My favorite board game of all time involves collecting money to buy various goods and services and then gradually losing your sanity and life until everything spirals into horror and chaos.
I'm not talking about Monopoly. I'm referring to Arkham Horror, a board game loosely based off the Cthulhu mythos created by HP Lovecraft.
A Call of Cthulu videogame has just been announced. You may have missed it amidst the Oscar buzz. That's fine. Many mortals who have witnessed that which can't be unseen can attest: sometimes it's better not to know.
In Arkharm Horror, players cooperate against the eldritch horrors of the Cthulhu mythos as intrepid investigators with pre-written back-stories and motivations for braving into the unknown. With each expansion, Arkham Horror introduces new investigators into the mix, and out of all of them (nearly 64 in total at the time of this article) at least half are women.
To say that there are no women present whatsoever in Lovecraft's fiction is only technically inaccurate. Throughout the majority of his fiction, women are typically nameless, off-screen. Their unchecked sexuality is often responsible for Lovecraft's most profound phobia: miscegenation. There should be a word for when a word is as ugly as the politics attached to it. Why couldn't the Elder Gods, in their infinitely cruel wisdom, conceive of such?
All too frequent in nerd-culture are anatomical nightmare images of women with their spines bent out of proportion, so that their bust and butt can be put on prominent display. To exist purely as sexual objects to be lusted after by a male audience is a common "cost of admission" for women who want visibility or any sort of half-ass semblance of inclusion in the media. It's not so different in Lovecraft's original tales. If women are mentioned at all, it is as the cause for man's anxiety and woes in this world.
This is where Arkham Horror feels startlingly different. The role of the Lovecraftian scholarly protagonist is allowed to be filled by women, whether they are scientists, doctors, clergy, or even intrepid explorers and writers. Considered one of the most useful investigators in the base game is Mandy Thompson, a researcher at Miskatonic University. Her unique ability to allow any investigator to reroll any failed dice following a skill check makes her an ideal choice for any Arkham Horror investigator party.
Investigators are allowed to use whichever items they come across as they explore the town and the various otherworlds. This results in remarkable stories: the nun Sister Mary driving around town on a motorcycle with whiskey in one hand and a shotgun in the other, blasting away zombies and cultists with a prayer on her lips.
Another of my favorite moments was playing as Gloria Goldberg, a fiction writer turned detective after having a vision of terrible things to come. An event card was in play that required the sacrificing of an ally in the city streets or the awakening of the ancient one. She led her friend Eric Colt down a dark alley and shot him down with an .18 derringer. Gloria didn't like having to kill her only ally in this horrible mess, but she did what had to be done for the survival of the human race.
Instead of rigid archetypes and pre-determined roles, these characters are allowed room for a variety of spontaneous storylines where they are chosen for the unique assets they bring to the game's mechanics.
Within the pulpy world of Arkham Horror, men are not always meant to be viewed as the coolly logical protagonists that fill up the pages of Lovecraft's fiction. Lovecraft had a certain hatred of particular kinds of men, mostly the non-white and non-American, but also men who failed to fill his ideal of what he thought was the ultimate gentleman.
Anyone poor or of lower-education present in his fiction is filtered through his all pervasive xenophobia; Lovecraft existed in a binary of invaders and the master race beset on all sides by the tyranny of not being praised and told they're good boys all the time.
Arkham veers away from this through the inclusion of a homeless drifter as one of its heroes. "Ashcan" Pete is illustrated casually with a guitar slung over one shoulder and a nap-sack tucked beneath one arm. He comes into play with his ally, an affectionate dog named Duke. In a typical Lovecraft story, Pete would be a drunken fiend, depicted as a parasite on society. Instead he is instantly relatable as the marginalized outcast, acutely aware of issues to which society has pushed to the margins.
Despite these steps forwards in gender-inclusion and breaking away from Lovecraft's troubled politics, Arkham Horror is far from perfect. The base game is utterly devoid of any people of color within its cast of investigators, requiring players to purchase some of the expansions if they'd like any options of playing a non-white character.
It's white feminism in a nutshell, placing women at the forefront at the expense of people of color.
Later expansions have introduced a few non-white characters, though some depictions introduce a slew of problematic issues. Lily Chen is a Chinese martial artist with a backstory straight out of any Hong Kong action movie. She feels less developed than the other characters and more of a stereotype (despite the cool-factor of getting to punch Cthulhu in the face).
Out of the 60+ investigators currently available, only five are people of color, and only one is a man.
Equally questionable is Arkham Horror's sanity mechanic, a common trope in horror fiction, popularized within Lovecraft-themed video games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and the Call of Cthulhu. Lovecraft had a deep fear of mental illness after both of his parents were institutionalized. The majority of his monstrous abominations are said to be insanity-inducing, and his protagonists feeling minds gradually slipping away is a recurring source of friction within his work. Representative of this in Arkham is a pool of sanity tokens each investigator starts with at the beginning of the game. Losing all of them means you get temporarily committed to Arkham Asylum; you lose all your clues and half the items in your possession. This mechanic is used to lend a level of anxiety over the game and mimics actual fears of being hospitalized and losing everything that you own.
The game's troubled relationship with mental illness continues with the inclusion of mentally-deranged "Maniacs" present within the game's randomly drawn pool of monster tokens. The mentally ill are turned into literal monsters, obstacles for players to gun down and slaughter. They also serve as a potential reminder of what these characters could become if they fail.
This all plays into boring long-running horror tropes that betray a profound ignorance of mental illness and disability, by depicting these illnesses and disabilities not only as monstrous, but something you can catch. For all its inclusion, Arkharm Horror retains the undercurrent of irrational fear of being infected by the presence of undesirables that is so typical of Lovecraft's work.
Despite the game's problematic qualities, there is an enjoyment that can be found in its active subversion of Lovecraft's works. I like to think of Lovecraft clutching at his temples and screaming in terror from beyond when he sees his works have inspired a game that asks players and characters across multiple races and genders to cooperate in the destruction of evil.
There is a level of wonder and imagination that marks the positive in Lovecraft's body of work, but if we're going to continue to adapt this mythos for future use, we must continue to remain critical of how the regressive politics of its author informed that mythos and the horrors within.
Fighting against bigotry and systemic inequality can often times feels as maddening and daunting as challenging Cthulhu, but we have to keep trying.