Going into Empire
NOTE: This essay was originally posted as the first Designer Diary on the John Company: Second Edition Board Game Geek page ahead of during Wehrlegig's upcoming Kickstarter, launching March 30, 2021.
All that said, this first post is going to be a little different from those that follow. I wanted to start not by talking about John Company's gameplay, but its politics.
A few weeks ago the video series No Pun Included posted a video about colonialism in board games. It's an excellent video and everyone should watch it. In the video, the second edition of Pax Pamir was held up as one of the few instances of a positive example of a game with a colonial setting. I appreciated the mention, though the academic in me wants to rush to the scene and provide lots of caveats. I wouldn't, for instance, say that Pamir has much to say about colonialism, but it does concern imperialism and there is a lot of germane overlap between those concepts. And, of course, a lot depends on how one wants to define colonialism in the first place.
I was also glad to see No Pun Included's video include some discussion of postcolonial ideas. For me this is an absolutely foundational framework to my own design practice and a body of thought that informs every historical game on which I've worked.
I've written a lot about the design of John Company in the past, but I don't think I've ever talked about its politics at length. With the new edition of John Company about to go on Kickstarter, it seemed like a good time to get in the weeds.
John Company is the second game in a series of games about empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the first game, Pax Pamir, players took the role of small Afghan political factions attempting to piece together a stable state while being buffeted by a global rivalry between the British and Russian Empires. In this game, European agents were often clumsy interlopers, and their interests were seen entirely from the outside. This vantage point was a tactical decision. I know that the game's audience is predominately western and so many biases about the nature of empire were baked into their (and my own) subject position. For this reason, I wanted to first defamiliarize players and purposely put them in a setting they knew very little so that I could have players approach the problems of its subject with fresh eyes.
When players first played Pamir, a common comment was the game felt abstract. This was a very nice way of saying that the game's setting didn't leave an impression. That may seem like an insult to the design, but I didn't take it that way. Instead, that comment suggested to me the degree to which the game's setting was alien to its players. They didn't have any obvious cultural or narrative touchstones. Then, as players played the game and learned about the setting—maybe they read the short essay I wrote on the back of the rules, looked at a couple of cards, or picked up a book on the subject—, the story of the game started to hit harder with each additional play. Pax Pamir was not meant to leave players with a single impression of a time and place, it was meant to jump-start an inquiry. This seemed like the proper way to begin a big series of games about a complicated subject.
In John Company, the vantage point shifts. This game is directly concerned with the sinews of the British Empire. In particular, the game concerns the formation of what is sometimes called the “Imperial Imaginary” by folks (myself included) who want to impress their academic peers. The term has a pretty simple meaning. Basically, how does a people or an institution or an empire think of itself and the world in which they exist? The concept matters because it allows us to better understand why those peoples, institutions, and empires behave the way they do. And, by understanding the “how” and the “why” of empire, we can better understand how these systems persist in our own time and how we might go about dismantling their influences.
I should say right at the start that this inquiry is not flattering to the British and their actions in India. Though imperialism has a complex genealogy, I think that a lot of our current understanding of the term emerged from what happened in the 18th and early 19th centuries between the British and the many peoples of India. And, while putting the British on blast for their actions is a perfectly reasonable way to spend your time, John Company tries to go farther, showing how any number of domestic institutions (commercial and cultural) were built upon the bedrock of empire. John Company may be a game about the formation of that empire, but it is also a deeply anti-colonial game, steeped in postcolonial thought.
Postcolonialism is not a simple concept. It's not even really a concept at all. It's better to think about it as a group of ideas and scholarship, with its origins in the middle part of the 20th century. It encompasses a wide range of fields, approaches, and opinions. And, within that body of thought, there's no guarantee two postcolonial thinkers agree on even the biggest issues relating to their subject.
If I had to link everything to a central ethos it would be this: the imperial experience transforms everything. It reorganizes relationships between people. It disrupts economies and geopolitics. It changes how history gets written. And, if you want to write or think about empire, you have to confront that fact.
I first encountered this body of thought through the work of Frantz Fanon, an French West Indian psychiatrist who wrote some of the foundational texts of postcolonialism. Up to that point in my life, I understood the concept of empire purely from a geopolitical perspective. Basically, I thought of an empire as a state that was special only because it happened to be large and often ruled over many different groups of people.
This understanding was not wrong, but it did miss critical parts of the picture described by Fanon. Fanon emphasized the degree to which the imperial experience changed the relationships between people (see Black Skin, White Masks, 1952) and how one's resistance to empire should be informed by the character of that relationship (see The Wretched of the Earth, 1961--if you haven't read it yet, read it).
But postcolonial thinking is not entirely centered upon those marginalized by empire. Imperialism cuts both ways. Here thinkers like Edward Said are essential. In Orientalism (1978) he describes what one scholar later summed up as the West's “love-hate” relationship with the East. That is, about the way many western scholars were simultaneously tantalized and disgusted by the East and attempted to use their academic skills to make it fit their own imagined version of itself. Orientalism offers us a framework for understanding that empire does more than subjugate the bodies and minds of those on the margins. It corrupts knowledge production and, in turn, doesn't allow people to see each other clearly.
This has all sorts of consequences. In Said's later career, he sharpened his focus and looked closely at the way the imperial experience tucked itself into the everyday. He paid particular attention to novels that that didn't seem like they had much to say at all about empire. In Culture and Imperialism (1993), he performs a famous reading of the Jane Austen novel Mansfield Park (1814) where he shines a light on the many instances where empire shapes Austen's work. Or, as Said puts it:
In short, John Company thrusts players into the bowels of empire. And, while not an always pleasant experience, it is also not without its own dark comedy. My hope is that the game will offer players a detailed portrait of empire in action that will help them understand the rise of the British Empire in India and its connection to domestic culture in the West both then and now.
Unfortunately, there is some urgency to this effort. As Shashi Tharoor writes in his book Inglorious Empire (2018), over the past 30 years, there has been a tremendous bout of collective amnesia, espeically in the UK, about the history of empire and its consequences. Into this vacuum, revisionist historians of the worst kind like Niall Ferguson have capitalized on historical blind spots of people living today to make an absurd case for the benefits of empire. This cannot be allowed to happen. Tharoor believes that one of the best bulwarks against this erasure is to do the work of inquiry and to make the history of empire accessible and apparent to the widest audience. It is into this effort that I submit my work. John Company is an unsparing portrait that hopefully will give its players a sense of the nature of empire and the long half-life of its cultural production. It is certainly not the only way to make a game about empire, but I hope that it does its part in adding to our understanding of that subject and its continued legacy.