Playing to Pay Attention: Homesteaders and Materialities

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The is the second post in a short series of reflections from participants of the 16th Canadian History and Environmental History Summer School (CHESS). CHESS 2024 took place in Montreal from June 14-16. Forty scholars interested in environmental history gathered at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) to learn more about commodities, ports, and urban space. You can read the program here, including a link to the readings.

CHESS 2024 was an unbelievable experience for a variety of reasons. After 2020, this was the first time I had even attempted to apply to CHESS. It gave me a reason to quickly visit Montreal and meet some of my favourite people. CHESS—like NiCHE—promised to be a welcoming, inclusive, and genuinely curious forum, an anomaly in our cynical world. I was most excited for playing the Homesteaders boardgame on Saturday morning, explained and led by Jim Clifford. As an instructor I have asked my students to devise games centred on place to varying results. One of the most vexing questions for students and me is: how do we, often as settlers, claim (or not) legacies in a way that is not extractive? Homesteaders was a phenomenal experience to think through that question.

Jim Clifford teaching CHESS 2024 participants how to play Homesteaders. Photo courtesy of Daniel Ross.

Set up around particular families’ experiences in Saskatchewan from 1870-1940, the game is custom designed and built, evolving from real historical stories. Centred on place, groups play as a family. Families included White settler families from Ontario, First Nations families, and African Canadian families. On each table, groups of three or four assumed the lives of a particular family. There were broadly two kinds of cards. One set were a series of events that laid out material consequences, such as the effects of drought on land and labour. The other was a game card that gave the players a brief overview of the family’s circumstances in addition to charting their progress. This card also laid out the minimum material conditions each family had to meet (i.e. capital accumulation, labour, investment in farm equipment and infrastructure as well as measuring hardship.) When a family was unable to meet their minimum tasks in every round, they gained some hardship.

In each round, we had multiple chances to respond to the circumstances laid out by the cards whilst trying to meet our overall goals. Behind the veil of ignorance of how our actions would impact our future, we tried to make decision about our homesteads. Since every family was different, our decisions –from honest choices to being forced to lie to survive—ranged a fair bit. At the end of each round, all the families dealt with regional, national, and international events that affected each differently.

component pieces for a board game. several pieces of cardboard with black and white photos, descriptive text, and numbers.
Parts of the boardgame “Homesteaders” developed by Benjamin Hoy. Photo courtesy of Benjamin Hoy.

Playing Homesteaders was generative in multiple ways. As a historian and player, it was a tremendous opportunity to play roles based in historical stories and actors. I am personally weary of role playing, because I fear reductionism. Homesteaders calmly put my fears to rest, showing me instead an in-depth attention to multi-scalar events, promoting collaborative work. By forcing players to make hard choices, the game encouraged empathy, a trait historians often claim to espouse because perhaps we are told we must put ourselves in our actors’ shoes. Yet, as a writer myself, I have doubted how empathetic I truly am because I am casting my eyes on a time and place I am not from. Playing Homesteaders though, I had no doubt about that very empathy. At the same time, like other games devised by Benjamin Hoy, Homesteaders raises questions about what you cannot find in the archives.

We often piece together stories from scraps in the archives. But as Homesteaders so beautifully shows, there are everyday stories and significances that we cannot find in the archive. For environmental historians Homesteaders is especially important. The attention to materialities –old and new—is commendable. As an instructor, Homesteaders was such a treat. One could easily devise a whole course around it.

Maybe it is that time of year, but the pedagogical possibilities from this game abound and I thought of ways to play it in my classes. I could not help, but wish Homesteaders existed when I was a student. I would have understood so many things in graduate school easier. Most of all, Homesteaders would have made me a better historian. Come to think of it, I think it already has.

Feature image: Log home of David Rogers built in 1905. Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan, R-A3482.
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Ramya is an Assistant Professor in Integrative, Religious, and Intercultural Studies at the Brooks College of Interdisciplinary Studies at Grand Valley State University in Allendale MI. A transnational and interdisciplinary environmental scholar who focuses on rivers, dredging, and the place of nature in the Great Lakes, Ramya’s research has been published in academic and public-facing avenues. She takes tea and dredging (not necessarily in that order) seriously. Ramya has also published work on dams in South Asia. As a survivor of domestic abuse and as a single parent, Ramya’s scholarship is driven by a commitment to social/ecological justice and equity. Website: Twitter: @ramyasat

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