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

April 26, 2010

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?