Décoloniser Catan
Postcolonial Catan

v315- grand chaman

En août dernier, à la Gen Con d’Indianapolis, j’ai fait une conférence à demi sérieuse sur le postcolonialisme et le jeu de société. Improvisant à partir d’une page de notes, je me suis beaucoup amusé, et je tente donc, après-coup, de mettre sur le papier mes reflexions, en enlevant les vannes les plus discutables et en ajoutant quelques idées qui me sont venues à l’esprit depuis. Bien sûr, le thème « postcolonial Catan » était une blague, mais je ne suis plus tout à fait certain que tout ce que j’’écris ici relève du canular. Les textes de Saïd étant moins lus en France qu’aux États-Unis, il se peut que certaines références échappent aux lecteurs français – mais je les invite alors à lire Orientalisme (plus facile) et Culture et Impérialisme (plus sérieux mais, peut-être, plus daté).

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Colons et indigènes

L’histoire commence il y a vingt ans, lorsque j’ai, pour la première fois, joué aux Colons de Catan. Dès l’explication des règles, l’une des premières remarques amusées d’un joueur fut «  mais où sont les indigènes? ». Peut-être cette question se pose-t-elle plus naturellement au joueur français parce que le jeu s’appelle « les Colons de Catane ». La langue française n’a en effet qu’un seul terme, Colon, là ou l’anglais et l’allemand en ont deux, Settler / Siedler et Colonist / Kolonist, aux sens très différents. Le settler arrive, pose son sac à dos, sort sa hache et part abattre des arbres et chasser l’ours pour construire sa cabane, tandis que le colonist débarque, fait porter sa malle, et s’installe tranquillement dans sa villa, entouré de domestiques, voire d’esclaves. Die Siedler von Catan, ce n’est pas la même chose que Die Kolonisten von Catan.

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Les Colons de Catane, tout récemment rebaptisés Catane, titre plus politiquement correct.

Quoi qu’il en soit, il n’y a pas d’indigènes sur Catan, à l’exception peut-être d’un bandit noir et solitaire dont on ne peut pas vraiment dire qu’il résiste à l’envahisseur, puisqu’il est recruté tour à tour par les différents joueurs. Ma première idée d’extension fut d’ajouter une nouvelle ressource, des champignons permettant de lancer des sorts – c’est aussi l’époque où je découvrais Magic. La deuxième fut de faire jouer la résistance indigène par un joueur. Toutes deux en restèrent au stade de vague projet.

À peu près à la même date que les colons de Catan et Magic the Gathering, en 1993, paraissait le pavé postcolonial d’Edward Saïd, Culture et Impérialisme. Je ne l’ai lu qu’une vingtaine d’années plus tard et ai alors été amusé par la similarité entre la remarque sur les indigènes faite plus haut et ce qu’écrivait Saïd des romans du XIXème siècle, et en particulier de Mansfield Park, de jane Austen, dans lequel l’esclavage et les esclaves, qui ne sont jamais cités, constituent un arrière plan indispensable au récit. Bien sûr, les temps ont changé. Les puissances européennes n’ont plus de colonies, et l’Allemagne, d’où nous viennent les jeux de société modernes, n’en eut jamais beaucoup. Mais quand même, il y a peut être quelque chose…

La question va bien au delà de l’euphémisation politiquement correcte de certaines réalités historiques, qui a déjà souvent été moquée ou  critiquée. Le problème de Puerto Rico n’est d’ailleurs pas qu’il y ait des esclaves, le problème est qu’ils sont appelés colons. De même, le problème de Saint Petersbourg est que ce qui fut sans doute l’un des pires épisodes de travail forcé dans l’histoire européenne y est traité comme une compétition de joyeux artisans.

Partir de rien

Le problème est différent avec Catan. L’action ne se déroule pas en un temps ou en un lieu précis, et le nom Catan a sans doute été choisi pour son aspect neutre, pas trop exotique. Catane est en Sicile, donc vers le sud, mais trop loin vers le sud. Les graphismes sont délibérément très européens – on élève des moutons, pas des lamas, des bisons ou des antilopes. La colonisation de Catan, c’est une colonisation de rêve, celle d’un nouveau monde vide de toute présence humaine et qui ressemble avec insistance à l’ancien. Nous savons tous que cela ne s’est jamais passé ainsi, que c’était toujours différent et grouillant d’indigènes.

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Un nouveau monde qui ressemble étonnamment à l’ancien

Bien sûr on peut expliquer cela, sans avoir recours à des fantasmes ou complexes occidentaux, à partir des simples nécessités techniques du jeu. Dans la plupart des jeux de développement, les joueurs partent de rien, ou de pas grand chose – deux comptoirs et deux routes dans Catan – et progressivement mettent en place une structure, un appareil de production qui va se retrouver en concurrence avec les appareils adverses. Ce qui séduit dans ces jeux, et qui était relativement nouveau à la parution des Colons de Catan, c’est que les joueurs se font concurrence, rivalisent dans la construction de leurs structures, mais ne s’affrontent pas directement, ne se font pas la guerre.

Le thème colonial peut poser problème, mais seulement s’il est trop évident. Récemment, un ami joueur m’a dit avoir été un peu gêné en jouant à Endeavor (mais il n’a bien sûr jamais eu la moindre difficulté à jouer à des jeux de guerre, ce qui soulève un autre problème intéressant). C’est sans doute pour cette raison que Catan porte un nom peu exotique, et que beaucoup d’autres jeux de développement « à partir de rien » ont des thèmes moins problématiques, comme la préhistoire, ou l’espace lointain. Dans les jeux de colonisation d’expansion spatiale, les joueurs sont généralement des peuples aliens qui s’affrontent dans un univers vide. Dans Ad Astra, un jeu en partie inspiré de Catan que j’ai conçu avec Serge Laget, il y a bien des artefacts aliens sur quelques planètes, mais ils ont été laissés là par des civilisations depuis longtemps disparues et oubliées.

Ad Astrastar trek catanColoniser l’espace

Il est d’ailleurs étonnant de noter qu’il y a aussi de très nombreux jeux sur l’époque de la révolution industrielle. Martin Wallace s’est longtemps fait une spécialité de ces gros jeux dans lesquels les joueurs sont des industriels rivaux bâtissant des usines, ou des barons du rail tissant leurs toiles. On n’y voit guère plus d’ouvriers ou de cheminots que d’indigènes dans les jeux de colonisation développement. L’univers Steampunk, qui est à la révolution industrielle ce que l’heroic fantasy est au Moyen-Âge, est aussi de plus en plus présent dans les jeux – j’y reviendrai.
Une fois encore, on peut trouver assez logique que les auteurs de jeux aient fait appel aux deux moteurs de la croissance du XIXème siècle, la colonisation et l’industrialisation, pour bâtir des jeux qui sont des courses pour bâtir un appareil de production efficace. Enfin, bon, je devrais peut-être poser Said et relire Industrie et Empire, d’Eric Hobsbawn.

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Bons vieux jeux

Au delà des raisons techniques, il me semble qu’il y a quand même quelque chose sinon de réactionnaire, du moins de passéiste ou romantique dans les thèmes privilégiés encore aujourd’hui par le jeu de société – et rien de tel, en comparaison, dans les jeux videos.

La forme romanesque a été assimilée, transformée et renvoyée vers (ou à la gueule de) l’Europe par des écrivains postcoloniaux comme Salman Rushdie, mais nous attendons toujours un auteur de jeu de société postcolonial. L’univers du jeu n’est pourtant pas hermétique à la critique, voire à la subversion, comme le montre le succès de Cards Against Humanity – nous avons William Burroughs, pas encore Salman Rushdie. Le jeu de société reste donc l’une des formes culturelles les plus typiquement, et presque exclusivement, occidentales – j’expliquerai un peu plus loin comment j’intègre les petits jeux japonais dans ce schéma.

Il n’y a pas que les thèmes des jeux qui soient d’un romantisme vieillot et plein de charme. Le style graphique va avec, comme l’illustrent les boites des Colons de Catan et des Aventuriers du Rail, sans doute les deux jeux de société un peu ambitieux les plus marquants de ces vingt dernières années. Le jeu est en effet utilisé comme anxiolytique dans des sociétés occidentales moins sures d’elles qu’elles ne l’étaient il y a quelques dizaines d’années, ce qui explique plein de choses – le look et les thèmes retro, le fait qu’auteurs et joueurs soient majoritairement des hommes vieux et blancs (j’en suis un), le fait que les ventes de jeux soient sinon contracycliques, du moins peu affectées par la conjoncture économique.

ticket to rideticket to ride europe

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Mais revenons un peu à une forme particulière d’univers romantique, exotique et rétro, le steampunk. Le steampunk m’intéresse ici parce que c’est essentiellement un univers ludique – et un univers de costumes. Il n’y a pas de musique steampunk, il y a peu de films steampunks, il n’y a presque pas de littérature steampunk (même si tout le monde devrait lire À Contre Jour, de Thomas Pynchon), mais il y a pléthore de jeux de société, de jeux de roles et maintenant de GNs steampunks. Le steampunk, ce n’est pas seulement l’esthétique victorienne avec un peu plus de bronze brillant et d’acier luisant , c’est aussi un univers rassurant, dans lequel les bonnes vieilles puissances européennes s’affrontent encore pour le contrôle du proche cosmos – et s’il y a des indigènes sur Mars, on peut là encore les ignorer, comme Bruno Cathala et moi l’avons fait dans Mission : Planète Rouge. Certes, je viens d’ajouter pour la deuxième édition une carte découverte « Résistance indigène », mais c’est une idée qui ne m’est venue qu’en écrivant cet article.

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Isla Dorada et Onward to Venus, deux versions du colonialisme steampunk

Minimalisme

Et, donc, que se passe-t-il lorsque des « orientaux » inventent des jeux de société ?

love lettereat me if you can

Il y a quelques mois, j’avais écrit ici un article sur les jeux de cartes conçus et publiés ces dernières années au Japon, et dont le plus connu est sans doute Love Letter, de Seiji Kanai. J’avais  intitulé mon article « minimalisme japonais », et j’y suggérai qu’un atavisme local pouvait expliquer la remarquable économie de moyens dont faisaient preuve les auteurs japonais, tant dans les règles des jeux que dans leur matériel. Je risquai même quelques références littéraires – Soseki, Kawabata – et des allusions à des domaines que je ne connais guère, cuisine et jardins zen. Il s’en est sans doute fallu de peu que je parle aussi de bonsais et de haikus.

Les quelques lecteurs japonais de mon blog ont été choqués. Pour eux, le minimalisme japonais n’existe pas, ou du moins n’est pas une caractéristique originelle de la culture nippone mais une invention de l’occident ayant pour fonction de l’objectiver, soit très exactement ce qu’Edward Saïd appelle orientalisme dans son livre éponyme (même si Saïd ne parle jamais du Japon, pour des raisons qui mériteraient d’être étudiées). La remarque était fort bien vue, et peut être confirmée en tapant « japanese minimalism » dans Google – on trouve alors essentiellement des cabinets d’architecte et des magasins de meuble californiens, mais aucun site japonais. La question est quand même discutée, et je viens de commander le texte de référence de ceux qui affirment que le minimalisme japonais existe, et qu’il est vraiment japonais, Compact Culture – mais ce bouquin est écrit par un coréen, O-Young Lee – c’est déjà louche ;-).

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Le comble de l’orientalisme : un jeu japonais resitué dans un univers fantastique japonisant pour le marché américain…

On m’expliqua donc que, si les jeux de cartes japonais étaient si petits, si légers, si discrets, c’était pour des raisons plus techniques que culturelles, liés aux coûts d’impression élevés, à la taille du marché, etc… peut-être même n’était-ce dû qu’au hasard de la personnalité des auteurs japonais, encore peu nombreux. Ces auteurs, d’ailleurs, se revendiquent des mêmes références que les miennes – Les colons de Catan, encore eux, Magic the Gathering, etc…. et ne pensent donc pas que leurs jeux soient typiquement japonais. Seiji Kanai cite, et j’en suis flatté, mon Or Des Dragons parmi les jeux qui lui ont donné envie de devenir un créateur de jeu, et au dos du plus minimaliste de ces jeux, Eat Me if you Can de Jun’Ichi Sato, est bien écrit “eurogame”.

Et voila pour l’école japonaise… Bien sûr, le fait que tous ces auteurs fassent de petits jeux de cartes et non des jeux de cartes japonais n’enlève rien à leur talent.

Rêve d’Orient

Dans Orientalisme, Edward Said montre comment le discours orientaliste européen, qu’il étudie essentiellement à travers la littérature du XIXème siècle mais qui se retrouve dans bien d’autres domaines, créa son propre objet, un Orient fantasmé et objectivé, qui finit par devenir une partie de l’Orient réel. Ceci, bien sûr, était inséparable de l’idéologie et du processus coloniaux.

La littérature mondiale est déjà devenue largement postcoloniale, tout comme la musique (le rap est un rock postcolonial) ou le cinéma. Rien de tel n’est advenu dans les jeux de société, qui continuent imperturbablement à présenter l’orient exotique des images d’Epinal.

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Bania et Five Tribes, deux nouveautés de cette fin d’année 2014. On remarquera la typographie et les cadres.

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Charles Chevalier présente Sultaniya à Paris Est Ludique, en juin 2014.

Il suffit pour s’en convaincre de jeter un bref coup d’œil à quelques unes des centaines de boites de jeux au thème oriental ou orientalisant publiées chaque année, dont l’illustration de couverture semble sortir tout droit d’une peinture de Guéricault ou, plus souvent, d’une encyclopédie populaire des années cinquante. Pour le monde arabe, des chameaux, des dunes de sable, des marchands de soie ou d’épice, parfois un djinn. Pour l’Inde, bien sûr éternelle, il suffit en gros de remplacer les chameaux par des éléphants.

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Course de chameaux en Égypte et d’éléphants en Inde

L’extrême-orient est un peu plus historicisé – il y a sept ou trois royaumes rivaux en Chine, il y a des samurais et des daimyos au Japon. Comme les joueurs, très majoritairement américains ou européens, n’ont qu’une vague idée des chronologies et du sens de tout cela, on peut assimiler ces mondes à des univers fantastiques.

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Les jeux japonais seraient-ils plus une spécialité d’Antoine Bauza que de Seiji Kanai ?

Le cas le plus impressionnant est sans doute celui de l’Egypte, pour laquelle il n’existe guère que deux fils narratifs – bâtir des pyramides et explorer des pyramides (au fait, Kheops, de Serge Laget et moi-même, ressort l’an prochain). Quant à l’Egypte moderne, ou même plus généralement l’Orient moderne, il est totalement absent des univers ludiques.

C’est sans doute le lieu de parler d’un cas particulier très intéressant. Venise a inspiré plus de jeux de société que toutes les autres villes d’Italie réunies, et ce même sans compter les Venise plus ou moins fantastiques, Cadwallon ou Tempest. Là encore, on peut trouver une explication évidente et technique, les canaux qui permettent de diviser aisément la cité en quartiers, de faire de petites règles sur les ponts, et de distinguer plusieurs modes de déplacement. Mais il y a peut-être plus que cela. La Sérénissime de notre imaginaire, et dans une certaine mesure la Venise de l’histoire, a toujours été à demi-orientale. C’était le dernier port avant l’Orient, celui d’où les navires partaient pour Constantinople, c’est aussi la cité d’Othello et de Shylock. Le rêve vénitien est, dans la tradition européenne, une version adoucie, apprivoisée, acclimatée, euphémisée du rêve oriental.

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Coloniser le passé

Un argument d’évidence semble relativiser fortement tout ce que j’ai écrit jusqu’ici. Il y a certes de nombreux jeux sur un orient éternel et de pacotille, mais il y en a plus encore sur certaines périodes de l’histoire, et d’une histoire bien occidentale, comme l’antiquité romaine ou le moyen-âge.
L’image que nous avons de notre passé, ou du moins de certaines époques, n’est pas très différente de celle que nous avons, ou avions, du reste du monde. Les temps éloignés sont comme les pays éloignés, naifs, simples, lointains, vaguement pervers. L’orientalisme et l’histoire, du moins l’histoire telle qu’elle a été inventée au XIXème siècle, sont à la fois politiques et romantiques, marqués par la fascination pour l’autre et le besoin de l’objectiver pour en faire un objet d’étude et affirmer la supériorité occidentale et moderne. En France, comme dans bien des pays d’Europe, histoire et géographie sont depuis le XIXème siècle enseignés par les mêmes professeurs, comme si le passé et le lointain étaient interchangeables.

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Pompei, Carcassonne, Florence – le lieu suffit à dire le temps.

L’orientalisme tel qu’il a été décrit par Saïd est sinon sur le déclin, du moins disséqué et discuté dans les universités, mais son double l’exotisme historique se porte encore très bien. La principale raison en est sans doute que nous ne craignons guère un retour de bâton « post-antique » ou « post-médiéval » comme il y a un retour de bâton post-colonial. Les Grecs et les Romains peuvent être bien être objectivés, analysés, simplifiés, caricaturés pour notre plus grand confort et notre plus grand plaisir, mais ils n’ont jamais été colonisés et ne peuvent guère nous répliquer, pas plus que les pirates ou les cow-boys. Je souhaiterais qu’ils le puissent, ce pourrait être drôle.

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Deux autres nouveautés très attendues au salon d’Essen, Black Fleet et Colt Express, avec des pirates et des cow-boys.

Je me suis toujours méfié de l’explication trop simple qui court les livres d’histoire, l’explication qui marche à tous les coups – Les gens de ce temps là ne pensaient pas comme nous. Cela me fait penser à la fameuse formule de Rudyard Kipling – À l’Est de Suez, le mal devient le bien et le bien devient le mal.

Le problème ne serait alors pas l’orientalisme mais l’exotisme en général, qui semble bien plus présent dans le jeu que dans la littérature ou le cinéma, et généralement sous des formes peu subtiles. Pour le romancier, l’univers du livre est un lieu géographique et historique complexe, qu’il doit étudier ou construire avec soin pour donner de la profondeur et de la crédibilité à son récit. Pour l’auteur de jeu, l’Inde, la Chine, le Moyen-Âge ou l’Antiquité ne sont que des ensembles de références, des recueils de clichés. L’auteur de jeu ne peut pas enrichir son œuvre par des récits complexes et des mises en situations subtiles; comme le peintre, il doit procéder par clins d’œil, à l’aide de références évidentes – un chameau ici, un casque là. Il est donc amené à faire un usage intensif d’un répertoire assez limité de clichés orientalistes, médiévalistes, antiquistes – le fait que ces néologismes n’existent pas encore dans la langue française est d’ailleurs déjà significatif.

Mystère à l'abbayeLa Vallée des Mammouths - Descartes
On peut procéder ainsi de manière tout à fait consciente, voire délibérée, comme je l’ai fait en travaillant sur La Vallée des Mammouths ou sur Mystère à l’Abbaye. La Vallée des Mammouths n’est qu’une accumulation de clichés à côté desquels Rahan passerait pour un traité universitaire. C’est volontaire, c’est du second degré, mais le plus intéressant est sans doute qu’il ne m’était pas possible de procéder autrement. J’étais, et suis encore, parfaitement incapable de concevoir un jeu de société « sérieux » sur la préhistoire. Je n’ai pas les connaissances nécessaires, et si je prenais le temps de les acquérir, j’en tirerais un jeu plus complexe, et bien moins amusant à jouer, et peut-être d’une certaine manière plus profondément raciste envers les néandertaliens. Enfin, bon, le racisme envers les néandertaliens n’est pas un réel problème de société aujourd’hui.

La Vallée des Mammouths - Ludodélire
La première édition de la Vallée des Mammouths illustre encore mieux ma théorie….

La simplification et l’objectivation du passé ont, de toute évidence, bien moins de conséquences sociales et historiques que n’en ont eu la simplification, l’objectivation et parfois la colonisation de l’orient, mais les deux relèvent du même état d’esprit. L’orientalisme et l’exotisme historique sont deux éléments d’un même discours, et je trouve la prévalence un peu vieillotte de ce discours dans l’univers ludique sinon gênante, du moins déconcertante – même si son usage est de plus en plus ironique ou distancié.

Si je devais un jour écrire un scénario pour une série télé, le thème en serait sans doute le voyage dans le temps, dont l’invention permettrait d’envoyer des gouverneurs britanniques, des missionnaires américains et des hippies allemands dans l’Égypte antique ou l’Italie de la Renaissance. Bon, je ne connais personne dans le monde de la télé, mais je peux peut-être en faire un jeu – un jeu plein de clichés idiots sur les britanniques, les allemands et les américains, parce que c’est ça qui est drôle.

Post Scriptum

Cet article est, de très loin, celui qui a valu à mon blog le plus grand nombre de visites et de commentaires. Les réactions ont été nombreuses ici, sur d’autres sites et par email.

Le reproche le plus fréquent et le plus intéressant qui m’a été fait est de ne pas aller jusqu’au bout, de ne pas conclure sur une condamnation de l’orientalisme et de l’exotisme historique dans les jeux. C’est bien sûr volontairement que je ne suis pas allé jusque là. Je n’ai jamais voulu dire que les auteurs de jeux devraient cesser de caricaturer l’Orient ou la Grèce antique, et pour ma part, je continuerai certainement à le faire, parce que c’est facile, parce que ça marche et parce que ça m’amuse. Les choses seraient peut-être différentes si j’écrivais des jeux de rôles, dont l’univers doit être plus profond et plus subtil, mais ce n’est même pas certain – j’ai joué d’excellents GNs aux scénarios plein de vilains clichés. Je voulais seulement faire remarquer que les clichés orientalistes et historiques sont plus fréquents dans les jeux de société que dans les romans ou le cinéma, et tenter d’expliquer pourquoi. Je n’ai en rien voulu condamner cela – même si je pense qu’il est préférable d’en être conscient. Pour dire les choses autrement, je n’essaie pas de régler un problème, j’essaie seulement d’expliquer une situation.

Beaucoup des lecteurs de ce post sont arrivés via un lien depuis la critique de Five Tribes (un excellent jeu) sur le site Shut up and sit down (un excellent site). Cela explique que beaucoup de discussions aient fait le lien entre mon article et la question, que je n’y abordais pas, des cartes esclave de Five Tribes. Ces cartes ne me gênent pas, et je pense qu’il aurait été dommage de les appeler autrement uniquement par souci de “politiquement correct”. Tant qu’à faire de l’orientalisme, autant aller jusqu’au bout, et montrer que l’on est conscient de ce que l’on fait, tout en ayant recours à l’ironie pour prendre quelque distance – comme dans Five Tribes.

Quant à la question du minimalisme japonais, il se confirme que je me suis mêlé là d’une question plus complexe qu’elle n’en a l’air, et déjà pas mal discutée. J’ai commencé à lire The Compact Culture, du coréen O-Young Lee, le livre qui a popularisé cette idée. Si ce livre, qui ne vient donc pas vraiment d’occident,  est trop  ancien pour s’inscrire dans le postcolonialisme façon Saïd, sa préface n’en montre pas moins des questionnements très similaires. Curieusement, O-Young-Lee ne reproche pas au colonisateur japonais d’avoir objectivé la culture coréenne, mais plus simplement de l’avoir largement ignorée, au point que cette ignorance s’est transmise à l’occident. Et s’il est vrai que, si les européens ont une image orientaliste de la Chine ou du Japon, ils n’ont pas d’image du tout de la Corée, d’ailleurs totalement ignorée dans les univers des jeux de société. Bref, ça se complique…..

O-Young-Leekoryoking's pouch
Koryo, un jeu de cartes dont l’auteur est coréen, l’éditeur français et le thème très vaguement steampunk-coréen. Et, pour vraiment compliquer les choses,  King’s Pouch –  un jeu coréen annoncé pour Essen et qui donne dans l’occidentalisme – ou, plus vraisemblablement, qui essaie très fort de ressembler à un jeu allemand, et réussit assez bien.

 

 

 

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Postcolonial Catan

Last August, at the Gen Con, I held a half-joke seminar named « Postcolonial Catan ». I had great fun improvising from a half page of notes but, when flying back, I regretted this had not been recorded. So, I’ve tried to write down most of what I said, removing the most stupid jokes and adding a few remarks I’ve made since. Please don’t ask me what is serious and what isn’t – I don’t even know, and the best stuff is probably both fun and interesting.

postcolonialcatan

Settlers and natives

It all started twenty years ago, when I first played Settlers of Catan. One of the first remarks made  by a fellow player when going through the rules was the ironic « where are the natives? ». This might have been more a striking issue for French players than for German or English speaking ones because the French language has only one word, Colon, where English has two with very different meanings, Settler and Colonist. So, the game is known in France as « Les Colons de Catan », which can mean both « Settlers of Catan » or « Colonists of Catan ».

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Les Colons de Catane, recently renamed Catane, a more politically correct title.

And, indeed, natives are nowhere to be seen in Catan, except may be as the lone black robber bandit who is not really resisting invasion, since he is hired on turn by the different players. I remember my first idea for a Catan expansions was a new resource, magic mushrooms used to cast spells – this was also the time when I was discovering Magic the Gathering . The second one was to add a native resistance player. I didn’t finalize either one.

Edward Saïd’s Culture and Imperialism was published in 1993, more or less at the same time as Catan and Magic the Gathering, but I read it only twenty years later. I was struck by the similarity between our initial reactions to Catan and what Saïd says of XIXth century European novels, and specifically of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, where he thought slaves, though nowhere to be seen, are always in the background. Of course, Saïd’s analysis of XIXth century novels cannot be simply pasted on contemporary boardgames. Times have changed, European countries have no colonies any more – and by the way Germany, from where modern boardgames originate, never had that many. But this striking similarity must mean something.

This goes farther than the naïve politically-correct euphemization of historical issues that can be found in some games. The problem in Puerto Rico is not that there are slave tokens, it is that they are called colonists. The problem with Saint Petersburg is that one of the worst episodes of forced labour in modern European history is treated as a good spirited competition between hardworking craftsmen.  

Starting from scratch

The Catan issue is different. The game action doesn’t take place in a specific time or place, and the name Catan might even have been chosen specifically to sound bland and not too exotic – Catania is in Sicily, meaning south, but not too far south. The graphic implementation is very european, with no exotic resource – sheep, no lamas, bisons or antelopes. Settlers of Catan is colonization as we dream it, or as we would have liked it to be, colonization of a new world which looks just like the old one and is void of alien presence. We all know it was very different and at least sparsely populated everywhere.

catan-UScatan US2
The new world looks insistently like the old one.

This can be explained without  resorting to some western fantasy or complex, only with simple game system necessities. In most development games, players start from scratch – two settlements and roads on Catan – and slowly build their production engine, competing with each other. The appeal of these games, and the original appeal of Settlers of Catan because it was something relatively new in 1993, is that they are not about war but about peaceful competition in designing this engine.

The colonial setting can however be an issue, especially when it’s plain and obvious. I remember a gamer  friend recently telling me that he felt a bit uneasy playing Endeavor (but he never had any problem playing a war game, which is not surprising but raises some interesting questions). That’s why Catan’s name doesn’t sound exotic, and that’s why other « start from scratch » games have less problematic settings, such as prehistoric times or deep space colonization expansion. Nevertheless, in space development games, players are usually alien rivals in a mostly empty space. In Ad Astra, a game partly inspired by Catan which I designed with Serge Laget, there are alien artifacts but they have been left by long forgotten civilizations.

Ad Astrastar trek catan
Colonising space

As an interesting aside, there are also lots of game about industrial revolution. A designer like Martin Wallace has published dozens with rails or industry barons. Industry and railroad development games are all about riches getting richer, and there are not much more workers or navigators in them than natives in colonial development games. The Steampunk genre, which is an industrial revolution fantasy, is also becoming very popular with boardgames – more about it later. Once more, it’s possible to find sound practical reasons explaining why game designers are so often using XIXth century economic growth, and its two main engines, industrialization and colonization, as a setting for games that are all about developing effective production engines. I should nevertheless set Saïd aside and reread Eric Hobsbawm’s Industry and Empire.

said1said2industryandempire

Good old games

There might be technical reasons, but I think there’s also something if not reactionary, at least romantic or backward looking in board games themes – much more than in video games themes.

The novel form has now been assimilated and transformed in the formerly colonized world, by postcolonial authors such as Salman Rushdie – but we’re still waiting for a postcolonial board or card game designer. Boardgame and card game design is not necessarily adverse to critics and subversion.  The authors of cards against humanity might be the William Burroughs of game design – but there’s no Salman Rushdie, and boardgames are probably still one of the most typically western cultural forms – more about how Japanese card games fit into this later.

There is something old-fashioned, charming and romantic, not only in the themes and settings of boardgames, but also in their graphic style. See the covers of Ticket to Ride and Settlers of Catan, probably the two most influential typical board game designs of these last twenty years. Playing games has become a powerful anxiolytic in a western society which probably feels less secure than it did a few decades ago. This might explain why board game sales are countercyclical, why game designers are mostly old white males (I’m one), and why game themes and looks sound so old-fashioned.

ticket to rideticket to ride europe
tt_india_topboxTtR_heart_of_africa

Let’s go back to Steampunk, a new romantic, retro and exotic setting. Steampunk is interesting because it’s mostly a gaming (and sartorial) universe. There’s no steampunk music, there are few steampunk movies, there’s little steampunk literature (even though everyone should read Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day), but there are lots of steampunk boardgames (and rpgs, and larps). Steampunk is not only victorian esthetic with shiny bronze and iron, it’s also a reassuring world, in which good old european powers are still vying for control of the solar system – and natives on Mars, if any, can be ignored as Bruno Cathala and I did in Mission Red Planet. Well, I just added a « Native Resistance » discovery card, but it’s an afterthought I had while writing this article.

isla doradaonward to venus
Isla Dorada and Onward to Venus, two steampunk colonial games

Minimalism

So what when “orientals” start designing card and boardgames ?

love lettereat me if you can

A few months ago, I wrote an article about the many Japanese card games designed and published in Japan these last five years, the best known probably being Seiji Kanai’s Love Letter.

My article was titled « Japanese Minimalism ». I suggested that some Japanese cultural atavism might be responsible for the specificities of these designs, mostly their simple rules and few components. I made some comparisons with literature – Soseki and Kawabata – then added unwisely references to Japanese food and zen gardens, stuff I don’t really know much about. I stopped just short of haikus and bonsais.

My Japanese readers were shocked. I was answered that Japanese Minimalism doesn’t really exist, or at least is not an indigenous characteristic of Japanese culture but a western invention aimed at objectifying it – exactly what Saïd calls orientalism in his eponymous book, even when he never tells anything about Japan (for interesting reasons, but that’s another story). Of course, this critic was spot on, as a quick experiment can show: type « Japanese Minimalism » in Google, and you get mostly links to californian architect studios and furniture stores. Well, it looks like the question is at least debated, and I’ve just ordered the reference book of the few who think that Japanese minimalism really exists and is really Japanese – this book is called Compact Culture, by O-Young Lee – a Korean, just to make this a bit more intricate.

love letter 2
Orientalist climax – A japanese game transposed into a japanese-like fantasy setting for the american market.

Anyway, I was told the reasons for the minimalistic components of Japanese games were more trivial, due mostly to high printing costs and small markets, or may be even purely contingent, due to the personality of the first  popular Japanese game designers. These designers claim to have the same references as mine – Settlers of Catan (again), Magic the Gathering, etc – and not to make anything specifically Japanese. Actually, Seiji Kanai once told me that my Dragon’s Gold was one of the games that lured him into game design, and I’m quite proud of this. On the back of the box of the most minimalistic of these games, Jun’Ichi Sato’s Eat me if you Can, is even clearly written that it’s a “Eurogame”. 

So much for the Japanese minimalist school of board game design. Of course, the fact all these designers are not making Japanese card games but just small card games doesn’t subtract anything from their talent.

Oriental Dream

In Orientalism, Edward Said showed how the orientalist discourse, which he studied mostly in XIXth century novels but can be found in other cultural domains, created its own object, how a fantasy Orient became a part of the real Orient, and how this was embedded in the colonization ideology and process.

As I said earlier, world literature has largely become postcolonial, and the same could probably be said of music (rap is something like postcolonial rock) and movies. There’s nothing like this in games, and the image they show of the Orient is plain orientalist exoticism.

baniafive tribes
Bania and Five Tribes, two new games published in late 2014. Notice the fonts and frames.

sultaniya
Charles Chevalier presents Sultaniya at Paris Est Ludique, last june.

Have a look at the boxes of the hundreds of « oriental themed » games published every year. They usually look directly out either of a Guéricault painting, either of a popular geographic encyclopedia from the fifties. The Arab world has camels, sand dunes, silk or spice merchants, sometimes a djinn. Timeless India just has elephants instead of camels and the occasional tiger.

camel upformula E
Racing camels in Egypt, racing elephants in India…

The far east can be very vaguely historicized, with seven or three kingdoms in China, with Daimyos and Samurais in Japan. Since most players – meaning western players, which are still the large majority – have no idea what this really means and cannot place the game’s setting in a clear historical timeline, this is akin to fantasy worlds.

tokaidosamurai spirit
Antoine Bauza’s games look more “japanese” than Seiji Kanai’s ones.

The most striking is probably Egypt – there are basically two narratives in games about Egypt, building  pyramids and exploring pyramids (by the way, Kheops, by Serge Laget and me, will be republished next year). As for modern Egypt, or even modern orient for what matters, it is totally absent from games.

An interesting aside here is the impressive number of games about Venice, either the historical one or a fantasy one like Cadwallon or Tempest. There are probably more games about Venice than about all other Italian cities together. Once more, there may be some trivial and technical reasons, mostly that the canals allow for a simple and clear division in districts, for nice rules about bridges, for different movement rules on land and water, etc. But there’s something more – the fantasy Serenissima, if not the real one, has long been half oriental, the place where ships left for Constantinople, the city of Shylock and Othello, and the venetian dream is, in the literary tradition, an euphemized version of the oriental dream.

inkognitodominare

Colonizing the past

There’s an obvious and apparently valid point against most of what I’ve said so far – there are many games about the timeless Orient, but there are even more about some specific periods of western history, like ancient Rome or the Middle Ages.
The fantasy idea we have of some historical periods is not very different from the fantasy idea we have, or had, of other parts of the world. Far away times are like far away places – naive, simple, vaguely perverse and, of course, backwards. Orientalism and history, or at least history as it was invented in the XIXth century, were very similar fields of study, inspired by romanticism, and characterized both by a fascination for the alien and a necessity to objectivize it in order to construct it as a field of study, and to assert western, or modern, superiority. In France, as in many european countries, history and geography are still taught together in school, by the same teachers, as if past and foreign were interchangeable.

pompeicarcassonnePrinces of Florence
Pompei, Carcassonne, Florence – the place tells the time.

While plain orientalism as described by Said is probably receding, or at least is dissected and discussed in universities, historical exoticism is still strong, mostly because there can be no « post-medievalist » or « post antiquist » backlash like there was a postcolonial one. Ancient greeks and romans were objectified, simplified, caricatured and analyzed, all for our pleasure and comfort, but they haven’t been actually colonized, and cannot strike back at our present. I sometimes wish they could, it could be fun.

black fleetcoltexpress
Two of the most expected games at the next Essen fair – Black Fleet, with Pirates, and Colt Express, with cow-boys.

As a historian, I’m always wary of the easy explanation for everything past and strange – « in these times, people didn’t think like we do ». May be « in these times » sounds a bit too much like « East of Suez » in Rudyard Kipling’s famous formula – « East of Suez, best is worst and worst is best ».

So the real issue is not orientalism, but exoticism as a whole, and why it is so prevalent in boardgames, much more than in books or movies, and so insistently unsubtle. The setting of a novel is a complex world that has to be built or, more often, studied by the author. It can be false, it can be a caricature, but it needs some depth. For the game designer, India or China, Middle Ages or Antiquity, are not geographical places or historical times, they are just topoi, sets of standard references, which must not be more sophisticated than those mastered by the player. The game designer, like the painter, cannot enliven his work by complex and subtle storytelling, and must do it only by winks and nods – a camel here, a helmet there. As a result, he makes heavy use of orientalist, « medievalist » or « antiquist » clichés.

Mystère à l'abbayeLa Vallée des Mammouths - Descartes

This can be conscious, even deliberate, as it was for me when I designed Valley of the Mammoths, or Mystery of the Abbey. Valley of the Mammoths is just a collection of bad clichés about prehistoric times. It’s assumed, it’s second degree, but what is interesting is that I probably could not have designed a « serious » game about prehistory. I didn’t have the necessary historical knowledge, and if I had had it (had had ? sounds strange? Is it correct ?), the game would have had much more complex rules, would have been less fun to play, and this might have made it in the end more racist against neanderthalians . Anyway, luckily for me, racial prejudice against Neanderthalians is not a pressing political issue.

La Vallée des Mammouths - Ludodélire
The cover of the first edition of Valley of the Mammoths was plain exoticism

Simplifying and objectifying the past has obviously fewer social and historical consequences than simplifying, objectifying and even colonizing the rest of the world, but it’s part of the same frame of mind. Orientalism and historical exoticism belong to the same intellectual discourse, and I find the prevalence of this discourse in games – even when it’s more and more often in a distanced and more or less ironic way – impressive, and a bit unsettling.

If I were someday to write the scenario for a TV series, it would probably be about inventing time-travel and colonizing the past, about sending British governors, German hippies and American missionaries in Ancient Egypt or in prehistoric times. Well, I don’t know any one in the TV series business, but may be I can make a game about it. Of course, a game full of clichés about British, German and Americans, because that’s what make games fun.

Post Scriptum

Of all the posts on my website, this one has been, by far, the most visited. It was also the most commented, here, on other forums and via email.

The most interesting and thoughtful criticisms came from readers who reproached me for stopping short of a clear condemnation of orientalism and exoticism in games. I must make clear that this shortcoming was deliberate. I never intended to state we should stop designing games that caricature the Orient or the Ancient Greece – or barnyards, for what matters. As for me, I know I will keep on doing it, because it’s easy, fun and efficient, and that’s what I implied in my conclusion about British governors, US missionaries and German hippies. The issue might be different if I were writing RPGs, which require a deeper and more subtle setting, but it’s even not sure – I remember playing some really good and fun larps full of bad clichés. All I wanted to do is to point out that there are more simplistic orientalist or historic clichés in boardgames – including mines – than in novels or movies, and to try to explain it. I didn’t want to condemn it, though I think it’s probably better to be aware of it. To put it otherwise, I’m not pointing at a problem and trying to solve it, I’m pointing at a situation and trying to explain it.

Since this blogpost was linked to in the great video review of Five Tribes on Shut Up and Sit Down, an outstanding boardgaming website, it was sometimes discussed with relation to the question of the slave cards on Five Tribes – an issue I didn’t consider in my post. I’m not bothered by these cards, and I think it would have been a shame to remove or replace them just for political correctness. If one is going for orientalism, better go all the way – it makes clear that you know what you’re doing, and distance oneself from it via irony, like it’s more or less done in Five Tribes.

As for Japanese minimalism – which seems to be more often called reductionism in academic discussions, something I didn’t know when I typed ” japanese minimalism” in Google – it seems I got myself in a complex intellectual debate. I’m now reading The Compact Culture, by O-Young-Lee, the book that popularized this idea. This book doesn’t really come from the western world and, though it’s slightly too old to enter the discussion of postcolonialism as it was started by Saïd, it is in part concerned with similar issues. Interestingly, O-Young-Lee doesn’t reproach Japan as a colonizer with objectivizing Korean culture but with plainly ignoring it – and conveying this ignorance to the West. Indeed, Europoeans have a very orientalist image of China and Japan, but don’t have any image at all of Korea, which is also largely ignored in boardgame settings.

O-Young-Leekoryoking's pouch
Koryo, a card game witha Korean designer, a French publisher and a very vaguely Korean-steampunk setting. And, just to make things more intricate, The King’s Pouch, a new Korean game which is probably not really “occidentalist”, but just trying very hard and quite successfully to look like a German game.

41 thoughts on “Décoloniser Catan
Postcolonial Catan

  1. “Quand à l’Egypte moderne, ou même plus généralement l’Orient moderne, il est totalement absent des univers ludiques.”

    Si je puis me permettre : pas totalement exact. Il existe des jeux prenant pour background l’Orient moderne, mais ce sont quasiment tous des Wargames… par exemple “Kipour”, traitant de la guerre du même non. Peut être faut il y voir la lecture occidentale de l’Orient moderne, a savoir une zone de conflit permanente a faible rayonnement culturel… ?

    • I’ll keep doing it because it’s fun, but I’ll try – as I’ve always more or less donne – to have some in-game puns and jokes showing that I’m not fooled 😉

      • In your (excellent) game Citadels, the artwork on the Merchant card powerfully evokes the hateful stereotype of the jewish miser. This is a great example of the practice you discuss in this blog post.

        On the one hand, the cultural stereotype is a useful narrative shorthand in painting the game world. Indeed, I’ve always admired how vividly Citadels manages to portray its Renaissance fantasia setting (a dreamy mix of Florence and Venice) without the big canvas of a game board. Those little cards do a lot of work, and the art is top notch. On the other hand, the Merchant card’s visual reference to Shylock seems to endorse the stereotype. I don’t find any effort to distance the game from the cliché, and I’m not sure how there could be.

        And yet, the game’s mechanic does something to complicate our relationship to the cliché. Far from treating Shylock as “Other,” the game invites us to be him. Indeed, the special power granted by the Merchant card makes it (in my experience) one of the most popular, quickest chosen roles each turn. And while the power granted fits the hateful stereotype (the miser gets an extra gold as income), by asking us to choose, the game makes us aware that we’re all misers, all eager for gold. Or, to put the point differently, makes us aware that our little cities (read: society) need merchant/misers/bankers as well as rulers and men of god.

        All this said, I worry that while the practice of hateful stereotypes may be damn useful, it’s in damnably bad taste. When we pick up Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice or the far the more hateful, less nuanced Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe, we make allowances for the play based on its date of publication. That’s harder to do for games created in the 2000s.

      • I’ve always been flabbergasted when reading – it’s not the first time – that Citadels’ Merchant is supposed to be a figure of Shylock. If it were, I think the original French publisher, who happened to be a jew, would have noticed ;-). It might have been a friendly joke from the artist directed at the publisher, but i don’t think so. So there’s no intent neither to caricature a jewish merchant, nor to make us aware of anything….

  2. Questionnement très intéressants, merci,
    il y aurait peut-être de la catharsis pour les anciens conquérants ?

  3. “…and if I had had it (had had ? sounds strange? Is it correct ?)”

    It’s a weird edge case in English, but while it does sound strange when you stop and think about it, it is correct. Native speakers will parse it with no problems.

    • There’s an old joke from English teachers:

      “James and John wrote an essay. Where James had had ‘had’, John had had ‘had had’. ‘Had had’ had impressed the teacher more.”

      • In fact this is often a grammar excercise, where there are no quotation marks, and the student has to place them his or her self.

  4. Fascinating article, Bruno! I love the perspective you provide on the topic. (And yes, “…if I had had it” is correct, even though it sounds odd to both your ears and mine.)

  5. Monsieur Bruno, I’d go so far as to say your English is perfect, my French on the other hand, would be atrocious. I’m not even going to try. (Mon Francais est horrible, vraiment, is probably my best practised expression)

    As someone just finishing his history degree, I’ve increasingly had difficulties with gaming. I have to commend you for noting troublesome aspects of Orientalism in board games, as well as how even history can become “foreign.” I think you might be surprised to note that the same issues exist in video games, and that because a thoughtful soul linked this post on a forum devoted to video gaming that you’re now having a wider impact than just board gaming culture. Enjoy your rest knowing that you made the world a better place.

  6. If you’ll forgive the wall of text, I’d like to share a response to this article I posted to a game design FB group:

    Bruno Faidutti’s profound article (scroll down for English) wades waist deep into a huge unspoken issue in tabletop game design. This is a catastrophic spiderweb that reaches everywhere in the industry.

    Just two weeks ago, I began thinking along a similar vein, though Faidutti is certainly far deeper. I began by considering that games model something about the real world, and that the purpose of a model is to represent only those features the designer decided were important in order to illuminate their relationships. Then I connected this basic fact about models and representations to the obvious truth that different kinds of people tend to value different things, and that what you think is “important” has a lot to do with your ethnography.

    As Faidutti points out, while there are certainly practical reasons why the Industrial Revolution has been a popular theme for game designers, there’s also an undeniable kind of owning class Eurocentrism. This is how we get games like Russian Railroads and dozens of others that totally ignore the crushing exploitation this “engine building” represents.

    It’s not that games should be more “realistic”. The issue is that game designers are unconsciously choosing to model the same features of places, periods, and events over and over while also repeatedly “choosing” to not represent other features that unarguably were actually important.

    In this way, we’ve seen hundreds of train games, but none of them deal with the struggle of the immigrant laborers who laid the rails, or the Plains Indians who resisted Westward Expansion. There’s been lots of “Age of Exploration” games, but the players are never the ones being explored. These are whole dimensions of “well worn” themes that are almost completely untapped. It’s like finding a vast wilderness in your backyard – or another world in a wardrobe.

    Finally, it’s also worth considering why these other approaches may feel more “risky”, or “political”. I’d argue that it’s simply because they’re not included in the dominant narrative of our culture – which is precisely why we need more designers from other cultural backgrounds, so they can make games that authentically tells their narratives. Then we – by playing those games – can start to break down the wall of exoticism that Faidutti described so brilliantly.

    • As Bruno alludes to, board games as a medium do not lend themselves to nuanced depiction of controversial issues. Like a painting, everything has to sit on the surface.

      More, board gaming is primarily a social experience, which requires a shared context. A board game can’t and shouldn’t be a political debate, and a theme that different players will have different views on is counterproductive. So the themes we see in board games are broad caricatures – and they should be! If an orientalist fantasy of China is a shared cultural context for everyone at the table and makes it easy for them to engage with each other, that’s IMO more important than the realism of the depiction.

      • I completely agree with this and was already thinking on writing an add-on to may article explaining that I don’t really disapprove of orientalism (and other caricatures) in games, except when they are really misleading (Saint Petersburg is an example). But I would like gamers and game designers to be more conscious of these simplifications. By the way, I went in my article from orient to the past, but i could have gone further and said we can have the same oversimplified view of the animal world, for example…
        In fact, the issue might be more important for role playing games, which can have much deeper and more literate descriptions of their universe. Orientalism is probably not absent from rpg, but I think they are nevertheless more subtle with it than boardgames.

  7. I like boardgames and I like philosophy (and Romans!), so thanks a lot for this nice read. I would say post colonialism may be coming with designers like Christophe Boelinger who let the natives play an important role in the game Archipelago (even when they still are more antagonist than protagonist). Piero Cioni also did something interesting in the underestimated “Dakota”, where you choose to play native or colonist in the beginning and it affects the way you see resources and everything.

    • I’ve never played Archipelago, I will have a look at it.
      I played Dakota, and liked it a lot, though I didn’t think of it when writing this article. It’s true that it has players playing the natives, but it still has a very exotic look…

      • Archipelago is definitely worth a look. The game feels like a deliberate reworking of Puerto Rico. Much more complex, but the same setting and some of the same basic gameplay principles. Thus, the game’s inclusion of the native population as a resource comes across as a deliberate response to Puerto Rico and the popular response to its little brown “colonists.”

  8. Please add steampunk to the list of things you don’t seem to know enough about to warrant discussing.

    Steampunk is, first and foremost, a literary genre. There’s a LOT of steampunk music (http://www.sepiachord.com/index/). The genre is not “a reassuring world.” At it’s core, steampunk intentionally tears down or lampoons Victorian ideals to expose the dangerous, destructive nature of industrialism and imperialism.

    Also, tabletop gaming is rather unknown within the movement –though there are a number of us working to make it more popular. Tabletop gaming doesn’t even get a mention in the Wikipedia article, it’s so unimportant: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steampunk

    • I might not be a specialist, but I think I’ve read enough steampunk novels and know enough steampunk fans to have an idea of what it is about – and indeed we don’t seem to have the same idea.
      True, it started with literature, but even now it doesn’t seem to be a really prolific genre. It became really popular and mainstream only when it started to be mostly a fashion and design style – and a nice one indeed. Games might not be that important in steampunk because they are not that important at all, but I insist that there are proportionally more steampunk games among all the games published than there are steampunk novels among fiction books, or even only among fantasy novels.
      As for steampunk music, I had never heard of it, even from steampunk fans, and what i understand from the wikipedia steampunk page is mostly that steampunk fans mostly disagree about what steampunk music is or should be.
      As for your interpretation,of the meaning of steampunk, it may be discussed, like mine. The only really good steampunk novel – even when it’s rarely cited as one – that I’ve read is Against the Day, which sometimes feel almost marxist, and your analysis fits it better than mine. There might be a similar intent in, for example, in Gibson & Sterling’s The Difference Engine but let’s say, at least, that it’s not obvious. Most Steampunk novels seem to me to be just fantasy with no clear political agenda, and therefore can be interpreted from what one thinks is the reason for the popularity of their settings, and we can make a different analysis. i think there’s some truth in mine, which doesn’t mean there’s not also so’ething true in your – after all, it’s a world of shiny bronze and steel, but also of smoke.
      But the main point is probably that our analysis are trying to answer tow very different questions. Your question is “what was the intent of the first writers of steampunk novels?”, mine is “what makes the steampunk setting so appealing?”.

      • the fashion and style side of steampunk is a pretty obvious reaction to Apple led, ultra white, smooth and locked down design.
        There’s a fair bit of music and tabletop gaming out there eg http://www.troublemakergames.co.uk/t300.htm Privateer Press’ s Warmachine is another. Ramshackle games with their ‘Isambard Kick-Ass Brunel’ is still another.

        Given that I’m in agreement with Liz over the definition (that the punk part does mean something, and it comes out of cyberpunk which has the same broad agenda) – I’d suggest steampunk may be the place to look for the post-colonial games. Hell lots of older science fiction have been adopted by the movement, including HG Well’s war of the worlds, an example you use as a post-colonial book! Girl Genius is another. It’s not explicit, but the comic deals with issues of empire and imperialism and race. Enforced peace versus freedom. Created beings and humans.

        Why is this? Becuase steampunk is not just about brass and steam and goggles. It is also Punk. It tends to kick away at the ideals of the Victorian period since we now know how bad some of those things were. So, challenge accepted. One post-colonial steampunk game, coming up 🙂

      • Hi Bruno,
        The music is popular among steampunks, even if your friends haven’t heard of Abney Park (and the umpteen million other bands). Heck, their songs were even featured on episodes of True Blood.

        The literature is prolific and some are standouts in their field: Amazon lists over 1,500 books in the subgenre, which doesn’t even include arguably steampunk books like “Against the Day.” My friend Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker was nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula a few years ago, and in graphic novels, Girl Genius has won more awards than can be recounted here.

        I AM a specialist, having been a full-time professional in the steampunk movement for over 6 years. To me, the difference in perspective seems to be that of someone inside the movement, and that of someone with only a passing familiarity. I don’t think you’re qualified to make sweeping statements about an entire subculture and art movement you don’t seem to know much about beyond the use of its aesthetic in board games.

    • Six-year professional or not, you are not an authority and you do not speak for steampunk; your own sweeping statements have contained errors just as Bruno’s did. If he should stop talking about it then so should you.

      I was present for some of the earliest work in the culture, which contra your claims was initially visual and aesthetic. While there is certainly a flourishing literary genre now, much of the classification is retroactive (no-one would have called e.g. Larklight steampunk when it came out; it belonged to a parallel culture that at the time seemed mostly unrelated, though the two have subsequently converged), and the literature has followed the aesthetics. Likewise while there are now people who engage with social issues through the lens of the steampunk aesthetic, early participants explicitly rejected any social inferences – see e.g. http://www.theguardian.com/music/2008/oct/17/popandrock2 , from 2008. The guiding line was something like that of talk like a pirate day – we are explicitly apolitical, we are doing this simply because it looks cool, there is no deeper meaning to it. Indeed those of us there at the start *hated* the label “movement” and would never describe the culture as that.

    • I know about it, I’ve even lived two years in Togo. I only said it had few. And Germany also had great orientalists in the XIXth century.

  9. Un article qui met le doigt sur quelque chose qui m’embête depuis un certain temps, et ce de façon concise et bien articulée – merci! Le même problème est aussi endémique dans le monde du jeu de rôle (dont je viens plutôt) qu’il l’est dans celui du jeu de société, cf. Legend of the Five Rings, al-Qadim/Kara-Tur et autres appropriations des cultures non-occidentales sur un plan purement superficiel.

    Du point de vu JdR indé, il y a récemment eu Dog Eat Dog qui se pose justement en tant que vue sur le colonialisme depuis le point de vue indigène. Y aurait-il donc déjà (quelque part) un jeu de société post-colonialiste?

  10. Interesting read.
    However, and I truly believe the author is aware of it, Bruno is critizising an aspect of boardgame design which is – in many cases (and in all of his examples given) – pasted on afterwards.
    Most euro-designed games focus on the mechanics of the actual game, e.g. resource management, engine building, whatever it may be.
    And this core is what the actual game play is.
    To make the game more attractive/ to soften the abstract core/ to widen its audience a layer of graphical design is added: a theme.

    Bruno is now critizising this thin secondary layer to question the core mechanics (e.g. why do railway games ignore the hardship of the laborers, why does this exploration game ignore the native population?).
    For the game itself it does not matter because it is a game, not a simulation.
    If it was a simulation it would become a very heavy beast with a proper ruleBOOK.

    I do understand what Bruno set out to do, but I think the approach is too academic.

    But then again as he stated at the beginning of his article, he just wanted to have some fun…

  11. Great article, Bruno. Certainly lots of broad issues to think about and discuss, and it’s a shame that the nit-picking comments get in the way of that.

    As a designer, I understand that game themes are often caricatures (I’m based in Germany and desire clean mechanics, after all), but it also has been a goal of mine to make subtle references to aspects of certain themes that are not often alluded to (the displacement of the Native Amercians, for example, in my game New Amsterdam).

    The reality is, however, that if I go too far in detailing historically accurate abuses of power–even if abstracted–people will no longer want to play the game in a social setting.

    I’ve been working on a game based on the fascinating history of another American colony for some time, and I’ve been struggling with these questions.

  12. This was a great read!

    Some of the points you touch on are things I’ve thought about, too. I’ve currently got a game that I’d describe more as anti-colonial than post-colonial – you’re fighting against European colonists trying to settle your island. (Though you’re taking the part of nature spirits, not the human inhabitants, so it can’t be said to represent the local people’s point of view. I very much hope to have an expansion where you can take their part, though.)

    This idea arose very much as a reaction to the type of games you mention: after playing several such titles over the course of a few weeks, I got to thinking, “When you’re founding these colonies, as often as not the existence of other people there isn’t even mentioned – let alone what they might think of your showing up, or the consequences to local society and environment.”

    My title (Spirit Island) is late in development, signed with Greater Than Games, and ought to be coming out next year. We’re just getting rolling on art production now, and some of your comments about exoticism are useful for me to think about. I’ve done as much research time permitted to make the local islander culture a realistic one, but even a realistic culture can be portrayed in a “look at how different they are” fashion. (I don’t mind the game drawing on the appeal of a remote and exotic *setting*, but don’t want to do that with the *people*, if that makes any sense.)

  13. You mention that there’s no post-colonial game designers out there, but I’d say that Daniel Solis qualifies. He’s produced several card games, and writes a lot about both graphic design and game design on his blog, including some ideas that explicitly address post-colonialism, such as: http://danielsolisblog.blogspot.com/2012/04/exodus-earth-worker-removal-game-played.html

    Also, as for Steampunk music, there’s the rather successful band Abney Park, which started out as goth in the 90s and then reinvented themselves. http://www.abneypark.com

    —-

    Vous avez dit que il n’y a pas des auteurs de jeu postcoloniales là-bas, mais je dirais que Daniel Solis qualifie. Il a produit plusieurs jeux de cartes, et il écrit beaucoup sur la conception graphique et la conception de jeu sur son blog, y compris des idées qui répondent explicitement au post-colonialisme, comme: http://danielsolisblog.blogspot.com/2012/04/exodus-earth-worker-removal-game-played.html

    Aussi, pour la musique Steampunk, il y a la bande plutôt réussi Abney Park, qui a commencé comme goth dans les années 90, puis se réinventer. http://www.abneypark.com

  14. The main reason I tend to write and design in Sci-Fi and Fantasy is because I’m too lazy to do the work of understanding a culture and afraid to do it injustice. Now, I can see that I’m still poaching the cliches and doing injustice anyhow. Thanks for the wake up call.

  15. Bruno,

    Thank you for this thoughtful piece.

    I recently came across an example of a new game that has the potential to offend some modern sensibilities – The Walled City: Londonderry and Borderlands

    http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/139508/walled-city-londonderry-borderlands

    I haven’t played the game, but it is evident that the historical setting is again just a sheen for the actual mechanics of the game. However, this theme and in particular the usage of “Londonderry” could be considered contentious given the history of conflict in Ireland and the still bitter dispute over what to actually call the city of Derry/Londonderry. Indeed, the city has gone by “Derry/Londonderry” in a lot of recent tourist literature.

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