Scramble for Identity & The Struggle to Control the Past

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This past weekend, I wrote a blog post about GMT Games’, now removed, P500 title “Scramble for Africa.” In it, I bemoaned the poor marketing copy and highlighted concerns based on the combination of topic and game description. I further suggested that GMT Games consider the Hollandspiele approach to rolling out games on difficult topics as they did so well with This Guilty Land. Within 12 hours of the publication of that article, GMT Games issued a statement that addressed people’s concerns and restarted their core values as a company. While I encouraged people to both give space for such a statement AND to accept an earnest apology…the storm continues unabated.

That’s all I have to say about the conversations, whodunnit, whataboutism, and vitriol being spewed by the most opinionated on all sides of this issue. I will, however, dedicate this article to a broader and more deeply troubling theme that has emerged during the conversation about “Scramble for Africa.” It’s one that the United States, and many other countries for that matter, have been grappling with for some time. I don’t anticipate resolving anything, but I want to at least make the case for civility.

Who gets to control the identity of the past?

To quote Mitch Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans, profound speech on race while addressing the city’s removal of Civil War general statues:

There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it.

Mitch Landrieu

I think this summarizes perfectly the work of historical wargamers and of our hobby as a whole. The abject mischaracterization of a game as a glorification of a troubling episode in colonial history doesn’t suggest a moral shortcoming on the part of the designer, developer, publisher, or people who want to purchase such a game. Remembrance is allowed and cannot be shut out.

It’s a far different cry to celebrate the era through nostalgic eyes for some bygone colonial myth self-told to generations of Europeans who felt that colonial territories were somehow their land as much as the native soil under the empire’s capital. Historical wargaming does not in any way, shape, or form intend to glorify, gloss over, or revere historical tragedy or horror.

This misunderstanding seems to be at the heart of the conflict around Scramble for Africa since some people felt as though insufficient information was provided to fully pass judgement given the weak marketing copy while others felt that it pointed toward a celebration of colonialism in Africa that ignored indigenous populations.

History is Complex & Horrible

History is rarely a serene river flowing and carrying humanity along its gentle currents. Instead, it is a raging and untamed exploration of some wholly dark episodes punctuated by bright beacons of achievement. Even those achievements are often won on the backs of others who were broken to achieve it either figuratively or quite literally. So, where does that place the hobby?

We owe it to designers and publishers to trust their core values. Don’t mistake this trust with blind trust. When a company or designer needs constructive critique, it should be freely offered and accepted. Though, the offering doesn’t imply any obligation on the part of the designer or publisher to accept such critique. It merely suggests a sentiment that may exist. Our hobby, after all, tackles morally difficult terrain and for people who want to explore their history more completely, then there are awesome rewards to be gained.

For people who want to take simple-minded and moral absolutist positions, there is no room in the hobby for that kind of attitude. We are constantly learning, unlearning, and reshaping the lens through which history is viewed. But, that’s the point…history exists in a dual dimension. The current view and the historical era’s view. Publishers, designers, and gamers need to recognize the interplay and non-binary roles these two dimensions play at all times.

German Armor in World War II

Let’s take a look at German armor in World War II as a quick example. The German Tiger lived up to its fearsome reputation on the battlefields of World War II. As such, historical wargames have given the armored fighting vehicle the respect it is due. To some, this sounds like the glorification of Hitler’s war machine and it is a symbol of Nazi reverence. This couldn’t be further from the truth and such a simplistic interpretation unmasks a person’s single-minded obsession with simply making a point that conveniently fits their perspective.

Instead, we must on the one hand acknowledge the loathsome way in which these war machines were employed while still remaining detached (like a historian) to make an unemotional evaluation of them. This ability to understand and respect history while simultaneously being interested in the unique analysis and “simulation” of it is at the heart of the hobby. You can’t have one without the other. To do so would come off as hollow or too simplistic to be worthy of exploration.

In a hex and counter wargame, we need to know that the Tiger’s main armament was superior to that of the Sherman. We need to know factors like optics, armor composition, and gun stabilization were important components that made the Tiger a formidable enemy. This provides even more context on the bravery of those who would look down the sights of an anti-armor vehicle or weapon facing the Tiger. It provides an opportunity to understand history and see that sometimes things aren’t easily digested or black and white.

Reality regularly fails to conform with our expectations.

Tanks Schmanks… What about colonial oppression?

You can’t deny the factors that made the Tiger tank uniquely powerful. Similarly, you can’t deny that colonial oppression occurred and that human rights violations were par for the course as a part of that oppression. There is, however, a vast difference between a game focused on mechanics that asks, “How strong is a Tiger tank?” versus something as complex as “How can I embody a colonial power and exploit the resources and land of an indigenous people?”

These things are simply not equivalent. That said, they are BOTH valid historical topics that are worthy as gaming topics.

To understand why, it’s important first to differentiate games designed solely for fun from games for learning and understanding. A game of Apples to Apples with friends is intended to be lighthearted and social. That’s it’s core design and output. Based on sales, I’d say that it did a great job of that! Hollandspiele’s game A Guilty Land, on the other hand, is designed to ask questions and present an experience that challenges the players. It too should be fun, but that’s a byproduct of the learning and experience not its sole intent.

A core question about these kinds of games is whether you’re the kind of person who derives fun from an “a ha!” moment about history or not!

It’s okay to be on either end of that spectrum or anywhere in between. However, when we talk about historical wargames…we’re typically leaning pretty heavily toward the end of the spectrum of folks who find fun in the exploration and deeper understanding of history. That’s one of the best parts of the hobby. I’ve learned so much from opponents about every imaginable historical topic. Not a day goes by on my Twitter feed where a wargamer isn’t sharing an interesting historical article, video, or book recommendation. Wargamers are deeply curious about the past.

With this groundwork laid, then, it’s important to recognize that historical wargames aren’t intended to be marketed like other boardgames. People are going to read the history and bring a wealth of context to the game. As such, it’s critical that the game facilitates gameplay that is equal the gravity of the subject matter. It is unreasonable to expect that people will approach wargame topics as they did 30 or 40 years ago. The world has changed. It’s equally unreasonable to suggest that people can’t enjoy difficult or complex topics that grapple with unpleasant history or social norms.

That’s not a reverence of the past…it’s a remembrance when done well!

A game covering the historical Scramble for Africa deserves to be made. There’s a wealth of ground to cover that remains undiscovered because the history can be inaccessible or intentionally repressed because of the shocking nature of it. When researching my last article, I learned an awful lot and my hope would be that others get to do the same thing. Games can absolutely do that. Look at Volko Ruhnke’s Labyrinth: The War on Terror from GMT Games.

Not only did this game explain some of the power dynamics in the Global War on Terror, but it also successfully modeled why Pakistan and Indonesia were critical centers of terrorism. Had people simply dismissed it by saying, “You can’t make a game about this because of 9/11 and the widespread deaths of Iraqis following the US Invasion of Iraq in 2003.” then we would have lost an important way to engage with recent history. We would have lost an opportunity to explore contemporary problems. We would have lost the many rich observations and difficult truths uncovered by this game.

The difference between GMT’s Scramble for Africa and Labyrinth?

Marketing.

Let’s not forget that Volko spent many frustrating hours providing direct support for this title. People disagreed with him on fundamental issues in the way the Global War on Terror was portrayed in the game. Instead of shying away from the complexity, it was brought to the forefront and defended. Gamers either moved on and dismissed the title or gained a greater understanding of the deep respect and scholarship that Volko brought to the title that might not have been evident at first blush.

The Ruhnke-Russell equivalency.

This equivalency says that the more complex or sensitive the game topic is, the more time that must be invested in the pre-publication, and post-publication support. An equal amount of direct market support and care in the wordsmithing and support of a game will be required in these instances.

Obvious right?

Not so fast… The complication here is that you need to know how controversial the game will be PRIOR to any marketing taking place. It’s more art than science unfortunately.

Market Misbehavior

I think it’s also important to note that while GMT Games made a business decision based on whatever their behind the scenes calculus looks like to determine how a games gets onto and stays on the P500…the market misbehaved in a way that’s somewhat unique to the past 3 – 5 years.

Outrage culture reigns

You may think…Hey…didn’t you write an article blasting Scramble for Africa?

I wrote an article that blasted the marketing copy for Scramble for Africa and I presented an example of how it could have been better handled. I also presented three concrete recommendations for GMT Games that didn’t include outright pulling the game. So, please lower your torches and pitchforks.

What I witnessed, and why I wrote the article are critically important to understand. I felt like GMT Games was:

  • not getting the space to make a statement
  • going to get even more negative coverage regardless of what they said next
  • in a difficult position with a game that was still in development
  • getting wildly unfair treatment

Boardgamegeek’s forums were a mess to be generous about it. At one point, a poster suggested that because two photos of the playtest kit being played by the developer and his wife along with another couple showed only white people playing the game that it was clear evidence of the game’s racist intent. That’s an unreasonable and unfair allegation. On Twitter, because the developer noted that his wife also enjoyed playing the game, that was taken as an indication that GMT Games was misogynistic. The arguments quickly derailed into ad hominem attacks on GMT Games fans, designers, and even on Gene himself.

Apology Not Accepted

After GMT Games published their response and removed Scramble for Africa from the P500 list…people were still incensed about the game. Supporters of the game felt betrayed and began attacking anyone who said a sideways word (myself included). Understand that GMT Games is not controlled by an angry mob, twitter feedback, bgg forum posters, or bloggers. Instead, they make their own business decisions and can weigh for themselves whether it’s a good business decision to keep a game on the market. To paraphrase The Godfather … it’s not personal…it’s business.

The world IS difficult.

Put another way…the world is a complex and difficult place.

Affording that complexity a modicum of respect and the expectation of both giving and receiving the benefit of the doubt underpins civil society. To judge absolutely is to KNOW absolutely and I hardly think anyone is in a place to do that… Honest critique is open to both being proven wrong and not taking a stance that is unsupported. What happened with the outrage following the P500 of Scramble for Africa demonstrated none of that charity or an attempt to come to understanding or even the space to issue an apology that was respectfully heard.

What is even more disheartening is the deafening silence from the most vocal critics to either applaud GMT Games for doing what they perceived to be the right thing or to simply apologize for the borderline slanderous commentary they spewed.

Back to the beginning

Historical wargames must always aim to remember rather than revere. That is the work of honest historians who see the layered complexity of the past. That’s is the joy of wargamers who revel in the nugget of truth being presented to them in a pseudo-simulation. This remembrance takes the good with the bad in equal measure as appropriate.

The entire Scramble for Africa episode revealed a passion that I suspect GMT Games had not envisioned. They said as much in their missive regarding removing the game from P500. The good news is that there is clearly a hunger for a complex game that tackles the colonial race to claim the interior of the African continent. It is an essential history to understand as the new race for Africa has already begun with new players this time around including an globally expansive Chinese empire.

My sincere hope is that people can move forward and if (when?) this game is brought back to market…give it an honest chance. Give the designer and developer an opportunity to cure what they’re interested in to the degree that they’re interested. Give GMT Games the space to provide a pro-active marketing campaign that helps to address concerns before conjecture and name-calling dominate the discussion. Finally, my hope is that publishers use this as an opportunity to recognize the ugly side of social media for what it is and calibrate games to their core values.

Strong Values = Strong Following

This article is a bit of a mishmash of thoughts at this point so I’ll throw in one last nugget.

Every business, wargaming publishers included, must operate first and foremost from a their core values. The stronger these core values are, the better the company will perform and connect with their followers.

  • Apple Computers value design simplicity and, in the words of Steve Jobs, an interface that “just works.”
  • Coca-Cola sells a soft-drink that evokes good times, nostalgia, and personal connections.
  • Ford Motor Company sells cars that work as hard as the people who drive them.

How do I know this? Their advertising, product focus, and the way they communicate expresses this over and over again. You may hate these products and love Dell, Pepsi, and GM more than the examples here. They too operate from core values that connected with you and converted you into a follower!

GMT Games should be applauded, loudly I might add, for sticking to their core values when they pulled Scramble for Africa from P500. They admitted there was a misalignment there and hopefully they can work behind the scenes to correct that. That’s what core values are all about. That’s what makes businesses strong.

I’ve seen plenty of folks saying, “I’ll never buy another GMT Games release again because they were cowards and caved!” Great. Don’t. You are 100% a customer than they can afford to lose because you aren’t buying into their core values and you don’t respect it when they stick to their core values. These are not customer conversions that are going to happen for GMT by chasing the values of people on EITHER side of the issue around Scramble for Africa. The only winning move is to stick to the values that built the company.

For GMT Games…that core value seems to be:

We make high quality, opinionated games, with a focus on helping our customers understand the history of the world.

That opinionated games part is critically important because it highlights the complexity that GMT Games has to struggle with every time they put a game on the P500. There are going to be times when they get it wrong and have to re-evaluate. Aside from Mike Nagel, I don’t think anyone was as bummed about Captain’s Sea getting dismissed from GMT Games P500 as I was. I didn’t “abandon ship” and leave GMT Games! I respected their decision and continued to buy into their core values as a company.

Ultimately, this episode was pretty ugly on all sides of the issue. Though a strong core group continued to debate the historical merit and approaches, the lengthier the debate the less related to the actual marketing copy that existed. As such, it diverged from informed debate well into the territory of pure speculation. There’s a passion here that’s been revealed and hopefully it will lead to a game about the Scramble for Africa that people seem keenly interested in based on the productive parts of public conversation.


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5 Comments

  1. Nice article. You have been a solid supporter of GMT in the past. In your opinion, how does Conquest of Paradise compare regarding the theme of European colonialization? Of course I am assuming you have played that title, but at first glance it seems the SFA and COP both hamfistedly deal with the same painful and shameful topic.

    • I think the distinction here is that Conquest of Paradise is about pacific islanders raiding each others territory rather than some outside empire colonizing an indigenous people. Again, I don’t think getting into ‘whataboutism’ is productive, especially since the equivalencies that are most frequently attempted rarely are the same and, frankly, times and social norms have changed dramatically even in the brief ~55 years of the hobby as we know it today.

  2. A thoughtful piece — both of your pieces on this were, in fact. My biggest takeaway from your argument was that GMT should have anticipated that this topic would be more controversial than the norm. I can see how they missed that, however, given the plethora of games that could be spun the way Scramble for Africa was attacked — any US Civil War game has one player fighting to defend chattel slavery in the South, Twilight Struggle glosses over the atrocities committed in proxy nations by the US and the USSR, Colonial Twilight tackles head on the colonial experience in Algeria, any WW II game has one player fighting to extend Nazi power and/or Japan’s imperial ambitions, etc., etc. Hell, there are even games celebrating the brutal thugs of the Mafia (The Godfather). Perhaps this incident will make all of us in the gaming community take a closer look at the games we play — I hope it does not mean that the European colonization of Africa is now permanently taboo for the gaming table.

    • I agree that many games tackle complex topics. History worth studying is hardly a history that DOESN’T include these kinds of tough truths! The biggest difference with Scramble for Africa, however, seemed to be the how and not the what. In the other games you mention, there is a much more academic approach to the topics presented or they don’t dive deeply into the era outside of a tactical combat simulation. However, games like This Guilty Land, Fort Sumter, Freedom!, and For the People definitely don’t shy away from the atrocities of the antebellum south’s reliance on slave labor.

  3. Thank you for the interesting article, very thought provoking. I don’t think games should shy away from Controversial issues but scramble for Africa was presented in a very tone deaf way I thought. If it is covering a sensitive issue it needs to be handled with respect and solemnity.

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