The Legacy of Conquest and Empire in Colonialist Board Games
A striking analysis of popular board games' roots in imperialist reasoning—and why the future of play depends on reckoning with it.
Board games conjure up images of innocuously enriching entertainment: family game nights, childhood pastimes, cooperative board games centered around resource management and strategic play. Yet in Playing Oppression, Mary Flanagan and Mikael Jakobsson apply the incisive frameworks of postcolonial theory to a broad historical survey of board games to show how these seemingly benign entertainments reinforce the logic of imperialism.
Through this lens, the commercialized version of Snakes and Ladders takes shape as the British Empire's distortion of Gyan Chaupar (an Indian game of spiritual knowledge), and early twentieth-century “trading games” that fêted French colonialism are exposed for how they conveniently sanitized its brutality while also relying on crudely racist imagery. These games' most explicitly abhorrent features may no longer be visible, but their legacy still lingers in the contemporary Eurogame tendency to exalt (and incentivize) cycles of exploration, expansion, exploitation, and extermination.
An essential addition to any player's bookshelf, Playing Oppression deftly analyzes this insidious violence and proposes a path forward with board games that challenge colonialist thinking and embrace a much broader cultural imagination.
“A rigorous exploration of colonialist themes and mechanics in historical and modern board games that contains fascinating new exemplars, unflinching discussions of modern favorites, and a hopeful sighting of a way to go beyond insidious colonialist tropes in innovative designs.”
Tracy Fullerton, Director, USC Game Innovation Lab; Designer, Walden, a game
“Flanagan and Jakobsson amply demonstrate how and why the history of board games grew intertwined with the logics of colonialism; in ranging through examples from the curious to the well-known, they also provide a culturally-driven primer on both subjects.”
Naomi Clark, Associate Arts Professor, NYU Tisch School of the Arts; author of A Game Design Vocabulary
“Playing Oppression illuminates how colonization came to be reproduced in miniature on countless dining room tables and provides vital and innovative strategies for disentangling modern board games from the myth of empire.”
Jonathan McIntosh, creator of the Pop Culture Detective
“Playing Oppression is an indispensable book that can aid game designers and the board game industry in shifting course away from the nightmare of colonialist themes in games.”
The open access edition of this book was made possible by generous funding and support from MIT Press Direct to Open