22 November 2016
‘It’s time to stop acting like promoting this misogynist and racist narrative through board games is okay,’ Cynthia Hornbeck lambasts
A former marketing rep for mega-publisher Asmodee has attacked the recently released Conan board game for its depiction of women and race.
Developed by Monolith and designed by Frederic Henry, Conan raised more than $3.2 million from over 16,000 backers on Kickstarter last year and launched in the UK last Wednesday.
Cynthia Hornbeck worked at Asmodee North America during the lead-up to the game’s release, and helped to promote it. She left the company earlier this month – something she says “was done for a variety of personal reasons which have nothing to do with the gender or racial politics of Asmodee or the gaming industry”.
Writing in a blog post entitled ‘Grab ‘em by the Board Game’ – alluding to the infamous 'Grab 'em by the pussy' statement made by Donald Trump – Hornbeck attacks Conan for its representation of women, presenting examples of the ‘misogynistic’ way they are shown in the game and its artwork.
One prime example offered by Hornbeck is the cover of the heroes rulebook, which portrays Conan standing over an unconscious topless woman laying on an altar – she adds that the decision for the woman to have underwear on was a change due to complaints from Asmodee employees.
“Many Asmodee employees still complained about the image because it looks like Conan is going to rape her,” Hornbeck recalls. “Oh no, you, say, he’s going to rescue her. Well, why doesn’t she rescue herself? It’s not part of that setting, you say. So, why isn’t she conscious? Why is she naked? Why is she on some sort of rock bed/ altar and glowing, so that we the gamer focus on her physical beauty?
“To me, she looks like his prize, a reward for his violence with which he can do whatever he wishes- including grab her by the crotch and rape her before she’s regained consciousness. And this isn’t just the opinion of women- many of my male former coworkers, men with wives and daughters agree. This cover is the scene of or before a rape. And you, my friend, are going to take on the role of the rapist.”
Hornbeck acknowledges that “in the Kickstarter exclusives and in possible expansions there are other, stronger female heroes”, but argues “that does not excuse the fact that they are all depicted in a sexualized manner and that the only female hero in the core set, one of TWO female figurines in that set, is limited to a support role”.
“That’s what women are good for in this world: being fucked by men and making those men feel good,” she concludes. “That’s the world that you’re choosing to have fun in.”
Hornbeck then moves on to analyse the depiction of race in Conan – a subject that has been discussed at length in the light of original Conan creator Robert E. Howard’s racist views.
She considers the suggestion that Monolith has “backed away from the inherent racism of the original setting” by removing stereotypical racial aspects of the races in Conan, such as the Native American-inspired Picts and Chinese-based Khitai, to make them purely fantasy creations.
She ultimately disagrees, stating: “What we have here is not a deraclialization [sic], but a dehumanization.
“In both cases, Monolith has decided not to reject Howard’s racism, but to attempt make that racism more palpable by masking it in fantasy.”
Hornbeck ultimately tells both players and designers that “it’s time to stop acting like promoting this misogynist and racist narrative through board games is okay. Time to start fighting for the inclusivity and equality that you sometimes talk about with your money, designs, and words.
“If you don’t do any of these things, you won’t be helping anything to change, no matter how much you allege that gaming is for everyone and that this industry is inclusive. In fact, you’ll continue part of the problem. You can either have Conan or you can have a better industry and better world. But you can’t have both.”
Monolith has since responded to Hornbeck’s piece, telling Kotaku that the game reflects “US pop culture” and the “sword and sorcery style” and aims to remain “as true as possible [to] the books” and Conan comics. The representative also opposed Hornbeck’s claims that the female character of Belit is simply there to “follow Conan around and boost his abilities”, saying that Belit is equal in power and strength to the other support characters.
With regards to the controversial rulebook cover, Monolith highlighted its resemblance to a painting by the artist Frank Frazetta and insisted: “The bad guy is now missing from the cover but everyone knows that Conan is a hero and is here to save the women and not to attack the women.”