Pawns of Manifest Destiny: Native-American Agency and Visibility in History Based Tabletop Games.

This piece is written as a follow up to the first three meetings of the Center’s History Games Club and serves as a critical reflection on our experiences playing with and observing student interactions with several history-based tabletop games.  

This post explores the representations and in-game use of Native Americans in three separate games: 1775: Rebellion; Discoveries: The Journals of Lewis and Clark; and, Bang! The Dice Game. While each game explores a different era with different mechanics, they all employ Native American characters as part of the gameplay. Most of this “inclusion” is to forward a particular narrative that reinforces or strengthens the Anglo protagonist(s) position. The purpose of this examination is not to engage in the totality of Native American representation, but to analyze the ways that the structure and mechanics of each game reinforce mythic identities in juxtaposition with a lack of purposeful agency for Native characters. The three games vary significantly in their organization and structure; however, they each employ Native Americans as passive and often aggressive. When there is an action for the Native characters in the games, it is initiated by or in service of the other player characters who are invariably Anglo. The representation of Native Americans on a variety of the gaming components (cards, dice, chits) utilize mythic and stereotypical imagery. The gaming narrative and interaction between player characters and the non-player Native American characters creates coded exchanges between game players about the mythic Native American, which furthers the marginalization of that group. The marginalization is closely coupled with the Native Americans lack of agency within each game and reinforced in the use or usefulness of those characters in the game.

1775: Rebellion does make some attempts to position Native Americans within the game, yet their inclusion is ancillary to the game’s narrative structure, which focuses on territorial acquisition and the battles between Patriot and British forces in the year before the Declaration of Independence. While they are secondary characters in gameplay they do appear in the historical context provided by the creators of the game in the three page “Historical Overview” at the end of the rulebook. In this “Overview” there is a one sentence mention of Joseph Brant and his role in the Battle of Ticonderoga. There is also a paragraph-long general discussion about Native Americans and their role in the Revolution towards the end of the “Historical Overview” that speaks to Native Americans attempt to remain neutral at the beginning of the war. However, except for the brief mention of Joseph Brant (who is also a playing card within the game) and a brief mention of the Cherokee, Native Americans are assumed to be a collective group whose interests and purpose line up together. The game takes the problematic idea that any Indian is just like any other Indian. In fact, Native peoples are represented by a single color block (green), suggesting this lack of diversity and singular native culture. There is no game mechanic that allows them to have separate interests or tribal identities, instead, they are represented as a united front, disinterested until forced to engage by the whims of European and American player interests.

The lack of inclusion and agency reinforce the simplified, stereotypical, and racialized representations of Native Americans throughout the gameplay of 1775: Rebellion. The game is set at the beginning of the American War for Independence and in an attempt at historical accuracy includes a range of different groups who participated in the war, including the French, Hessians, and as already mentioned Native Americans. These three groups are secondary characters and can only be used by the main factions (Loyalist Militia, British Regulars, Continental Army, and Patriot Militia) who in the course of the game's narrative are given historical and ludic agency. Again, the Native Americans are placed on the board as green chits and are only active once one of the four factions moves into their territory. As the rules note, “Native American units in an area are independent until allied with a side. This occurs when British or American units move into [the area.]” They then become a component of the “invading” faction or the unit with agency. Native Americans have no choice in who they support during gameplay; in fact, they switch alliances whenever another main faction player defeats the current faction controlling them. In this case, not only do Native Americans lack agency, but they simply follow the Anglo faction who are making choices for them. The game also implies that Native Americans were mere pawns and had no real purpose or intention during the War. Observations of gameplay revealed that a disconcerting amount of casual racism crept into the conversation surrounding Native characters. The coupling of Native Americans with an Anglo faction often led game players to make claims on Native Americans. Commonly heard around the table during the course of  the three games were sentiments like, “these are my Indians,” “grab me those natives,” “push those Indians my way,” “I’m about to use my Natives to kill you.”  The game’s table narrative then suggests that ownership of Native people is part of the game.

The creators of Discoveries: The Journals of Lewis and Clark attempt to give some agency to Native groups and a recognition of the diversity of Native American life in the areas explored by the Corps of Discovery. In the game's rulebook, there is a note titled “About the term ‘American Indians’” in which the authors enter the current debate over identity labels. They explain that their use of the term American Indian rather than Native American is based on a survey conducted in 1995 by the U.S. Census Bureau of people who claimed Native American heritage, in which 50% of the respondents preferred the term American Indian over the 37% who claimed Native American as their preferred identity. While that survey hardly settled the debate, the authors are trying to remain sensitive to issues of identity and labels. That sensitivity is carried into the representations of the diversity of Native people who populated the areas explored by the Corps. Thirty individual tribes or bands are represented on the “Tribe Cards” including Clatsop, Tenino, Multnomah, Nez Perce, the Minnetaree (as Lewis and Clark referred to members of the Hidatsa), the Yankton Sioux, Teton Sioux, Flathead (The Salish though not noted on the card), Blackfeet, and Arikara. But that’s as far as the sensitivity goes. The images of Native People on the cards, box and instruction guide, are reminiscent of nineteenth century Romantic paintings that set down the vernacular of the ennobled yet vanishing people. As in those Romantic notions, Native People vanish from the game as well. In the course of play, “Tribe Cards”  are collected by players to enhance their “Discovery powers” and facilitate exploration in the game's narrative. While the cards are important in gameplay the tribes or bands that are represented go barely commented on and serve largely as decoration. Most players focus instead on the special actions that allow them power in the game thus eclipsing the importance of the people represented on the card. In collecting “Tribe Cards,” whether a “Wary” (roll two Native Headdress die) or “Friendly” one (roll one Native headdress die), the object is to collect tribes that will help the Anglo character. There are no means by which Native People can resist being collected, thus their agency is reduced to a passive character used in service of the player in the narrative fiction of the game. Actually, there are no actions that a player can take as a Native character; all the action of the game is carried out by the players representing John Ordway, Meriwether Lewis, Patrick Gass and of course William Clark. In this way, the game celebrates the manifest role of Anglo American men, preferences their “discovery” of an already occupied land, and perpetuates the heritage based myths of American exceptionalism born of events like the Corp of Discovery.

Additionally, like 1775, Discoveries’ game structure and component iconography invite casual racism. One face of the dice features a silhouetted Native American wearing a feathered war bonnet and the physiognomic features of the stereotypical sharply sloped forehead and exaggerated nose. While approximately a dozen plains tribes donned some form of the headdress in war and in religious ceremony, the silhouetted image and its stereotypical features serve to reduce the Native character to an abstract symbol of Indianness rather than a flesh and blood person. The generalization of form simplifies the diversity of Native American culture, reducing them to a collective body who dressed, looked, and acted in similar ways. In erasing the humanity of the character and reducing them to a simple icon, players during gameplay are free to take ownership of a people and engage in what otherwise would be described as racist behavior. They “collect Indian heads,” they, like in the gameplay of 1775, lay claim to “my Indians,” and they “use their Indians” for in game rewards. The game also rewards players with points for collecting  teepees. These teepees serve the same purpose as the war bonnet in that they reduce Native Americans to a monolithic cultural form, lacking the depth and breadth afforded to Anglos. While not explicit in the narrative of the game this collection mechanic suggests a territorial land grab by the Anglo game characters and offers no means for the Native people to resist. They must passively accept the role of the dice that allow them to be acquired. In this way, Native Americans are sidelined in the game’s narrative, and the structural racism that casts Native Americans as passive historical actors is reinforced, even Sacagawea’s role in the Corps of Discovery is diminished. She appears nowhere in the gameplay and is only present in illustration form on the box, standing majestically, baby strapped to her back, on a cliffside pointing west and down river while a heroic Lewis and Clark plot their next move.

These representations extend into games that are rooted less in their supposed historical accuracy and set in a more fictional landscape as well. Bang! The Dice Game differs significantly from the previous two games in form and its limited employment of Native Americans within the game. Bang! also clearly references spaghetti westerns and the genres violent form is clear throughout the game. Given the game’s association with the American Western, the representation of Native Americans shouldn’t be surprising. In this game like in the Italian or Hollywood western “Heroic civilization [is] shown struggling against the darkness of a “savage,” barbarous native population” (Slotkin, 1992, p. 317). Native People in this game are reduced to faceless savages who attack at random.  Native Americans are not just violent, they are only violent. This violence and the Native Peoples presence in the game are represented only by arrows on the dice that players roll and the cards players collect. When a player rolls an arrow they collect an arrow token. When all arrow tokens are collected by the players around the table “the Indians attack and each player loses one life point for each arrow in front of him. After the attack, all players discard their arrows, and...resume [their] turn.” (Bang! Rulebook). In the narrative of the game, this “attack” is read as a sneak attack on all players and the Native Americans slow the progress of gameplay. The game then, upholds another trope of the Western, Native Americans stand in opposition to progress and civilization unlike the Anglo characters who stand in for the American nation and “allow for acts of empire or hegemony to be seen as the expression of a national and moral imperative that will ensure progress and promote the development of civilization” (Corkin, 2000, p. 74). Players, taking on the role of the heroic America come to regard Native Americans as an obstacle to be removed or at the very least avoided. Additionally, this violence comes through the use of what most presumed to be the only nineteenth century form of Native American weaponry, the arrow, rather than admitting the possibility that Native Population had access to guns or other weapons of modernity. Their choice of weapons thus makes them anachronistic and renders them a part of the pre-modern past.  

The game is purposefully violent, with the goal to kill or isolate the opposing factions (Sheriff / Deputies, Outlaws, Renegades). The ultimate win condition of the game has the Sheriff, the representation of American law and order, survive the Native American attacks, kill the outlaws and renegades and save the lives of his deputies. As such, the game upholds the core ideals of the frontier myth. But consistent with Spaghetti Western themes, the game does allow for an “Anti-Hero” win condition. Here the rugged individual and libertarian view of the West is secured by the renegade characters being the last men standing or the outlaws killing the sheriff and renegades. Notably missing from the game is any counter narrative to the frontier myth where Native Americans survive the onslaught of western expansion and reign over the land that they have occupied for millennia. The use and characterization of Native Americans being almost exclusively non-existent except for the attack scenarios further serve to reinforce the mythology of the Indian attack and the reactionary nature of Native American interaction with their surroundings and other groups. Native Americans in this instance are subsumed not only by the genre, not only of games but of the sub-genre of spaghetti westerns, but also through the stylized and adolescent simplicity of the “Cowboy and Indians” narrative of the Wild West.

Corkin, Stanley, “Cowboys and free markets: Post-World War II westerns and U.S. Hegemony.” Cinema Journal, 39, 66-91. 2000

Slotkin, Richard.  Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth Century America. (Tulsa: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992).