars recognize that film is capable of dealing with complex or controversial subjects, but “movies”–the distinction seems to come down to genre and tone–don’t automatically get a free pass. Television, perhaps because of the tonal whiplash created by commercial breaks or the fact that “children could be watching,” is the most prone to censorship of the video arts.
(We also have an almost arbitrary, subtly oppressive way of defining what’s “okay” and what’s “offensive,” as seen in the precedent-setting MPAA rating system, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.)
As far as we’ve come with books and the visual arts, any games that attempt to tackle tricky subjects still meet with a lot of unwarranted criticism and attempts at sanitization, primarily from people who have not and will never actually play those games. Rule of Rose, a surreal horror game for the PlayStation 2 that just about qualifies as a work of art, suffered from a worldwide censorship campaign in response to the game’s “erotic undertones involving a cast of female minors.” The campaign, which included Sony’s refusal to publish the game in the USA (it was later picked up by Atlas), a UK ban, and physical violence among European commissioners, often hinged on scenes that weren’t actually to be found anywhere within the game–everything from BDSM to watersports to (*gasp*) homosexuality, with outraged officials describing the goal of the game variously as “[to] rape, beat up and kill a little girl” or “to bury children alive.” For the curious, here’s a supercut of all video cutscenes in the game.
Cries for censorship, in all media, spring up most often around works of satire, suggesting that the most easily offended people tend to have difficulty separating content from tone or intent. We need look no further than the much-maligned Grand Theft Auto series. Grand Theft Auto IV, behind its Tarantino-esque characters and cell phone car bombs, is a caustic deflation of the monomyth of the American Dream. Niko Bellic, an Eastern European war veteran, arrives in “Liberty City” (the GTA universe’s New York) with only one goal: to escape the cycle of violence and corruption that has defined his life up to that point. Returning from a traumatic war to a crippled economy, he has lived a life of crime and violence defined by necessity–in many ways, he never left the war. When he gets to America, though, he finds himself stuck in the same old rut. He eventually acquires a mansion, a private helicopter, and all the other signifiers of success in America–this is Grand Theft Auto, after all–but he ends the storyline a broken man, no matter which path to victory the player takes, having committed atrocities that irrevocably change his life and the lives of those around him.
And yet, to everybody but the relatively small chunk of the population who actually bothered to play it, GTA IV was “that game where you get drunk and run over hookers,” subject of repeated attempts by parent and religious groups to get it banned from store shelves.
In both of the above cases, however, I think that the gaming public generally recognized and supported these games’ attempts to convey themes that are not comforting or easy to digest. So why the furor over one picture of a man in chains in Five Tribes?
Part of it, undoubtedly, is a question of demographics. While both groups are becoming increasingly heterogeneous, I think most people would agree that video gamers generally skew younger and further to the political left than those who play tabletop games. Tom Vasel, by many degrees the most prominent reviewer in the board game industry and a fairly accurate representation of the target market for most hobby games, is a 39-year-old youth pastor and father of six. A video game equivalent might be Adam Sessler, who’s actually a couple of years older than Vasel, although his heyday has arguably passed–in the early 2000s, when he was the king of video game media, Sessler was in his late 20s/early 30s and, with his too-large shirts and unruly hair, radiated a certain boyishness that made him appear even younger.
I believe that there is also a certain element of reactionary posturing, or outrage by proxy, responsible for this particular controversy. Another way to say this is that the choice to become offended, in this case, comes from a place of privilege. By my completely non-scientific, anecdotal measurements, the vast majority of those complaining have no personal or family history of bondage. Their offense is on others’ behalf. “I would feel very uncomfortable playing this game with a black person,” they say. Very likely, these are the same people who wanted Nigger Jim taken out of Twain.
I’m reminded of another controversy in the tabletop realm, albeit a much more localized one. Video reviewer Richard Ham, in his coverage of the Italian game Carnival Zombie, argued briefly but ardently against the publisher’s decision to name one of the six playable characters in this Venetian horror game “Lady Columbine” (the other five being Captain Terror, Hellequin, Brighell, Pantalion, and Doc Pestilence, all plays on commedia dell’arte stock characters). Many viewers called him out on this ex nihilo moral outrage, while others came to his defense, but the implication that the publishers were somehow being irresponsible or tasteless by putting a gun into the hands of a character who just happened to share a name with “one of the worst schoolyard shootings in American history” seems to resonate with the tenor of the present debate. The subtext being: “How dare you make me think of something unpleasant that occurred in the past but did not affect me directly while I am attempting to derive amusement from your product!”
The most well-considered argument I’ve seen against the slaves in Five Tribes brings up the concept of tone and, again, reverence. Five Tribes is a generally colorful, almost cartoonish depiction of an ancient, mythical Persia. It’s also mostly abstract–you’ll sow colorful pieces around the board in Mancala-esque gestures, summon djinn, claim tiles for points by placing pastel-colored camels on them, and increase the point yield of your oases by plopping date palms down onto them. One of the abstracted actions you can perform involves buying merchandise of variable rarity from the marketplace, with the rather arbitrary goal of collecting one of everything–each set of non-matching resources pays off exponentially based on its size. Alongside the fish, silk and ivory, you’ll find the Slave cards. Slaves are not considered merchandise in the context of scoring points–instead, they are discarded to enhance certain actions, such as building monuments or invoking djinn. No more or less abstract than the rest of the game, they represent an anonymous and expendable workforce. However, they are purchased from the market in the same way and for the same price as, say, a bag of spices.
Some argue that the issue isn’t the mere depiction of slavery, it is the inclusion of this element in the context of an otherwise whimsical, lighthearted game. Now, this isn’t a minstrel show–the slaves are depicted with silent dignity, head down and arms crossed as if in prayer. (If you’re looking for minstrelsy, you’ll find a lot more of it in the new Fakirs, who are depicted in the most stereotypical way possible, as turban-sporting half-naked snake charmers chilling Indian style on a bed of spikes.) Five Tribes certainly isn’t making light of slavery, but it isn’t moralizing on it, either, in the way that something like Freedom: The Underground Railroad does. It’s not really saying anything on the issue–the slaves are simply part of the exotic window dressing of a lavish but arbitrary theme. And that, for some people, is irresponsible.
I take exception to this implication that we can’t discuss slavery, or any other serious topic, without a lot of finger-wagging and pontificating on how reprehensible it is. In fact, to depict slavery this candidly is making a statement. Board games in the European tradition–almost all of them produced by former colonial powers–have tended to gloss over this unpleasant reality when the historical setting clearly dictates it should be present. For example, the German game Puerto Rico involves building and running plantations in the former Spanish colony. Your plantations only produce if you have “colonists” in place to work them, with no mention whatsoever of who’s performing the actual physical labor (indigenous inhabitants at first, then imported slaves from Africa). The Settlers of Catan makes no mention of the native people the eponymous settlers must surely have displaced.
Five Tribes doesn’t lecture on the evils of slavery, but perhaps its matter-of-fact presentation conveys a deeper message. This colorful culture in which we want to play, with its lavish palaces and onion domes, its wealth of spices and jewels, was made possible by the thankless labor of people bought and sold as commodities. You can’t have one without the other; you can’t have the grandeur without the ugliness of human suffering. We all know that this is evil and wrong, but it happened, and continues to happen, and sometimes, nobody says anything. When it’s happening all around you, and your personal livelihood depends on it, it’s a lot harder to step back and say, “This is a Bad Thing.” Life does not always come with a tidy moral lesson at the end, like Aesop’s Fables. Sometimes, you have to extrapolate it on your own. But just because something challenges your righteously clearcut system of morality doesn’t give you the right to ignore it.
To treat these people as invisible, to whitewash them into some cartoonist’s vision of a holy man, to pretend that we can live in some magical utopia where unfairness and suffering don’t exist…well, isn’t that irresponsible?
*Feature image for this article based on a photo taken by Allen Cordell on BoardGameGeek.