Unsettling Settlers: An Interview with Golboo Amani
by Farah Yusuf
Few people question the socio-political biases embedded in the games they play. And yet, because games are part of our popular media culture, they reflect and codify societal norms, often reinforcing problematic views in the guise of inconsequential play. Golboo Amani is a multi-disciplinary artist who situates part of her social-pedagogy practice on the ready-made site of a board game. Her work Unsettling Settlers: Intervention directly challenges the colonial narrative of the popular board game Settlers of Catan by leveraging the game’s capacity to disseminate ideas about trade, capital and colonization experientially through simulations of various economic and political strategies (resource extraction, territory takeover, construction, theft, warfare). Amani’s “intervention pack” for the game includes new pieces, cards and rules that allow players to work through strategies of allyship through peer- produced aesthetic experiences that combine game play with critical reflection.
For several years Unsettling Settlers: Intervention was only circulated through “play test” sessions. Amani is now releasing an artist multiple of the intervention game, which I had the opportunity to preview when I met with the artist in Toronto to discuss its evolution. The aesthetics of the current design are a radical departure from previous versions of the intervention pack. “I wanted to create something that felt really new and fresh, but also really distinct, so when the game is being played on the board, we can identify the difference between the intervention pack and the base game,” Amani explains. Her motivation behind the new aesthetic is to subvert the underlying impetus behind the original game – to disrupt expectations and social patterns by making visible the narratives and conditioning that we, through socialization, come to accept as the “rules of the game.”
Farah Yusuf: Can you talk about why you decided to critique this particular game and why you chose to do it through the medium of a game?
Golboo Amani: I like to play games. Also, my practice focuses on pedagogy and the tools of knowledge production. I oftentimes use the tools of knowledge production as ready-made sites for interacting with folks. During my graduate studies, I started working with games and realized that games are already performative, they’re already pedagogical and they’re already social engagements. Games created a really fertile opportunity for people to slip into the conversations and actions of co-creation. And as someone coming from performance art, it became an easy way for people to slip into performance art – instead of creating that distance between audience and performer. I’ve always been interested in that slippage. Most of my work is about arriving in this place – maybe purposely or accidentally – where we’re making the work together.
At that time I was also playing Settlers of Catan a lot. Immediately I was hooked; I was totally entertained and sucked into this game. The more I played the more I became aware of all of the oppressive narratives that play out on this board. Actually, the “Aha!” moment for me was when a player in a game that I was playing built a road that split the board in half – the Longest Road is a power play mechanism in the SoC game. By doing so, the player was able to own half of the board. It confined the rest of the players, it forced a particular kind of resource management and competitive engagement among the rest of the players that put the person who built the road in a position of power. Looking at the board after we had lost the game, I realized that the economy of this road was parallel to the economy of an apartheid wall. That’s when I realized that this game was actually a virtual space capable of simulating real-life scenarios. It begged the question, “Can we simulate an alternative narrative? Can we simulate a narrative of dissent or a narrative response to this extremely oversimplified, highly problematic narrative?”
FY: You describe Unsettling the Settlers: Intervention as a slow artwork. To date, you have spent three years engaging diverse groups of participants in “play tests.” Can you explain what goes on during these sessions and how they relate to your social practice?
GA: I’ve been doing social practice for a while. I’m really interested in how people slip into social practice work and what level of investment and engagement they bring to that work. I’m trying to produce deeply invested social engagement, [so] I view my participants as co-creators. When it came to building this game, I knew that my voice couldn’t be the only voice included in this intervention. I approached this work as a social practice work from its inception, including audience participation in the research and development stages of this work.
In the beginning, I hosted safe game spaces where BIPOC folk could come and play Settlers of Catan. I hosted about four and a half months of play sessions where folks – who had maybe never played Settlers of Catan – could come and play. We would talk critically about the existing game and discuss potential interventions or changes. I would ask things like, “What would you want to see brought into this game? What would you want taken out? What do you think are the most problematic components of Settlers of Catan?” It was always incredibly discursive. The feedback informed all changes and additions made to the base game. I would release the suggested changes in beta play test sessions where people would play the intervention game. Beta play tests would end in feedback sessions where people talked about their experience, what they would improve, include, exclude, whatever.
FY: You bring up an important point about game mechanics right there. What you’re doing is changing the rules of the game, thus directly affecting how people play the game. Can you speak to specific changes you’ve made to the game mechanics and how they set up the conditions to generate new perspectives?
GA: One of the first things that was addressed was the role of “Robber.” There were a few problems folks had with the Robber. The Robber is the only existing entity on the landscape prior to settlement in the base game. It gets manipulated by the settlers to block other players from gaining resources. Questions came up like, “What if the Robber wasn’t alone and passive? What if it was more active? What if this entity was a group as opposed to this outnumbered individual?” So, I replaced the Robber with a group of players called Allies. The Allies play a collaborative game on the same Settlers of Catan board. There are two things happening on the board simultaneously: the Settlers are playing their game with most of the original rules and mechanics; and the Allies are playing the intervention game, as a team, with the new rules and new mechanics. While the Settlers are still competing as individuals, the Allies play a collaborative game; they’re not playing against each other, they are able to trade amongst themselves, strategize with each other and work collaboratively to make moves on the board. In some cases, all Allies need to gather together on one board tile in order to enact more powerful mechanics in the game like building treaties and reclaiming land tiles.
Another game mechanism introduced into the game was [the concept of] Crisis, both as a way to slow down the game and as a way to create opportunities for conflict and negotiation between players. It seemed unrealistic that the only obstacles Settlers faced in the base game were resource management and development issues with each other. Where were the environmental factors? The conditions of the landscape that are less predictable? And more crucial to survival? None of this gets addressed in the base game. The intervention pack forces players to address and negotiate solutions when entering uncharted land and being faced with, for example, a long winter, a spoiled crop or a plague.
Indigenous communities have always contributed to the survival of settlers. They offered the first settlers knowledge and resources for the production of food and medicine and they provided the tools and materials required to survive on the land. To address this in the game, I produced a new set of resources to be collected throughout the game. The resources in the base game are very much non-renewable and extraction-based (ore, lumber, et cetera) so creating a set of renewable resources felt crucial to the survival of both Allies and Settlers. The new resources include agriculture, medicine, game (fur or meat) and navigation. The Crises that come up in the new game for both Settlers and Allies require elements from both sets of resources to produce a remedy. The Allies collect the new (renewable) resources, and the Settlers collect their own resources, but the Crises and Treaties are situations where both sets of resources are required and Settlers and Allies need to negotiate trades with each other throughout the game to play out these more powerful game mechanics.
FY: You talked about “slipping into performance” in the context of games. There’s a gaming concept that I find quite evocative called the “magic circle,” which essentially is a transformative space of play. The game board, arena and virtual world are all spaces where people can perform differently than they would in real life.
GA: I think there’s a huge value to virtual space because there’s less at stake for us in simulated space. We can really play out versions of ourselves or narratives that are newly imagined, experimental, potentially chaotic, even irrational. In that simulated space, we can see how certain decisions or characters might play out in a social sphere.
FY: And, it’s absolutely porous – the imagined barrier of that performative space.
GA: Totally! The emotional impact is very real. We don’t slip into games with complete emotional detachment. We usually slip into game spaces with all kinds of emotions that we’re probably not even aware of, that then play themselves out on the board game.
FY: I would imagine that builds empathy toward situations you’re not readily a part of, which would feed into the discursive aspect of the play test sessions you conducted.
GA: There were scenarios in our play test sessions where people who were very familiar with the original game would say things like, “as Settlers, we felt a huge disadvantage,” even when the game ended with Settlers in the lead in terms of points. They noted that the conventions of the base game privileged them to such an extent that any factors that slowed their progress or felt like resistance were interpreted as a complete disadvantage.
FY: Unsettling the Settlers has attracted players from across the social spectrum. What are some of the reactions you’ve encountered from different groups?
GA: Gamers, educators and creatives have interacted with this game the most. For a very long time there were a lot of broken mechanics in the game (“broken” meaning that they just didn’t function in clean and concise ways). That was incredibly frustrating for gamers. They would say, “if you just fixed this,” or “you can change this and it would work.” But also in those discussions, there were folks who experienced this frustration as productive, as unsettling our expectations of game play and developing a new “puzzle to solve.” This idea of slowing things down, of frustrating folks who felt incredibly proficient in this space to produce something unexpected for them, was wonderfully productive.
The second group of folks was educators. A lot of educators have specifically sought out this game as an educational tool, and to me that came as no surprise. That’s how I arrived to this work myself. They’re interested in this interactive narrative that is different from the dominant narrative of colonization as a teachable moment in classrooms. They are interested in the game as a tool that allows people to slip into conversations and play out alternatives in a live, simulated way.
The creatives or cultural producers are often the ones that are more sensitive to the narrative of the game and its implications. Many have not played the base game and are challenged by the mechanics. It’s not easy to pick up all the rules of a game, let alone the rules of a game and its intervention – even if you’re familiar with gaming. That really slows down the progress of the game and forces people to help each other – people who might normally be competing with each other. In play test sessions with broken mechanics, players have had to let go of their drive to compete with each other in order to help each other just to get the game moving. This disrupts the expectation that competition is the only way to experience game space.
FY: Could you talk about your positionality as a non-white settler colonizer responding to the settler colonial narrative of Settlers of Catan?
GA: The truth is, it came out of a desire to be a better Canadian, in a way. This is the only homeland I know. My identity is tied to this place; I consider it my home. The more invested I become in this place, the more invested I become in being a better ally to the people of this place. I couldn’t invest in this place without investing in allyship. The whole process of building this game came out of wanting to have conversations with settlers who identify as allies. I felt like I needed to build this game for people like myself as a way to implicate ourselves, but also as a way to create a space for something else to happen, where we could practise something else and just see how it plays out on the economy, on the geography, on the social engagement of this space.
FY: Are there any strategies that you have seen players employ that stand out to you?
GA: One of the things that I say in the rules is that everything is negotiable, unlike in Settlers of Catan where the rules of engagement are predefined. What ends up happening is that people become a lot more imaginative and inventive about what they are willing to negotiate in a situation. Players have even negotiated removing entire settlements from the board as part of their survival strategy. This game allows players to play with the rules of the game even after the rules are set out. I think, at least for me, that’s a very useful muscle to exercise.