Bringing social justice to life – Games and Quakerism

Jessica Metheringham, creator of the Quaker inspired board game “Disarm the Base”, explores the learning and campaigning potential of games.

Bringing social justice to life - Games and Quakerism Woodbrooke Quaker Conference Centre

This summer, I’ve been working on a creative response to the arms trade. It’s called “Disarm the Base”, and it’s a board game in which players work together to disarm warplanes.

I like playing board games. I like games to teach me things, or plant the seeds of ideas in my head and my heart, or make me question things. The process of making my own game has prompted me to think about how much board games can really educate and inform us. Are they significant enough to challenge social norms? And behind this is a further, deeper question – can something which is fun also be a campaigning tool?

Change comes about in different ways. Sometimes the catalyst is a legal case, or a change in the law. Sometimes it’s the result of protests, or letter-writing campaigns, or petitions. Sometimes it’s a slow social acceptance of something once deemed normal (or the other way round). Usually it’s a bit of everything, happening at first with very small steps and then suddenly taking a leap forward.

Board games can definitely be part of the big campaigning picture. There are three main things I think games can do: they can inform and educate us, they can provide a talking point, and they can normalise the issues.

Informing and educating

There’s a fear that educational games will be less fun, but that’s not necessarily the case. “Freedom: the Underground Railroad” features real historical characters from the abolition movement and a board showing the main routes from the southern US states to Canada. If these details educate us, then the tension in the game helps us to sense the fear and persecution.

Some of you may also know “Journey Home”, created by Jennifer Kavanagh from Westminster Quaker Meeting. It seeks to help players understand the complexity of home, from the emotional and the community to the bricks-and-mortar. It does that through creating different scenarios, to which players give responses.

In “Chrononauts” the players are time travelers trying to undo specific historical events, and so each card shows a date and event. Playing “Pandemic”, a well-known cooperative game played on a world map, has helped my teamwork skills as well as my world geography.

Games may not be straightforwardly educating, but subtly influencing us. After I played “Flashpoint”, a firefighting cooperative game, I checked the batteries in our smoke alarms.

Opening the discussion

Games can be a way of talking about bigger issues. I’ve heard people say that they have their most meaningful conversations when they’re also doing something else – walking together, cooking and eating together. I’ve certainly had conversations which start in the game being played and then move into more fundamental questions.

Think of a book as a teacher, and a game as a facilitator. Reading a book can transport us somewhere else, can give us detailed information and knowledge about specific ideas. Playing a game is almost always a social act. Mostly, players are competing, checking each other out. In a cooperative game (which mine is) then players are working together to beat the game.

Playing a game can plant a seed. I don’t expect that people who play “Disarm the Base” will actually want to drive up to a base and sneak in. (There’s going to be a section at the very front of the rule book explaining that the real change comes from the trial after the action, and it’s a long process through which people need to be well supported!) But I do hope that they’ll think about when people might be justified in taking such action.

Bringing social justice to life - Games and Quakerism Woodbrooke Quaker Conference Centre
The board art for “Disarm the Base”

Normalising issues

Games are part of the fabric of our experiences and expectations, and they reflect our values. This, I feel, is one of the most interesting ways in which games can be tools for change.

In the last few years, there’s been a shift in the themes of boardgames. In 2017 I played a preview copy of Spirit Island, which was launched later that year. The players represent the spirit gods of an island being invaded by colonial powers. The game makes no attempt to be subtle – the invaders are white plastic pieces, while the indigenous villagers are natural wood pieces.

More recently, two things have happened to demonstrate has the tide is turning. Firstly, earlier this year, a game called “Scramble for Africa” was cancelled. It had been announced and discussed on board gaming websites (where a lot of games from the bigger publishers are previewed) and as more details were posted online then people started to question whether this was a good game to make. The artwork posted online did not suggest that this was a careful exploration of the horrific realities of colonialism. And the fact that the board gaming community questioned it, debated it, and that it was eventually cancelled, indicates that the norms are changing.

The second thing which has happened recently was that a new version of Monopoly was published in the US, and again, there was a backlash. Called “Monopoly: Socialism” and subtitled “winning is for capitalists”, it’s been widely derided as pitiful and spiteful. While clearly intended as a parody, it seems to inadvertently contain a double bluff, seeing as the original Monopoly was created as a warning against capitalism.

If you don’t know the story of the first versions of Monopoly, then it’s fascinating. Created as “The Landlord’s Game” by Lizzie Magie, a American woman with strong links to both Quakers and to anti-capitalists, it was repackaged (under somewhat controversial circumstances) with much of the meaning lost.

What does all this mean? It means that the social norms, as seen through the prism of board and card games, are moving towards games with a social justice message, and away from games which promote values such as colonialism.

Of course, there are still plenty of games out there which encourage nastiness. While some can be a valid way to let off steam, others are simply an incitement to be unkind.

Bringing social justice to life - Games and Quakerism Woodbrooke Quaker Conference Centre
Jessica Metheringham and her ‘little one’ at a rally.

So…can games help us campaign?

“Disarm the Base” is not the only campaigning game coming out this year. Climate campaigners 10:10 are in the middle of developing a card game called “Carbon City Zero”, in which players are city mayors racing to get their city to carbon zero first. Perhaps this marks the start of a new type of game – one explicitly linked to a campaign.

Games can help us to navigate the world. They can plants the seeds for new ideas. But having said that – games can be just fun, and having fun in the company of other people shouldn’t be underestimated. Perhaps asking whether games can help us campaign is misguided on the basis that everything can help us campaign. Educating and informing people is not a separate, difficult, hair-shirted thing, but part of everyday life, and everyday life involves leisure activities.

Games are part of our wider cultural context and they seep into our social norms. They represent the spirit rather than the letter of change, and they absolutely can help us campaign.

“Disarm the Base” is on Kickstarter until 13 September: www.kickstarter.com/projects/dissentgames/disarm-the-base
Follow it’s progress: www.disarmthebase.com

This blog is part of a series on Quakers and games. Also see:
Spiritual joy – Games and Quakerism by Jennifer Kavanagh