By: Scout Blum
Designer, Rising Waters and Professor of History and Philosophy
I have a t-shirt with “I love toxic waste” emblazoned across it. I don’t really, obviously, but I cut my academic teeth on studying how people deal with toxic waste, environmental crises and activism. That work isn’t easy - these are demoralizing, difficult topics to confront. I consider myself an activist, as well and struggle with the balance of “objective” research. I’ve wanted my research to inform activism in positive ways. Can academics use their research in constructive ways without abandoning honest assessments of source material? Is there a way to instill hope in work about racism, sexism, environmental disasters, and climate change? These are hard questions – and I’ve found that you can’t avoid them when designing games – just as historians can’t avoid them in research.
Many tabletop games, however, have a long history of marginalizing, completely avoiding, or whitewashing some of those exact issues. This is most apparent in board games about colonization – they’re almost always told from the perspective of Western white colonizers and completely ignore the negative consequences of colonization. The favorite example is a worker-placement game called Puerto Rico. Set in an ill-defined colonial period, the game uses “colonists” as labor, blatantly pushing slavery under the rug for the comfort of their players. There are clear reasons why these ideas are only recently receiving pushback. Board games are designed by white men. They assume an audience of other white men. And, importantly, designers of history-themed games are not historians, and they generally have little interest in a rigorous examination of history or how history works.
My board game, Rising Waters, takes players into an African American perspective of the 1927 Mississippi flood, an environmental disaster of epic proportions. Central Michigan University Press, the game’s publisher, aims to introduce new standards in tabletop gaming by having academics complete both design and peer review. It’s a cooperative board game, where players work together against both racism and flood waters. As the game progresses, players accrue “losses” – when waters flood land, towns, people, and other components. If they’re able to stay below a certain number of losses over a certain number of rounds (these represent weeks of the historical flood), then they win.
(Photo by Andrew Devenney)
Beginning with the earliest prototypes of the game, I struggled with how to depict racism. Although the game involves an interaction between racist whites and blacks in the Jim Crow south, I never wanted the players to be facing off competitively in those roles. Having a student be required in some way to behave as a racist or reinforce racism in some way through the game seemed problematic in a variety of ways. Many of my African American students here in Alabama have been the victims of white racism, and with them in mind, I simply didn’t see any point in having them play the game that way.
As a solution, I tied the racist actions of the whites to a deck of cards (Landowner cards) with various options: threats, use of force, racism, fleeing the area. Since historically the Red Cross camps were white-controlled, there’s a relief camp card in this deck as well. This makes racism in the game seem more random and arbitrary to the players. Obviously, racism isn’t really arbitrary or random – whites have specific reasons for using it when and where they do. But, for African Americans it can seem arbitrary and random when applied. And having something be arbitrary and random seemed a good way to allow players to see the cruelty of racism, especially in a crisis situation.
Above all, though, I didn’t want racism to be the center of the story. I wanted this to be a game where players saw African Americans with agency, and for that, I took from common concepts in video games – leveling up (I also used this in my Teapot Dome game for RTTP). This idea required a player board – so that players could keep track of their powers. And they would collect sets of cards (Community Cards), representing things that African Americans historically used as sources of strength, to power up different abilities. For example, collecting farm animal cards would help you be able to move your pawns further in a turn. Collecting family cards would increase your number of pawns. What this did, in addition, was reinforce a message that I deal with extensively in class: in horrible situations, resistance can be something as simple as coming together as a family, or getting an education, or maintaining your own small plot of land. Resistance doesn’t have to be armed rebellion.
(Three of the Community Cards, with the artwork by the amazing Lamaro Smith.)
We also wanted to capture some of the particularly visceral racist episodes. In a 1912 flood, a white landowner forced a group of African American men to work on a levee to keep flood waters at bay. As the flood waters rose, the white man forced the workers to lay down on the levee to raise it further. He literally saw black men’s bodies as worth no more than sandbags to keep the flood at bay. Forced labor in life-threatening situations happened frequently during the 1927 flood as well, along with massive loss of life for those working on the levees. And as horrible as this moment was, it seemed a good teaching incident. I initially added the story as a vignette to one of the cards, so players could read an example of how racism appeared.
The story, though, particularly captured the attention of Jon Truitt, who leads Central Michigan’s press. Jon is an incredibly thoughtful gamer – he’s also designed games himself, but plays a lot as well, so I always appreciated his feedback. In this instance, he felt this type of treatment deserved something more specific in the game. And he suggested that we integrate this with the storytelling involving the relief camp sites. I had these elements in the game from the beginning, but they weren’t playing as central a role as they needed to.
In the game, players must “donate” cards toward having a relief camp established. This can be a hard choice, as it reduces their ability to do other things with the cards. However, if they fail to donate enough cards as a group, when a relief camp card appears in the Landowner deck, there are drastic consequences. A relief camp is created, one of every player’s pawns must be moved to that location (which takes them away from locations they want to be). And here’s what Jon added (which has become a very dramatic moment in the game): one of the Survivor pawns disappears, to be replaced by a levee. Players realize that by not working cooperatively toward certain goals fast enough, deaths occur – but they are also forced to think about white people’s valuation of black bodies. It’s been a very effective addition to the game. (Thanks, Jon!)
(Left, the first version of the Red Cross card – from early 2020. Right, the most recent version of the Relief Camp card with the amazing Lamaro Smith’s artwork. I changed the name as I was concerned about copyright or trademark issues with the Red Cross. We’re also going to change the colors of the camps to improve accessibility for color-blind players.)
Language is also something that’s important and needs to be considered carefully when dealing with difficult topics. And here I want to talk about 2 examples: the Race Hatred card in the Landowner deck and the “Survivors” in the game. In both of these, there were discussions about what terms to use both to convey a historical reality effectively, to give the player a sense of being in a different time period, and yet also to remain sensitive to the powerful effects of certain words when dealing with racism.
In the game, there’s a card that’s part of the Landowner deck that represents the use of racism generally by whites at the time. Each one has a short vignette to give an example of racism at the time. Initially and a couple of years before the far-right outcry over “critical race theory,” I named these cards “Systemic Racism.” I wanted a term that described racism as ingrained, pervasive, and not just perpetrated by individuals. During one of our playtests, someone noted that the term was very presentist (which it is), and they asked what term was being used at the time. Activists, both black and white, at the time used “race hatred” as a way to describe discrimination – the term “racism” wouldn’t come into common usage into the 1930s. So, they became “Race Hatred” cards – which not only described what was going on but puts the player into the time period.
(The card on the left is the original prototype for the Systemic Racism card; the one on the right is the current version with Lamaro Smith’s final artwork.)
The other term that we struggled over was the name for the extra pawns in the game. Initially inserted into play because players needed access to more workers, these extra pawns started out being called “refugees.” I deliberately used this term because it was what African Americans used at the time to refer to themselves: There are hundreds of references in newspapers at the time using that term. Richard Mizelle, Jr., author of Backwater Blues, one of the main texts on the flood, noted in his epilogue how the meaning of the term “refugees” had been redefined during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Black people deeply resented the term, as it seemed to imply a lack of citizenship and belonging – allowing government to treat them with indifference. I understood this, but felt the term was important. This was how African Americans saw themselves, how they defined themselves, and it said something about the wider issue of their status in society. One of our cultural consultants disagreed, vehemently arguing that the term was racist. They preferred the term “evacuees” – also from the Katrina era. Evacuees, though, didn’t seem to fit. An evacuee is moved from a place of danger to somewhere safe, and that wasn’t what was happening in 1927 (nor, in many ways, was it what happened to many African Americans during Katrina). Jon (coming to the rescue again!) noted that Mizelle had used the term “survivor” in his book on the 1927 flood. So, the pawns became “Survivors.”
Difficult issues present thorny problems both for someone presenting research in a traditional way, as well as those who are working to implement these lessons into classroom tabletop games. Generally these lessons also suggest that, as game designers (just as we do as historians), having a crew of trusted, dedicated, knowledgeable playtesters is probably the most valuable thing you can have when dealing with difficult topics. I greatly appreciate all of those who helped me.
Rising Waters is currently on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter through November 4. If the game sounds intriguing to you, then check it out and support us! By supporting this game, you’re supporting efforts to make tabletop games integrated actual historical knowledge and research, for much stronger lessons in the classroom.
About the Author
Dr. Scout Blum is a professor of history at Troy University in Alabama. She is the author of Love Canal Revisited (UP Kansas, 2010) and is currently working on a book tentatively entitled Growing Up Green, which investigates children’s environmental values between 1960 -1980. The owner of Mockingbird Games, a non-profit game company, she has been using games in the classroom for over a decade. She is also the designer of Rising Waters, a cooperative board game about the 1927 Mississippi flood soon to be published by Central Michigan UP.
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