Row of student racism ignites colonial board game debate | Yle Uutiset


The main objective of the board game is to find the legendary giant diamond, the African Star, while exploring the continent and collecting other gems, but avoiding thieves.

Image: Jyrki Lyytikkä / Yle

The popular Finnish board game African Tähti, or the African Star, has been at the center of a heated debate on social media in recent days.

The discussion began when a number of first-year geography students at the University of Helsinki dressed up as Star of Africa characters to attend a game-themed event organized by the students. Their choice of outfits was criticized by a German exchange student on the photo-sharing platform Instagram.

The post quickly sparked a wider debate about the game and the era of colonialism it represents.

Fatim Diarra (Green), chairman of the Helsinki City Council, wrote on Twitter that the game is “very dear” to him, especially since his father is from Mali, which only gained independence from French colonial rule seven years after the release of Star of Africa.

Diarra added that she welcomes the way Finnish society is gradually starting to recognize the racist elements present in everyday life, noting that they reinforce negative stereotypes.

Tuesday, the official Twitter account of the University of Helsinki wrote that students had been caught in an “unreasonable social media storm” but that everyone should be “given the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them.”

“There is still a lack of understanding of racism in Finnish society and in academia. We do not always understand how social practices and structures feel for people who experience racism all the time in their lives,” said the university tweeted, adding that a three-day anti-racism training program had already been prepared for staff as well as a section on anti-racism in the training of guardians.

However, many other commentators have questioned the relevance of such a debate on a board game and questioned whether the “classic” game would be banned from now on.

Yle therefore asked researchers and specialists their opinion on the appearance of the 70-year-old game in 2021.

Tarzan books influenced the creator of the game

Star of Africa was developed in the late 1940s by Kari mannerla, then only 19 years old, and was released in 1951, at a time when much of the African continent was still under European colonial rule.

The main objective of the game is to find the legendary giant diamond, the Star of Africa, while “exploring” the continent and collecting other gems, but avoiding thieves.

Once the diamond is located, players must run to the North African cities of Cairo in Egypt or Tangier in Morocco, which are the starting and ending points of the game.

Researcher at the University of Turku Olli Löytty told Yle he started participating in discussions about the colonial aspect of board games in the late 1990s.

At that time, Löytty said he received a deluxe version of the game from Mannerla in the mail, with a cover letter attached. In the letter, Mannerla explained that he had been a “victim” of the writings of the creator of Tarzan. Edgar Rice Burroughs when he created the game and was not as familiar with African history as he would later become. Mannerla died in 2006.

The story continues after the image.

Afrikan tähden pelilauta.

For many Finns, the board game provided their first impressions of Africa.

Image: Jyrki Lyytikkä / Yle

Burroughs had been a strong supporter of eugenics and scientific racism, and wrote the Tarzan series to reflect his beliefs.

“The game features a collection of images from adventure and exploration travel books dating back to the 19th century. It was released during the ‘golden age’ of colonialism,” Löytty said.

Colonialism refers to the policy or practice of people or states acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying the territory with settlers, intervening in local society and culture, and exploiting it economically.

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Tangerin lähtöpiste Afrikan tähti -lautapelissä.

The game begins and ends in North Africa.

Image: Jyrki Lyytikkä / Yle

“In the game, players are looking for Africa’s greatest treasure, which has really been done there. It’s easy to see the connection to colonialism,” Löytty added.

During the 1940s and 1950s, many Finns had a very poor understanding of the African continent, most of which were based on representations of popular culture, such as Burroughs’ Tarzan books.

“At that time, there was little information about Africa available on television, but perhaps only from certain adventure films or books or travel accounts”, history researcher at the University of Turku Essi Huuhka said Yle.

“Some Finns also did missionary work there, especially in Namibia. In schools, you could teach something, especially about African nature, but of course everything happened in a colonialist setting.

African countries began to gain independence from colonial powers in the late 1950s and 1960s.

The game takes the point of view of a colonialist

While playing Star of Africa, the player assumes the position of a colonialist: they search for gems in the “wildest” Africa, avoiding potential thieves, and at the end of the game they return to the north, or at least in the port cities of North Africa.

Africans only appear in the game as cartoon illustrations on the board.

“Africa is described as an empty region with no states or kingdoms, only exciting nature where it is good to go on an adventure. It is an exotic place, and people have also been described as exotic,” Huuhka said. .

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Afrikan tähden naamiotu rovoo ja musta mies kilven ja keihään kera.

Africans were represented on the board in illustrations resembling caricatures.

Image: Jyrki Lyytikkä / Yle

In fact, the period of colonial rule and colonialism of the African continent by European countries led not only to economic exploitation but also caused enormous human suffering, for example through the slave trade, famines and tyrannical domination.

The mining of precious stones and the diamond trade have also caused a lot of problems in Africa, and continue to do so.

“It’s too much to expect a 1950s board game to comment on these things. However, that doesn’t preclude critical debate about it now. The game can be played well, but it’s good to recognize its context and the type of imagery it contains. represents, ”Huuhka added.

The importance of the worldview effect cannot be denied

The Star of Africa board game is arguably Finland’s most famous and well-known portrayal of Africa, and for many Finns it is their first contact with the continent.

According to researcher Löytty, the cultural and historical importance of play cannot be denied, especially since it is aimed at children.

“Yes, it affects the worldview. Games espouse the things that affect the way you see the world,” Löytty said, adding that he doesn’t understand why some people think if things get criticized it would mean that they must be completely banned.

“Cultural history cannot and should not be suppressed. The game is a great opportunity to have a discussion about how the world has been seen before,” he said.

During the debate sparked by the student event at the University of Helsinki, some argued that Finland had never had a colony in Africa and that the Finns could therefore play the game with a clear conscience.

“It’s a pretty simplified argument,” Löytty said. “Finland was part of global culture and shared a worldview in which, until recently, it was normal to take control and exploit other countries.”

Huuhka pointed out that the Star of Africa board game debate is part of a larger discussion that has been going on for several years about Finnish products and their racist imagery.

“It is good that this debate is taking place,” he said.


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