In the popular board game “Puerto Rico,” players are placed in the role of colonial governors. Their task, while growing crops on plantations, is to earn points by shipping goods to Europe and owning buildings — the violent project of territorial expansion reduced to a tabletop game for three-to-five players. Such games, influenced by a long history of exploitation, are “a playground for Western heroes,” says Mikael Jakobsson, research coordinator in the MIT Game Lab and lecturer in MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing. “The Indigenous peoples are represented as resources, obstacles, or exotic flavor, and have very little agency.”
In 2018, Jakobsson, supported by a Fay Chandler Creativity Grant, traveled to Colombia and Puerto Rico to lead creative generative workshops on game design with professional designers, students, and Indigenous peoples alongside his team at the MIT Game Lab. Jakobsson, who researches how gaming fits into social and cultural practices, wanted to create a counter-colonialist board game. This would be a game that focused on the Indigenous experience, rather than on glorifying the violence of European conquest.
Enter Rosa Colón Guerra, a graphic artist from Puerto Rico whose work illustrates Puerto Rico’s financial crisis and life during Hurricane María and its aftermath. Together, Jakobsson and Colón Guerra, with the help of a 2020-22 CAST Visiting Artist Grant, prototyped a new board game about PROMESA, the 2016 government act established in response to the island’s debt crisis — a law that turned over the management of the country’s finances into the hands of American lawmakers.
In the game, Puerto Rico’s debt is represented by a collection of small black gems floating atop a raft. The raft, a blue silicon square, sits in the center of the game. Players must then work together to push the raft off-island without any of the gems falling off. “Once we started play testing with MIT students, we found this dexterity mechanic of pushing the raft, and we realized that was really the one that got the most energy among the players, which is always something we look for when we make games,” Jakobsson says.
However, the reality is that the territory’s debt, which continues to climb, may never be paid off — and the island will remain a de facto colony of the United States. Jakobsson hopes audiences will “come away with the understanding that the PROMESA act, the paying off of the debt, can never work. If you internalize that by trying to pay off the debt in the game, and failing and then going again, then I think we've accomplished our mission.” The secret to winning the game, he says, is by investing in public goods like infrastructure, health care, or education.
The legal and economic intricacies of PROMESA can be difficult for lay people to understand. For Colón Guerra, who illustrated the game board and its instruction manual, creating art about political issues is a way to work through such knotty problems, both for herself and her audience. “I didn’t understand politics, so I started researching and writing about it. I asked myself, ‘What is the best image that explains this?’ or ‘How can I put this in a way that I get it and everybody gets it?’” she recalls. Art, she says, is a way of problem-solving.
Now, the team is printing a limited run of “Promesa,” but in the future hope to crowdfund resources to support a wider distribution of the board game. A game with an explicitly anti-colonial message, Jakobsson says, is still “amazingly rare,” despite a recent upsurge of popular interest in board games, with the industry doubling in size year after year. Game designers — who are mostly white, Western men — are “so culturally pickled in colonialist brine that this has become ‘the default,’ says Jakobsson. Colón Guerra hopes the group can donate copies to different institutions across the archipelago. “I hope we can show it off in different spaces because it’s very unique in how it tackles PROMESA and Puerto Rico's debt,” she says.
It’s possible that “Promesa” will inspire more counter-colonial board games. As a result of the project, Jakosson formed an artist and designer collective called Popcicleta. “We also have come across people from every continent in the world who really like what we've done with Promesa and would like to do something similar with us,” he says.
Through the game, Jakobsson and Colón Guerra hope that more audiences will come to understand the complexities of Puerto Rico’s status as a modern-day American colony. The medium, Jakobsson says, has a “built-in viral aspect,” in that players often recommend games to family and friends. This makes games ideal vehicles to spread important messages, particularly to people who might not otherwise seek out the information about Puerto Rico. “There are all of these little obstacles that don’t allow us to have the same things that the United States has,” Colón Guerra says. “And it’s not necessarily about money. It’s more about dignity and a feeling of owning your country.”