Conflicts Around the Table & GMT Gets To Publish Whatever They Want

Brant Guillory, 9 April 2019

Hooboy…

I mean, 25 years ago, this wouldn’t have made any ripples in the gaming world, so thanks, social media.  That said, maybe this was a ripple that needed to be made.

For those of you that missed the kerfuffle, GMT Games elected to remove their upcoming Scramble for Africa game from their p500 list.

Depending on who is screaming loudest in your ear at any given moment, this is alternately (deep breath) the end of GMT, a well-reasoned decision about a difficult topic, whitewashing history, covering up and buying time for a failed design, a travesty of SJWs run amok, the dangers of GMT coloring outside the wargaming lines, walking back from something that never should’ve made it to p500, Marxist censorship, and/or rebooting the game under a different ‘skin’. Of course, which of those reasons you choose to believe is, like many other things, significantly influence by where you stand on most political issues these days.

I don’t know much about the design, other than what I’ve seen reported.  I didn’t play an advance copy of it. I haven’t seen any advance materials on it. I missed the BGG forum meltdown over it, but there are others. But there’s been more than enough to dissect in the reaction to pulling the game, and I think there’s some discussion needed here.

 

First, let’s get this as out-of-the-way as we can:
GMT Games gets to publish whatever the hell the damn well please because it’s their company and they’ve been pretty successful over the past quarter-century making decisions for their business.

Everybody caught up so far?

 

Look, there are going to be games on tough topics, especially in the historical gaming world.  We tackle games about the Indian Wars in the settlement of the American West and there’s no shortage of games about the American Civil War, Nazis in Europe, the Japanese rolling over the Pacific, or even, lookee-here…  colonialism.  The question becomes “how do you tackle the tough topics?”

I’m not going to pretend I have the right answers on this one, but there’s at least one good column that sums up some of the feelings about the subject matter way better than I could, over at WargameHQ

What I’m wanting to discuss, though, is the reactions and behaviors of the crowd to this decision, and some of the insane avalanche of false equivalencies and straw-man arguments that were tossed out there.

 

First, there’s been consistent criticism of GMT Games bowing to an audience that’s not going to buy their games anyway.  Criticism through that lens focuses exclusively on GMT’s background as a wargame publisher, and ignores their wider forays into more mass-market gaming.  GMT broadening their appeal is seen by these critics as a bad thing, as it opens them up to greater criticism from a non-wargaming audience about their wargaming decisions.  But GMT has already started down this road.  How many Twilight Struggle players are never touching Silver Bayonet or Combat Commander?  Is Dominant Species aimed at the Commands & Colors crowd?  What about Leaping Lemmings?  Heck, our very own Cyrano has decried the fact that Mystery Wizard has jumped to the front of the publishing line, ahead of any number of eagerly-awaited wargames.

So GMT has already started down this road, and hex-and-counter-über-alles rearguard trying to fend off this action is making a poor argument. The protesting potential customers would not likely have bought games from GMT 10-15 years ago, and are, in all honesty, unlikely to pick up a copy of Pax Baltica or FAB Golan.  But GMT is trying to reach a whole new audience here, and for the existing wargame-customer-base to assume that Eurogamers wouldn’t be interested in a game that GMT was specifically marketing toward them simply because that crowd wasn’t interested in Holland ’44 is completely misunderstanding the direction GMT wanted to go.

It’s fine if you disagree with GMT’s approach to widening their audience, and you have every right to walk away as a customer if you disagree.  But to douse the bridge in gasoline and light it with a traffic flare because GMT is daring to widen their audience with a non-wargame?  That’s a specious argument, and we all know it, because you didn’t walk away from GMT when they published Thunder Alley or Welcome to Centerville or 1846.

 

Second, the arguments about the subject matter itself were highly speculative, given the limited knowledge of what was released about the game before the decision to pull it. What we think we know includes the ability to foment a native revolt in an opponent’s area, not to help the oppressed natives who wish to throw off the yoke of oppression, but simply to force your opponent to divert resources to putting down the rebellion.

As far as we know, there was no role to be played by the natives other than them simply being a countable resource for the exploitation of the continent.  This does not mean that you have to put the native population in a player-role for the game, nor does it mean that they can’t be a resource to be used by the players in the game.

But (again, purely speculative) there seemed to be no negative consequences for the players in behaving that way, and while the dominant mindset of the colonial powers at that time was probably pretty similar, haven’t we evolved as a human race to the point where we might want to provide a wider context for the actions we’ve taken?

 

Third, the straw-man / false-equivalency arguments were just downright stupid.  Seriously.

Africa-FB-4 Africa-FB-5

How many games “about slavery” are there, anyway?  I mean, I don’t seem to remember “Plantation: The Game” wherein your southern cotton plantation was fighting to meet production quotas and the Underground Railroad was a random-event card that cut into your total resource production as your slaves escaped.

There are games about the American Civil War. Yes, they feature historically-accurate Confederate battle flags (specifically, the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, which everyone else just calls “the Confederate flag”) and yes, that symbol has fallen into significant disfavor in the US public.  But those games are, for the most part, games in which both sides are engaged in warfare, or in open battle, and in which the Confederate flags are, quite frankly, purely cosmetic.  If you remove the flags from the game, you still have a wargame.  If you remove the exploitation of native populations from a game about the colonial exploitation of Africa in the 1700-1800s, you don’t have much of a game.

Along those same lines, the “every game about WW2” ignores the fact that these games are about the battles being fought between open combatants.  Yes, there’s an underlying historical issue with the fact that Nazi Germany was fighting to enlarge (and later protect) a regime that conceived of and executed the Holocaust.  Similarly, the Stalinist regime of the USSR is hardly a lily-white bastion of goodness.  But to my knowledge, there’s only one game out there in which the players are specifically trying to ship Jews off to a death camp, and it’s specifically designed to showcase the awful lessons of blind complicity.

Our games tackle a variety of historical topics, and history is often controversial, and fraught with bad actors and dangerous decisions. There is, however, a wide gulf between combatants on a battlefield, and intentional inflicting of suffering on others merely to score points.  There’s a difference between the cosmetic nature of Confederate flags and SS-lightning bolts on the pieces and packaging of a game, and player objectives that include killing large swaths of the local population and brutally subjugating the rest.  No one doubts that the einsatzgruppen rolled into Eastern Europe right behind the Germans in their march into the USSR in WWII.  But when you’re playing the Germans trying to take Stalingrad or Moscow, you’re focused on the battlefield mechanics of combined arms tactics, logistics & resupply, positioning of reserves, and exploitation of breakthroughs in the enemy lines.  To my knowledge, there aren’t any games in which your victory conditions include ethnic cleansing of the Warsaw ghetto.

So there’s a world of difference between “games that include participants that were pretty bad people” and “games in which you are supposed to be the bad person and specifically engage in – and be rewarded for – being as bad as you possibly can.”

 

Two of the provocateurs in the extended discussion on the GMT Games post on Facebook – Nicholas Jost and Russ Dawicky – have both been memory-holed (and therefore I don’t feel the least bit bad about naming them, as they were likely fake names anyway).  Whether their accounts were suspended for trolling, or they self-deleted after being called out as empty shell accounts is unknown (and there are numerous other uninvolved “Nicholas Jost” accounts still out there).

But Russ Dawicky had one of the funniest comments that (unfortunately) was whacked before I could screenshot it, in which he made a comment about GMT “whitewashing” history with this game. Uh, dude…  a game about European powers colonizing Africa in which the native populations are (at best) a complete afterthought and in which the only players, points scored, and objectives are controlled by white males from Europe is the very definition of whitewashing history.  I mean, damn.  Is there no self-awareness left anymore?

 

At least a few guys managed to get it right in their online comments

Africa-FB-2

 

But wait a minute, Brant!  Aren’t you the guy that wrote a long, snarky, and occasionally off-color AAR called checks notes THE SCRAMBLE FOR AFRICA?!?!

Yep. That’s me.  That’s me as the Boers, and in about episode 6 or so, I finish wiping out the Zulus.  Yes, the Zulus, that as a playable civilization in the game were trying to do the same to me.  See that comment up above that I excerpted? The part about “agency”?  Yeah, the Zulus had plenty of it, and I was just a little better than they were on the battlefield.

Look, you can do games about the exploration of Africa without treating the local population as either (1) an exploitable resource, or (2) an inconvenience.  Look at what Legion Wargames has been able to do with Heart of Darkness.

Your journey is financed by a major newspaper and publisher back home, and they expect you to bring home fantastic stories that they can publish. Your expedition consists of you and armed askaris, which are local African soldiers, and porters that carry food and gifts. There will be occasional local guides and goats to keep you company.

The locals have a role to play that isn’t merely statistical.

 

So no, this is not “the end of GMT“, any more than the changes brought about to King Philip’s War as a result of concerned outsiders was the end of Multi-Man Publishing.  (Side note: is that even the right game in the YouTube video? According to BGG, that’s a completely different game.)  This even made it into DailyKos, and we all know how much they cover wargames, huh?  There’s at least one other YouTube video, and I honestly didn’t go looking for any others.

Moreover, the incessant pearl-clutching at business decisions by wargame publishers who are entitled to make their own calls about their own games in running their own business their own way is unnecessary and over-wrought.  The endless accusations of cultural marxism over free-enterprise decisions are hilarious, given that most of the complainers are upset about a free market company exercising their own free will in a free market, just in a direction in which the complainers don’t approve.

Africa-Quote

Matthew Kirschenbaum, on ConSimWorld (used with his permission)

From what I know of the game, it appears as though GMT made a good call.

From the slings and arrows of outrageous (mis)fortune I’ve seen hurled online over the decision, and who they’ve been hurled both by and at, not only did GMT make a good call, but the people who agree with the call are the people I would most want sitting across from my table when I roll out the dice.

 


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Conflicts Around the Table & GMT Gets To Publish Whatever They Want

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