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Subject: Cafe International Xenophopic? rss

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Dan Mulcare
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Somerville
Massachusetts
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I read some comments of CI that claim that the theme is "pasted on." I disagree. As other comments reveal, it is too glaring to ignore.

Quite rightly, players on BGG have pointed out Café International’s problems around issues of race and gender. For instance, segregation seems to be promoted by the rule that doubles the score for tables occupied by those of the same nationality. Also, in the current world where nationality is not based on what one looks like, these pictures promote a notion of racial or ethnic identity that is very problematic (why are the Americans white Texans? Do the pictures of English, Germans, and French represent those who migrated into the country in the last century?).

Additionally, there is a potentially hetero-normative aspect here, where each table must have one man and one woman. The most obvious way to read this is that the men and women at the table are hitting on those of the opposite gender. I agree with these claims and when I obtained the material version of the game, I was also disturbed by some of the pictures. Some of them are quaint and humorous (if not anachronistic), while others are more stereotypical than I'd like (the depictions of buck-toothed slant-eyed Chinese seem particularly egregious).

However, I think that the game can also be read in a different light. Even with the rules that promote the separation of people by their native country, the reality is that most tables will be multinational. This is especially the case with the bar, where placement is not determined by the individual's place of origin. As such, the game can also be seen as promoting a more cosmopolitan ethos; even those who want to keep each nationality separate will not be able to achieve this goal. Much like our multicultural world, outside forces prevent this from happening. In the games I play, about half or more of the tables are occupied by individuals from different places in the world. In order to score, collect more cards, and prevent others from scoring double, strategy dictates that different nationalities should be placed together. Lastly, the cover art displays a multinational table; to me this displays a more multicultural ethos than has generally been acknowledged.

Initially, I read this game from the more positive perspective. Part of what drew me to Cafe International was the idea that players would create a cosmopolitan community. In the game we place a diverse bunch from various backgrounds into a public setting. Once you are done with the game, you see these individuals drinking and conversing with people from different points of origin. This may be cognitive dissonance on my part, where I am glossing over the game's potential promotion of social engineering, but because I quite like this game, I am willing to interpret the theme in a way that is closer to my politics.

dan m.
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Jason Sample
United States
Pelham
New York
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Bright, brilliant colors are to be seen everywhere, the stones and pigments undimmed by the passage of decades. The floor of the corridor is a colorful mosaic of stone, with a distinct, winding path of red tiles about 2' wide.
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I am working on a DIY version of this where there are no pictures of the people. Rather, I have replaced the pictures with the generic MAN/WOMAN bathroom symbols. I have retained the flags and the genders, so some of your concerns do not go away.

Peace,
Jason
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Dan Mulcare
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Jason,

You make good suggestions. For me, I think that the bathroom symbols may be too clinical. Perhaps it would be good to have different, less stereotypical pictures. This may not be possible, since it is difficult to reduce an entire nationality to two pictures (though I guess the man and woman images can be used to reflect diversity better than the initial game does). If this is done, my major concerns are addressed. The other issues around segregation and the like, while still present, can be placed into a more multicultural framework.

I'm wondering if I've played games with you on BSW. I have run into queequeg there. Being from the New Bedford area, I have an affinity for Moby Dick references. I'm also a big Red Sox fan, so I like your avatar.

take care,

dan m.
 
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Julian Simpson
Belgium
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Thank you for interesting review of the national element associated with Cafe International which prompted me to reflect on the subject and whether Cafe International could be judged to be xenophobic.

In my dictionary xenophobia is defined as a morbid dislike of foreigners. Certainly Cafe International could be accused of reinforcing national stereotypes but xenophobia - I don't see it.

I work in a multinational environment where English is the primary working language - lunch in the canteen is very much like Cafe International - lots of national tables with people sitting between tables as part of two groups. Why is this? - most people want to take a break from speaking English and talk in their own languages about their own national business. Nothing untoward here just a desire to relax as a member of a group within which you are fully comfortable. This seems perfectly reasonable to me and seems to reinforce the premise on which the game is based.

With regards to the national sterotyping I can see the arguments that some of the characterisations might be considered offensive, though I don't actually find them offensive myself. I see the characterisations as simply being a means to enable quick identification of the playing pieces. The simple fact is that Cafe International is not of itself generating sterotyping - it is benefitting from such racial/national sterotyping that already exists to make the game more playable.

Why are the Americans white Texans? Because a white Texan quite clearly comes from America as opposed to Italy or Germany or China. Some other representation may not have the immediate effect of identifying the character as being American. This in now way suggests (nor do I believe is intended to suggest) that all Americans are white Texans

Do the pictures of English, Germans, and French represent those who migrated into the country in the last century? No of course not. But if you tried to represent an Englishman by using for example an Asian or Afro-Caribbean character it would not be so obvious. (Note I am English and white, but have never worn a bowler hat in my life).

In my opinion there is a danger of making too much of the theme of Cafe International. One might object to the premise or the artwork on the grounds of personal taste but I do not believe there is anything malevolent or mischievous going on here. It's only a game - and a good one at that.
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Dan Mulcare
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Re: Cafe International Xenophobic?
Julian,

Thank you for your thoughtful response. One of the reasons I wrote this post was because I wanted to challenge many of the BBG comments that claim Café International is politically incorrect and/or xenophobic. I think the name shows its cosmopolitan intent, and the gameplay depicts people from different cultures mixing with each other. In addition, I like your explanation why people from particular nationalities sit together; rather than a promotion of segregation (which, coming from the US, I can see how people could read it this way), it can also represent the people's desire to preserve cultural distinctiveness while still directly engaging in a homogenizing world. As a fan of the game and someone who likes the multicultural aspect of it, I am quite willing to view Café International in the way that you portray.

That said, in terms of how nationalities are represented, it is interesting to me that when creating these characters, the countries are racialized in a particular way. I agree with you that many would imagine that US, English, French, German, and Italian citizens as white. They would think it odd if the European or American countries were represented by someone with a dark complexion and those from India, the vague “Central Africa,” and China, were shown as whites, Japanese, Korean, etc. However, this is exactly the problem. When nationality only as pictures of people from the dominant race, particularly when said countries have diverse populations, it reinforces dubious racial norms about who is really “American,” “French,” “Chinese” etc. After all, why would white Texans seem a logical fit for the representation of “American” but black New Yorkers, or Latino Californians not immediately come to mind?

On a side note, it is also interesting that the communist countries have clear political markings (I’m assuming this was designed after the Soviet Union collapsed) while the other countries have more cultural representations.

I should also say that, compared with the civilization building games that retrace Europe's colonization of the New World and Africa, Café International definitely promotes the notion of equality of other peoples -- rather than using them and their land for economic advancement/domination. I like these resource management games as well, and I when I play then, I put aside my political beliefs and say "after all, it's just a game and I should just have fun."

Let me finish by saying that I really like Café International and asked for it for Christmas because I enjoy it so much. However, I also think it is a good idea to discuss games' themes and critically evaluate what problematic legacies they channel. Again, because Café International presents nationhood, culture, and race in a complex (albeit not totally unproblematic way), I thought it was necessary to defend it against charges that it is simply xenophobic or deaf to issues of cultural acceptance. This, I think, is too crude a reading of a game that is quite cosmopolitan.

take care,

dan mulcare
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IrishFire Herself
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I'm with you on this one. I've just played for the first time, but the theme easily beats you over the head on the first play.

Domestically, I enjoy talking to international people and will seek the out. When I'm abroad, though, the opposite happens: I see someone from "home" and think omigoodness, another American! We then spend some time gabbing before moving on, even though I've never met them before. If I'd been abroad and away from other Americans for a long time, I may indeed seek them out for my lunch table.

I don't come from a hetero-normative background, but I appreciate a nice mix of genders from time to time, and my friends appreciate it even more.

The theme is a bit startling, but I don't find it completely off-putting. Then again, it's easy to see how someone would! I'm not even sure they'd be taking it "the wrong way," as I'm not sure my more generous interpretation is the correct one!
 
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Duchess of Erat
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Enschede
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mulcad01 wrote:
On a side note, it is also interesting that the communist countries have clear political markings (I’m assuming this was designed after the Soviet Union collapsed) while the other countries have more cultural representations.


1989, so before the SU collapsed.
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