King Philip’s War Controversy: Why Do We Play?

King Philip’s War, a forthcoming Multiman game by designer John Poniske, has generated a lot of press in the past month. This game depicts a little-known 1675-6 conflict in New England between European settlers and various Native American tribes. One player takes the role of the Europeans, the other the Native Americans. Players claim victory by raiding settlements and capturing enemy leaders to amass victory points.

The controversy surrounding the game began with a March 15th article in the Providence Journal (RI), in which various Native American leaders and historians were asked about their reaction to the game. In general, their replies indicate that they felt a board game about the conflict “trivializes it.” The story was then picked up by the Cape Cod Times on March 20. About a week later, the designer engaged in a roundtable discussion on the radio show Spooky Southcoast with Professor Jennings, a historian who organized a protest against the game. By Poniske’s account, it was an amicable discussion. Despite this, the Associated Press picked up the story April 15, and the article ran on Yahoo! News. This generated a deluge of comments (over 1600 to date) as various readers weighed in. If I could generalize the negative response to the game, it’s this: many people believe that making a game out of a war they believe had racist overtones encourages intolerance toward Native Americans.

I don’t really want to get into the middle of the controversy by writing directly about it; many others have done that, and their responses are scattered across Geek Do and ConSim World. However, I think that the rigmarole can serve as a jumping-off point for a reflection on the hobby: in light of these sorts of accusations that a war game, or war games in general, are politically incorrect, what are our reasons for gaming? I obviously can’t answer this question for everyone, but here are a few of my own thoughts on the matter:

History/Alternate History: I have always loved learning about history, and war gaming offers me a way to interact with a time period. I am a voracious reader, but a well-designed war game allows me to learn the particular difficulties and innovations of a particular war, campaign, or battle via simulation. In the past few years, I’ve gotten a lot of joy out of playing a game and then reading about the period, or vice versa. Also, beating an opponent in an “unhistorical” matter is exciting! I am driven to outdo the historical commanders in a conflict, testing different strategies to discover what might have been.

A Concrete Challenge: Unlike Euros, chess, or Risk, which are all very abstract games, historical war games are grounded in actual events. Their mechanics reflect certain historical realities, and this allows me to focus a bit better than when playing an abstract game.

Living Vicariously: When I was a kid, I was strongly attracted to the military. However, certain physical limitations prevented me from pursuing the  career I dreamed of. I may never get to be a general or an admiral, but war gaming gives me an outlet for this. I’m not equating the pressure of actual command with the pressure felt by the gamer at the table, but the latter can be thrilling and/or mildly stressful under the right conditions. And heck, it’s safer than sending real soldiers into battle.

Mental Competition: I’m a sports fan, but have no athletic talent to speak of. However, I’d like to think I’m relatively intelligent, and war gaming lets me compete in an arena that requires vigorous mental exercise–analyzing the costs and benefits of a particular decision, calculating ratios, etc.

So, when I am gaming, am I on a power trip? Am I attempting to trivialize the brutality of war? By no means. Rather, I am learning about history, sharpening my analytical skills, and testing myself against fellow gamers in a safe and fun way.

So, two questions for you, dear reader: Why do you play? And do you see in the King Philip’s War controversy a legitimate criticism of this game and war games in general, or do you see an uninformed misinterpretation of the hobby?

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7 Responses to King Philip’s War Controversy: Why Do We Play?

  1. Rick says:

    A few comments:
    1 – “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” I’m guessing this game will get the pre-orders it needs and get published thanks to this. Good for Poniske.

    2 – From my limited experience with wargames, I don’t see how they trivialize events. I’m a math/science guy who hated history in school because it was just a static list of names and dates. Playing board games based on historical events has allowed me to learn the events, figures, and how it all interacted. It’s actually got me more interested in history.

    3 – I play board games (and video games, sports, etc.) because I’m a competitive person. If I lose, I learn why I lost and how I can improve. And not just in board games, but in life. I’m even doing a weekly photo challenge with a buddy to sharpen my amateur photography skills. Competition is what drives us to greatness.

    4 – From the Yahoo! article “MultiManPublishing, which specializes in games that simulate violent combat.” In what part of history was combat NOT violent? You are simulating historic events that contained combat – I think there’s a difference there. It’s not like you actually scalp/behead/quarter/etc. the cardboard chits after you roll your dice – now that would be outrageous!

    • Rick says:

      One more thing:
      5 – “Julianne Jennings, an adjunct professor of anthropology at Rhode Island College and member of the Cheroenhaka Nottoway tribe, helped organize last month’s protest to provoke a response from the company. She said she was initially concerned about the game, but has since discussed it with the creator and believes it can be a proper educational tool if it adequately incorporates the viewpoint of tribal members.” Does it always have to be outrage first and then try to understand the problem?

  2. Russ says:

    Ya know, I have a hard time seeing how the King Philip’s War can be trivialized when most people don’t even know it existed in the first place.

  3. John Poniske says:

    For those of you who don’t know by now, King Philip’s War is my creation, so I’ll take the heat for any errors or hurt feelings. At the same time I will be happy to see the game go to print so that more people will be drawn to not only play the game (which is not only challenging but enjoyable IMO)but learn more about the war, the period and principals involved.

    Why do I play simulation games? Honestly, because I too want the vicarious thrill of reliving history and to do it right, I have to learn more about the age in which the conflict was fought. Wargames have taught me about African colonization, chariot warfare, far Eastern trade, guerilla warfare and tons of esoteric history I would not otherwise have learned. I have from time to time thought about the morality of destroying my opponent’s cardboard chits, just as a Marine, I struggled with training to kill human beings for real.

    Simulation wargaming is not for everyone. It may not be exactly PC, but I’ve met more rude, malicious, underhanded, racist, egotists on the street, in business, and yes even in the classroom, than I have ever met at a convention of wargamers. So many people neglect to see the social benefits of face to face gaming.

  4. Pedro Ubeda says:

    From my POV it does not make sense to make a big deal about this game. I am a long time Wargames player and I know war are not fair, and of course are violent business, but Does a game like third reich make the germans look bad or is the actual history the one that makes?
    If the author has made a decent historical reflaction of the actual events and choices the sides faced the game is fine. The author did not make history it was other peoples decission.
    Can Little Big Horn be considered a racist game, then or a game like Viet Nam from VG, where you declare free fier zones. Can Pax Brittanica a game on colonialism be considered an game encouraging imprialism?

  5. Joe says:

    I liked this post. The one thing I take issue with is the “Historical Simulation.” It’s more like playing a doctor on TV vs being a real doctor. You don’t see a doctor complete hours of paperwork, but in reality, thats most of their day. I mean games are fun, if they captured the painful detail with things such as logistical concerns, they would stop losing the fun aspect. Everything has to be abstracted. The luck factor is truly an abstract luck factor (maybe based on historical hindsight), and not a reflection of the true readiness and discipline of your force. It’s a fun to play, but I don’t think that by moving chits on a battlefield, I am truly simulating combat. Thank goodness, because for every epic battle there is an excruciating preparation.

  6. Joe says:

    I just think that our politically correct culture is out of control.

    It’s a game, not a history book. I’m not ticked off because sometimes a game has American revolutionary soldiers with less discipline than the British regulars. That’s a bias that certainly wasn’t true in all cases. Americans have everything that most people fight over so they have to look for things to fight about.

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