King Philip’s Board Game: Trivializing or Educating?

Linford D. Fisher

I really have no excuse for blogging about an upcoming board game titled “King Philip’s War,” since it has nothing to do with religion in America. Or does it? A board game that allows players to take sides and reenact one of the most horrific clashes between Natives and English colonists in the colonial period must certainly have something to do with religion.

John Poniske, a middle school social studies teacher from Maryland, claims he designed the game to educate the wider public about the war itself, since he was surprised to read about it in a military magazine (his surprise surprised me, to be frank; which textbook published in the last twenty years does not mention King Philip’s War?).

The company behind the game, MultiManPublishing, is known for its militaristic-historical games. One can purchase board games that reenact the major battles of the Civil War, for example, or a board game that might be my personal favorite, called “Warriors of God,” which allows players to participate in the wars between England and France between 1135-1453.

Am I being too cynical here? Maybe a generation of young people will be educated by this board game. But I would hope that, in the future, people might turn to less-trivializing and more nuanced and culturally sensitive ways to learn about King Philip’s War. For middle-schoolers, Dan Mandell has an age-appropriate text on the war and has recently completed a forthcoming book on the same topic for a more general adult audience. Really hardy non-specialists might even consider tackling classics like Jill Lepore’s The Name of War. Or, as a last resort, interested media- and entertainment-starved folks could even learn a lot from watching Episode One of PBS’s “We Shall Remain.” But a board game? My only consolation is that it has not (yet?) been turned into a game for the Wii.


Randall said…
I would love to play the Wii version.

Makes me wonder if games like this have much of an audience though.
David G. said…
What I find interesting about this story is the politics surrounding a game depicting a war between whites and Natives. Other popular war games, like Risk, don't seem to be all that controversial, and fit into popular notions of history as great battles and wars. But the rules are different when the war is between settlers and Indians, and demonstrates the increasing ability of Native peoples to control how their histories are used and marketed to the public.
Matt Sutton said…
I am with Randall. Bring it to Wii. R--I thought you returned your Wii in a fit of guilt?
Unknown said…
These games are manufactured in small numbers for hard-core hobbyists. I've played a couple in the genre. They involve large maps with hundreds of small cardboard chits, take an hour or two just to set up properly, and take a full weekend to play. Even among people who play lots of games, these things appeal to a very small audience, mostly military history enthusiasts and older game-players who still remember the days before video games and collectible card games. No child is going to play this thing, and nobody is going to learn any history from it.

The article should have done a better job of pointing this out. Note the sentence, "MultiManPublishing, which specializes in games that simulate violent combat, plans to distribute the game as soon as it gets enough orders to justify it." That's the business model for these companies: once 500 or so people pre-order the game on their website, they'll do a limited run. If it sells out, they'll open it up for pre-orders again, and if they get enough they'll print more. Nobody makes much money on these things. You're not going to see this on the shelves at "Toys 'R' Us." You sure as heck won't see it on a Wii!

I don't mean to trivialize their larger concerns, but I think the activists who are making a big deal about this are being disingenuous. This thing would have gotten no attention at all from the general public if they had not made a stink.

I recently played one of these games that simulated the wars of the Reformation in Europe. Besides the major powers (France, England, Spain, and the Ottomans) one player played the Papacy and another played the Reformers. There were two types of chits: one for military control and one for religious control, as the Reformers tried to convert territories and the Papacy tried to take them back. It was a lot of fun, and full of neat historical figures and events, but not a very good learning tool. If I didn't already study religious history (I'm a Ph.D. student at UCSB) I wouldn't have learned much; once the game is going, it's a game, and the rules are so ridiculously complex ("tell me again how I build a fleet to ferry my troops from Scotland to Denmark?") it's all you can do to keep up.
Randall said…
Matt: I returned an Xbox in a fit of guilt. I think that was because the graphics were so good. Was afraid I would give up on real life for the virtual life.
Linford Fisher said…
Thanks, all, for the comments, both serious and humorous. David, I agree that the politics are interesting, but I'm not sure they are frivolous or unwarranted. Certain topics and/or approaches in game form just seem culturally inappropriate. Imagine, for example a game on the Holocaust or the slave trade. Just doesn't feel right somehow. And Kevin, I agree, too, that these games will likely not make it outside of an intensely underground board game circle, but this makes the creator's comments/justification even more odd. And still, there's something about the principle that, in my mind, makes it worthwhile for people to speak up and protest. As for the Wii...let's just say I'll be happy if my kids continue to be happy with Mario Kart and Littlest Pet Shop.
BigSteve said…
No one has the right to tell others HOW they should FEEL about something. We may have difficulty understanding their perspective, and that's ok, but that does not mean we can say 'you shouldn't be offended by my words or actions cause it wasn't intentional'. If native peoples are offended the offense is real, period. Having an open mind is how we prevent misunderstandings that lead to genocide. Devaluing others because we disagree with them is the way to ruination. A board game that taught that would be truely educational.
Tim said…
Despite the title, I think there is an intrinsic assumption in the post that games are de facto trivializing. In fact, there are many professional historians and other humanists (especially in the digital realm) that are doing excellent work on the pedagogical uses of games. The NEH Office of Digital Humanities has taken this research serious enough to sponsor an Institute this summer.

The issue isn't that there is a King Philip's Board Game, but how nuanced the creators are in capturing the many dimension of the historical event (something that a well-constructed game can do). I think religious historians would be well-served by exploring the utility of games in their teaching, rather than dismissing it out of hand.

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