I feel like I need to start this post by saying: I'm not telling you not to play gladiator board games. I play them. I enjoy them. I have no intention of stopping. But I think it's important to reflect on the differences between what we know about history and what we are presenting in our board games.
That said, did you know that most ancient gladiators were slaves?
Over the last several years, board gamers, both in and out of academy, have taken notice of colonial themes in board games. Strategy games such as Puerto Rico, Struggle of Empires, and Archipelago have entered not only the Top 100 games on BoardGameGeek, but have received treatment from scholars of postcolonial studies because of their focus on colonial economies and the in-game presence of slaves (1).
On the consumer end of the spectrum, games have either drawn criticism or been withdrawn from publication due to insensitive colonial theming. Notably, a recent GMT project entitled Scramble for Africa, described in a press release as a “game of the period of exploration, colonization, and exploitation of Africa from around 1850 to 1900,” (2) was going to be published, but was ultimately withdrawn from the production line due to outcry over the game’s Euro-centric enthusiasm for carving up the continent of Africa, with no regard for the painful consequences that still linger from when it actually happened (3). Meanwhile, historical gaming in particular is seeing a push towards telling a wider variety of stories from differing (i.e. not colonial or Western-centric) viewpoints (4). Overall, there is a movement within board games to show more sensitivity with regard to the subject matter of games and to the treatment of oppressed or previously silenced people who are portrayed in them. The subject of slavery has received especially close scrutiny, and with good reason.
For every game that confronts the issue as a painful and upsetting historical episode (5), there are several more that contain references to slavery that trivialize—even incentivize—the mistreatment of enslaved people. Five Tribes, a game set in a fictionalized Middle East, had, and ultimately removed, a slavery-themed market card (6). More recently, Maracaibo, a strategy game based on 17th-century trade in the Caribbean, has drawn criticism for a card that allows players to profit from slavery within the context of the game (7).
I see all of this discussion as a sign of progress. It's important to reflect on what games ask us to do, and the context of those actions both in actual history and in our current culture. But so far, discussion centers almost entirely on the more recent past. We have yet to seriously apply these new lenses to other historical contexts, to cultures that do not—at least as far as we can perceive—have as strong an impact on our own. While now a game in which slavery is practiced rightly incites discussion among gamers, these scruples do not currently apply to games set in the Roman world, and in particular to games about gladiators.
So what are we doing with our gladiator games? What does that say about us? What does it say about our attitudes toward Roman culture? I'll be exploring these questions and more over the next several posts!
Click here for the next part.
(1) Borit, C, et al, 2018 Representations of Colonialism in Three Popular, Modern Board Games: Puerto Rico, Struggle of Empires, and Archipelago. Open Library of Humanities, 4(1): 17, pp. 1–40, DOI: https:// doi.org/10.16995/olh.211
(2) The original release has since been deleted, but remains in part on Twitter. GMT Games (@gmtgames), Twitter Post. Feb. 19, 2020, 6:00 PM, https://twitter.com/gmtgames/status/1098356792143138816?lang=en
(3) Kevin Draper, “Should Board Gamers Play the Roles of Rapists, Slavers, and Nazis?” The New York Times, accessed Aug. 01, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/01/style/board-games-cancel-culture.html
(4) “Zenobia Award,” accessed May 24, 2021, https://zenobiaaward.org/
(5) Dan Thurot, "The Compromises of This Guilty Land," Space-Biff! December 20, 2018, accessed May 24, 2021, https://spacebiff.com/2018/12/18/this-guilty-land/
(6) Michael Heron, “Five Tribes (2014) -- Accessibility Teardown,” Meeple Like Us September 30, 2017, accessed May 24, 2021, https://www.meeplelikeus.co.uk/five-tribes-2014-accessibility-teardown/
(7) Mandi Hutchinson (@bgpinup), Twitter Post, March 07, 2020, 2:37 AM,