On Playing Risk and Studying the Maps of Colonialism
Soon after I bought the game, I began to obsess over another map, one that also didn’t fully exist.
Star Wars: Clone WarsMayflower
For our opening match, my partner and I sipped tumblers of whisky while reclining on velvet cushions. The game could hide me, for an hour, from my fears. Outside, doctors pleaded for ventilators, politicians peddled tales about pangolins, and fellow Asian Americans waited for trains with their backs to the subway walls, fearing a stranger might push them onto the rails.
Since its birth in the 1950s, Risk has provided an escape from unpleasant realities. Its French progenitor, the 1957 La Conquête du Monde (“Global Conquest”), is decorated with golden laurels—chaste covers for a game asking players to annihilate each other. The French version was nearly identical to the American one released by Parker Brothers. Among board game aficionados, Risk occupies a space similar to that of the Ford Model T: a technological accomplishment so successful in advancing its field that it seeded its own obsolescence. Before Risk, games were linear Monopoly-scapes dictated by the laws of probability; neither personal skill nor character was at stake. But Risk gave players agency, and in so doing required them to reveal themselves. Would someone invade Egypt or Brazil, or would they quietly amass armies in North Africa? Would they broker a truce with another player so they could each claim a continent, and how soon would they break that trust? For players of the French prototype, this illusion of control fed the fantasy that the metropole still controlled an empire covering 4.4 million square miles, rather than the reality that it was a nation recently humiliated in losing its colonies, first with Vietnam and soon with Algeria. For Americans, the board offered its own pleasures. The red hulk of the Soviet Union was reduced to cartoon shapes in nursery colors. Korea and its reminders of the limits of American power were melted into a singular imaginary country called Kamchatka. The United States was chunked into territories, as in settler days. While maps have served for centuries as instruments of human colonization and environmental exploitation, Risk was a safe place to act out aggressive impulses in the privacy of one’s living room.
Soon after I bought the game, I began to obsess over another map, one that also didn’t fully exist. Alongside two collaborators, I was looking at the policing of sex workers in European colonies between the First and Second World Wars. Wherever there were occupying troops, brothels were built to serve them, and colonial administrators were determined to keep their militaries healthy by making sure sex workers were free of disease—no matter the cost. The more we learned, the angrier we grew for these women, separated from us by a century.
Regardless of the location or the occupying power, methods were remarkably similar. Women in today’s Morocco, Myanmar, and elsewhere were forced to undergo invasive weekly pelvic exams to determine if they would be locked in clinics with barred windows and acid baths; even if they were deemed healthy, they remained subject to rules about where they could go, whom they could speak to, and how many days remained until their next meeting with a speculum. Although academics had penned papers on this type of policing within particular colonies, no one had mapped its global reach and the commonalities among French, British, and (later) American efforts to maintain military and economic control in their colonies by constraining women’s bodies.
Worse, the women in the historical record were just that—voiceless bodies. My historian collaborator, Elise Hanrahan, trawled more than a thousand archival documents for sex workers’ testimonies, finding only snippets often already filtered by colonial administrators. Our initial aim had been to work with the womens’ words, but it turned out there were no words to work with. None of the records—a Rangoon police superintendent’s report, a British parliamentary debate on Shanghai brothels, a proposal for a sexual-services district in Marrakesh—gave us direct access to women’s voices. What the documents did attest to were the risks native women were believed to pose to colonial power. This fear, obsession, and sexualization would continue long after the interwar period. In South Korea, as US forces lingered, sex workers were consigned to camptowns outside military bases and forced to take potentially deadly doses of penicillin. On American shores, spa workers—often assumed to be sex workers—were subject to police surveillance and immigration raids. The bodies of women of color were both desired and dangerous.
The bodies of women of color were both desired and dangerous.
The result of Elise’s research on the colonial period was a map of absence: Missing the words of sex workers, the archives further erased women already pushed into invisibility by medical exams and police mandates. About another historical gap, Saidiya Hartman writes, “The archive is, in this case, a death sentence, a tomb, a display of the violated body, an inventory of property, a medical treatise on gonorrhea, a few lines about a whore’s life, an asterisk in the grand narrative of history.” My collaborators and I tried to imagine a different map, one where a trace of these women might be glimpsed through poetry or performance. Informed by Hartman’s critical fabulation and docupoetic methods practiced by writers like M. NourbeSe Philip, I wrote the former out of Elise’s findings; artist and sex worker Lena Chen created the latter out of the poems. Lena’s output was an eerie video of dug earth, scooped melons, trailing cloths. When I watched it, sound enveloped my ears, and I could taste the fruits strewn on her body. Maybe the map we needed was never 2D.
When I revisited Risk the same year as this research, the board seemed even more unbearably flat. At home, without a hotel’s charms, my partner and I grew frustrated with the rules we never bothered to read, abandoning games until the next day. To speed things along, I would take turns for my partner, pushing the process to its preordained end. But the problem was I could no longer immerse myself in the game’s fantasy. Conquering the world was not a casual pastime with pastel soldiers but a complex choreography between troops, administrators, and doctors to control women. And just as Risk’s map had been revised for modern times, so too had the real-world choreography. In Arizona, ICE agents assigned to “Operation Asian Touch” paid for sexual services in massage parlors. In New York, police raided spas staffed by immigrant women, and one fleeing worker fell to her death.
Then, in March 2021, a man shot to death six Asian spa workers in Atlanta. His reason—a “sex addiction”—underlined the way such women were the targets of a devaluing and dangerous fetishization. Asian and migrant sex worker advocacy groups, such as Butterfly in Canada and Red Canary Song in the US, called for stronger support and looser controls, such as the decriminalization of sex work. In the wider Asian diaspora, more women spoke about their own experiences of harassment, which has disproportionately affected women during the pandemic.
I had no time for pretend maps. I collected Risk’s pieces and folded the board. But the box, bloated to accommodate its optimistic illustrations, fit in none of the cupboards. Finally, I squeezed it on top of an oversized wedding album, another collection of cardboard and shiny paper intended to ignite a nostalgic rush. Like the album, the game stayed there, stuck in time.
April Yee is a writer, translator, and National Book Critics Circle Emerging Critics Fellow. A Harvard and Tin House alumna, she reported in more than a dozen countries before moving to the UK, where she serves on University of the Arts London’s Refugee Journalism Project. Find her on Twitter: @aprilyee