Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,
Inverarity
inverarity

Mostly Untrue Things

Conan, the Boardgame

Cynthia Hornbeck, a former employee of Asmodee Games, has written a scathing essay, Grab ‘em by the Board Game about Conan, the Boardgame, a massively-funded Kickstarter project published by Asmodee.

At first glance, it's just another Tumblr rant about how racist and sexist Conan is. However, she goes several steps further, by tying the popularity of the Conan Kickstarter to the election of Donald Trump.


The narrative promoted by Trump throughout his campaign and the narrative of Conan appeal to the same kind of people. They exclude and dehumanize the same kind of people. They endorse violence. They treat women as objects. And they have both contributed to getting us where we are today The narratives that we create, promote, and enjoy, from Conan to Star Wars to The Apprentice matter. They shape our deeds and perspectives. Even if the creators of Conan envisioned the game as being apolitical, there’s no such thing. Narratives create their own politics and sit within a political context –– in this case, a political context in which White power has just taken control of the United States. The fact that the Conan Kickstarter did so well should have been a warning. It should have made us realize how many people are still willing, if not eager, to buy into the racist, misogynist narratives of the early 20th century. How many people are willing to perform the violence against others that they’ve watched or played at. How many people are willing to complacently enable violence and hate in return for a bit of recognition and/or money.


The reason this essay has made such waves, besides her former "insider" status, is that Hornbeck went beyond the usual finger-wagging about enjoying problematic things. She explicitly tells us that people who enjoy the Conan boardgame are the same people who elected Donald Trump, people who "are willing to perform the violence against others that they’ve watched or played at."

She finishes with:


As a gamer, start refusing to purchase or even play a game that objectifies women, excludes women, excludes non-White people, makes non-White people the enemy, etc.


Wow. There's quite a lot to unpack there. But let's start with Conan.

Conan: A game only a Trump-supporter could love?



I was one of the backers of the Conan Kickstarter. I pledged for the whole package, including several of the expansions and exclusives, making it one of the more expensive (but not the most expensive, unfortunately — that honor goes to Cthulhu Wars) boardgames I have ever bought.


A big box of Conan


The King pledge


Unboxing


This will take a long time to paint


My Conan haul. Apparently this makes me part of the Trumpenreich.


Believe it or not, it wasn't because I secretly fantasize about raping women and killing minorities. I wish I were exaggerating, but after reading Hornbeck's essay it seems that she believes this is literally true of more or less anyone who likes Conan.

I read Robert E. Howard's stories as a kid, and loved pulp fantasy — from Howard to Edgar Rice Burroughs to H.P. Lovecraft to Fritz Leiber. (Hornbeck, in her essay, mentions Howard's friendship with Lovecraft and Lovecraft's racism as further evidence of the inherent unacceptability of Conan. H.P. Lovecraft, as we all know, has also become unacceptable in fandom circles.)

So let's acknowledge first that yes, the Conan milieu is extremely sexist. It is set in a prehistoric fantasy world that has not yet discovered women's rights, and human beings are extremely tribal, viewing all other races with suspicion if not active hostility. I.e., it resembles the way people mostly behaved in ancient times, notwithstanding the addition of gods, monsters, and magic. People can quibble (and will) over how "realistic" the depiction of women in Conan or Game of Thrones is, but it's generally retrograde and pre-modern, with all that that implies.

(I am aware of the argument that if you have dragons, you can't claim that a medieval or pre-medieval society in which women occupy subordinate roles is realistic. It's a specious argument. There is nothing wrong with playing in modernized AD&D settings where women and men are social equals and we can pretend medieval societies would have no problems putting women in plate armor and on the front lines, if that makes you happy, but it resembles no society that's ever existed in history or myth, so it shouldn't be surprising that most fantasy worlds set in pre-modern/mythical eras resemble our own pre-modern/mythical times rather than a product of Wizards of the Coast, which has to worry about "diversity" for marketing purposes.)

So, Conan in particular is a very "alpha male" setting. And Hornbeck isn't completely wrong that a lot of Conan fans probably fantasize, just a little bit, about being an iron-thewed barbarian who crushes his enemies, hears the lamentations of his women, and has hot naked chicks falling at his feet.


Frazetta's Conan

She's gonna need a tetanus shot.


Those classic Frazetta paintings practically define Conan, and the fact that the women are one and all beautiful, buxom sex objects was by design. The appeal to heterosexual males is pretty obvious, and I doubt the veracity of any straight guy, however liberal/feminist he claims to be, who denies it. That said, you can appreciate female pulchritude while acknowledging that depicting women solely as sex objects is going to turn off a lot of people.

Conan is not for everybody. If you don't like cheesecake, you will not like Conan. If you do not like an extremely masculine, violent setting with lots of crushing your enemies and hearing the lamentations of their women, you will not like Conan.

If you are a woman, you will probably not like Conan.

(There certainly are women who do like Conan and other stories in that genre, but let's be honest, they're uncommon.)

And there's nothing wrong with that! You don't have to like Conan. You can find the half-naked chicks draped around Conan as rewards for his rescuing them to be off-putting. You can dislike the blood and sweat and glorification of cleaving enemies' skulls with an axe. You can also find some of the racial elements disturbing. And you can raise these points in a decent discussion about modern sensibilities vs. traditional archetypes and guilty pleasures. Nowadays, it's hard to enjoy something like Conan unironically. Even if you are not at all offended by cheesecake and barbarian violence porn, you have to know that it's just not quite seemly in a mixed crowd. You need to have a sense of humor about it, and at the very least, while guilt is unnecessary, some awareness of the issues that bother other people is.

That said...

Cynthia Hornbeck's essay is strikingly dishonest from beginning to end.

Crush Your Enemies




Conan is closely based on the books of Robert E. Howard, who was coincidentally a close friend of another highly influential author racist, H. P. Lovecraft. Howard’s Conan stories are sword and sorcery adventures that take place before the rise of the ancient civilizations we know. Conan is a Cimmerian, something akin to a Celt or Gaul. His foes include the Picts, who are not blue-painted Scots but rather based on the Iroquois peoples, and the Khitai, who are a magical people based on the Chinese. Conan never fights women unless he absolutely has to, and he always rescues damsels in distress. If you’re a privileged white male or subservient white female, or anyone, really who can just ignore racism and misogyny for a while, he seems like a great guy.


The gratuitous shot at Lovecraft was cheap and easy, but okay, there is no denying Howie was a big ol' racist. Moving on, Hornbeck claims that REH's Picts were based on the Iroquois people and the Khitai are based on the Chinese.


Bran Mak Morn

They don't look much like Iroquois to me.


Actually, Howard's Picts were very loosely based on the historical pre-Celtic peoples of Ireland, but his Hyborean history actually makes them a far older race. In his stories, they are frequently just a typical nameless horde of enemies, like orcs, but they sometimes appear as allies and heroes. They are also depicted very inconsistently. According to Howard's writings, he does imagine the Picts eventually migrating to what became North America, and thus becoming the ancestors of the American Indians, and his Pictish wilderness stories were meant to be essentially fantasy Westerns. So they are kinda sorta analagous to Indians, but they are really a race of generic fantasy savages.

You might say the Picts depicted in the Conan boardgame have a bit of a Native American aesthetic to them, though they really look more like generic cavemen. What they clearly are not is actual Native Americans, nor directly based on them, and how Hornbeck concluded that they are specifically based on the Iroquois, I have no idea.

Picts

Her point is really that the Picts represent Others — and in the current world of Donald Trump, that means non-white minorities who white people want to kill. Similar parallels have been drawn with Tolkien's orcs. Arguing that point would require a much longer essay, but let's just stipulate that most epic fantasy stories have races of savage, warlike enemies who are basically sword-fodder for the heroes. You may find the concept inherently problematic, but then you probably find epic fantasy in general to be problematic. It is a feature of the genre, and while perhaps it's worth examining stories that present stock enemies who exist only to be slaughtered en masse, viewing every such story through the lens of identity politics to conclude they are really about white supremacy is a modern conceit. Every culture has stories about slaughtering some Other just because they are inherently evil.

As far as the Khitai, Hornbeck has a slightly more legitimate argument here. Khitai, in Howard's stories, was basically "the Orient" where he stuck all the fantasy Asians and their inscrutable Asian magics. This is also something of a tradition in both epic fantasy fiction and fantasy roleplaying games, where the generic setting is pseudo-European, but there will be some other part of the map off on the edges where pseudo-Orientals hang out with pagodas and ninjas and serpentine dragons.

Oriental Adventures

How "problematic" this is depends on the execution. Howard didn't really depict the Khitais as any more savage or sinister than anyone else — considerably less savage than Conan's Cimmerians, actually. Like the Picts, they were sometimes foes and sometimes friends. But yes, as an analog for China+Japan+Korea+Turkey+Mongolia+everything else Orient written as an indistinguishable horde of yellow-skinned foreigners by a pulp author in the 30s, they are hardly represented in the most sympathetic or egalitarian light.

Moving on...

And Hear the Lamentations of Their Women



Conan rulebook

Hornbeck takes great offense at this image, which is actually the cover of one of the Conan rulebooks.

Well, as I said before, half-naked women needing to be rescued is a feature of Conan. You can't really have Conan without 'em. Does that mean you shouldn't have Conan? (Hornbeck will later tell us outright that the answer is "Yes.")


To me, although perhaps not to others, it looks like Conan is going to rape her. Oh no, you, say, he’s going to rescue her. Well, why doesn’t she rescue herself? It’s not part of that setting, you say. So, why isn’t she conscious? Why is she naked? Why is she on some sort of rock bed/ altar and glowing, so that we the gamer focus on her physical beauty? To me, she looks like his prize, a reward for his violence with which he can do whatever he wishes- including grab her by the crotch and rape her before she’s regained consciousness. This cover is the scene of or before a rape. And you, my friend, are going to take on the role of the rapist.


While she acknowledges that maybe other people don't see this as a rape scene, clearly it is to her. Conan is about to rape her, and if you enjoy this picture, or play this game, you are roleplaying a rapist.

In Robert E. Howard's stories, Conan is generally heroic, even chivalrous, in a crude, barbaric way. Yes, he likes women, and women like him, but I don't recall any story in which it was even hinted that he forced himself on a woman.

Hornbeck's complaint that the woman in this picture (and in the "rescue the princess" scenario which is the first one in the game) is just an object to be rescued is true enough. It is, again, a feature of the genre. If you hate the very existence of such stories, Conan is not for you.

That being said, is Hornbeck correct that if you're insensitive enough to actually enjoy such stories, that you are actually fantasizing about raping helpless, unconscious women? That's a projection she has invented entirely on her own.

The Problem of Belit




But there’s a playable female character in the Conan core set, you say. There’s Belit! Well, her mechanical function is to make the men better. That’s literally all she does is follow Conan around and boost his abilities. Because that’s what women are good for in this world: being fucked by men and making those men feel good. That’s the world that you’re choosing to have fun in.

(To be fair, in the Kickstarter exclusives and in possible expansions there are other, stronger female heroes. That does not excuse the fact that they are all depicted in a sexualized manner and that the only female hero in the core set, one of TWO female figurines in that set, is limited to a support role.)


This is just flat out wrong. Let's start with Belit.

There are actually several alternate versions of Belit in the game - some of them expansions and Kickstarter exclusives, as Hornbeck says. But the base Belit character looks like this:

Belit

Her stats are decent — she is not quite as a good a fighter as Conan, but no one is. She can hold her own with any of the other characters. Her special skills are Swimming, Leaping, Leadership, Support, and "Attack from Beyond" (she gets a dying strike if she's killed).

Hornbeck claims "Well, her mechanical function is to make the men better. That’s literally all she does is follow Conan around and boost his abilities."

The Leadership and Support skills do indeed give extra actions and dice to her allies. Belit is not the only character who has those abilities (and not all characters with Leadership and/or Support are female). Belit, in the original stories, was in fact a leader — she had her own crew of pirates who followed her loyally into battle.

For Hornbeck to take a fairly standard game mechanic — the ability to give a bonus to other characters — and twist that into "That's all she's good for" is not just distorting things a little. She's being blatantly dishonest. Belit is a fighter who comes with her own troop of guards and several useful skills. And she's only "following Conan around" inasmuch as all non-Conan characters are following Conan around. (You don't even have to include Conan in any given scenario, though the game is named after him...)

The other female characters Hornbeck dismisses because they aren't part of the core game are likewise capable enough on her own (and not all the versions of Belit have Support and Leadership).

Conan is Stuff White People Like?




Conan is a fantasy of White male power. A fantasy in which White male power dominates and holds moral authority. And as Conan, you are the biggest, strongest embodiment of that White male power, able to ruthlessly cut down all your non-White enemies, surrounded by the lamentations of their women and by White women falling at your feet. Or passing out at them, whoever.


I don't think it can be denied that Conan is a male power fantasy. He holds this in common with most superhero comics. Where Hornbeck and I would disagree, I suppose, is whether this is inherently a bad thing. Hornbeck doesn't use the term "toxic masculinity" anywhere in her essay, but her tone makes it clear that there isn't much masculinity that she doesn't consider toxic, and certainly imagining yourself to be a mighty warrior with a Strength of 18 and naked princesses falling at your feet would qualify.

Again, debating whether or not it's "bad" for men to have fantasies of this sort would be a much longer essay, but yes, let's agree that part of the appeal of playing Conan is that not many of us are actually equipped to go pirating and cleaving Pict skulls with axes and that sounds pretty cool in a totally fantastic and not-something-I'd-ever-want-to-do-in-real-life way.

The addition of "White" assumes, I suppose, that since Robert E. Howard was white and Conan is white, it's also a white power fantasy. I don't know how many non-white people like Conan, but I'd guess it's a similar percentage to those who like fantasy in general.

Problematically for Hornbeck's argument, Conan exists in a pre-modern, pre-colonial era so it's kind of hard to accuse the character of having "white privilege." Nowhere in Howard's writings is it implied that anyone has "moral authority" by virtue of their ethnicity. As for being a fantasy about cutting down all your non-white enemies, it's true Conan kills a lot of Picts and Khitais and other non-whites. He also kills a lot of: Aquilonians (fantasy Romans), Corinthians (fantasy Greeks), Nemedians (fantasy Byzantines), Ophirs (fantasy Italians), and also demons, monsters, and wild animals. You get the idea. Conan is a killer and he has lots of enemies. Someone who's into pretending to swing an axe as Conan is more likely to be fantasizing about killing giant snakes than killing what Hornbeck imagines to be stand-ins for black people or American Indians.


That same fantasy is promoted by the campaign of now President-Elect Donald Trump. He will make America great again by expelling and/or imprisoning its dark-skinned enemies and grabbing its women by the crotch. Those men who have vocally supported Donald Trump envision themselves as modern-day Conans, perhaps more clothed and less strapping, but nevertheless warriors of righteousness seeking gold and glory, perfectly willing to, if necessary, spill blood.


Come again?

It's an intriguing idea, this theory of hers that Conan backers are all Trump voters, but this sort of post-modernist analysis of a boardgame, in which pretending to be a barbarian warrior hacking your way through a primitive age of gods and monsters is actually a celebration of voting for an entitled billionaire who will empower you to oppress minorities is one that Hornbeck doesn't come close to developing and justifying.

And let's be clear here: contrary to what her defenders have said, Hornbeck isn't just asking us to be more aware, more empathetic, to keep the problematic nature of our favorite things in mind and think about how they might impact others. That would be a fair request, even if still controversial given her presentation. But she explicitly tells us that if you like Conan, you are a violent sexist and racist.


The narrative promoted by Trump throughout his campaign and the narrative of Conan appeal to the same kind of people. They exclude and dehumanize the same kind of people. They endorse violence. They treat women as objects. And they have both contributed to getting us where we are today The narratives that we create, promote, and enjoy, from Conan to Star Wars to The Apprentice matter. They shape our deeds and perspectives. Even if the creators of Conan envisioned the game as being apolitical, there’s no such thing. Narratives create their own politics and sit within a political context –– in this case, a political context in which White power has just taken control of the United States. The fact that the Conan Kickstarter did so well should have been a warning. It should have made us realize how many people are still willing, if not eager, to buy into the racist, misogynist narratives of the early 20th century. How many people are willing to perform the violence against others that they’ve watched or played at. How many people are willing to complacently enable violence and hate in return for a bit of recognition and/or money.


There isn't much room for nuance or ambiguity there — she's telling us outright that, even if you don't personally want to rape women and kill minorities, if you play Conan you're fantasizing about it, or at the very least enabling others who do those things.

She finishes with "Start Fighting."


As a gamer, start refusing to purchase or even play a game that objectifies women, excludes women, excludes non-White people, makes non-White people the enemy, etc.


Conan doesn't exclude women or non-white people (there are women and non-white playable characters), and there are both white and non-white enemies. But let's pretend she was talking about other games here.

I think it's perfectly fine to refuse to play a game that offends you or that you do not enjoy. If you find that a game like Conan objectifies women (and yeah, it does, even with Belit and Valeria and Red Sonjathe Vanyr Valkyrie) and that bothers you, it is totally your prerogative to want nothing to do with it.

There are wargames covering recent conflicts, from Vietnam to the War on Terror, that might well offend people. There are also light party games like Cards Against Humanity that have offended people with their cavalier treatment of, well, pretty much every PC hotbutton there is. And it's fair to not want to play those games if they bother you.

But Hornbeck isn't just defending a personal choice not to support games she doesn't like. She is arguing that Conan, and games like it, are inherently bad, and you're a bad person if you don't join her in opposing them.


If you don’t do any of these things, you won’t be helping anything to change, no matter how much you allege that gaming is for everyone and that this industry is inclusive. In fact, you’ll continue part of the problem. You can either have Conan or you can have a better industry and better world. But you can’t have both.


You can't have Conan if you want a better world.

There's a lot wrong with Cynthia Hornbeck's essay. It's intellectually dishonest, it's full of assumptions, projection, and unsupported parallels drawn between things she doesn't like, but she's certainly entitled to her opinion. But in the reaction to it, and the reaction to that reaction, I've seen a lot of people saying "But you need to listen" or "But she's just asking you to..."

I am listening. I have tried to keep in mind what might pass as a legitimate point or two buried in her hatred of all things maleConan. But she very clearly is not just asking us to. She's telling us that Conan is bad, that people who play Conan are bad, that if you are a good person who thinks rape and racism and violence is bad, you have to be actively working to purge the world of games like Conan. There can be no nuance here, no tempered enjoyment of problematic things, no attempt to reconcile your desire for social justice with your desire to have fun playing a pulp fantasy game about killing bad guys (some of whom might happen to be non-white).

You can have Conan, or you can have the world Cynthia Hornbeck wants.
Tags: games, soapbox
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