Frantz Fanon: The Board Games

This is the last blog on the content my 2014 contemporary political theory course (previous instalments here, here, and here; a post on the teaching method more generally may still be coming).

The last book we read, and the subject of this post, was Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth. I’ll say a bit about Fanon’s book and the problems it poses, and then talk about the main in-class activity we did (creating a board game based on the book).

In some ways Fanon’s book was the easiest of the three that we read this semester. His political agenda is clear, and (unlike Marcuse) doesn’t require extensive discussions of ontology and the philosophy of language. One important stumbling block is that, since most if not all of the students are well-socialized into the norms of middle class Western life, his advocacy of violence was a recurring puzzle: does he really mean it? What exactly does Fanon mean by “violence”?

A related problem was how we should “apply” his ideas. Why? They are written with a clear political agenda. And issues of decolonization are, if anything, more clearly on the agenda of Canadian politics than they were 50 years ago, when decolonization was something happening “over there” in the Third World. The difficulty appears in the first few pages, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s preface: as people from the global North, the book is not written for us: “It often talks about you, but never to you.” (xlv)

This is related to the problem of violence. If Marcuse is ambiguous about condoning violence in the struggle for liberation, Fanon emphasizes the inherent violence of the colonial situation, and sees violence as an essential part of the work of decolonization. Violence is praxis. Certainly this is clear in the first part of the book; as it progresses the political situation is rendered in more complex (less “Manichean”) terms, and the psychic toll entailed in the resort to violence in this situation is made clear. Still, for Fanon there appears to be little question that, for the sake of the species, paying this price is ultimately worth it.

Thus despite its apparent simplicity, Fanon actually presents us with a complex dialectic, working out the problems of decolonization in stages as the book progresses. For this reason, as well as the problem of audience, in-class exercises followed a somewhat different pattern. If Fanon is not writing for “us,” it doesn’t make much sense to try to imagine what he would say in a convocation address (as we did with Arendt). So, in most of the classes, students worked on an ongoing project: developing a board game about decolonization. (The idea of games as pedagogical tools is partly inspired by Michael Wesch’s World Simulation for his cultural anthropology class).

Running this project over multiple classes allowed for revision, as students refined their ideas about decolonization as they worked their way through the book. Since it was the end of term and the assignment wasn’t worth any marks (aside from a general mark for class participation) there wasn’t as much development as there might have been. Still, there was some, as initially three out of four groups based their game on Risk (only one did in the end), and a couple moved away from games that allowed players to be colonizers. It was also interesting to see them struggle with balancing making a fun game and trying to remain true to the insights of Fanon’s book.

Here are the games. None have been play-tested, but I’m happy to send out the rules if anyone wants to try:

1. This one started with the stylized map of Africa from “Risk,” added cities and resources, and features three “colonized” players against each other and one “colonizer.”

"Decolonization" board game 1

“Decolonization” board game 1

2. This next one is loosely based on The Settlers of Catan, and again features three “colonized” players and one “colonizer.” In this one the colonized first work independently to accumulate resources, then cooperatively use the resources to build a road that connects all the colonies to each other. The colonizer tries to subvert their progress. Special cards include “Psycho-analysis” (see all cards in opponent’s hand).

"The Wretched of Catan" board game

“The Wretched of Catan,” aka “The Colonists and Comrades of Catan” board game

3. This one is based on Monopoly, but instead of “buying” properties, they are won through “war” (as in the card game). As players accumulate more properties, they can add more cards to their “war” deck. To add Fanonian flavour, instead of “Chance” and “Community Chest” cards, we have “France” and “Colonized Chest.” And the ICC instead of Jail.

"Fanopoly" board game

“Fanopoly” board game

4. This last one combines Trivial Pursuit with Fanon’s class analysis of colonialism. Like the first game, the board is a stylized map of Africa, which players circle, trying to enlist 6 different classes to join the war of liberation. In order (easiest to hardest), the classes are: proletariat; peasants; lumpenproletariat; traditional leaders; intellectuals; and national bourgeoisie. Classes are won over by landing on the appropriate square and either correctly answering a question or rolling dice.

"Colonial Pursuit" board game

“Colonial Pursuit” board game


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