Uproar over King Philip’s War

The History News Network has alerted me to the fact that one of America’s least known wars, King Philip’s War, a war that ran 1675-1676 in New England between colonists and several native American tribes, has made an appearance in today’s politics.   It seems that Multiman Publishing, which publishes wargames or “historical simulations,” is planning to bring out a game called “King Philip’s War” about…well, you know what it’s about.  The result has been outrage.  This incident is an interesting example of the discomfort that many people in academia and the left have when it comes to thinking about war.King Philip's War, the forthcoming boardgame.

Professor Julianne Jennings, a professor of anthropology at Rhode Island College and a member of a local tribe, heard of the game and started to organize protests.  The AP picked up the story citing native Americans as calling the game “totally inappropriate, highly offensive” and “just a way to have fun reliving a tragedy.”  CapeCodeOnline ran another story along similar lines, quoting, for instance, Ellie Page, the historian for the Pocasset Wampanoag tribe, as saying “It’s an awful idea for them to do….To make a game out of it is to diminish the sacrifice that these people had to go through at that time.”

Prof. Jennings concerns soon led to a street protest in downtown Providence against the game.  Signs at the protest suggested that racism and delight in genocide were underlying factors in the game.  (See here and here.)   The controversy also generated several postings on the blog of an interested person in California who was, to put it mildly, intemperate in accusing wargamers of being racist, uneducated, and (ironically!) so “simpleminded” as to engage in ad hominem attacks.  John Goff, President of the Salem Preservation Society, suggested that Multiman Publishing should not sell the game or else should “make significant compensatory contributions to promote better public understanding of Native American and non-native history.”

On the other side of the debate there were several remarkably thoughtful and generally polite threads on BoardGameGeek.  (See here, here, here, and here.)  While opposition was strong to the Jennings, et al, position, there was little flaming, though no shortage of snide comments.  The general thrust of these threads tended to be that the critics were failing to understand what wargaming was all about and failing to understand wargamers.  Wargaming, they say, is entertainment, yes, but is educational entertainment engaged in largely by adult history geeks.  Frequently wargames stimulate an interest in a war or a time period that leads to further study.  As one gamer put it: “As I said, I’ve never heard of this conflict. This game has aroused my interest in the conflict. Hence, I want to know more about both sides of the conflict. The people forget about this aspect of the game (or never thought about it).”

Professor Jennings apparently said a few things that seem to me a bit beyond the pale, notably this as quoted in CapeCodOnline: “”I don’t think (game designer John Poniske) took into consideration that the descendants of the people that he wishes to exterminate in his game are still here.”  That said, in general she and Poniske both remained polite and usually thoughtful throught all this.  In fact, they soon started corresponding and after the controversy had peaked they even appeared together on a local radio show.  In the end, they both agreed that the game could be a useful tool to educate people about a little known but tragic part of American history.

Based on what I heard on the radio show and elsewhere, Jenning’s concerns seemed to boil down to remarkably few things. The first was the use of the word “eliminate” to describe what the colonists did to the Native Americans (the concerned tribes all still exist).  The second was the lack of adequate background in the historical notes attached to the rules that would describe the genesis of the war.  And the third was the lack of a suggested list of “further readings” appended to the rules.  To a large degree she was pushing on an open door.  As I understand it, Poniske and Multiman have agreed to accommodate all these concerns.  The first is, of course, an easy editorial fix; the second simply entails redrafting what was probably only a few paragraphs to begin with; and the third, a list of suggested readings, is a common feature of wargame documentation.  Jennings also urged Poniske (whose fulltime job is as a middle school teacher) to get input on the game from the tribes themselves.  He has apparently complied at least in part, but he has also pointed out that the money doesn’t exist to do things like visit New England and meet with all the tribes and their historians individually as Jennings had initially suggested.  Multiman is a small company and the board wargame industry is not exactly lucrative.

Frankly, I’m appalled that such readily accommodated concerns could lead to such an outpouring of bile and accusations of racism.  I’m appalled but not surprised.  This is, it seems to me simply a variation on the common perception that military historians are bloodthirsty militarists.  I believe that that perception and the perception that wargamers are stupid, uneducated neo-Nazis are results of knowing too little about the subjects of the criticism.  Military history is an incredibly diverse branch of history which for at least the last 50 years (in the West, at least) cannot fairly be characterized as glorifying war.  War is unpleasant, it is true, and war poses major moral challenges, but similar points can be made about disease, poverty, prostitution, drug use, crime, and many branches of politics and nobody finds the study of those phenomena to be illegitimate.  Military historians don’t root for war.  By the same token, wargamers don’t root for war or genocide either.  That is, it seems to me, one of the major misunderstandings on the part of Jennings and some of her less restrained allies.  There’s no reason to think that people playing the colonists’ side in “King Philip’s War” are happy about the real-world fate of the Native Americans and titillated that they can pretend to engage in genocide themselves.  People don’t take on the values of the side they play in a wargame.  Take my case: I have played at various times, the Allies, the Germans and the Soviets in various games about World War II.  Does that make me a democratic-Nazi-Bolshevik?  Does it make me simultaneously happy and sad that the Holocaust happened?  Does it mean that I idolize, Roosevelt AND Hitler AND Stalin?  Ummmm…no.

Those who criticized this game also did not stop to consider the fact that wargames have been published about pretty much every war that anybody can think of, not to mention, innumerable hypothesized future or “what-if” conflicts.  They never explained why it was unacceptable to have a game about King Philip’s War, but not about Vietnam, or World War II,  or the Napoleonic Wars, or the Thirty Years War or the Russo-Japanese War, or the Punic Wars, or the Chechen Wars.  Genocide and extreme religious intolerance loomed large in several of those wars and that’s just an illustrative list.  (Does “sowing their fields with salt” ring a bell?)  Are the survivors of these wars and their descendants offended?  I don’t hear the outrage.  This should have made the critics stop and think that maybe they were being overly sensitive and that maybe wargames aren’t simply war pornography.

I applaud Prof. Jennings and John Poniske for coming to a modus vivendi.  I’d urge everyone else to take a deep breath and remember that while wars are bad, thinking about them isn’t.  This is a useful lesson in the gaming world and in the world of history.