Colonialism, Privilege, and Meaningful Play in Dog Eat Dog
Game designer Liam Liwanag Burke describes Dog Eat Dog as a “fun, compelling game about colonialism and assimilation in the Pacific Islands.” That’s right – Burke created a fun roleplaying game about the inequality inherent to colonialism and its consequences. One player acts as the Occupation (all of it – leaders, military, and tourists alike) while the others play as individual Natives, all trying to negotiate the new boundaries and power structure on the island. Burke published Dog Eat Dog and its supplement Asocena after successfully running a Kickstarter in April 2012. He was kind enough to answer the following questions about the development of Dog Eat Dog.
RM: The only standard Rule in the game’s Record (the history of the island during a particular game) in Dog Eat Dog is: “The (Native People) are inferior to the (Occupation people).” At what point during development did you decide to base every game’s internal history on this one underlying Rule? How have players reacted to this rule?
LB: You know, Dog Eat Dog only really had two stages of development — before and after. I was working at a logistics firm, which is both constantly stressful and constantly boring, and playing indie roleplaying games with Chris Chinn and talking about race, and the whole thing just kind of developed in my head, and I basically wrote it down as one piece, much of it while I was at work. This was actually before Google Docs, and I had to look busy the whole time, so I actually wrote it all in a draft email to myself in my Gmail account, and then went home and took it out and put it in a word processor. So the very first draft of Dog Eat Dog had the First Rule in it. Of course, once I’d written and playtested it I ended up changing some things, and I rewrote most of it when it came time to actually publish. But the First Rule never changed. I think it’s really the core of the game — colonialism implies contempt. If you go to somebody else’s country and try to change things, even if you do it politely and nonviolently, it necessarily means you think you know better than they do how to run that country. Interestingly, very few people have ever commented on it. Maybe it’s too obviously the mission statement! The most common question I’ve gotten about it is that people want to be sure it’s opinion, not fact.
In the “Full Disclosure” section of Dog Eat Dog you mention that the game is mostly about the Occupation, despite the fact that more players are Natives and that each individual has his/her own traits. How does the tension between the power of the Occupation and number of the Natives typically play out, considering the rule of Native inferiority?
I like to think of it as demonstrating privilege in action. Each Native, of course, will pursue their own agenda, whether it’s opposing the Occupation or working with them. But when they come into contact with the Occupation, the scene tends to end up being about what the Occupation is doing and thinking in response to the Natives, rather than what the Natives are actually doing. This exemplifies the institutional nature of privilege — everywhere you go, the story’s about you being there.
Part of the reason why you started creating this game was because you were unable to have a deep conversation with a relative about racism. Have you been able to play Dog Eat Dog with that relative? Has the game facilitated better conversations?
Actually, I haven’t! I wrote Dog Eat Dog because of my experiences growing up with an Irish-American father and a first-generation Filipino-American mother. As I started to come to terms with my racial identity it became clear to me that I didn’t really understand what my mother had gone through in order to come to America and raise a family — I got all the benefits of her decision but didn’t see the sacrifices. So Dog Eat Dog was part of my attempts to understand the issue. The trouble is, I only see my family maybe once a year at Christmas, so it’s tough for us to actually sit down and play it. But she’s read the book, and writing it helped me understand her strength and gave me the courage to ask her about her experiences, so in that way it’s definitely helped.
Since you met most of your Kickstarter stretch goals, there was a supplement shipped with the game, Asocena [named after a Filipino dish made from dog meat], filled with alternative scenarios. How did you collect and edit these? Have you heard from other players that have created their own scenarios since the game’s release?
I actually collected most of the Asocena submissions from my own Kickstarter backers! Which seems like cheating now that I think about it. I directly contacted a few people who I knew would be interested, and of course dragged all my friends into writing scenarios, but some of the best entries in the book turned up from people I didn’t know at all before starting the Kickstarter. I just wrote an update asking if anybody would be interested in submitting something, and a lot of very talented people came out of the woodwork and sent amazing stuff in. There have been a few people since then who have written scenarios of their own – Hans Chung-Otterson of wearelostinplay.com wrote a very nice piece on G+ using it to explore debtorship, for example.
Do you have any reflections on the process of creating a Kickstarter now that almost a year has passed?
I’m actually just writing up a whole postmortem for my blog on what I learned about running a Kickstarter and what I might do differently. I would probably say the key elements are:
- Running a Kickstarter is a full-time job with unique skill requirements of its own.
- Find the people you know who have a lot of Twitter followers and rely on them.
- It’s going to take longer than you think even after you have modified your thought process to take into account that it will take longer than you think.
What advice would you give to people who have never played Dog Eat Dog before but are interested in playing it as a meaningful learning experience?
The biggest thing I’d say is give it time to percolate. Just sit down and play the game normally, then schedule in an extra hour and have cookies or something and talk about it. The purpose of the game is to try to duplicate and share an experience, so the best thing you can do is let that experience breathe.
Is there anything else that you would like to share with Play the Past readers?
I’d love to namedrop the Allied Media Conference, a radical participatory media convention where I debuted Dog Eat Dog last year. My game was featured in the Imagining Better Futures through Play track, a section of the convention devoted specifically to the transformative power of games in creating new narratives. In fact, it was such a good experience that this year I joined up and am working myself to organize sessions and pick new games to feature! I highly recommend the trip to Detroit for people interested in the power of games to create change. We have a very exciting set of workshops planned and we’re about to start fundraising so that we can bring in some well-known radical and influential game designers and offer support to new designers who want to present their exciting new projects.
Thanks again to Liam Burke for answering these questions for Play the Past. For those who missed the the Kickstarter, Dog Eat Dog can be purchased on the Liwanag Press Website for $10 (.pdf) or $15 (physical copy).