Pine Box Entertainment maintains a Discord Channel for Doomtown fans to discuss the game. Our players are a lively and diverse group of people. One of our playtesters and online tourney organizers summarized a recent discussion of Indigenous Peoples and their role in Doomtown. He also followed up by interviewing two of the more active participants. We therefore present this article to our larger readership.
(The following has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.)
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Thanksgiving and The First Peoples in Doomtown
Article and Interviews by Joe James (Prodigy)
Last month there was a fascinating discussion about Indigenous Peoples Day in the Doomtown Discord general chat. The discussion had two main topics: the real history of Thanksgiving and the Indigenous Peoples of the colonial North American Northeast, and the representation of the First Peoples in Doomtown. I learned just how ignorant I was about both topics, and was very moved by the conversation.
To the first topic, I can now say that the history I learned about Thanksgiving as a child was heavily edited to favor the Pilgrims. Most of us know, by now, the terrible things that Christopher Columbus did, and why there is a move to change away from the national day in his namesake, and toward Indigenous Peoples day. It should not have surprised me, then, that there is much of the same whitewashing when it comes to the history of Thanksgiving. Whole books have been written on this, so I won’t get into all the details. Instead I encourage everyone to do just a little research on this topic, so we can help honor the memories, even if just the smallest bit, of the tribes who endured great suffering and loss.
On the second topic, we discussed the First Peoples in Doomtown. For those not familiar with Doomtown, the game is set in an alternate history in the late 19th century, and the First Peoples are one of the six factions you can play. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw one of the Doomtown players, who has Native American ancestry, make the following quote: “The representation in art and narrative in Doomtown: Reloaded makes me feel seen, and while not everything from it is perfect, most of it resonates with me. That is huge, especially when what I am used to seeing from gaming HURTS me.”
Again, I shouldn’t be surprised. Anyone who knows the Doomtown community (Pine Box, the former Doomtown: Reloaded team at AEG, and the players alike) knows you cannot find a more genuinely good group of people. There are plenty of other game companies out there who have their hearts in the right place, but I wondered why Pine Box had so much success in their portrayal of indigenous peoples in their game, while so many others fell short? Into the conversation stepped someone from Pine Box to help explain.
It is these two individuals I interviewed for this article: Tamsyn Goodnow from the Pine Box team, and a Doomtown player named David Gordon Buresh. I hope this article, and these interviews, help put Thanksgiving more into perspective, showcase some perhaps-unknown successes of the Pine Box team, and also inspire other game designers to do better by the minorities that play their games or have minority portrayals in the games themselves.
First, can you tell us what you do with Pine Box? What are your roles and responsibilities there, and how long have you been with them?
My two primary focuses at Pine Box are as a layout designer (I handle cards, rulebooks, packaging, Drive Thru Cards print files, etc.) and asset manager (essentially, I try to help keep our digital files in well sorted order so we can retrieve things easily). But on top of that, I also work on the flavor and art teams for Doomtown: naming cards, writing flavor text, selecting art, etc.
I’ve actually been with Pine Box from day one! As an active member of the fan community, I was more than thrilled to join the team when we had the opportunity to continue Doomtown. Imagine, getting to continue a game that I first was acquainted with in elementary school. So surreal!
What is your connection and/or personal experience with the indigenous peoples of North America?
My family history is very European through and through as one side has a lot of Scottish background abd tge other side rooted in the Chesapeake Bay and Appalachia for centuries with folks from all over). I’m from the Appalachia region of North Carolina that isn’t all too far from the Eastern Band of Cherokee. Although I’ve never lived there, my parents met while working for the outdoor drama Unto These Hills that the tribe had been performing for decades.
So I grew up visiting there every now and then, and it made a big impact on me. In school by and large, the indigenous peoples of North Carolina are treated in the past tense like they’re nothing but historical fact. Seeing the local signage written in the Cherokee syllabary, visiting their cultural center and museum, all those things really opened my eyes to the disconnect between the lived reality still going on today, and the way American culture writ large doesn’t discuss the first peoples of this continent in a contemporary fashion.
How do those connections and/or experiences, along with other relevant life experiences, help shape your work on the design team?
As I touched on in my previous answer, it really shaped that I need to look past the viewpoint of non-indigenous peoples to try and capture more accurate representation. My eyes were opened in Cherokee, NC simply by listening to and respecting the perspective I encountered there. So if I’m naming a first peoples character, I try to come up with that character’s background, give them identity and specificity: are they Hopi? Navajo? Choctaw? What language and naming conventions would be predominant in their culture? Are they from the local area the game is exploring, or visiting from another part of the continent?
To do that, a large part of what I do is go to the best sources possible for that information, such as websites provided by the Navajo Nation. And there are so many languages still being spoken just within the US today! You can find great resources put together by folks who actually speak these languages, who practice these naming conventions. Who practice them today, not just centuries ago! So a lot of what I’m really trying to do is what I did when visiting Cherokee: listen, acknowledge, and respect.
I think most people would agree that having diversity among any team, whether its a design team of a card game, or a whole company itself, is something that should be sought after – both for the representation of different groups, as well as the rich ideas and experiences that can help shape and grow a successful team or company (among plenty of other reasons). However, with small companies like Pine Box, there is only so much room for diversity. What is your advice for other game designers, or teams of any kind, to mimic the success Pine Box has had so far?
That really is such a difficult hurdle with a small team! But I go back to what I was just saying above: research, and listen. Those are key. Don’t just go on your assumptions you already have. Seek out the voices you need to represent, and truly listen to what they’re saying.
I also find it useful to think about how I want to be respected and understood when it comes to where I’m from and who I am. So while my life experiences as a queer woman from Appalachia are of their own unique perspectives, I can take how I want people to respect my views on those lived experiences, and try to give others that same type of respect on theirs.
And always be ready to learn, because you will make mistakes; to err is human. But if you’ve already built a great foundation of respect, you’ll find it’s much easier to rectify those mistakes!
Are there any areas where Pine Box falls short, or could improve more on?
Just speaking about my own processes and what I bring to the cards, I’ve been reflecting on how I want to use the backgrounds I create for these characters to expand folks’ understanding of the richness and diversity of the various peoples, cultures, and nations of this continent, but with a game that’s set in the late 19th century, is most of our audience still operating under the assumption that this is all history? Am I helping make that leap to understanding that these cultures, peoples, and nations are still here today? I mean, so many Americans still think the Mayans just vanished! So I feel like I’m still struggling to really make that connection for most folks to look up from the game, and want to take a look at things today. It feels very elusive.
Do you have any other thoughts you’d like to share with the readers on this Thanksgiving Day article?
If, like myself, you’re not from an indigenous culture and are interested in learning more about the complicated legacy (to put it mildly) around this holiday, and gaining a more well rounded understanding of the perspectives of various indigenous governments, peoples, and people today, I’d highly recommend as a starting point that you look up what nation(s) and/or culture(s) are most local to where you live. See what perspectives you can find from their online resources about how they mark the day. Try to look for publications by those nations and their people, and learn from those perspectives.
David Gordon Buresh
Tell us a little about yourself: Where are you from and what is your ancestry? What sorts of games have you played, and what are a few of your favorites?
My name is David Gordon Buresh. I am a writer, game designer, and game design consultant. I am from Vermont, which is where my mother’s family comes from. My maternal grandfather was St. Francis Sokoki Abenaki and my maternal grandmother was from the Sault Ste Marie tribe of the Chippewa people. I was raised as part of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook-Abenaki, and I have ties to the Nulhegan Band of the Abenaki. So, in short, I am a mixed race Native American person, living in New England with a whole lot of passing privilege. As a writer, I review games for the Cardboard Republic, Thus I have an extensive background in playing games, and have since I was a young child. For favorites, I am partial to Final Fantasy 6, Cribbage, and Legend of the Five Rings, though that last one is definitely a complicated relationship.
When did you start playing Doomtown, and what drew you into the game?
I FIRST started playing Doomtown back during its first run, in the late1990’s. I did not stick with it, as I did not have a community for it and it did not hook me as tightly as L5R. When Doomtown: Reloaded came out, I tried it a couple times for a review, which was positive. It was not until L5R went on hiatus in 2015 due to its sale to Fantasy Flight Games that I started playing it regularly at my friendly local game shop (shout out to Pandemonium Games in Boston). What drew me into the game was the strategy of placement, movement, and building a board. What truly surprised and delighted me was how Native American characters were depicted in the art of this game, something that is still not very common in the gaming hobby at large.
Can you talk a little about your perspective of the First Peoples in Doomtown (flavor, mechanics, artwork – anything you wish)? What are some things Pine Box got right, and what are some things they could improve on?
To explain my perspective first, I am a mixed race Native American living in New England, far from the area depicted by this game and not related to the peoples shown in this game. That being said, it was amazing that my first impression of the First Peoples showed them as a people with English names. Chief Stephen Seven-Eagles is named Stephen. That’s huge. You have Marcia Ridge (whom I saw as being, like me, mixed race Native American) and Butch Deuces alongside characters named Black Elk and Bloody Teeth. And then you have Jackson Trouble, which is a name that is both Native American (Trouble) and English. The first impression of any game is always going to be names and art, and Doomtown: Reloaded gets it right. Mechanically, I like how the First Peoples are focused around strong Influence, and are just good at holding their territory. This resonates massively with the push in indigenous communities to reclaim what has been taken from us by colonization, and to establish our own place which is indisputably ours. Seeing Geronimo as a Shaman, also, was an awesome correct choice made by Pine Box.
For what Pine Box can improve on, this is a lot harder of a question. From a Native American perspective, I would be interested to see more Native American characters in groups who are not First Peoples, and possibly show them even tapping into mystical options which are not Shaman. As my Aunt puts it, my tribe, the Abenaki, became Catholic in the 1600’s because the Jesuits showed up with wool; if all you had was buckskin to keep out a New England winter, you’d convert for wool too.
As a white male of European descent, I was completely unaware (but not surprised) of the problematic nature of indigenous peoples representation when it comes to games, be it board games, card games, or roleplaying games, just to name a few. Without calling out specific games or companies, what are some examples of things they’ve gotten wrong?
Hoo, this is an expansive topic, and one which I really do not have space here to go into. Honestly, start with almost any other game set in the Wild West, especially miniatures games. You can even look at some older versions of Doomtown and Deadlands. If you want specific to Native Americans, many games depict them as either A) magical, B) dead, C) dressed in buckskins and feathers, or D) some combination of the above. But you don’t have to just limit it there. Indigenous-coded monsters and non-humans are so commonplace in fantasy that it is genuinely easier to identify the games where monsters and non-humans are not inherently “tribal”, “savage”, or “primitive”. Colonialism is so hard-baked into the adventure formula that it really is inescapable.
What advice do you have for design teams and game companies who wish to do better by their players who have historically been overlooked or misrepresented?
As I said earlier, I can only speak to my own experience. However, the first and most important step is including these people in your creative process. Include them early, solicit their feedback, listen to their feedback, and pay them for their work. Hire sensitivity consultants who come from the communities and groups you wish to depict in your game.
Do you have any other thoughts to share for this Thanksgiving Day article?
As a Native American who lives in New England, our history of Thanksgiving is very different than the one most people are told. For many Native Americans in the United States, this is not an uncommon experience. Often, our stories are told to us by others who are not part of us, and many of these stories are structured in a way where we are a footnote to our own history. So, to anyone else reading this article, I would like to leave you with the three statements we rally behind in the United American Indians of New England, which should always be the starting point for any depictions of Native Americans in your stories.
We are not vanishing.
We are not conquered.
We are as strong as ever.