Racism and other troublesome elements in games

Could you clarify your thoughts in the racism of PR? Maybe we need to start another thread but I’m interested in your reasoning on this subject.

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(I’ve moved this because I agree it’s better done in another topic. That’s not to say I think it shouldn’t be done.)

My own feeling is that Race for the Galaxy and New Frontiers are colonialist – you’re spreading your polity to other planets without giving them any say in the matter, at least in terms of game mechanics – but not racist, because the notional beings you’re oppressing don’t have a human ethnicity.

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Great thanks @RogerBW

I asked the question of @TamiJo as a point of interest and learning. What about the elements that make up the game Puerto Rico lead you to the conclusion that it is racist?

To be clear I am not trying to be antagonistic. I’m not trying to promote racism or argue against the notion that racism is bad. But I do hold a slightly different view on PR specifically. I wanted to ask as I’m aware this is a complex subject and I might have missed something. If so I’d rather learn what and hopefully have developed some.

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I’m not the original poster of the comment, but this is a commonly discussed idea in the board game community. The obvious is the “colonists” aren’t colonists. They’re enslaved people. You are playing as a plantation owner helping to import ships full of captured Africans to put them to work as enslaved people for your profit. They can change the name to “colonists” to try to hide that, they can change the name of one of the tiles from the original “overseer” to try to hide that, but the reality is still there and the very heart of the game.


I’m not sure that’s a valid distinction.

I’m thinking of Heinlein’s Double Star, focused on the conflict of two political coalitions, the Expansionist and Humanity Parties, where the leader of the Expansionist Party takes the position that the human race, in moving out through the solar system, must not make the same mistakes that the white subrace made in expanding across Earth. Heinlein seems clearly to be framing Lorenzo Smythe’s initial bias against Martians as comparable to an earlier age’s bias against blacks. Do you think he was wrong to envision it that way?

I think that in Race etc. you can’t even tell what species (singular or plural) your own polity may consist of.

That’s a fair point.

There’s just no hiding it. That is the entire basis of the Atlantic triangular trade from the Caribbean side - African slaves in; cash crop exports out. (This also applies to mainland continents)

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You can buy a card called “Avian Uplift Race” or “Separatist Colony”, so I’m not saying that there couldn’t be a racist narrative there, but I don’t think it’s intrinsic the way the colonialist-hegemonic narrative is. (There’s no path to victory that doesn’t involve expanding your holdings, even if you go for developments like “Colony Ship”, “Space Marines” and “New Galactic Order” rather than planets.)

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There is no doubt that the situation depicts that. I suppose my question is more about how the game depicts that and what of the games treatment of the subject matter is racist?

I’m going to presume depicting such things isn’t in itself racist otherwise 12 Years a Slave is a racist book/film. Which I don’t think is the case?

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The fact that the little wooden tokens for the “colonists” are brown in colour doesn’t help. They managed to produce bright blue and bright yellow tokens for some of the crops, so they could easily have made the people tokens green or red or purple.

My friends Liz & John tell me that if you call the colonists tokens “slaves” in an official Puerto Rico tournament, you will be instantly disqualified.


There is a huge difference between depicting something in an environment that might encourage learning and thinking about a topic and one that doesn’t. There are also huge differences in how something can be depicted. In PR, the game is completely from the point of view of the enslavers with the enslaved people as just another commodity to casually toss around. Additionally, the game designers go out of their way to try to deny the reality of the horrors they are depicting, to down play it as much as possible and to deny the historic reality. There is no attempt to educate, there is instead an attempt to rewrite history and to deny. A better comparison would be the romantic fictions of the 1890s to 1930s with happy enslaved peoples glad to live under benevolent white masters, most famously Gone With the Wind, rather than 12 Years a Slave.


That’s what I was after. Where have the designers downplayed the subject matter?

By calling them colonists, not slaves. By completely ignoring and leaving out any aspects of the harsh reality of enslavement. By telling the entire game from the point of view of the plantation owners and making the enslaved people just another commodity to move around on the board with no more feelings or importance than any other good that could be bought or sold.


As for a game with colonialism as a theme, I don’t mind it at all. I came from the Philippines, and migrated to the UK. I have no problem with Archipelago on a high level - which has Spaniards (you can see Spain’s flag on the cover) landing on a tropical Pacific Island. Most likely it’ll be a Polynesian archipelago, but it doesn’t take that much imagination for it to be the Philippines. (Fun fact: the South East Asian islanders and Pacific Islanders - except for Papua New Guinea - belong to the same language family called the Austronesians)

Also, I’m more concern about racist depictions on the art (e.g. the classic Asian buckteeth) or enforces racist prejudices.(e.g. greedy Jews) than a game set in Manila during colonial times. Outside of that, it’ll be ideological views like with Eklund’s science quackery and his apology towards colonialism.

However, at this point of this hobby, I believe it’ll be extremely lazy if the designer/publisher resorts to having colonialism as a theme.


Part of why I’m asking all these questions now is partly because I think to do with the No Pun Included video about Food Chain Magnate which they compare to Monopoly as a conceit to discuss how games put you in the shoes of someone else to decide on actions and maybe gain some understanding about them. Efka talks about how this can be uncomfortable. FCM is arguably a satire of modern capitalism.

The reason I initially wouldn’t have thought of PR as racist inherently probably centres around the cubes being brown. As you say, they are just another commodity to be thrown around for monetary gain. People enriching themselves on the back of slavery clearly dehumanised Africans to do so and did merely view them as property. So playing a game where in order to do well you will treat tokens representing humans as just another resource puts you in that frame of mind. Is it possibly educative to be made aware that how wealth and the ‘great deeds’ that fuel modern nationalism have such an abhorrent root? And maybe that’s achieved by being less than explicit about the day to day reality of a slave. FCM invites us to simulate being an uncaring lord of capitalism and exploit people. Does Puerto Rico do something similar?

There are questions of intent I suppose that I can’t say equivocally what the designer and developers and publisher were thinking. It could be careless on their part in this case. I personally find Mombassa more objectionable for airbrushing from history what went on and having a weak attempt at saying let’s just have a jolly romp round a fantasy 19th century Africa which is exactly the same as real 19th century africa except now there’s no slaves and the exploitation is consequence free. I’m maybe more confident that Archipelago is inviting you to actually confront what had to happen to allow people to colonise other countries and treat other people so badly. Using the euphemism in PR of ‘colonists’ does make me wonder if I’m being over generous.

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I think giving the reason why would be beneficial here. I have to ponder a bit.

With me viewing the world from the lens of Philippine history, I believe Spanish colonialism is ancient history. Spain today is different from colonial Spain. If we talk about historical grievances, I have a far bigger beef with the Japanese. Of course, this is with the context of Philippine history, as European colonialism isn’t just a single thing.

History of the Blacks in the Americas is a different story and I’m not gonna speak on their behalf.


I think one of the important distinctions is framing. Not just the framing presented by the game, but also by the culture the game exists within.

A typical player’s familiarity with the subject of FCM is probably greater than what they would have for Puerto Rico. At the very least, they’re probably living in a capitalist society and have no direct experience with slavery.

Then you add in what gets taught about the history of the slave trade, etc. It’s not hard to imagine someone picking up PR and taking it entirely at face value.


I think this is key. If you include problematic elements in a game’s setting, it should be there for a reason. If you exclude problematic elements from a game’s setting that would otherwise be present, you are manufacturing a rose-tinted setting that serves no purpose.

If you are designing a game to exist within a factual, historic setting and you do not want to include factual issues that were part of the narrative to explain why that setting exists, you, in my opinion, should choose another setting.

If, on the other hand, you are attempting to create a factually accurate setting by including the problematic elements, you need to ensure you are dressing the setting accurately and sensitively – probably an exercise best left to culturally-educated consultants. Even still, the resulting product is going to not sit well with some people and, likely, you’re better off choosing a less sensitive setting.

TL;DR - if you want to use a setting that includes racism, colonialism or other problematic historical practices, you’d better do it with purpose, not as set dressing.


It’s been a while now, but I’m not sure that “hegemonic” always applies. There are two ways to advance in RftG: the economic path and the military path. And the military path clearly involves conquering planets, which are presumably inhabited. But the economic path is not one of conquest; it’s one of investment. It could just as well be taken as the founding of colonies on uninhabited worlds that take on distinctive characters because of the different inclinations of the people who colonize them. Or even if you assume that they are inhabited, trade as such is not hegemonic; conquest is basically “you will give me what I want or I will make you worse off,” but trade is basically “if you give me what I want I will make you better off.”

For what it’s worth, I nearly always played the economic path; I only went military if my initial cards were hopelessly bad for economic, or maybe once or twice as an experiment.

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