Artist’s Statement Hack 2
Forbidden Island is my favorite board game. I love that it’s a collaborative game, as I’m someone who much prefers to work together with a group than against opponents. I love how challenging it is, and how much strategizing and thought has to go into every move. I love the intensity of it–having your board fall apart piece by piece certainly raises the stakes of the game. But it’s not a game above criticism. I was playing it over winter break with my very social justice oriented friend, and while we had a lot of fun with it, he raised an eyebrow when I explained its premise. The loose story of Forbidden Island is that the players are a team of adventurers going to retrieve sacred and powerful treasures from a collapsed civilization. This premise undoubtedly has a certain imperialist and colonialist implication to it, as the team is invading and island and items belonging to another civilization. Therefore, for my critical play hack, I decided to rewrite the instructions to Forbidden Island, and with a few thoughtful modifications to the manual, turned it instead into an anti-imperialist board game in which players are the members of a persecuted civilization trying to protect their sacred artifacts from invaders. This hack embodied Mary Flanagan’s concept of critical play, acting as an interventionist rewriting of the colonialist narratives put forward by the game.
The first major modification I made to the game was having the team playing as the civilization to whom the treasures belong. So often, our historical narratives involve placing the European or American colonizers as the active participants in history, while the civilizations being colonized are portrayed as passive, acted upon rather than acting. I wanted to grant agency back to those so frequently erased from historical narratives by instead having the players act as the invaded population. Instead of invading the island to take the treasures, players acted as the Archaens attempting to save their sacred artifacts and escape the island before the colonizers arrived. This modification to the rules encourages players to empathize with the colonized, not the colonizers. One of the most powerful elements of games with any sort of narrative or role-playing element is that players must embody a character or role. Actually embodying a certain role encourages empathy with that group of people far more than simply reading about or watching a similar narrative. I took advantage of that affordance of games–that the players are active participants in the narrative–to try to encourage empathy with the persecuted, not the persecutors.
I further modified the rules and language of the instruction manual to try to encourage a reading of history from the perspective of the colonized. I was actually pretty amazed at how relatively small modifications could result in significant changes to the messages promoted by the game. For example, I changed the language surrounding the objects meant to be captured in the game from “treasures” to “artifacts,” and changed the verb from “capture” to “save.” Capturing treasures has a certain imperialist air to it, suggesting that the artifacts of a civilization are simply waiting for an intrepid adventurer to claim and take back to his civilization. Instead “saving artifacts” suggests that a civilization is having to protect its valuable objects from an invading or attacking force. This simple language change enabled me to completely change the game’s perspective on imperialism. Now, Forbidden Island is a game shedding light on the hardships faced by invaded and colonized countries, instead of valorizing those who pillage any civilization they choose.
Additionally, I made modifications to the rules of the game to suggest the damage done by imperialist forces. In the updated version of Forbidden Island, the players are required to sink at least fifty percent of the island before the end of the game. This modification adds a new degree of difficulty–players must strategically choose which tiles to sink and when to reach fifty percent but still be able to maneuver around the island. This change to the rules was meant to suggest the damage so frequently done by invading armies. As the citizens flee the invaders, they are forced to destroy a significant portion of their home to avoid being followed, demonstrating the sacrifices and losses colonized countries so frequently suffer at the hands of the colonizers.
This hack embodied Mary Flanagan’s concept of interventionist critical play through the process of rewriting. She writes that interventions are often deliberately designed to achieve “social and political goals,” which the updated Forbidden Island certainly did (12). As I have outlined, this version of the game, while still fun, exciting, and enjoyable, now attempted to advance an anti-imperialist message, encouraging players to think more critically about the history of colonialism through play. I would consider my hack of Forbidden Island an activist game, particularly through the practice Flanagan identifies as “rewriting” (33). Although she discusses it in the context of dolls, this idea of changing the narratives involved in play very much applies to my hack. I made minor modifications to the rules, but most of my changes centered around the story, language, and terminology used in the rule book. Like Flanagan notes children did with dolls, I rewrote the story surrounding the game to resist dominant cultural messages and put forward alternative values and beliefs.
Rewriting the rules to Forbidden Island was a very interesting insight into the implicit messages promoted by games. I don’t believe the game developers intended for Forbidden Island to promote imperialism and colonialism, but given the prevalence of Indiana Jones-esque stories, it’s no wonder we view invading a country to capture a treasure an exciting, fulfilling, and even heroic premise for a game. I was pretty amazed by how small modifications to the language, premise, and rules could completely change the game’s implicit message, and how easily a game such as this could introduce children to the often untold historical narratives of colonized countries. I think play and fun are often vehicles by which we can subtly promote certain messages to children, teaching them lessons about history and society without them even realizing it. I hope my hack of Forbidden Island took advantage of this affordance of games, and promoted a more critical view of imperialist narratives that is accessible even to children and teenagers.
Flanagan, Mary. Critical Play: Radical Game Design, MIT Press, 2009.