Patrick Rael(prael)United States
Maine"We see our role as essentially defensive in nature...."
I recently had the pleasure of playtesting Eagle-Gryphon Games’ Deluxe Edition of Martin Wallace’s Struggle of Empires. As you can see from EGG’s BGG journal, it promises to give new life to a game that never achieved the legendary status some say it deserves. I myself have had the 2004 edition on the table at least half a dozen times without ever even playing it. The Deluxe Edition’s vastly improved rulebook, beautiful graphic design, cleaner systems, and interesting variants combined to make my first actual play of the game a complete redemption. I can’t wait to see how this is received.
But I’m not sure that, were it made today rather than in 2004, Struggle of Empires would look the same. It’s not so very old — only fifteen years. But a lot has happened in that time. As the modern boardgame revolution spreads to new communities of gamers, so too have concerns about the ideological work done by the games we play. As both a historian of slavery and a boardgame enthusiast, I’m particularly interested in how historically-themed games can reinforce pernicious mythologies around the history of European expansion, colonization, and exploitation. It’s well appreciated now that, in posing themes of colonization as family-friendly alternatives to wargames, Eurogames such as Puerto Rico also effectively, and with no malevolent intent, erased histories of decimation and enslavement.
The fifteen years between the original Struggle of Empires and the new edition has witnessed some charged moments on this front. We’ve seen the Slave card in Days of Wonder’s Five Tribes, a spate of new games that allow players to fight against rather than use slavery (e.g., Freedom: The Underground Railroad and Pax Emancipation), and GMT’s withdrawal of Scramble for Africa. Furthermore, these conversations are taking place in a political climate in which old norms constraining racial and ethnic intolerance have been loosened, shaken free by a wave of racial nationalism across the developed world that threatens the very existence of democracy. After more than a half-century of limited gains for marginalized social groups, the forces of reaction are counter-striking, hard. People are on high alert for attacks against them made solely on the basis of accidents of color and birth. Popular culture is a battleground.
To publish a new edition of Struggle of Empires thus invites some interesting questions. Given growing awareness of sensitive issues in historically-themed boardgames, how should the presence of slavery in the game be treated? Before considering that, let’s seek to understand the presence of slavery in the original game, and where that fits amidst the competition.I
In Struggle of Empires, slavery constitutes a small portion of a sweeping game. Its historical setting – the clash of global European empires in the eighteenth-century – seems to demand the inclusion of slavery. After all, every major colonial experiment in the western hemisphere included the practice, and the most valuable colonies in the eighteenth-century world were the sugar colonies of St. Domingue (France) and Jamaica (Great Britain). The slave trade stood at the center of Atlantic commerce, and worldwide networks expanded the trade in human flesh to the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Africa lost 13 million people to the slave trade. Before the American Revolution, more people came to the shores of colonial America from that continent than from Europe. And where the slave population reproduced itself naturally, as in the British colonies that became the United States, millions more were consigned to status of chattels in the land of their birth – movable property with no individual rights, not even those of self-defense and reproduction. Owners and managers stole slaves’ forced labor, worked them to death, raped and mutilated them with impunity, sought to eradicate their cultural heritage, and denied them stable families and communities. In the United States, which was birthed in a violent revolution justified by transcendent principles of natural liberty, slavery became not just an inhumane institution, but one at war with the most sacred principles of civic life.
The original Struggle of Empires dealt with slavery by building it into the game as a possibility rather than a necessity. In the game, slave tokens serve as one type of ‘Country’ token. These are scattered across the regions that are up for grabs. Players want to collect them in order to place their Control tokens, which help them raise money, control spaces, and ultimately gain victory points. Placing Control tokens might cost you a valuable population, as settlers leave your shores to occupy the colonies, or it might take fighting the indigenous forces there (this is the only way native people are represented in the game).
Slaves are a different kind of Country token, which you need neither fight nor lose population to claim; you simply replace the slave marker with a control marker. They appear exclusively in the Caribbean, South America, and North America – the main historical destinations of the Atlantic slave trade. One needs a naval fleet off the coast of Africa in order to collect these, but that’s a pretty cheap price of entry for a useful action.
If anything, though, slavery’s significance seems underrepresented in the game. In the United States on the eve of the Civil War, slaves constituted the single largest category of property ($3.1-$3.6B), far outpacing the value of southern farmland ($2.5B). Over a quarter of white incomes in the slaveholding South depended on slavery. And far from displacing slavery, nascent industrialization relied upon it. Half of the value of U.S. exports in 1860 owed to slave-grown cotton, which supplied 70 percent of the cotton used in the British textile industry. Does Struggle of Empire reflect this history?
In my maiden outing I set out to see how the hard game would let me ‘play slavery’. My plan was to, at whatever cost, seek to exploit this aspect of the game to test its viability as a central strategy. I failed utterly, and not only because of my own ineptitude. Experienced players around me explained that the starting draw of Country counters made this difficult. But that alone demonstrates that a slavery strategy is not always viable. At best it seems like a slightly different opportunity for players to explore, and one not always available. When Population tokens appear on the board, players generally scramble for them; when Slave tokens appear on the board, players with fleets off Africa generally scramble for them. Other than their different costs, there’s little functional difference between the two. I’m just learning the game, but I found it hard to imagine slavery playing a central component of consistently successful strategies. Like other area control games, Struggle of Empires instead rewards players for diversifying their claims, and defending them most efficiently. This doesn’t leave a lot of room for concentrating on any one strategy. Nor does it do much to comment on the morality of slavery and its role in the process of colonization.
Contrast this approach with that of Colonial: Europe’s Empires Overseas, another game set in the age of European expansion and colonization. Slavery in this game lures players into seeking short-term benefits with long-term costs. Among the easiest resources to control early in the game, trafficking in slaves can give players an early jump on the competition. This benefit is obviated, though, once the first player advances their economy to its highest level. For a large-scale, low-resolution simulation of colonization, this effectively replicates the broad contours of history, in which industrialization largely obviated slavery. In the game, the penalty matches the crime: if you trade slaves after the rest of the world has moved past it, you suffer a diplomatic loss, making it easier for others to attack you and harder for you to attack them.
This principle is extended in Endeavor, a game published five years after Struggle of Empires, which also received a recent update (Endeavor: Age of Sail). In this game, Asset Cards represent the riches that can be gained through empire. Slavery Asset Cards offer players, as in Colonial, early advantages. But, as in Colonial, successfully growing the economy leads to the destruction of slavery, and resource penalties for those who practiced it. The rules explain:Quote:Thee value “5” card in the Europe & the Mediterranean deck is special; it features a label that announces the Abolition Of Slavery. ¬The first time this card is drawn by any player, all players must immediately set aside all Slavery cards they hold, reducing their Status Track scores as appropriate to reflect the lost icons. ¬The set-aside Slavery cards are turned face down and kept near the player’s Player Board as a reminder that the player will lose 1 Glory per card at the end of the game for resorting to Slavery.In other words, playing slavery may give you a head start, as it did for the Portuguese and Spanish in history, but eventually industrialization will negate the benefits of practicing slavery, and even turn them into liabilities.
All three of these games effectively relegate slavery to a marginal position in history, as if they want to acknowledge the institution but not concentrate on it. In them, slavery emerges as a historical element necessary to address, but one that could have been eliminated without fundamentally disturbing the design. This ‘oblique’ approach acknowledges slavery without letting it take over the game. Of the three, Struggle of Empires offers the least nuanced representation of slavery, but it is also the oldest design. Slavery is the most incidental in the game, and the game does less than the others to punish players for practicing slavery. As the earliest of these designs, Struggle of Empires may have inspired the later ones. If so, we may be seeing the evolution of Atlantic slavery as an ever more meaningful component of the explore/expand/exploit games that have become so familiar.
At the least, we can begin to outline the range of ways designers think of the problem slavery presents to these games. On the one hand is the approach of Glenn Drover, designer of Age of Empires III: The Age of Discovery:Quote:The Atlantic Trade Slave Trade [sic] was one of the most horrific events in human history and just too politically sensitive to depict in any overt manner in a commercial product. Even though it certainly deserves to be discussed and remembered accurately, I felt that there was too much risk that the perception could be that the topic was being trivialized by having it in a game, or that the game rewarded players for utilizing slavery.This approach maximally ‘distances’ (to use game designer Tom Russell’s formulation) the player from the experience of slavery, for the game does not depict it at all. Moving toward the other end of the spectrum are games that increasingly confront players with the historical reality of slavery, like Colonial, Endeavor, and Struggle of Empires. When games want players to become really intimate with slavery, though, it becomes necessary to change the player’s point of view, so the sympathies remain clear. A game asking players to become managers of plantation slaves is pretty much Juden Raus, the Nazi-era game in which players are challenged to expel Jews from Germany. Games that place slavery front and center – such as Freedom: The Underground Railroad and Pax Emancipation – ask players to battle slavery rather than practice it. The closer you ask players to get to the subject, the greater the concern about what you ask them to do. This is a general principle. Those who play the classic SimCity poorly have doubtlessly killed more imaginary people than have the characters in the notoriously violent Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas; what matters is how intimately designers ask players to experience such actions.
Thus the challenge takes shape. On one end of the spectrum is Drover’s concern that incorporating slavery obliquely, as the three games considered here do, ‘trivializes’ the issue; better to simply omit it. This is a perspective that accounts for the concerns of players who might have serious moral qualms about practicing slavery even in a game. But it invites charges of ‘whitewashing’ history by neglecting to represent a historically critical, if morally repugnant, institution. On the other end are games that feature slavery centrally. These negate the concern with whitewashing, but risk making players complicit with slavery by asking them to practice it, if only ludically. The fuller and more detailed the simulation, the more morally complicit the game asks players to become. The solution for designers wishing to explore slavery has been to switch the perspective of the player. Games that treat slavery centrally do not ask players to practice slavery, they ask them to destroy it. The principle seems pretty clear: the more intimate players become with morally questionable behaviors, the more important it is for the game to distance players from the practice of morally questionable behaviors.II
Where does the Struggle of Empires re-issue stand against this context? Ralph H. Anderson at Eagle-Gryphon Games has approached the project as a clean-up rather than a re-do. Struggle of Empire’s original rulebook, which has been a notorious roadblock to broader enjoyment of the game, will be improved. Some wonky elements of the original, like adjacency in Europe, will be streamlined. Variants will permit players to enjoy the original game or tinker with new possibilities.
Anderson has also re-considered the representation of slavery in the game. On the first substantive page of the rulebook will now appear this statement:Quote:The era depicted in Struggle of Empires was one in which the barbarous transatlantic slave trade was prominent - centered on what became known as the Gold Coast in western Africa. It has been called one of the greatest tragedies in the history of humanity in terms of scale and duration and is often regarded as the first known instance of globalization. In the game, this is referred to as Gold Coast Commerce.No reader will ever be able to claim that the game condones what it asks players to do.
I can imagine some quibbles with this. The Gold Coast was but one of many slave-trading regions in Africa, which historians estimate supplied over 1.2 million Africans for the trade. In contrast, the bulk of the trade came from West Central Africa (now roughly the regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola), which delivered nearly 6 million. (Readers can find authoritative maps and statistics from the Slave Voyages website.) Perhaps ‘Africa Trade’ would suffice. But as the game is already a highly abstracted, low-resolution simulation, this may be picking nits.
Figure 2: The most authoritative work on the slave trade identifies the centers from which Africans were brought to the Americas. www.slavevoyages.org
More significantly, the change in nomenclature mutes the presence of slavery in the game, making it less clear that taking certain Country tokens mean practicing slavery. In effect, the re-design will push the game toward the Drover end of the spectrum, in which slavery is largely elided, and away from a more slavery-specific approach. The new disclaimer may help offset concerns that a diminished depiction of slavery trivializes the issue. There will be as many thoughts on this solution as there are people who play the game, but I view the choice as defensible. As Wallace designed slavery into the game obliquely, reconsidering its place would require a thorough deconstruction and redesign, a move that would make the game something else.
This is also the path taken with Endeavor: Age of Sail, the 2018 update of the original that retains a system for handling slavery. Burnt Island Games’s Helaina Cappel explains that the company felt it could not ethically ignore the role of slavery in the history the game depicts, a move that would have undermined the game’s ”historical significance as an educational piece, and an opportunity for conversation and learning.” That seems to be a solid motive. It is buttressed by the game’s design, which in penalizing players for practicing slavery permits possibilities for reflection that Struggle of Empires, which lacks a slavery-punishment mechanic, may lack. Cappel reflects:Quote:The game sometimes creates situations where players might find themselves in an armed struggle trying to defend their own investment in slavery, or wipe it off the board to ruin other players who have leaned on it heavily. We have noticed that a lot of players hesitate or refuse to use slavery in the game, even if it would provide them with a gameplay advantage. This is interesting. We don't see this happen a lot in board games, and it has sparked many conversations around our table about how that feels.For a game that includes slavery but it not about slavery, one could do far worse.III
How should slavery appear in games about the history of expansion and colonization? Certainly the game’s designers, developers, and owners should get a large say, and deserve some latitude in how they wish to incorporate slavery into the game. One of my graduate school professors used to say, “in the study of history, there is rarely a single correct interpretation, only a series of more or less defensible ones.” Similarly, there are lots of arguments games can make about sensitive historical topics, and considerable room for viable interpretations. We don’t all have to agree on how a game approaches slavery to accept that it has made a good-faith effort to address its reality – whether by explaining its absence in a design, or by explaining how and why it is present. There’s no way to inoculate a game from criticism, but an appreciation of the multiple ways games can simulate history seems like generosity most gamers are willing to bring to the table – at least until there’s a reason to begin otherwise. We can debate finer points for and against each position, but all emerge from the good intentions of people willing to listen and try. That means much.
Still, creators are accountable for their choices. It won’t do for Juden Raus’s defenders to say “well that’s just what the game’s about,” for the game was designed to celebrate a moral atrocity. But obviously the intent of games such as Colonial, Endeavor, or Struggle of Empires is not to celebrate the moral atrocity of slavery, but to acknowledge its role in the larger phenomena they simulate. Even the painless slavery Wallace offers is clearly not meant to endorse the institution’s role in history – a point Anderson is now amplifying.
Nonetheless, the trend toward a more accurate portrayal of the past is gaining steam. Even if the slavery problem in games is ever solved, new scrutiny is being trained on the broader histories surrounding slavery. As the controversy over Scramble for Africa shows, thoughtful gamers are reconsidering the mythological narratives embedded in the histories of colonialism they encounter. Games have done a great job of putting players in the position of the European potentates who conquer the globe; they’ve done a generally poor job of depicting the atrocities entailed in that process, as well as the agency of the indigenous and subjugated people who resisted them.
It’s doubtful that Struggle of Empires would be made the same way today as it was in 2004, and that’s a good thing. At the same time, I’m delighted that we have new opportunities to play an excellent game that asks us to question the role of slavery in the making of the modern world. My personal take is that there is room in the hobby to play with slavery in a range of ways. So long as we bring our full critical capacities to bear, we can have games that offer players a choice to practice it abstractly, incidentally, and at low resolution, just as we can have games that offer players a chance to destroy it. There is danger in ‘playing slavery’, but to me, that is kind of the point of critical play: to offer low-stakes (but not no-stakes) spaces to explore interesting and difficult issues. I do not imagine that I am endorsing what I do in games, but I do value games’ ability to let me consider what it might be like to do them.
Obviously, there are limits to this, and just as obviously we do not all agree on exactly where the boundaries lie. There may be times when games transgress our personal thresholds of acceptability, and we feel the need to take a strong stand. That’s the lesson taught by the Scramble for Africa controversy. Our jobs as thoughtful consumers of these objects of cultural representation is to bring to bear not just our values, but our reasoning as well. In other words, make your case – with passion, for sure, but also with evidence and reason. “Arguments are to be avoided,” quipped Oscar Wilde, for “they are always vulgar and often convincing.” But given the rapidly declining state of public discourse today, I’ll side with that kind of vulgarity every time.
Thanks to Ralph H. Anderson for the playtest and corrections, and to Michael Nerdahl for notes and corrections.
In terms of historical representation, the game much more effectively captures the significance of the system of European diplomatic alliances than it does speak to slavery as a historical issue. Like Colonial, the game abstracts much of the history, but for such a low-resolution simulation, it scores one supremely impressive hit. This is the alliance system, in which the familiar Martin Wallace turn order auction also determines which players can attack each other. It can feel secure to know that a powerful military cannot be used against you. For the powerful player, quickly flipping alliances can allow you eject weak allies from valuable regions and distance yourself from them in the standings.
This makes complete historical sense to me. Once Europe recovered from the Thirty Year’s War, the Peace of Westphalia, which ended that conflict in 1648, marked the founding of the modern system of nation-states. These quickly fell back into conflict, often dividing into two broad alliances – usually anchored in the rivalries between England and France, and Prussia and Austria. A Grand Alliance between England, the Dutch Republic, and Austria helped fend off the ambitions of France’s Louis XIV in 1689. Shortly after, the War of Spanish Succession paired off the same foes, this time their conflicts spilling into the colonial world. Sometimes, as with the Seven Years’ War, when Great Britain allied with Austria’s enemy Prussia, the alliances shifted. That pattern repeated until the Treaty of Paris in 1763, which set the stage for the American Revolution. Indeed, British historians have long understood the Revolution not as a solely American event, but as effectively the next war in a long succession of European great power conflicts; after all, it was French and Spanish aid that secured victory for the new United States. Everyone who has played Struggle of Empires will recognize in it something of this history. For me, this is what elevates this into the top tier of Wallace games.
FOR FURTHER READING
Cornel Borit, Melania Borit, and Petter Olsen, “Representations of Colonialism in Three Popular, Modern Board Games: Puerto Rico, Struggle of Empires, and Archipelago,” Postcolonial Perspectives in Game Studies (10 April 2018), online.
Jeremy Sam Desatoff,”How Board Games Handle Slavery,” Vice (14 March 2017), online.
Bruno Faidutti, “Postcolonial Catan,” Boardgame Design by Bruno Faidutti (6 February 2017), online.
Matthew Kapell, “Civilization and its Discontents: American Monomythic Structure as Historical Simulacrum,” Popular Culture Review 13, no. 2 (Summer 2002): 129-35.
Will Robinson, “Orientalism and Abstraction in Eurogames,” Analog Game Studies, Aaron Trammell, Evan Torner, and Emma Leigh Waldron, eds. (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon ETC Press, 2016): 55-63, online.
Jeremy Signor, “Fuck Colonialism,” Unwinnable (16 November 2017), online.
Struggle of EmpiresColonial: Europe's Empires OverseasEndeavorEndeavor: Age of Sail
This is my spot for sharing tentative reflections on games, often in relation to their relationship to History and popular culture. You can find a Table of Contents here: http://www.bowdoin.edu/~prael/Ludica-ToC.htm
- [+] Dice rolls
Around discussions of Pax Emancipation there have been requests for further reading. Here's a bibliography of work on this topic. I'm happy to field any questions or comments. If you have additions, please let me know. I will be appending this bibliography to an updated version of my longform essay on the game. Many thanks to my research assistant, Ben Bousquet, for helping me compile this.
• Anstey, Roger. The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition, 1760-1810. Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1975.
• Anstey, Roger. Britain and the Congo in the Nineteenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962.
• Anstey, Roger. “Capitalism and Slavery: A Critique.” The Economic History Review, New Series, vol. 1, no. 2 (August 1968): 307-320.
• Anstey, Roger. Liverpool, the African Slave Trade, and Abolition: Essays to Illustrate Current Knowledge and Research. Liverpool: Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, 1976.
• Anstey, Roger. “A Re-Interpretation of the Abolition of the British Slave Trade, 1806-1807.” The English Historical Review 87, no. 343 (April 1972): 304-332.
• Anstey, Roger, da Costa, Emilia, and Davis, David Brion. “The Slave Trade of the Continental Powers, 1760-1810.” In The Economic History Review, New Series, vol. 30, no .2 (May 1977): 259-268.
• Anstey, Roger. “Slavery and the Protestant Ethic [with Commentary].”Historical Reflections 6, no. 1 (Summer 1979): 157-181.
• Beachey, R. W. A Collection of Documents on the Slave Trade of Eastern Africa. London: Collings, 1976.
• Beachey, R. W. A History of East Africa, 1592-1902. London; New York: I. B. Tauris, 1996.
• Beachey, R. W. The Slave Trade of Eastern Africa. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1976.
• Beckles, Hilary. Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Slavery and Native Genocide. Kingston: University of West Indies Press, 2013.
• Beckles, Hilary. The First Black Slave Society: Britain’s “Barbarity Time” in Barbados, 1636-1876. Kingston: University of West Indies Press, 2016.
• Beckles, Hilary. “Kalinago (Carib) Resistance to European Colonisation of the Caribbean.” Caribbean Quarterly 54, no. 4 (December 2018): 77-94.
• Beckles, Hilary. “Running in Jamaica: A Slavery Ecosystem.” The William and Mary Quarterly 76, no. 1 (January 2019): 9-14.
• Beckles, Hilary. White Servitude and Black Slavery in Barbados, 1627-1715. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989.
• Berlin, Ira. “American Slavery in History and Memory and the Search for Social Justice.” The Journal of American History 90, no. 4 (March 2004): 1251-1268.
• Berlin, Ira. “Before Cotton: African and African American Slavery in Mainland North America during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.” In Passages of Freedom, edited by David W. Blight, 13-32. Washington: Smithsonian Books, 2004.
• Berlin, Ira. Free at Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom, and the Civil War. New York: The New Press, 1992.
• Berlin, Ira. Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.
• Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.
• Berlin, Ira. “Natives and Immigrants, Free Men and Slaves: Urban Workingmen in the Antebellum American South.” The American Historical Review 88, no. 5 (December 1983): 1175-1200.
• Berlin, Ira. Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South. New York: Pantheon Books, 1975.
• Berlin, Ira. “The Terrain of Freedom: The Struggle over the Meaning of Free Labor in the U.S. South.” History Workshop no. 22, Special American Issue (Autumn 1986): 108-130.
• Blackburn, Robin. The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation, and Human Rights. London, New York: Verso, 2011.
• Blackburn, Robin. “Emancipation & Empire, from Cromwell to Karl Rove.” Daedalus 134, no. 2 (Spring 2005): 72-87.
• Blackburn, Robin. “Haiti, Slavery, and the Age of the Democratic Revolution.” The William and Mary Quarterly Third Series vol. 63, no. 4 (October 2006): 643-674.
• Blackburn, Robin. The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800. London, New York: Verso, 1997.
• Blackburn, Robin. “The Old World Background to European Colonial Slavery.” The William and Mary Quarterly 54, no. 1 (January 1997): 65-102.
• Blackburn, Robin. The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848. London, New York: Verso, 1988.
• Blackett, Richard J. M. Building an Antislavery Wall: Black Americans in the Atlantic Abolitionist Movement, 1830-1860. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983.
• Blackett, Richard J. M. Divided Hearts: Britain and the American Civil War. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001.
• Blackett, Richard J. M. “ ‘Freemen to the Rescue!’: Resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.” In Passages of Freedom, edited by David W. Blight, 13-32. Washington: Smithsonian Books, 2004.
• Blackett, Richard J. M. “Lincoln and Colonization.” OAH Magazine of History 24, no. 4 (October 2004): 19-22.
• Blackett, Richard J. M. Making Freedom: The Underground Railroad and the Politics of Slavery. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013.
• Blackett, Richard. “Martin R. Delany and Robert Campbell: Black Americans in Search of an African Colony.” The Journal of Negro History 62, No. 1 (January 1977): 1-25.
• Blackett, Richard J. M. “Montgomery Bell, William Kennedy, and Middle Tennesse and Liberian Colonization.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 69, no. 4 (Winter 2010): 292-319.
• Brewer, Holly. “Entailing Aristocracy in Colonial Virginia: ‘Ancient Feudal Restratints’ and Revolutionary Reform.” The William and Mary Quarterly 54, no. 2 (April 1997): 307-346.
• Brown, Christopher Leslie. Arming Slaves: From Classical Times to the Modern Age. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.
• Brown, Christopher Leslie. Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism. Chapel Hill: Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, by the University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
• Camp, Stephanie. Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
• Camp, Stephanie, and Baptist, Edward E., ed. New Studies in the History of American Slavery. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006.
• Camp, Stephanie. “The Pleasures of Resistance: Enslaved Women and Body Politics in the Plantation South, 1830-1861.” The Journal of Southern History 68, no. 3 (August 2002): 533-572.
• Conrad, Robert Edgar. Children of God’s Fire: A Documentary History of Black Slaves in Brazil. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.
• Conrad, Robert. “The Contraband Slave Trade to Brazil, 1831-1845.” The Hispanic American Historical Review 49, no. 4 (November 1969): 617-638.
• Conrad, Robert Edgar. The Destruction of Brazilian Slavery, 1850-1888. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.
• Conrad, Robert Edgar. In the Hands of Strangers: Readings on Foreign and Domestic Slave Trading and the Crisis of the Union. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001.
• Conrad, Robert. “Neither Slave nor Free: The Emancipados of Brazil, 1818-1868.” The Hispanic American Historical Review 53, no. 1 (February 1973): 50-70.
• Conrad, Robert Edgar. World of Sorrow: The African Slave Trade to Brazil. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986.
• Cooper, Frederick, Holt, Thomas C., and Scott, Rebecca J. Beyond Slavery: Explorations of Race, Labor, and Citizenship in Postemancipation Societies. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
• Cooper, Frederick. Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.
• Cooper, Frederick. “Conflict and Connection: Rethinking Colonial African History” The American Historical Review 99, no. 5 (December 1994): 1516-1545.
• Cooper, Frederick. “Elevating the Race: The Social Thought of Black Leaders, 1827-50.” American Quarterly 24, no. 5 (December 1972): 604-625.
• Cooper, Frederick. Plantation Slavery on the East Coast of Africa. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.
• da Costa, Emilia. The Brazilian Empire: Myths and Histories. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.
• da Costa, Emilia. Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood: The Demerara Slave Rebellion of 1823. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
• da Costa, Emilia. “The Portuguese-African Slave Trade: A Lesson in Colonialism.” Latin American Perspectives 12, no. 1 (Winter 1985): 41-61.
• Craton, Michael. “Changing Patterns of Slave Families in the British West Indies.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 10, no. 1 (Summer 1979): 1-35.
• Craton, Michael. “Christianity and Slavery in the British West Indies 1750-1865.” Historical Reflections 5, no. 2 (Winter 1978): 141-160.
• Craton, Michael. “A Cresting Wave? Recent Trends in Historiography of Slavery, with Special Reference to the British Columbia.” Historical Reflections 9, no. 3 (Fall 1982): 403-419.
• Craton, Michael. Empire, Enslavement, and Freedom in the Caribbean. Kinston: Ian Randle Publisher; Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1997.
• Craton, Michael. “Hobbesian or Panglossian? The Two Extremes of Slave Conditions in the British Caribbean, 1783 to 1834.” The William and Mary Quarterly 35, no 2 (April 1978): 324-356.
• Craton, Michael, and Saunders, Gail. Islanders in the Stream: A History of the Bahamian People. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992-1998.
• Craton, Michael, and Walvin, James. A Jamaican Plantation: The History of Worthy Park 1671-1970. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970.
• Craton, Michael. “Proto-Peasant Revolts? The Late Slave Rebellions in the British West Indies 1816-1832.” Past and Present no. 85 (November 1979): 99-125.
• Craton, Michael. “Reshuffling the Pack: The Transition From Slavery to Other Forms of Labor in the British Caribbean, ca. 1790-1890.” New West Indian Guide 68, no. 1/2 (1994): 23-75)
• Craton, Michael. Searching for the Invisible Man: Slaves and Plantation Life in Jamaica. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978.
• Craton, Michael. Sinews of Empire: A Short History of British Slavery. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1974.
• Craton, Michael. Slavery, Abolition, and Emancipation: Black Slaves and the British Empire: A Thematic Documentary. London, New York: Longman, 1976.
• Craton, Michael. Testing the Chains: Resistance to Slavery in the British West Indies. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982.
• Craton, Michael. “We Shall Not Be Moved: Pompey’s Slave Revolt in Exuma Island, Bahamas, 1830.” New West Indian Guide 57, n. 1/2 (1983): 19-35.
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- [+] Dice rolls
29 May 2019
For some time I've been working on a game design around Reconstruction, the troubled decade following the American Civil War. Whereas of course the CW itself is a popular game topic, the period after it is not. In fact, many people do not know much about the period at all, other than perhaps something about constitutional amendments and the impeachment of Andrew Johnson.
This is a shame, because Reconstruction is in many ways more fascinating than the Civil War itself. The unconditional surrender of Confederate forces in April 1865 did not resolve the issues that had led to the war itself. The nature of the federal compact, the meaning of freedom, the definition of citizenship, the fate of secessionists -- all had to be settled through the same political system whose failure to resolve the slavery issue had brought about the war. It is little wonder that, in the face of a concerted campaign of racial terrorism, and weakened by a massive economic depression, Reconstruction failed to secure the success of the Republican Party in the South, and hence failed to secure rights of the freedpeople themselves.
This had disastrous consequences for American democracy: it left the South 'solid' behind one-party rule, and this inhibited the formation of a legitimate opposition in the South, which could speak to the class interests of the non-elite. Even more, it paved the way for Jim Crow, an American system of racial Apartheid that effectively rendered African Americans second-class citizenship. Redeeming that catastrophe would take a 'second Reconstruction' -- the one that followed WWII.
These lectures are designed to offer the background for the game I am designing. They begin to lay out my case for understanding Reconstruction as a political insurgency. My goal is to make this argument not through a book, but through a game. If you've been following my engagement with Pax Emancipation, you have a sense of where I stand. A few books and essays make pieces of this case for Reconstruction as insurgency; I hope to make the argument ludically.
Thanks in advance for your patience. Compared to other videos I've made, this is super lo-tech: just me talking over an enormous PowerPoint. YouTube degraded the resolution considerably, so I apologize if the text is hard to read. And this sucker is long -- too long to view all at once.
To conclude, this is offered as support for my Reconstruction game design. I hope soon to offer a designer diary for that game. In the mean time, please let me know if you find my effort here valuable. I welcome comments, criticisms, support, and suggestions.
- [+] Dice rolls
15 May 2019
Here's a link to my longform essay on Pax Emancipation. This is a first draft and may change. Many thanks to all for participating in this discussion -- all the moreso because it is a challenging conversation about a challenging topic. I welcome all constructive comments.
- [+] Dice rolls
14 Apr 2019
I can’t say I’ve followed every turn in the Scramble for Africa saga, and I have no intention of firing up my dormant Twitter account to observe yet another battle in the boardgames culture war unfold. I most emphatically do not want to entertain a troll war, or promote useless diatribe. But I’ve been asked for my thoughts, and it turns out I have one or two.
We’ve seen this before in our hobby, of course, as when there was concern around depiction of the Confederate flag in the wake of the Charleston Massacre of 2015. Or consider the notorious debacle over the “slave” card in Five Tribes. Such incidents seem to be occurring with more frequency and urgency. There’s probably something to the notion that boardgames, now including conflict simulations, are being increasingly swept up into broader public discussions around the representation of marginal groups and their histories in popular culture.
The substantive issue doesn’t seem that complicated to me. GMT heard concerns and acted on them, as is their right. Of course they can publish (or not) whatever they want, within the confines of law. And people have a right to weigh in, just as they are doing. We have a right to say such a game should never be made, or if made shouldn’t be bought, or if bought shouldn’t be played — or the opposite of those things. And by definition we cannot all get what we want.
For all the reasons adumbrated in the posts, I don’t worry that the buttresses of liberty are being undermined. Existential angst, hysterical cries of PC censorship, and apocalypse nigh — as far as I can tell, nothing terrible has happened other than that consumers have caused a publisher to rethink and pre-emptively cancel a publication. I thought that’s how markets worked.
When should a game be made or not made? There’s no objective answer to that. These are matters of taste. I don’t mean that trivially, for taste involves values, commitments, and ethics. What’s happened, of course, is that tastes have changed, and norms for public discussion change with them.
This is obvious. Once our public culture found it acceptable to sell products through demeaning racial and ethnic stereotypes. Doubtlessly some lamented the loss of those images. But it was not censorship to boycott overtly racist advertising, it was the exercise of democratic force in the marketplace. How can conservatives complain about that? Segregated markets violate free market principles, after all. Helping to create a public sphere that welcomes and honors all on terms of equality — that is the cause for which this game was sacrificed. I can think of worse. Besides, the game hasn’t been censored; nothing prevents others from publishing it.
For me it comes down to this: The rights to dignity and equality of historically oppressed groups supersedes others’ right to enjoy racially patronizing branding. I mean, is there really any question about this? I can’t imagine taking seriously any argument that, for example, it’s more important that Washington football fans like me get to keep a team name than it is to uphold the humanity of a people who were genocidally slaughtered. There’s no question to me about which is the higher priority in my value system, no matter how much I love my team.
That's not a call for sanitizing the culture, simply an acknowledgement that representation matters. Games used to be a niche hobby of mostly white dudes who didn’t have to think much about their cultural politics — at least not when playing. (Meanwhile, those in marginal groups never had the luxury of factoring out their identities.) But those days are going, and as games have expanded their reach consumers have become alert to insensitive or destructive presentations of marginal peoples and their histories. This is part of a general trend toward appreciating how cultural ephemera can reinforce negative stereotypes and erroneous historical narratives. It's legitimate to wonder about the latent biases and outdated histories that might lurk in our games. After all, players come from groups ignored, indicted, or slandered by historical misrepresentations.
My bottom line is this: If you believe that being entertained permits the denigration of others and their histories, I can’t help you. If you believe that your right to consume as you please regardless of social consequence supersedes the right of others to not be marginalized and exploited, then we’re not going to agree. And if endlessly repeated reminders of these pretty simple calculations are insufficient to move you, then there’s probably not much point in talking. We don’t have to agree, or even talk about it, though if you’re interested in a good faith conversation let me know.
So on the terms with which this is being discussed, I’m not seeing a lot of new, and I don’t have much to add. But I do have something to offer to those who are justly concerned about the representation of the past, but might be new to how questions of representation work in games. This is just my take, offered as a means by which we might profitably square a circle or two, and live more comfortably with our choices. I’m not sure it’s useful, so I’d appreciate feedback.
In many respects, ludic representations of the past are akin to other pop cultural forms, such as feature films or historical novels. As do those other genres, games offer an extremely wide range of rigor in adhering to historical sources and methodologies, but all share a desire to entertain by invoking specific pasts. Because this is a concern shared across other media, some analytical tools may be used across several media. For example, visual depictions of the past are common in games, graphic novels, and cinema, so understanding visual rhetoric is helpful to understanding how these forms work to represent the past.
But each form also has its own nature, and thus requires analytical tools specific to its medium. An entire discipline exists to understand the various ways cinema works, for example. Scholars specialize and sub-specialize within this field. They develop and test methodologies, and nurture future generations of scholars who all do the same thing. Video games have been a discipline of academic study since the turn of the millennium at least. An entire field of New Media Studies has grown around the questions raised by new digital worlds.
As board games become more important as objects of study, we can expect more dialogue between those with concerns that the past be represented accurately and humanely, and those interesting in making interesting and fun games. As one with feet in both camps, I think it’s useful to think about the unique ways games operate, particularly around these culturally sensitive areas.
Games have some formal requirements. There are edge cases, but generally speaking games must be competitive in some way, must be procedural in nature (and thus rule-bound), and must have a capacity for multiple outcomes. History games in particular must embrace counterfactual possibilities. We could point to many other features that helps define games, but there is one that strikes me as absolutely fundamental: games, and especially commercially made games meant to entertain us, are about play. We play games because this lets us engage in play.
So what is play? One factor that may help define play is that it is frequently a low-stakes endeavor. Not always, of course. If you bet the mortgage on anyone other than the Patriots (curse them), or if you’re wargaming with the DoD, you’re playing some high-stakes games. But when we break out the dice on Saturday afternoon, we generally do it as an alternative to something necessary and arduous. We volunteer to take on challenging mental tasks because it’s fun, and it’s fun because we can walk away from it. No matter what the board looks like at the end of the game, we can leave it behind. It was just a game, after all.
Many scholars have suggested that play is important to us precisely because it offers us a low-stakes realm in which we can formulate strategies, experiment with cause and effect, and even wreak enormous damage — all without much consequence in the real world. This is the liminal space of play, the temporary suspension of ‘normal’ time, and the descent into a cultural space where the normal boundaries are stretched, or even suspended. Playing games lets players who don’t like each other in real life work together at the table, just as it offers best friends a chance to annihilate each other with no hard feelings. It’s all temporary, and none of it goes on your permanent record.
This does not mean that all play is harmless. I’ve written extensively about this on this blog, so I won’t belabor the point now, beyond this: one of the qualities that frequently makes play attractive is the social risk that goes with it. Just ask Rockstar Games, producers of computer games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Or the folks who made Cards Against Humanity. Often play is attractive because it is dangerous — because it lets us do things and become creatures in ways otherwise unwise or impossible. These dangers are not fictive or trivial. If we really want to get dark, we can think about Nazi-era games like Juden Raus!, in which players are asked to play Good Germans ridding the state of a despised minority.
So it’s easily possible for games to cross the bounds of propriety, and even inflict considerable damage. This is not just incidental to the ludic form, it is built into it — precisely because one of the very functions of games is to let us play around with the lines of propriety, all the while assured that any transgressions will be forgotten on game’s end. This is why games exist — to lower (but not eliminate!) the social costs of engaging topics otherwise hard to engage. Animals and man learn to fight through low-stakes ‘play’ fighting because ‘real’ fighting is counter-productive. Games let us do similar things. We can practice developing strategies, we can imagine ourselves as radically different, and we can compete fiercely but remain friends.
We can also wrestle with topics difficult to address in other realms. This became clear to me when researching board games in the Osher Map Library’s amazing collection of transportation-themed antique boardgames. I had one of those small moments in the archive that stay with you. Having fumbled through endless boxes childrens’ board games about messenger boys and space flight and bicycle races, I came across a particularly weird moment. On box bottom of a cheap cardboard game about fire righting, a child had drawn images of Hitler, swastikas and all.
It freaked me out, of course, to encounter such a shocking image in a child’s plaything. Had I stumbled upon the game collection of a little American Nazi? I checked the game’s publication date, which was 1939, and it became easy to imagine a different scenario. I conjured a ten year-old witnessing the world go up in flames around them. I thought of a young person seeing images in the newspapers and hearing talk at the radio and at the dinner table. And then, perhaps alone and spending time with this game, in that liminal space, fiddling around with the game, and drawing on the box. The kid was playing — playing with the idea of Hitler, and what it all meant. Was it scary? Attractive? Dangerous? Some of all? Who knows what was in this child’s mind, or how their thinking on WWII and Hitler grew over time. The point is that the game was literally that low-stakes space the child used to cope with the world around them. What an interesting illustration of the power of games to help us confront the otherwise unconfrontable.
I understand play to be a fundamental mode humans use to engage and comprehend their world, and particularly its most difficult parts. In the same way that humor can lower the threshold for uttering the otherwise unutterable, play permits us to explore aspects of our experience — aggression or greed, for example — that are tightly bound by cultural norms. Like humor, play can cross the line into transgression and real-world harm. But its value lies precisely in its line-straddling capacity, which lets us think the otherwise unimaginable simply because we’ve temporarily agreed to let go the normal strictures.
This can go awry, but at its best play is, like humor, a check against arrogance, pretension, dogmatism, and hubris. When we are at our most serious and most committed, play reduces us in scale, reminding us that (like the grasshopper in Aesop’s fable) maybe all of life is really play — that perhaps play is the reality and reality just a game. ‘Don’t take it all so seriously’ does not have to mean ‘I get a free pass because I’m playing.’ It can instead imply a deeply spiritual approach to coping with life’s unfathomable problems.
This means that transgression is a central feature of play’s role. It is easily possible for game play to cross the lines — precisely because it is frequently a feature of games that they let us experiment with those lines. It is in the nature and value of games that they lower (though not eliminate!) the social costs of the activities we undertake in play. They sell themselves to us on just these lines — that it’s only fun so it shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Meanwhile, the game surreptitiously imparts its lessons, whether they’re on Victorian morality, the colonization of Africa, or the importance of pasta for Italian troops in North Africa.
But the value is immense, and I would not want to weaken that, for we desperately need play. We need low-stakes spaces to share ideas and think through hard problems. We need chances to iterate and test strategies, and think about how collective problem-solving happens. We need ways to reach beyond ourselves to imagine alternatives to social systems that foster misery and inequity while posing themselves as normative and natural. We need to foster the empathy and understanding that comes with changing roles and becoming others. Most of all, we need to be able to mess up and learn from our mistakes — not first to protect ourselves from criticism, but to keep others from harm. We have become too unforgiving of failure — both our own, and others’.
So we don’t excuse games for racially insensitive depictions on the basis that they are trivial and meaningless. To do that is to uncritically accept the tantalizing fantasy that games offer – that the suspension of normal time means the suspension of all norms. The controversy over SfA illustrates this. Do we really need another game on colonialism and imperialism that renders voiceless and without agency the victims of those forces?
At the same time we can insist that some lines are not useful to cross, we can still engage, honor, and celebrate our impulse to play. We could use this moment to remind ourselves of what we are trying to protect: the power of games to transgress in constructive and creative ways. The very thing that makes games attractive, and indeed culturally useful, is also what gives them their power. Responsibility goes with that power, and that means keeping the norms and boundaries always in mind, if never set. It means staying alert to the consequences of our play, and it means being accountable for things we never thought we had to be accountable for before, and to communities we might never have even considered before when playing games.
That effort is necessary. But let’s not lose that, as with humor, transgression can be a powerful political and even spiritual tool, with the potential to liberate our thinking in potentially revolutionary ways. While it has its dangers, play is also fundamental to the creative process, calling upon inner wisdom often hidden even from ourselves. In times like these, as we witness the slow-motion demolition of democratic society and the return of authoritarian politics across the globe, I’m not sure we can survive without it.
- [+] Dice rolls
24 Feb 2019
On this blog I've been writing on Pax Emancipation's historical claims. Now I want to suspend these reflections on the game's discursive argument (the one it makes through its non-mechanical components, like its rulebook), to simply describe who you are and what you actually do in this game (its metaphor). This will serve as a reference point for future writing on the game, minimizing the need for me to constantly re-summarize the game play. Of course, I hope this also helps readers understand what they might be getting into in this game. Many find the rulebook daunting; perhaps an overview of the game will help it make sense to new players.
First, this is my first Phil Eklund/Sierra Madre game. I will sound like a newb because I am one. I can't speak much yet on how PaxEm's systems evolved from earlier designs, nor can I place this game amidst other Eklund/SM titles.
Second, I'm describing the game from the perspective that most interests me as both a player and historian: the full advanced game in three-player cooperative-competitive mode. For my money, the basic game is only useful in learning the advanced game, which is exponentially richer in both play value and history. So I'm interested in seeing the whole game in action, making its full case. I think that what I'm describing applies to solo play, but I've never tried the game in that configuration.
Third, my focus here is on mechanics rather than message. I really like this game, but I have serious problems with the historical argument underlying it. Do not mistake my enthusiasm for the game's play with an endorsement of the history behind it.
Finally, this is pretty long. I wanted to give every piece of the game its due. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts about how effectively this description explains the game.
Premise and player positions
In Pax Emancipation, three players represent different British antislavery institutions as they struggle to liberate the world from slavery and other forms of unfreedom. The game argues that the Enlightenment generated antislavery ideas, which then spread across the globe through the process of colonization. It offers players a chance to participate in what it declares to be the greatest accomplishment in human history, the process of outlawing slavery. Red plays Parliament (the forces of state colonial agents), green plays Philanthropists ("the merchants and explorers of London"), and white plays Evangelicals (missionaries). In the first part of the game, players work cooperatively; if they achieve their individual goals for this part of the game, they enter a second era, in which they compete for the title of greatest abolitionist.
I haven't played many cooperative-competitive games, so I have a slim basis of comparison, but I am a big fan of this implementation. In the first part of the game, players must truly work together if they are to achieve their individual objectives. The game makes this natural, as accomplishing the goals of one player-position (e.g., for Parliament to have more Agents on the board than slavers) actually helps others (e.g., the Philanthropists' need to collect barriers). It's easy to see how players comfortable with the system will begin to angle for the competitive era during the cooperative game, making for some juicy player interaction that keeps things tense.
Finances and gold
Let's start with the money system that runs much of the game. The game has a quick and clever mechanism for managing wealth, which gamifies the handling of money while effortlessly reinforcing one of its key metaphors. To spend a gold unit move one financial agent from the top box marked "Capital" to one underneath titled "Wealth." There's yet a lower box that can be spent into, titled "Debt." Spending money quickly drives you into penury, but before that happens you can raise new funds if you're careful with your money management. When fundraising, for every Agent in capital you move down to Wealth, you may bring up one from Debt to Wealth. Then everything in wealth moves up to Capital.
It's ingenious. You wind up thinking about your money just the way the game wants you to. The only way to raise money is to keep it, then spend the opportunity to pay your way out of debt, then invest what you've managed to save. What's more, the tokens on your finance board aren't units of gold, they just record the flow of units of gold. They're actually financial agents who represent productive capacity. This is because they're also workers you'll have to remove from your coffers to place on the board. Money is workers, and workers are money.
This finance system exemplifies the kind of common mechanical shorthands that I suspect appear in other Sierra Madre designs. Take the principle of squared costs: an agent placed on an Idea must pay gold on the number of agents already there, squared. Placing the first is free; placing the fourth costs 9 gold, which is an awful lot. Simple, effective, elegant. These games have their own mechanical vocabulary, and if you enjoy deep designs you'll find yourself slowly learning them.
Mapboard and bits
A global mapboard is efficiently represented by two rows of five cards, assembled into a world map. Each card is a "sphere," such as Europe, East Africa, or South America. One side of the card represents its pre-revolutionary state; when a revolution in the sphere succeeds, the card flips to its modern side, which locks in most of the tokens on it. (As I'll explain, much of the game consists of controlling the induction of revolutions, as these give you extra actions that help you attain victory conditions and victory points.)
Each sphere has two ports, each of which has a space for a player's Agent pawn. This represents an institutional administrator, known in the game as an Admin. Admins are vital for performing liberty-enhancing feats like liberating slaves, sewing dissent, and removing barriers to liberty. The problem is, every Agent placed on the board must be taken from your finance board, which makes it a considerable investment, and difficult to replenish. (More on the action system later.)
Each port also has a variable number of black squares. Each of these empty spaces denotes a slave; using actions to place a colored meeple on it "emancipates" it, converting it into a VP-generating Freedman. The pre-revolutionary side of the card also has spaces for dissidents, who help stir things up and get revolutions going.
Cleverly, the game uses the spaces between orthogonally-adjacent cards to do a lot of work. Evil slavers (ship-shaped tokens) troll these seas, making it difficult and expensive to remove barriers to liberty. But players can build ships in these seas as well. Left alone these are vulnerable Merchantmen, but place a state agent on one and it becomes a powerful Marine - an effective weapon against slavers, mercantile embargoes, and other barriers to liberty. Shipbuilding is also a good way to get more agents; appropriately, this new productive capacity begins in the gutter of the Debt box.
There are a few other touches, all deeply integrated into game play. Several spheres take disease markers, which prevent you from taking actions in the sphere. You can "collect" disease tokens, which at 3 VP each are worth a lot, but this requires building a Factory, which you can only do as the result of participating in a successful revolution. Factories also decrease the costs of ships to 2 gold, and score at the end. In fact, all tokens placed on the board are worth points, so you desperately want stuff out there.
The Elephant token constitutes a final board bit. This denotes the port and sphere that are the focus of the turn's actions. This was a new system for me, but it works effectively. While some actions (like using your Marines, or syndicating ideas) do not focus media attention, others (like posting agents, freeing slaves, or creating dissidents) take place in a specific port. As soon as you perform one of these actions, the Elephant is moved to the port; all other "elephant actions" that turn must take place in the specified port. If you take no such actions, the Elephant will move spheres according to a die roll.
Barriers and anarchy
The Elephant's location is important, because the game fights you back in the Elephant's sphere. This is called a "hate roll," which feels a little weird saying. Hate rolls aren't a problem if you're not trying to liberate the sphere, because you'll have no targets there. But crack new spheres carefully, because the game can kick back hard - in my view, just enough to keep things interesting. The barrier system is elegant: roll the specified number of dice (the less liberated the Elephant's sphere is, the more dice you roll), and see how many dice match the ones appearing on the barriers.
Let's say the Elephant is in Europe, and you must roll three dice against the only barrier there, a purple "Embargo" barrier ("Continental System"). You roll two 4s and a 2. A diceface showing 4 happens to appear on the barrier, so we will suffer the loss designated by its color. The purple diceface indicates an attack on our shipping, which will remove one merchantman ship in the seaways adjacent to the sphere. Some barriers pose special problems. In our example, the 2 matches a green diceface on the barrier, which would normally remove a green Agent or Freedman from the port. We have none, though, and there is a dark collar around the diceface (in game terms this is a "bloody" die). If we can't resolve this by taking a green piece, we suffer "frustrated hate," which spreads anarchy.
In addition to mitigating attacks on your resources, removing barriers has other benefits. Of course each is worth 1 VP. But removing barriers also helps soften up adjacent spheres. If one sphere is absent of a certain kind of barrier, the adjacent sphere is considered to be absent as well. This reduces the otherwise daunting cost of taking actions in new spheres. The rules title these trans-oceanic networks "Underground Railroads," and they can be incredibly helpful.
The specific barriers represent different obstacles to freedom, from the Ku Klux Klan in the United States, to the Hindu caste system, to the Timar land system of the Ottoman Empire. It's an impressive array, and one is bound to encounter new concepts (what's Zamindar feudalism?). Each of these barriers is coded by color to denote its political ideology, and in the competitive game players work to leave "their" barriers in place while removing others. Red indicates left-wing barriers to liberty; a sphere ending the game with many of them will be a left-leaning "democracy." White indicates right-wing barriers, which will produce a right-leaning "theocracy." Note that each of these is related to a player position, such that the red player benefits in end-game scoring by having red barriers on the board, etc. The green player favors "republics," which are created when all barriers have been removed.
This creates an interesting game dilemma for the red and white players: collecting barriers earns VP and makes things easier, but remove all barriers and green runs away with the game. Become a bit comfortable with the system, and choices about which to take, or even whether a barrier should be taken at all, start to get interesting.
Those are just barriers. The game hits you yet again if you haven't properly controlled the popular unrest your activism generates. This is represented by black anarchy discs placed on the spheres, which (in another elegant compression of a familiar game system) functions like diseases in Pandemic, spreading to adjacent spheres if they overflow. This is why it's so important to be thoughtful when opening up new spheres, for frustrated hate can quickly go viral. Each player starts with six anarchy discs each, which effectively means 6 VP. Anarchy on the board is placed from the moving player's player board. This is another impressively multilayered system: because you can also collect anarchy from the board, a plotline develops around contests for these easy VP.
Action system and the market of Ideas
Ultimately, though, PaxEm is a game about manipulating the worker placement system to choose the right actions and chain them efficiently. You start with workers on your finance board, who represent financial agents. You start with a basic menu of actions (two per turn), which include things like fundraising to replenish your gold, or building a new ship (which gives you a new Agent from pool). The "Syndicate" action lets you extend this basic menu by placing Agents on cards in the market of ideas, which is a matrix of cards (six Western ideas and six Eastern) depicting important thinkers and the concepts associated with them.
These cards do a lot of work; they are the most densely mechanical element of the game. The Western Idea deck represents an incredibly wide range of figures, from the missionary David Livingstone (whose tells us he represents "colonial altruism") to Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture, to Brazilian abolitionist José do Patrocínio. Eastern idea cards are fewer but likely to be even less familiar to most players, including figures such as Antonine mystic Kimpa Vita, Russian Decembrist Pavel Pestel, and Chinese "self-strengthener" Zongli Yamen.
The market itself (a powerful metaphor for the "marketplace of ideas" concept pioneered by Milton and John Stuart Mill) is based on many similar card markets in familiar games: the lower in the market, the cheaper they are, and gaps are filled by sliding new cards into the most expensive slots. The addition of an Eastern market is an interesting riff; not only does this effectively double the actions available (cards give you extra actions), it succumbs to "idea diffusion," whereby a card that the Elephant roll knocks out of the Western market may "diffuse" to the Eastern market. This is important when committing agents to the market; you can count on Western ideas that diffuse (not all do) to hang around a little longer.
The Idea cards serve multiple functions. Most players will use them first for their "Ops," or special actions they permit agents placed on them. The more agents you have "syndicated" on Idea cards, the more actions you can take. These are the key moves that actually liberate slaves, create dissidents, remove barriers, and employ the navy. You cannot succeed without exploiting them efficiently.
In addition to offering extra actions through Ops, Ideas also offer extra actions through Impacts. Impacts occur when an Agent is on an Idea card that is "globalized," a process I'll describe shortly. Impacts tend to be powerful, letting you do things for free that usually cost a lot in gold or opportunity. They might let you post an Agent for free, add a new Agent from pool, or claims a barrier, for example.
Each card also carries two symbols, which the game calls "freedoms," which identify its place in Enlightenment ideology. These condition the process of "globalizing" ideas into two idea splays, which I'll discuss shortly. In theme terms, these symbols indicate the ideological stance of the person and idea depicted on the card. The black symbols denote "ideas," with the black candle representing ideas drawn from natural sciences and the black comet representing supernatural ideas. The red symbols denote political activism, with the feature representing intellectual and left-wing approaches, and the red unlock representing economic and right-wing approaches. Each Idea card is assigned two of these symbols. For example, David Livingstone ("Colonial altruism") features a black comet (supernatural ideas) and a red unlock (right-wing economic activism). Karl Marx has a double feather, denoting his strong association with left-wing intellectual activism (the rulebook says this combination represents "egalitarians" and "pragmatism").
The ten possible combinations of symbols offer ten different flavors of Ideas. These make for interesting subjects of analysis in their own right, but in game terms they're important for transferring ideas into globalized idea splays, which represent the worldwide discourse of liberty. In game terms, these splays are critical not just for generating the impacts of their spread, but for creating new possibilities for ideas and revolutions to enter the common storehouse of ideas. More on this in a minute.
The penultimate function of Idea cards is to determine where Revolution cards are placed in the market. Each card has a "firebrand" rating, with lower ratings indicating Ideas that are more susceptible to launching a revolution. Low firebrand ratings are found on cards like Palmares (the long-lived Brazilian fugitive slave state), Captain Cudjo (the Jamaican maroon captain who treated with the British), or Toussaint Louverture (the former slave who became the George Washington of Haiti). Because any Agents on a card like this are replaced by the new revolution, having Agents placed on these cards can help you successfully carry out, and benefit from, the revolution.
Globalized idea splays
The final purpose of Idea cards is to "globalize" them into two "splays" of cards, which "represent the Enlightenment concept of international law." The game calls one General Will and the other Bill of Rights. They function similarly, but have different mechanisms for flushing outdated ideas. You'll want to add Idea cards to these splays for various reasons: to obtain the Impact on a globalized Idea card, to make a revolution possible, to create the possibility of adding new cards, or even to prevent another player from taking an Idea card's Ops.
The key to working the splays is matching the freedom symbols on the Idea cards. You tuck your card under other cards in the splay so that only one of its symbols shows. With the right action you can add any card to one of the splays, choosing which of the two freedom symbols you wish to be visible. In the splay this creates a "freedom pair" of two adjacent symbols, which in turns makes it easier to get new Idea cards into the splay. One action (which is not always available) lets you put any Idea card into the splays, while another (always available) only lets you put in Ideas whose symbol-pairs match symbol-pairs already in the splay. So, mechanically, you're thinking about which symbol-pairs you want to create, so you can globalize cards with symbol-pairs that match, and thus gain their benefits.
For example, a player placing the Liberty Party in a splay might display its Unlock aspect (right-wing economic activism), and hide its Candle aspect (natural ideas), to begin a freedom pair in a splay. Let's say this is placed after the Harriet Tubman card, which has been placed to expose its Unlock symbol (her Comet symbol for supernatural ideas is left obscured). This produces a Unlock-Unlock freedom pair, which represents right-wing political militancy. Once this freedom pair is in the splay, it welcomes the addition of new cards of that ideological flavor - in this instance, cards such as John Brown of Bleeding Kansas fame, who was nothing if not a militant. Lacking such a freedom pair in the splay, John Brown's ideas would be hard to globalize, or spread into the worldwide discourse of liberty, where they could then be used to develop new freedom pairs, and thus new possibilities for globalized ideas.
The same principle applies to Revolution cards, which enter the Market of Ideas, and may also be globalized. PaxEm's Revolution system constitutes a fascinating and prominent game within a game: for players to win, they must induce or ride a wave of revolutions that strikes the mapboard. The game may end before all the world has revolted, but the modernization of the world order through revolution is the game's central plotline.
A revolution begins in a sphere when it acquires one dissident and one anarchy. This isn't too hard to do; it feels like a natural outgrowth of trying to liberate a sphere. Players may skillfully manage the process, but it can also happen without much direction. And once a revolution begins, there is some time pressure to successfully complete it. Perhaps it will diffuse through the Idea market before it's done, thus voiding your hard work to support it. Or perhaps other players will take better advantage of it, and you'll lose relative position. I find that lack of total control an effective way of simulating an inherently chaotic process.
Each sphere has its own two-sided Revolution card, which enters the Idea market, replacing the card with the lowest firebrand rating. Once active, the Revolution card can accept Agents. And just like a regular Idea card, it has Ops on it that you can use. You can even globalize a successful revolution into the splays, where they can form new symbol-pairs, and confer endgame VP, depending on how they are globalized.
Each Revolution card has a white (right-wing "slave revolt") side and a red (left-wing "civil rights") side, with small but vital functional differences. For example, the Revolution for the North American sphere has on its red "civil rights" side the American Revolution, represented by George Washington. It has spots for three revolutionaries, which must be filled or exceeded for it to succeed, and it has Emancipation and Suffrage Ops. Like Idea cards it has two freedom symbols: a feather (left-wing intellectual activism), and a candle (natural ideas) symbols. If the revolution is globalized with the candle showing, it's worth 2 VP for the green (philanthropist) player at endgame; if the feather shows, it's worth 3 for red (Parliament).
The other side of the card, its white, right-wing "slave revolt" side, is the American Civil War, represented by Abraham Lincoln. It too has spots for three revolutionaries, but its two Ops are Maritime and Westernize. Its freedom symbols are a Candle (natural ideas) and an Unlock (right-wing economic activism). If the revolution is globalized with the Candle showing, it earns 3VP for green (philanthropists); the Unlock side is worth 3VP for white (evangelicals).
Players have limited control over which side of the card will be face up (and thus perhaps gloabalized), and this may even change, making for yet another nested minigame. A revolution cannot even succeed unless it can be globalized into a splay with a matching freedom pair. This may start a mad scramble to make a revolution viable by globalizing other ideas (and making new freedom pairs), for if you succeed in making a non-viable revolution viable in this way, you get a free Agent from pool to join the revolution.
If the revolution succeeds, Agents on it may select from a wide menu of bonuses, from things like globalizing the revolution, to claiming barriers or pirates, to building the Factory that will cheapen your ship costs and let you collect valuable disease tokens. As you can see, there's a lot of strategy around these revolutions. Want to get in early on a revolution so you can get the first bonus and globalize it the way you want? Syndicate an Agent to a low firebrand card, even if its Ops aren't that attractive, or it is expensive. Should you join that budding revolution? How expensive is it, and what is it worth? Perhaps you should pass this one by.
A successful revolution modernizes the sphere it strikes, flipping its map card to its "modern" side. (This is clever and efficient design: a game map made of cards instead of a board is of course smaller, cheaper, and easier to produce and package; here, though, the cards are not a publisher's concession to economy, but the most useful tool for their purpose.) Once flipped, any tokens on the sphere are retained for endgame VP, except for Dissidents, which in another clever little wrinkle, emigrate to the next most volatile sphere.
Player powers, scoring, and narrative
Each player position has its own unique abilities. Parliament gets a free Maritime Op every time it raises funds without divesting Agents, and a free Agent installation and gunboat diplomacy after it builds a ship (it's also the only position that can install new Marines on ships). Consequently, Parliament spends a lot of time on the sea, taking slavers and softening up spheres. Philanthropists may install Agents from the bottom rather than the top of their finance board, thus saving up to two gold on each posting. This financial advantage often results in lots of green Agents in the Ideas market, active in revolutions. Evangelicals may post Agents for free, as the rulebook explains that "missionaries are rather abstemious." This helps them with their main goal of manumitting slaves, but also leaves them the most desperate for money.
Each position also has its own goals. In order to win the cooperative first round and proceed to the competitive second, the forces of Parliament must have more Agents on the board than there are Slavers remaining. The Philanthropists must ensure that fewer than twenty-six barriers remain on the map, and the Evangelicals need at least fifteen freedmen (of any color) on the board.
If players make it through the cooperative game, they can ultimately score endgame VP. They earn 1VP for each Barrier, Slaver, or Anarchy collected; 1VP for each Freedman, Admin, or Marine on the board; 3VP for each disease disc; and VP for their factory (VP = number of agent ships2).
The barrier scoring system, in which each player-position has a preferred final barrier configuration, customizes endgame scoring. Parliament wants "democracies" where one or more red barriers remain but no others, Evangelicals want "theocracies" where only white barriers remain, and Philanthropists want "republics" that have no barriers. For each sphere where your preferred type of government remains, you score 1VP for each Freedman, Agent, and Factory token in the sphere, regardless of color. Any revolutions in the splay will now confer VP on the player of the indicated color. The Evangelicals get a special boost in endgame scoring, of 1VP for each Dissident on the board, regardless of color.
So you're trying to collect the bad stuff on the board, get your pieces onto the map, and work your unique scoring system. To do this, Green and White especially need to invest in getting Agents from pool (unless you like to cut things close). It bears repeating: workers are money and money are workers. The general course of play will be to crack open new spheres, not just to liberate slaves there but also to spark revolution. But be careful, because once you open a region, it will fiercely resist your efforts to bring freedom. Cautious players will want to soften up spheres with Marines before investing a lot of tokens in them.
Once the first dominos start falling, they don't really stop. I can't imagine succeeding without playing the revolutions, so the question is probably about choosing the right opportunities, and making the most of chances you get.
I think this is the heart of the game. Since you never have the capacity to do what you'd like to do, the game is all about making the most of what you've got through action-chaining. The most frequent bonus actions you'll receive will be Bonus Petitions, which you receive after using a Lawsuit or Plebiscite to globalize an idea into a splay. You can use these for a free Fundraising or Legislate action, or to engage in a tug-of-war over your Agents with the Parliament player. Manifestos, which come from making a revolution viable by globalizing an Idea, let you add a valuable revolutionary Agent from pool. Revolutions are great because succeeding in one lets you do a lot of often-expensive things for free. But beware: spend all your Agents on syndications and revolutions, and you'll quickly find yourself in the poorhouse.
The fun, of course, is figuring out how to pull off so much with so little. Syndicate an Agent on an Idea, take its Ops for as long as they're useful, then Legislate it into a splay to get its Impact bonus. That bonus may be a new Revolutionary Agent from pool, which may complete a revolution, which gives you yet another bonus. In several games, I've seen the East Indies revolution fully resolve in the same turn it started.
As I see more of PaxEm, I also come to appreciate how effectively it integrates the cooperative and competitive games. I find myself angling for position even during the cooperative game, in a good way. This is particularly the case with barriers, which red and white both want and want not to take. It can be very powerful to take your own barrier, only to regress it to the board at the moment of modernization, to lock in the type of government you want. There are other endgame scoring bombs you'll find yourself angling for in the midst of "cooperative" play. Factories can score well because they are worthwhile in themselves (up to 9VP). But they also let you collect those 3VP disease tokens. This opens up yet another minigame, in which players race to build their factories and clean up disease.
Pax Emancipation is a heavy game, featuring a bundle of interwoven systems that come together to deliver a rewarding experience. Getting to that experience requires a considerable investment, though. Learning the game takes time, not just because of the array of mechanics I've just surveyed. The rulebook is a heavy lift, as it is loaded with 125 footnotes, a glossary, and various appendices, all dedicated to conveying the message behind the mechanics. Plying the rules from it is not always easy. Simply to learn the game you have no choice but to internalize a lot of new game language.
But this is neither gratuitous nor meaningless, for it enormously reinforces PaxEm's theme and argument. This is a game that works hard to explain its meaning as you learn and play it. For me, the investment in the game's theme (and Ludica readers know how deep that investment is) paid off in the kind of immersion I look for in games. Over the course of a few short hours, PaxEm unspools innumerable suspenseful internal plotlines and nested minigames, all making for an epic experience that feels like a replay of a big history.
I find the game's historical argument at times fanciful or troublesome, but that has taught me something important. Had this game's systems been harnessed to a more conventional understanding of history, I would not have seen how powerfully it unites mechanic and theme. In my terms, I would say that PaxEm is an outstanding example of a game that melds ludic and discursive rhetorics into a highly didactic game experience. PaxEm further reinforces our faith that board games can make complex historical arguments about important non-military topics.
I hope to develop this analysis further. In the mean time, I hope this helps you decide if this game is for you. It sure was for me. I welcome your comments, corrections, and questions.
- [+] Dice rolls
This started as a response to our ongoing conversation about Pax Enlightenment, but it grew into its own post. Those tired of discussing the ideas (as opposed to the mechanics) in PaxEm might want to pass on this one. Don’t worry; I get it.
I would recommend this online essay on skepticism in the Enlightenment. Many thinkers associated with the Enlightenment espoused great confidence in reason and its possibilities. For example, James Madison delighted “to see the standard of reason at length erected, after so many ages during which the human mind has been held in vassalage by kings, priests, and nobbles.” In throwing off the "superstitions" of the past, though, the Philosophes’ confidence in science became (perversely) a kind of article of faith. In short, take the Philosophes at their own word and they had it all figured out. I think this is what's happened in our recent conversation around Pax Emancipation. Phil’s defenders have accepted the Philosophes pretty much as they would wish to be remembered, as having discovered immutable truths about the world and how it can be studied.
But not even all the so-called "Enlighteners" were as confident in their own conclusions. For example, David Hume ultimately concluded that “all knowledge degenerates into probability” (Treatise, I.iv.i). This is the same David Hume who argued that statements about what is are of a variety distinct from those about about what ought to be; that is, understanding objective reality doesn't necessarily tell us what is right and wrong (this is known as "Hume's Gap"). So here we have a quintessential figure of the Enlightenment, indeed one of the most famous philosophers in the western tradition, whose central ideas seem to undercut the whole notion of Enlightenment positivism that Phil extols.
Phil deals with Hume’s skepticism by presenting him as an outlier, a harbinger of the post-Enlightenment Romantics who undermined positivism. Phil speaks of him directly in the appendix (p. 62):Quote:THE DOWNFALL OF ABSOLUTES. This shocking impression has resulted from the declaration by modern intellectuals that absolutes are passé. Newspeak asserts there are no absolutes, no principles, no good or evil. This trend, started by Hume, Hegel and Kant (all philosophers in this game), overthrew the Enlightenment views that had discovered that the universe and its inhabitants ran according to absolute laws of nature. As one Lockean scholar says: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Notice that the Declaration of Independence uses absolutist terms. Terms such as “truths”, “self-evident”, “all men”, and “unalienable” describe facts necessitated by the nature of existence and, therefore, are unchangeable by human agency or opinion.
The problem is that Hume’s skepticism was not outside the Enlightenment tradition, it was a part of it. As the essay concludes: "Thus, the despairing attitude that Hume famously expresses in the conclusion to Book One of the Treatise, as the consequence of his epistemological inquiry, while it clashes with the self-confident and optimistic attitude we associate with the Enlightenment, in fact reflects an essential possibility in a distinctive Enlightenment problematic regarding authority in belief." In other words, Hume’s skepticism emerged from his engagement with Enlightenment ideas, not his rejection of them. This is just one scholar's approach, but it's in no way an outlier (in fact, it's on the same Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy webpage cited by Phil's defender).
In contrast to Hume, Phil offers us Jefferson the Positivist, firmly asserting the same absolute certitude we’ve seen in our debates about the game. At first glance, this seems to make sense. Phil cites (above) the Declaration of Independence as exemplary of Enlightenment positivism, and praises Jefferson copiously for his antislavery in a footnote:Quote:90 AMERICAN REVOLUTION is classified as left-wing because its Constitution favored intellectual freedoms yet accommodated economic chattel slavery. (Left-wing is defined in this game as when your mind is set free, but your work belongs to society or the politburo.) The glaring contradictions in the Constitution prompted the uncompromising abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (#16) to smear it as "an agreement with Hell,". Yet in fairness, it was penned at a time when the Enlightenment was fresh, and the obvious abolitionist consequences of “all men are created equal” had yet to be expressed. One of the first official condemnations of slavery was Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence (#52), which criticized King George III for having enslaved Africans and for overriding colonial Virginia’s attempt to ban slavery. Jefferson’s draft of a state constitution for Virginia in 1776 proposed banning the importation of slaves and, in 1783, the gradual emancipation of slaves. He was defeated in both these attempts. In the next year, Jefferson proposed a law that would declare slavery illegal in all the western territories, including Alabama and Mississippi. The bill lost by one vote, that of a legislator too sick to come and vote. “Thus we see the fate of millions unborn hanging on the tongue of one man, and heaven was silent in that awful moment!”.—Thomas Jefferson, 1786.But this is only one side of Jefferson. According to the website of Jefferson’s home at Monticello’s (which one would expect to be very authoritative here), “Although he made some legislative attempts against slavery and at times bemoaned its existence, he also profited directly from the institution of slavery and wrote that he suspected black people to be inferior to white people in his Notes on the State of Virginia.” For all of Jefferson’s avowed antislavery, he sided against the slaves in the Haitian Revolution, supported the Missouri Compromise that extended slavery into the West, and failed to pass any of the antislavery measures he proposed.
Furthermore, Jefferson the Philosophe was also Jefferson the scientific racist, who lent the authority of his position to the proposition that people of African descent were of a different order of being. In his famous Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson concluded that Africans were "inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind," then went on to explain why abolition could never and the "races" could never co-exist:Quote:This unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people. Many of their advocates, while they wish to vindicate the liberty of human nature, are anxious also to preserve its dignity and beauty. Some of these, embarrassed by the question 'What further is to be done with them?' join themselves in opposition with those who are actuated by sordid avarice only. Among the Romans emancipation required but one effort. The slave, when made free, might mix with, without staining the blood of his master. But with us a second is necessary, unknown to history. When freed, he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture.
Jefferson didn't arrive at these conclusions because he was holding onto outdated dogma; he believed these things precisely because he was on the cutting edge. Notes on the State of Virginia was a scientific treatise, which Jefferson wrote to share with French Philosophes. His racism reflected the latest thinking on the topic in his day. (Here's a good quick essay placing TJ amidst the racial thinking of his day. Bruce Dain's Hideous Monster of the Mind is also useful here.)
So Jefferson was not an abolitionist. He was slaveholder. He owned more than 600 human beings over the course of his life, and freed only seven (two while he was alive and five in his will). He went to the grave convinced that an institution he knew was wrong could not be relinquished. As he famously wrote to John Holmes in 1820: "as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other."
While Jefferson's commitment to liberty was never sufficient to rid himself of his slaves, the same could not be said of some of his peers, who did better on emancipation. One-time slaveholders John Jay and Benjamin Franklin both founded abolition societies. Jefferson's legal mentor freed all of his slaves before his death, as did Edward Coles, Jefferson's neighbor. George Washington at least manumitted his 123 slaves upon his death, and provided education for them while alive to prepare them for the eventuality. (If you’re interested in reading more about the paradoxes of Jefferson's stands, you might enjoy Joseph Ellis’s very accessible American Sphinx.)
Of even greater damage to Phil's depiction of Jefferson is that he was not at all the "absolutist" (positivist) Phil finds in the Declaration of Independence. Instead, he was himself a skeptic, who acknowledged the bounds of humans’ capacity to reach absolute truth. He did not claim to have discovered the scientific basis for morality. In fact, he claimed the opposite – that no one knew, or could know. He wrote of the "supreme being": “I would not so far blaspheme as to impute to him a pretension of revelation, couched at the same time in terms which, he would know, were never to be understood by those to whom they were addressed.” Jefferson stood against the establishment of a state religion because he could not believe that god (he believed in a deistic one) would reveal The Truth to anyone in such inscrutable ways. Knowing the limits of humans’ capacity to know, Jefferson rejected retreats into absolute truth, and urged us to stay open to possibility: “You must lay aside all prejudices on both sides, and neither believe nor reject anything.” In his day, that looked like established religion; in ours, it would no doubt apply to those who make wildly overstated claims that anyone had Figured It All Out, even were they atheists. As optimistic as it was about the power of reason, the Enlightenment was built on the skepticism that lies at the core of the scientific tradition.
What does all this mean for Phil’s argument? One way to cope with ideas that do not fit our preferred model is to simply assert that they don’t fall within the tradition as we define it; but of course that reasoning quickly becomes utterly circular (why is it right? because I define it as right). And cherry-picking evidence won’t work, because counter-evidence can be easily mustered against it.
Perhaps the response then is that while not all thinkers epitomized all of the Enlightenment's best impulses, it was their ideas that mattered, and not the fallible and inconsistent people who formulated them. In this view, the Enlightenment exists as a kind of model, extracted from the best parts of a huge and variable body of thought. This is the best case I can make for Phil’s approach. The problem with it is quickly evident: Who decides what the “real” enlightenment is and what is not? Which ideas belong, and which do not? On what basis are such decisions made? Whence that standard, and why should anyone trust it?
Of course this is simply my argument. Readers are invited to do their own googling around and learn more for themselves. But you don’t need to rely on me, or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, or even your own googling. You can ask the writer so many are citing in Phil’s defense. I think you'll find that Steve Pinker himself sounds far more cautious about the Enlightenment, and far more tentative in his conclusions, than Phil and his defenders have been. Check out this response to a direct question on the subject:Quote:Q: Isn't there a hubris that's part of the Enlightenment legacy that we always need to be on guard against?
A: Yeah, and the Enlightenment had many contradictory strains, so it's in the very nature of the Enlightenment that it wasn't a doctrine or a catechism of beliefs. It would be impossible to say everything about the Enlightenment is worthy, because they disagreed with each other. There also was a critique of the Enlightenment from Edmund Burke, that we're just not smart enough to design a society from rational principles, so we should respect tradition and [existing] social structures even if we can't explain their rationale, because they keep us from teetering over the brink.
In yet another place, Pinker is happy numbering Hume among the Enlightenment thinkers who called for a “science of man.” This equivocation is no particular crime; the problem would be to misread Pinker, and reduce his views to a certitude he's never claimed. Pinker himself thus emphasizes what Phil’s defenders have not -– that even those in the Enlightenment disagreed with each other, knew they hadn’t figured everything out, and made few claims to universal truths. Their confidence was aspirational.
And their mode was skepticism, not "absolutism" (I'd suggest "positivism" here, since "absolutism" is associated with the "absolute" monarchs whom the Enlightenment opposed). They challenged established views and subjected tradition to reason. They disagree on almost everything – to the point that it’s impossible even to define the edges of the thing we call the Enlightenment. Their skepticism pervaded their work, and limited their claims.
Steve Pinker is one thinker. We might find his ideas intriguing, but that doesn’t make them right. He may construct interesting heuristics for understanding the Enlightenment, or (for this is really what he's doing) for understanding how we should use ideas from the Enlightenment today. But that doesn’t mean his models hold up; in fact, among actual scholars of the Enlightenment, Pinker's critics are legion (I've linked to these in comments).
Approaching these questions as scholars means we do not stop when we find an explanation we like. We may champion a position vigorously, but ultimately we must acknowledge that no scholar’s ideas can be beyond debate. The Pinkers of the world make their living by offering clever idea-models that help them make the points they want to make. That’s fine; just don’t mistake it for Absolute Truth. To do so is actually to reject the very intellectual traditions of the Enlightenment, which demand that we keep ideas in play, reject absolute certitude, remain constructively skeptical, and accept with some humility the limitations of our own knowledge.
In the end, it seems to make the most sense to, like Jefferson, retain some space for maneuver, so we can stay alert for new ideas. If we decide in advance that nothing will shake our resolve, it becomes difficult to incorporate contending views. This is especially true when we want to disarm such views, which becomes nearly impossible if we’re not willing to accept what virtually everyone else accepts: that maybe, just maybe, there may be something to that idea after all.
Last words go to Jefferson, who believed that “Truth is great and will prevail if left to herself, that she is in the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.”
- [+] Dice rolls
30 Jan 2019
I’m hoping to prepare some essays on game principles that eventually might be shared with students. These are some tentative thoughts on some fundamentals. I hope they'll be useful in helping my students understand how historically-themed games make arguments. I welcome your thoughts on what does and doesn’t make sense.
“Mechanics” is a term familiar to those who play lots of board games, or those who read and talk about them, or those who design them. Miguel Sicart’s definition strikes me as a sound start, at the least: “Game mechanics are methods invoked by agents designed for interaction with the game state, thus providing gameplay.” The “game state” describes the current situation in the game. The game state of a Chess game before the first move is the familiar pattern of white and black pieces on their two back rows; the game state of a halted session of Monopoly would describe the distribution of money, the position of pieces on the board (player pieces, houses and hotels, card decks, etc.) and the distribution of money and real estate titles. Mechanics are the rules systems that permit players to alter these things, from the basics of taking turns or rolling and moving, to more complex systems for dealing with bankruptcy.
Boardgamegeek maintains a fairly authoritative list of mechanics. It contains familiar terms such as “worker placement,” “tile placement,” and “voting.” These terms represent categories of mechanics rather than actual mechanics themselves, which exist as the specific “code” of a particular game, as described in the rulebook and sometimes on the game bits themselves. For example, “trick-taking” looks like one thing in the game of Hearts, another in Pinochle, and another in Bridge. “Hex-and-counter” is familiar to most wargamers as a means of regulating space and movement on a game board, but the system can range from Campaign for North Africa to Neuroshima Hex! 3.0 to Hey, That's My Fish!. And other games, like Tactics, use non-hex grids that presaged their six-sided offspring.
We might raise questions about the boundaries of “mechanics”’s value when applied to some familiar concepts. For example, “set collection” is something that happens in games, but the means by which players actually collect game resources can be so variable (card draft, chit pull, auction victory, etc.) that it’s hard to understand what we gain by calling it a mechanic. And terms on the list like “pattern recognition” sound less like useful descriptors of mechanics than mental faculties invoked in playing nearly every game. In what sense exactly is “stock holding,” which presumably describes nothing more than holding a paper certificate, a “mechanic”? If game elements as ubiquitous as “memory” deserve a mechanic category, why not one for “cards”? (Curiously, the list includes “card drafting” but not “card dealing.”)
My point is not to criticize those who developed this list. It’s object was never scientific, after all; it instead reflects common understandings among the gaming communities that developed the list. This is of great value in understanding those communities and the games they made and played from a historical or sociological perspective, but its analytical imprecision is troublesome for those seeking to understand how games work. If we’re going to be analyzing games, we need clearer language. What are “mechanics”? What are they not?
I think that when we talk about tabletop games, we load “mechanics” with too much freight. I want to suggest a distinction that might be of some value: that between a game’s “mechanics” and its “architecture.” (Full disclosure: I floated some of these ideas in a BGG forum thread.)
“Mechanics” is a term best reserved to describe the procedures games permit players to employ to change the game state. The word itself originates in the Ancient Greek word for “labor,” and is closely related to the word “machine.” Like machines, mechanics are about how things are done; they are thus about procedurality, an important concept in game studies. I’ll unpack this later; for now just know that there’s a reason for isolating actions from the things they act upon.
“Architecture” is the term I propose to describe what mechanics act upon. If mechanics are procedures that alter the game state, and the game state is the current disposition of game bits, then a game’s architecture describes the components that are acted upon. This describes not only a game’s bits, but their properties, as in: This is a track used for recording player initiative, which is used to break ties. These wooden pieces are the three kinds of resources that can be collected and converted into other game resources. These cards – which have a cost, an action type, and an end-game value – are collected and used throughout the game.
None of these is a thing you do; they are instead things that are acted upon. They are objects with properties; procedures (mechanics) act upon them. Architecture describes the game components and arrangement that comprise all possible game states; mechanics are used to change those game states. The architecture of a game doesn’t tell you how to do anything when playing, it tells you instead what you’ll change through your actions. A game’s architecture details its objects and their properties, which describe the conditions under which they can altered, how they may be altered, and with what game effect. Mechanics describe the procedures players undertake to make those changes. Here it is in a nutshell: Architecture describes the objects and their properties that make up a game; mechanics are the procedures that permit players to alter these objects and change or invoke their properties.
Chess is built (i.e., its architecture is) such that there are two sets of pieces, identical but for color, comprised of seven types, each of which has specific rules for moving, capturing, and being captured. The mechanics are the procedures detailing how those work – that is, how the state of those pieces on the board is affected. So the architecture of Chess includes the pieces and the board, and their properties, which amount to the principles by which they are changed (this one moves thus, that one captures thus).
Monopoly’s architecture is more complex. In Chess all pieces engage in board conflict. In Monopoly, different kinds of pieces do different things: some represent players, while others represent houses or hotels. The board has a movement track, but this is more than a space to regulate the movement of pieces. It also regulates the placement of real estate, which has several types, and is subdivided further within those types, and is loaded with properties describing ways to purchase or rent, construct structures, collect sets, etc. Monopoly’s mechanics give players the procedures for changing or invoking properties of board spaces, real estate cards, etc.
Architecture defines a game’s objects and their properties; mechanics define the procedures for altering or invoking them.
Note that a rulebook is synonymous with neither architecture nor mechanics. A rulebook is a manual for playing the game. But the game exists as code: objects with properties, and procedures for manipulating them. A game’s rulebook is its primary means for players to understand both its architecture and its mechanics (bits and boards can sometimes help a lot here, too). A rulebook can be much more than merely a description of a game’s architecture and mechanics. A rulebook is also often a game’s most potent site of discursive rhetoric, a concept I will touch on in a minute.
Discursive rhetoric vs. non-discursive/procedural/ludic rhetoric
Distinguishing between architecture and mechanics helps us understand the unique ways games can make arguments. New media studies is teaching us about “non-discursive” ways arguments can be made; Ian Bogost has a term encompassing games’ version of this: “procedural rhetoric.”
As I understand it (I’m still working on this), procedural rhetoric boils down to this: process-oriented systems (like computer programs, or games, or accounting systems) constrain or compel their users to do certain things. Procedural rhetoric is the notion that the objects and codes defining procedural systems constitute a statement about the world. A game in which one player must destroy all others makes a powerful statement; a cooperative game in which players work win or lose together as the they the game system makes quite a different statement. It need not require any particular consciousness or intent of those who designed the system to make this point. Cultural predispositions, ignorance, or many other factors combine to inject meaning into the things we create (from art to computer programs) that they always carry more than their creators can know or intend. The important thing is to start to grasp this notion: that a system’s argument (at least, its procedural rhetoric) emerges not from the discursive realm (the one where descriptive writing and talking about the game give it meaning), it emerges from how you use it (the non-discursive, procedural realm).
If this kind of rhetoric is "non-discursive," there must be a kind that is discursive, right? Let's step back a second. "Rhetoric" is simply the art and science of argument. New media scholarship lets us divide the ways games make statements into discursive and non-discursive modes. Discursive rhetoric is the kind we are familiar with. Historians who write books and essays seeking to explain various historical phenomena engage in discursive rhetoric, using their sentences to convey meaning by "talking" an argument to the reader. Readers encounter discursive arguments as arguments "told" to them as they read. And they process them as such, interpreting words and sentences into meanings understood solely through the act of thinking about what one has read. Discursive rhetoric operates by reading and interpreting rather than undertaking systematic processes.
Games include much discursive material. The part of the rulebook that explains who players represent and what they are doing constitutes discursive material. Another good example are the appendices that often appear in rulebooks to add context to a game, such as the list of state flags found in the rulebook to Founding Fathers. Flavor text on cards is highly discursive. By definition, it does not tell you how to play the game, it tells you something about the game's meaning.
Non-discursive rhetoric describes the other ways cultural productions can assert meaning. Bogost's notion of "procedural rhetoric" speaks to how procedural systems do this, as we have seen. Because it is less familiar, this can be a difficult thing to see in the games we play. In spite of that, indeed because of it, procedurally made arguments can be all the more powerful. As I've discussed in an earlier post, Brenda Braithwaite's game Train offers a classic example, in which the game reveals the horrid purpose of players' actions only after they have become complicit through the act of play -- that is, by doing things the game permits them to do. As Braithwaite explains, students can read about the Middle Passage, but games permit them a way to experience it. We can argue about the relative merits of these things, or their relative success. But first we must get comfortable understanding games in these terms.
I wonder if it makes sense to imagine a subset of procedural rhetoric, which I’d term “ludic rhetoric.” (Remember that procedural rhetoric is a subset of non-discursive rhetoric, which can include, for example, visual rhetoric. So ludic rhetoric would be a subset of a subset.) This describes the even narrower range of ways games can express their procedural rhetoric. Games are a type of data processing system with its own formal requirements. For instance, games must be winnable in some way,* which means they need victory conditions that drive players’ understanding of how to win. Variable outcomes is another formal necessity of games. In history, this engages counter-factuality, or the exploration of different historical possibilities – a practice widely shunned by the historical profession. Teaching history through games thus necessarily entails challenging disciplinary conventions, but this can be an extremely useful way of helping students interrogate the methods of the discipline. I hope to write more on this later.
So what do we get by distinguishing between architecture and mechanics? While we recognize the discursive qualities of a game, we also start focusing on games procedurally: they are comprised of objects with properties, and mechanics that can alter those objects through their properties. These non-discursive qualities of the game constitute its procedural rhetoric, or the argument or statement it makes through the ways it permits us to manipulate its system. We even begin to think about the unique ways that games make non-discursive arguments, or ludic rhetoric.
(This is a topic for another time, but as a historian, I can’t resist the urge to ask: how has it that we’ve even come to think about games in these ways? What led us to new media studies, and game studies, and the incredible explosion of creativity in both making and discussing games? It seems to me that the Eurograme revolution gave us a new capacity to think about games as bundles of mechanics. The old hex-and-counter wargames could be extraordinarily rich mechanically, but I always felt that the strong conventions of these games inhibited a broader analysis of games. We analyzed wargames as wargames, not games. And computer games often sought to exploit the power of digital processing precisely to hide many game mechanics. An ideal of the genre has always been the urge to create a digital simulation so rich that it felt more like reality than a game (see Ready Player One and a zillion other examples). The German games did the opposite. Euro designers purposefully highlighted mechanics, as so many “pasted on” themes suggest. The cleverness and elegance of mechanics became the attraction of these games, as the prominence of Eurogame designer identities suggests. This also comported well with new generations of digital natives, raised on the computer logic of apps. I’d be curious to hear how others think of this.)
Let me know what you think.
I do not claim any of these ideas for my own. They have emerged from a few years’ worth of reading and teaching about boardgames and history. I’ve got a selected bibliography here, but it needs updating. Here are few citations that have informed me here.
Joddy Murra, Non-Discursive Rhetoric: Image and Affect in Multimodal Composition (Albany: SUNY Press, 2009), online.
Jussi Parrikka and Jaakko Suominen, "Victorian Snakes? Towards A Cultural History of Mobile Games and the Experience of Movement," Game Studies 6, no. 1 (2006), online.
Gerald Voorhees, "Discursive Games and Gamic Discourses," communication +1 1, no. 1 (2012),online.
*I hold to the accepted notion that applications such as SimCity are toys rather than games. But in the writing of this I heard about non-games....
- [+] Dice rolls
21 Jan 2019
Pax Emancipation is a game about broad historical processes, and our discussions around it have ranged over wide swaths of intellectual and social history. Thus far in this conversation it's been hard to drill down into the details of the history is presents. That makes it difficult to really evaluate some of the game's claims. I propose we make an attempt at this by considering a specific example from this conversation: Did the British “inherit” slavery from previous forms, or did they devise new ones? I’ve argued the latter, Phil the former.
I challenged Pax Em’s representation of slavery, which seems to minimize Europeans’ role in developing the Atlantic slave system ("New World Slavery"), and suggests that the most plentiful opportunities for emancipation lay not in the Americas and Africa, but Asia.
Here’s a statement to this effect from Phil’s defense of colonialism essay in Pax Pamir, which effectively encapsulates the thesis of Pax Em:Quote:The rush to condemn colonialism ignores the illiteracy, tribal slavery and warlord anarchies that the colonies replaced. Slave conditions would have lasted for centuries until indigenous literacy or Enlightenment values were independently discovered. Whatever vices and abuses occurred under the name of Western imperialism, it was the only tortuous path to freedom.My concern was that this seems to ignore the fact that the colonizers Phil credits with destroying slavery actually built slavery in the Americas.
So here’s the question I understand to be up for debate: Did the British “inherit” slavery from previous forms, or did they devise new ones? (I hope I have that correct, as my goal is a fair question for debate. I’ve no desire to mis-characterize the position, and only want the terms of debate to be crystal clear. If I've offered an unfair summation of the debate, I'd ask for how the question should be posed, because I'm trying to chew on a problem together. For the sake of this essay, I’ll assume we’re in agreement about the question.)
If the table is properly set, let’s go through the arguments.
To my claim that “‘colonialism’ introduced slavery to the Americas” Phil replies that slavery existed throughout the Americas long before Columbus, and reiterates that Europeans merely inherited rather than constructed slavery:Quote:I also published quite a bit about the good and bad of European colonials, including the compromises they made with slavery they inherited (not establish).So European colonizers did not establish the slavery they practiced, they inherited it.
This is a point Sciurus supports:Sciurus wrote:I do have a hard time buying into your big reveal that it was “colonialism” that actually introduced slavery to the Americas" (or elsewhere, for that matter). As you are well aware, slavery has a long and well-entrenched history almost everywhere in the world.To my claim that “it was ’colonialism’ that actually introduced slavery to the Americas” Phil replies: “This statement is wrong. All precolumbian literate states practiced slavery, and every illiterate tribe either practiced or was victimized by slavery, as far as we can tell.”
That seems like a pretty strong start.
Of course, there’s been no offer of actual examples of this, so it’s hard to know exactly what I’m arguing against. I’m a generous interlocutor, though, so in the absence of one I’ll try to construct the best case I can for my opponent, and remain happy to be corrected if I get it wrong. Here’s some easily gleaned relevant info from a credible source, and I know a little about this myself. I’ve learned that some Native Americans did indeed practice forms of “slavery” (here’s a blurb mentioning that slaves were among the things traded among Native Americans at what is now Celilo Falls, Oregon). The Maya, Mexica, and Inca all practiced things Phil would define as slavery. So, yes, of course, “slavery” was practiced in North America before Columbus and Jamestown.
But this “slavery” did not look much like the slavery practiced in European colonies of the New World. For example, Daniel Richter shows us that Iroquois captivity wasn’t about exploiting labor, it was largely about reconstructing the spiritual lacuna left by family members lost to war by assimilating new people into the community. Sometimes Native American “slavery” was about acquiring luxury goods, or seeking protection from enemies, or repaying debts, or acquiring household laborers. But I’ve yet to learn of any Native American society wherein slavery was a central feature of the economy. Contrast this with the slavery that developed in the colonial Chesapeake, wherein an international trade network supplied a plantation economy in desperate need of agricultural labor.
Obviously, this raises questions about terminology and definitions. Here’s how one scholar puts it :Quote:In the literature on Native Americans, terms such as slavery, slave, adoption, or prisoner often are used interchangeably Moreover, they tend to refer to social relations between individual and different Native American tribes, as well as to those between Indian and non-Indian persons. Not uncommonly, one author speaks of an individual as the adoptee of an Indian tribe, while another author may classify the same individual’s social status as that of a slave or prisoner. These terms express Euro-American conceptions applied to social institutions of Indian tribes, who often did not possess a word for slave in their own language.So the first thing to note is that defining “slavery” in the broad terms Pax Em does raises questions about whether a specific practice is actually “slavery.” Phil might argue against this by saying that he has an objective definition of slavery that always works, and maybe it does, but it has yet to withstand scholarly scrutiny. Absent such support, we are left with contending definitions. Doubtlessly, there is value in understanding “slavery” in the very broad terms he proposes. Scale and resolution matter in History, and there are times when broad concepts enlighten (as in understanding that forms of indentured servitude bear close resemblances to chattel slavery, for example). But there are pitfalls to relying too much on an 8-bit picture when a 32 is required, just as there is much value in appreciating how a word or concept as loaded as “slavery” can vary from place to place. Without nuance, we lose precision. We also lose an understanding of the slave's experience. Eklund may think that "It hardly matters to her if her master is a private lord or a public socialist"(PaxEm, p. 7, n. 18), but I'm sure it matters a great deal to the slave herself.
Beyond these problems with terms, we have a problem of evidence. Had British colonizers “inherited” slavery, we would expect evidence to this effect, no? We’d see “slavery” practices that looked like those of the Native Americans they inherited them from, right? And we’d hope for “smoking gun” evidence, perhaps in the form of slavery’s practitioners acknowledging their debt to the slave system they inherited, right? Whatever it looks like, there needs to be some evidentiary link between Native American practices of slavery and England’s for this argument to work. Because we all know that “correlation is not causation,” which here would mean that the appearance of “slavery” in pre-Columbian North America was not necessarily or automatically connected with any slavery practiced thereafter.
The problem is that there is no such evidence, smoking or of any other variety. If anyone has any at hand, please share it.
If there’s no evidence that English colonizers relied upon the forms of slavery that existed in North America before they came, there is voluminous evidence supporting a different conclusion. Once we can start accepting that there were meaningful distinctions in historical slaving practices, we can start making some useful claims about the sources of English slavery in the New World. Let's start with the earliest and most important slave colony the English developed: Virginia.
The story I would tell goes something like this: The first Africans we know to have lived in English colonies were the “20. And odd Negroes” brought by a Dutch ship that John Rolfe reported landing in 1619. It is not known whether these came as servants or slaves, nor is their legal status in Virginia society known. This is important. The first English settlers – whether in Virginia, Barbados, or Massachusetts – came with no law of slavery. Slavery had withered in medieval England. By 1569 the court had ruled (in Cartwright’s Case) that “England was too pure an air for a slave to breathe in.” In 1619 English colonizers had no recognized English law of slavery. They knew of slavery, but they had no rulebook for practicing it.
In the colonies of Virginia and Barbados and Massachusetts they needed one. Colonization resulted from voyages of discovery and exploitation, of course (if you want to see how exploitative, check out Roger Crowley’s eminently readable book Conquerors: How Portugal Forged The First Global Empire). This meant contact between Iberian and Mediterranean societies, which both did still practice slavery, and the Islamic and sub-Sarahan African worlds, which of course also had slavery. When they could, Europeans connected to these existing slave trade networks, but then expanded them and put them to different purposes. By the time 1619 rolled around, the Portuguese had spent well over a century developing the Atlantic slave trade, as well as showing everyone how profitable it could be to put these laborers to use in sugar fields.
In this sense Europeans “inherited” the slavery of earlier generations, but these were not the forms that existed in the Americas before colonization. Perhaps we may say they "inherited" people, in the form of the Africans who came to them, but they did not inherit the legal codes that defined status in the English colonies. When in 1619 people from Africa came to Virginia unfree, no existing English laws dictated their status. Only when confronted with a people it needed to define as subordinates did they begin making the laws that did that work.
England’s role was to adopt and transform this institution into the thing we understand to be Atlantic slavery, a form quite different from its precursors because of its single-minded dedication to the mass forced migration and exploitation of millions of beings for the purposes of extracting wealth from newly “discovered” lands. The English didn’t pick up slavery from Native Americans, or even from Africans; they picked up "slaves" from the Portuguese, Spanish, French, and Dutch -- then had to figure out the rules they would use to govern them. Lacking a slave code, English colonizers quickly learned that laws were necessary to control the people they were exploiting, because those people steadfastly resisted their reduction to things. We see this in the legal codes that developed anew on Virginia soil, which clearly demonstrate that in 1619 legal distinctions between servants and slaves and white and blacks simply did not exist (social distinctions were another matter); after all, it takes new concerns to trigger the making of new laws.
We do not even know when Virginians began holding African laborers for their entire lives. Our first reference to perpetual slavery comes incidentally, from a law of 1660:Quote:BEE itt enacted That in case any English servant shall run away in company with any negroes who are incapable of makeing satisfaction by addition of time, Bee it enacted that the English so running away in company with them shall serve for the time of the said negroes absence as they are to do for their owne by a former act.
Presumably, runaway “negroes” could not “satisfy” their punishment “by the addition of time” because they served for life. That’s it; that's what we've got for our earliest evidence of legally-codified perpetual enslavement in England's mainland colonies. Not a thought given to Native American slavery, and not a slave code replicated from Iberian or African sources -- instead, colonizers accepted the forced laborers that came into their midsts with unclear status, and began to define that status.
After that, we start seeing new laws defining matters more clearly. In 1662 Virginia legislators developed the law of hypodescent, which in decreeing that slave/free status followed the mother, gave European men access to slave women without the worry of birthing free children. Other laws did the work of formalizing and refining the racial caste system (you can check out some of these codes for yourself easily). A 1667 act declared that “baptisme of slave doth not exempt them from bondage,” thus closing a loophole some slaves used to become free. The first languages of colonization had highlighted religious differences between the English and their African laborers (they were "a People of beastly living, without a God, Law, Religion, or Commonwealth"), but when religion no longer served as a marker of difference, skin color assumed full duties for that task. Finally, they forbade racial intermarriage, thus suppressing the possibility that intermixing would (like baptism) erase the distinctions that justified enslavement, and solidify the connection between status (class) and skin color (caste): all whites were to be free and all blacks were to be enslaved.
It took time for this to develop. In 1645, the African-born Anthony Johnson could proudly assert his free status to the court that questioned it: “Now I know myne owne ground and I will work when I please and play when I please.” As the decades passed, it became more and more difficult for those such as Johnson to become or stay free. By the time all this was codified in 1705, nearly a century had passed, and Virginia had gone from a place with no slave code that wasn’t even sure what slavery was, to a place where it had a clear meaning: slaves were African-descended people who were bought and traded as commodities, served perpetually, even over new generations, and had no rights whatsoever in law. (This is of course quite different from Iroquois “slavery,” in which captives were adopted into the community as fictive kin meant to replace the spiritual energy of lost loved ones.) By the eve of the American Revolution, Lord Mansfield could rule that slavery was “so odious” to liberty that it could exist in English lands only with “positive law.” In other words, England had no slave code and so conferred freedom to anyone stepping on its soil (the Somerset principle), but the colonies were another matter entirely; slave codes developed on American soil positively asserting the existence of chattel bondage were perfectly fine. The British Empire thus consisted of a metropolitan home world which was free, and a colonial world with its own, homegrown legal codes enforcing slavery. So much for equality for all.
On this basis, I assert that the form of slavery the English developed in America did not owe to earlier precursors in the land they had settled, or even on the slave codes of other nations that practiced it. It developed anew from the conditions of settlement. The notion that the English “inherited” slavery from the Native Americans who came before is simply untenable. I can find no scholar who makes it, and no instructor who teaches it (you can see here how the College Board’s AP program handles this question).
That's my case. It was not the Native Americans who enslaved Europeans, after all, it was Columbus and his followers who enslaved Native Americans. There is no evidence that England’s North American colonizers relied upon previous examples of Native American slavery in their slave codes, for they neither knew nor understood what Native American slavery was about. The overwhelming evidence is that the slave systems of colonial America came from different sources. Colonizers accepted the Africans brought to them by others, then developed the legal structures necessary to develop, maintain, promote, and expand a particular system of chattel bondage. The English made their slavery.
I think that's a strong case, but it's far from perfect. I could make it stronger with more time and space, but it will never be airtight. Nor would I want it to be. Where's the fun in that? I want to keep learning new things, and refining my arguments as I go.
Why should we care about all this? First, recall where this question fits: Eklund has made a game about how the British took the lead in ending slavery across the globe, and has explicitly argued that while they made evil “compromises,” they only "inherited" these oppressive institutions. The point of that argument is clearly exculpatory. What’s more, he depicts the fight against slavery as a struggle of rational Western ideas against erroneous Eastern ones, raising concerns that his depictions are Orientalist or worse (check out historian Jeremey Antley‘s take on it). Presumably, Eklund argues that England only inherited its slavery because that would undermine his case for an Enlightened West. If it turns out that England actually developed its own form of slavery, or perhaps even that Enlighteners themselves condoned and practiced slavery, where does that leave his argument?
The claim that the European colonizers inherited rather than developed the form of slavery they practiced is not only misleading and inaccurate, it supports larger Eurocentric claims for the superiority of Western ideas over Eastern ones. Large arguments are made from relatively small data points; if this one cannot stand up to close scrutiny, what about others? England did not simply adopt slavery from pre-existing practice, and it cannot evade culpability for developing its own slave codes, consciously and purposely, so that it could more effectively exploit the African laborers who came to it with unclear status.
Beyond clarifying the actual content, this incident also teaches us some important things about how academic discourse works when it works well:
First, it's hard to argue the merits of a case when it's hard to even agree on what one is contending. Footnotes alone are not as effective as essays at laying out the structure of an argument, and inviting its evaluation. Phil offers a richly informed argument about colonialism, abolition, and the Enlightenment -- it's just hard to pin down. Of course a game is not an essay, but essays frequently accompany games, especially heavier ones with historical themes. Short version: the conventions of academic writing exist to make accessing the argument easy, and this is possible in a game manual as well.
Second, working toward truth requires staying open to possibilities, a quest that hubris can impede. A great many books have been written on the subject of slavery (e.g., check out the work of Ira Berlin). It's hard to accept that anyone could have read, digested, and evaluated it all, and thus it's hard to accept that anyone has it perfectly right. Good arguments stand the test of time, but good scholars stay open to new ideas. But when the only thing that will falsify an argument is an act of a deity not believed to exist, it's hard to imagine the argument responding to new information.
After all, the point of these discussions is not to win arguments or resist modifying one’s own, but to leverage each others’ knowledge and insight to collectively arrive at a better understanding of the past. If we cannot even agree on the point we’re debating, or we reject all challenges out of hand, what’s the point of discussion at all? An attitude of openness, some humility about our capacity to know, and a willingness to play with ideas (which comes naturally to gamers) are wonderful assets to bring to the enterprise.
To this end (this is the last beat of this essay, I promise), I can easily see how Phil and I could grow our arguments rather than remain in our trenches. Ideally, conversations not only lead us to new insights, they also help us reframe problems. This may in fact be their great importance to the cause. Perhaps, in true academic fashion, we can each now modify our claims so that we can produce a better frame for our investigations.
Here’s my proposal: There is obvious truth to the notion that Atlantic slavery had precursors (though not Native American ones), which were then modified into a historically distinct form of slavery. I continue to argue that it’s most useful to think that the slavery developed in colonial America was historically distinct in important ways (most capitalistic, the form that inspired abolition, etc.). But of course no historical phenomenon is utterly without cause, and anything as significant and widespread as slavery is likely to be no different. So I am all for exploring the linkages between Old World Slavery and New World Slavery.
And I suggest a concession for Phil, if he'll have it: Perhaps he’d be willing to agree that a blanket and unqualified “they inherited slavery from those who came before” is so general that it doesn't help us much, because it tells us so little about who they inherited it from, how and why, and what they did with it once they inherited it. Perhaps he can concede that when we drill down into the story, there might be ways to add useful nuance and depth to his vision of this past.
If so, we might use this to transform our question into one that doesn’t compel us to argue a simple yes or no: To what extent did the legal definitions of Atlantic slavery continue or depart from their Old World precursors? If Europeans inherited slavery, whom did they inherit it from, and how did they modify it? Under what conditions, and to what degree? How much should we emphasize continuity with past practice versus discontinuity?what were the mechanism of information transmission on slavery, and how did they operate? Those are questions likely to yield fascinating conversations about what was new about New World Slavery and what was old. Those are the kinds of problems I want my students working on. That’s the kind of historical conversation I was hoping to have with Phil Eklund.
Pax Em represents a formidable and pioneering attempt to discuss important historical issues through a game. It holds out promise that it’s possible for ludic and academic discourses to intersect. But I cannot use it as an unqualified model for my students, because it offers a suspect history, it lacks clear and sufficient engagement with the long and deep historiographical traditions that inform it, and its argument is presented in a way that resists critical evaluation and analysis. That doesn’t mean I won’t use it, by the way; it means that I will put it in conversation with other approaches to these questions, and let students decide for themselves.
I'm happy to end with another statement of my admiration for Phil's accomplishment, and my best wishes to him, and for the success of this game and all his others. And, as ever, I'm curious to hear all thoughts.
 Renate Bartle, “Native American Tribes and Their African Slaves,” in Slave Cultures and the Cultures of Slavery, Stephan Palmie, ed. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995), 162-63.
 A Complete Collection of State Trials and Proceedings for High Treason and Other Crimes and Misdemeanors, T.B. Howell, comp. (London: T.C. Hansard, 1814), 20:51.
 Readers interested in more might start with Ch. 3 of Ron Takaki's Different Mirror, which can be conveniently found here. consult Alden Vaughan, “The Origins Debate: Slavery and Racism in Seventeenth-Century Virginia,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 97, no. 3, "A Sense of Their Own Power": Black Virginians, 1619-1989 (July 1989): 311-54 (link); Jonathan A. Bush, “Free to Enslave: The Foundations of Colonial American Slave Law,” Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities 5, no.2 (digital commons); A. Leon Higginbotham, Shades of Freedom: Racial Politics and Presumptions of the American Legal Process (New York: Oxford UP, 1996) (link); kevin Mumford, “After Hugh: Statutory Race Segregation in Colonial America, 1630-1725,” American Journal of Legal History 43, no. 3 (July 1999): 280-305 (link).
 Sounds like it would literally take Hell to freeze over.
Patrick: “What kind of evidence would negate your claim [about this question of slavery’s origin] and cause you to re-examine it?”
Phil: "I would re-examine this conclusion if a violation of natural law was ever observed, anywhere in the universe. So far, however, every claim to the supernatural has turned out to be either mistaken, or Newton's formulation of natural law needed adjusting."
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19 Jan 2019
I began this with the sole intention of offering players of this great game one historian's take on the historical issues it raises. I’m honored that the designer has taken the time to respond, and I appreciate him for doing so. We may wind up agreeing to disagree, but the point is to offer readers/players some food for thought on Pax Em.
I’m not going to be able to keep up a conversation (classes start in a few days), but let me take a second and summarize a response. There’s more here than there’s time to respond to, but here are some starts.Quote:Planets go around the sun, because of the Laws of Nature. Similarly, civilizations succeed and fail because of the Laws of Nature, specifically laws grounded in the Nature of humans as volitional beings.
And what exactly are these Laws of Nature, grounded in the Nature of humans as volitional beings? Many would kill to know. And if you produced them, how would we know that these are THE laws of nature, and not just your well-meaning version?Quote:Conscious beings with free will on Alpha Centauri would be bound by the exact same Natural Laws, and such beings will prosper once they discover these laws.
This is the kind of claim that makes it hard to engage seriously, because of course we simply don’t know enough about consciousness (or Alpha Centaurians), to know for sure. I don’t see the value in asserting things with such impossible degrees of certitude; it leaves you no room for maneuver.Quote:Slavery is no "fiction", it is very definable and unfortunately real.
I won’t bother to discuss “social facts” again. But if slavery is very definable, what explains the amazing array of conflicting definitions people have offered over time? What explains why yours is sui generis and not widely shared? Who has the right one, and how do we know it’s the right one?Quote:History is a science, therefore facts, data, and the scientific method are relevant,
History is not a hard science, because it often lacks many elements of the sciences, such as consistently reproducible results, complete datasets, etc. But I agree whole-heartedly that facts, data, and method are relevant — indeed they are necessary. One can (and when possible should) work “scientifically” (I would say “rationally”) when doing history, but usually historians want to claim things they cannot assert with scientific certitude. Was Lincoln right to resupply Fort Sumter? Was Comwell a liberator or a tyrant? Did Joan of Arc really talk to god? These are questions historians regularly address without complete scientific certitude.Quote:and one can say what is right and what is wrong scientifically.
I don’t think so. Hume’s Gap again. Was it right or wrong for Churchill to permit the bombing of Coventry because he feared it would tip the Germans to British intelligence sources? Which was worse, Aztec practice of ritual sacrifice, or the decimation of the Aztec population by Cortes and his conquistadores? When abolitionists purchased Frederick Douglass’s freedom to help keep him safe, were they wrong because they thus affirmed the legitimacy of property in man? What is the “science” that resolves these questions? Even knowing every fact possible to know about these incidents, we’re still left with a value judgement.
Let me be clear: just because one person doesn’t have it all figured out doesn’t mean we can’t make any claims or assertions at all. This is actually the beauty of a discipline like History: there is usually not one indisputably “correct” answer, there is only a series or more of less defensible answers. Method — the principles by which historians adduce explanations from the data that survive — offers some principles (non ironclad) that have been developed over time to help adjudicate between conflicting historical claims. This is about the best we can do, which is important to acknowledge. In fact, historians frequently discuss and write on these methodological questions, without (as you might imagine) ever coming to solid conclusions. It’s messy, but that’s actually what academic discourse looks like.
Were history reducible to scientific principles (remember Hari Seldon in Asimov’s Foundation?) most of the our disputes would be resolved: Israel-Palestine, land redistribution in southern Africa, the fate of Confederate monuments, etc. Would be nice, but we’re not there, and there’s no indication we will get there.
So rather than make the impossible assertion that history is a science in which all is reducible to a set of clearly demonstrable Truths, we might instead accept the limitations of our knowledge and methods. That helps keep us appropriately humble in the face of so much we don’t know, and promotes empathy: after all, we might not know as much as we think we know; maybe there’s something to consider in what others say. That’s the approach I encourage among my students, anyway.Quote:History is the study of man by his past actions, and one can see which politics are moral and which immoral by how they turned out.
If so, you would be able to produce a demonstration. I offered three possible historical examples above. What irreducible scientific principles tell us what was right and wrong in those instances?Quote:“The Enlighteners made the discovery that rights could be defined in such as way as to be non-contradictory.”
I know of no historian who has ever, or would ever, argue such a thing. Which Enlighteners? In which works? How do we know they were right?
The problem with this kind certitude is that it’s ultimately unshareable. You’re saying pretty clearly that you know what those principles are: they are your versions of bits picked from the Enlightenment. You may indeed be correct, but now you’re confronted by the same problem confronting religious leaders: how can you convincingly demonstrate to that public that the principles you’ve identified as scientifically and unequivocally denoting Right and Wrong are the right ones?
Early modern astronomers proved that the earth went around the sun, but no amount of science will nail the case shut on the morality of abortion, US involvement in Syria, wealth inequality, or Christian fundamentalism. Science, reason, and method can and should be brought to bear on those conversations, but ultimately the moral decisions must be ours; we cannot foist them off on distant deities, or (for that matter) distant Philosophes.
Why not? Because someone will present a clash of rights, the resolution of which does not seem to clearly emerge from demonstrable principles. Someone will say, “well, I don’t agree with you on your definition of ‘the good,” at which point you’ll be forced to defend it as The Truth, which can only be done through circular reasoning rather than scientific demonstration. This is the same problem religious leaders confront: every one claims to have a hotline to universal truth, but they never seem to have the same message, or be able to show that theirs is THE message.
It’s great to see the way your ideas inform your game designs. But when you suggest that morality is a science that works in scientifically demonstrable absolute truths you’re making claims that simply aren’t defensible. And when you conflate that view with “the Enlightenment,” the historian in me needs to remind us: this is your amalgam of many ideas; others would arrange and emphasize components of Enlightenment political thought in quite different ways, as I’ve suggested throughout these notes. That doesn’t make one view “right” and all others “wrong”; it means that a conversation is happening in which these things are getting tossed around and teased out. That, too, is not a scientific process, though it can be a rational one.
Finally, let me leave by suggesting that, to me at least, the historical central question raised in this game is: where did Enlightenment notions of freedom come from? (I’m not saying that the game or designer have or had any obligation to address this, I’m saying that this is a fascinating question the game raises for those who play it.) The game presents a world in which new notions of freedom are spread across the globe. Where did those ideas come from? In the game, they emerge from the people who espoused them. But how did they come to espouse them? What was the relationship (if any) between the ideas fomenting in the Enlightenment and the material realities of colonial slavery? There are rich veins of scholarship on this, some of which I’ve referenced elsewhere. I hope players/readers will use their interest in this game to explore some of it on their own.
Thanks for making a great game, Phil; I can't wait to play it some more. You're a pioneer in making games that make thoughtful arguments. It's never much fun to be on the hot seat, but your creation demands this kind of engagement.
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