King Philip’s War Brings Controversy to War Gaming

A war game based on the often-overlooked conflict between Native Americans and European settlers in the 1670s is stirring up controversy. The game, King Philip’s War, might be depicting the atrocities of pre-Colonial warfare a bit too accurately for some groups.

There are a couple of interesting levels to this story: the first is about political correctness gone amok and people who don’t “get” strategy games; the second is about the mainstream media’s inability to accurately and objectively report on gaming; the third is that Curt Schilling is involved.

Let’s start with the basic facts: in 1675, a Wampanoag leader named Metacom (the settlers called him King Philip) pushed back violently against what he saw as unchecked expansion into Wampanoag territory by the New England settlers. The settlers responded in kind, and bloody conflict boiled for over a year. There were battles, massacres, assassinations and many villages were burned to the ground.

To the war gamer, this sounds like fertile ground for an interesting strategy game. Examining troop levels, military technology, the terrain, key battles, important leaders, supply lines and other important factors could make this little-known war quite interesting from a strategic and tactical perspective. Most of us wouldn’t give it a second thought before diving into the to-hit tables and orders of battle. However, members of Native American tribes are speaking out against the game, saying it shouldn’t be published, or should be revised with input from tribal leaders.

It turns out the Associated Press has picked up on this controversy, so the story is popping up outside the usual grognard haunts. What bothers me is the weird way the original AP version of the article goes out of its way to make the game seem like it’s exploiting tragedy, and to make gamers seem like insensitive weirdos for daring to play a game based on historical events (which were, admittedly, quite brutal). For example, Multi-Man Publishing, the company behind King Philip’s War, is described as a company that “specializes in games that simulate violent combat.” What they actually publish are old-school chits-and-hexes war games, mostly revisions and modules for Advanced Squad Leader. Not exactly, “Disembowelment: The Game.”

Those opposed to the game as quoted in the article come off as the type always ready to whip themselves into a self-righteous froth without actually thinking things through. Sample quotes: “It’s just a way to have fun reliving a tragedy.” Even worse: “That a game would be based on this really bothers me. Would we play a game called The Holocaust?”

Of course, the comparison is ludicrous, but even if it weren’t, it’s like asking, “Would we go see a movie about the Holocaust?” Of course we would, we might even give it a few Oscars. But King Philip’s War wasn’t the Holocaust. It wasn’t even a holocaust, it was a war. There were two aggressors. One side won, one side lost. The question, then, morphs into, “Would we play a game about World War II? Or Vietnam? Or the Crimean War?” And at that point, that particular anti-gaming argument is revealed for being completely and utterly foolish.

It’s interesting, then, that one of the founders and financial backers of Multi-Man Publishing is baseball all-star Kurt Schilling. I didn’t realize that Schilling was a gamer, but apparently he’s a huge Advanced Squad Leader nerd, and plays World of Warcraft a lot. I’m not really a huge Schilling fan, but the statement he released through his publicist is a pretty reasonable reaction: “”If everyone intent on keeping historical events stopped at content that might seem offensive, we’d lose sight of the horrific mistakes this nation, the world and the human race are capable of, and that would be a horrific thing.” Horrific.

My gut reaction to this whole thing is to wait for these politically correct hand-wringers to divert their attention to something shinier, and then we can go on playing our war games unmolested. They don’t grasp why someone would have an interest in war simulations, and why such things don’t “trivialize tragedy.” They never will, and apparently it’s far beyond the capacity of the Associated Press to figure it out.

But there is a tiny voice in the back of my head playing devil’s advocate, so let’s give the voice a chance to inject a little doubt into our grumpy gamers’ redoubt. What I’m thinking is this: if a game were created that depicted the Polish forces when Hitler invaded in 1939 as bumbling, incompetent morons, I would be ticked off. For one thing, it would be inaccurate. For another, it would be reinforcing negative stereotypes created by Nazi propaganda that have plagued Poles and the descendants of Polish immigrants (like me) for generations. Would I declare that such a game should not be printed? No. Would I point out the flaws? Yes.

So if King’s Philip’s War depicts, for instance, Native Americans devouring the flesh of European infants (which I am assuming would not be historically accurate), then I would object to that for the same reasons I would object to the anti-Pole war game. Native Americans have suffered such stereotypes and insults far too long to let something like that be published without comment. Even if the game depicted atrocities that were actually committed by Native American forces during the war without also depicting atrocities committed by settlers, I would object.

On the other hand, war games are not generally interested in such things, and usually take place at such an abstract level that they aren’t really even possible. Assuming King Philip’s War does not go out of its way to denigrate Native Americans and glorify Europeans, and assuming such brutality as does exist in the game is based on historical information, then let’s just wait until the hand-wringers go away (my understanding is that some of the promotional materials for the game may have been a bit sensationalist, and probably lead to this whole imbroglio to begin with, and they’ve since been toned down). And if all this has made you want to pre-order King Philip’s War (as an activist statement or because it sounds interesting), that won’t hurt either.

One Response to King Philip’s War Brings Controversy to War Gaming

  1. We descendants of Irish immigrants have a day every year that celebrates Irish stereotypes created by the English and anti-Irish Americans.

    It seems Poniske is taking steps to have the game created with the blessing of its detractors:

    “A wonderful thing ocurred last week. Tim Weisberg extended an invitation to Brian Youse, Professor Jennings and myself to attend (by phone) a session of his late night radio show SPOOKY SOUTHCOAST. There IS a connection as the prevalence of supernatural occurrences in the area are attributed to the tremendous bloodletting in King Philip’s War. I was assured that the discussion would be amicable.

    “The promised dialogue took place last night, Saturday, March 27 between 10 and Midnight. Professor Jennings described the War, its origins and its aftermath, I entered in at 11:15 and described my background, interest in the conflict, as well as my philiosophy and purpose for the game. Moreover, Tim openly supported the title and called for preorders on the air!

    “The discussion was satisfyingly civil and even-handed. I admitted that American Indian input would help the game. Professor Jennings admitted that the game KING PHILIP’S WAR could prove to be a benefit in disseminating information about the New England tribes.

    “Neither of us surrendered to the other, nor did we fall on our respective swords. We did what rational people are supposed to do, we talked with a view toward understanding each other. Prior to the Interview I contacted Professor Jennings at her university office so our meeting on the air would not be uncomfortable. I also took her advice and called the offices of the area Indian Council to clear the air. Positive dialogue has begun. Positive dialogue will continue. “

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