How Residential Schools Changed Pandora

Note: This post contains references to the genocide and trauma caused by the systemic institutionalization and abuse of Indigenous people in Canada through the residential school system. Reader discretion is advised. To learn more about the trauma caused by Canadian residential schools, visit https://nctr.ca/

Hi, everyone. Todd here. I know, I know, it’s been a long time since you’ve heard from me on here. Not because I haven’t been doing anything. Quite the opposite, actually. As you’re going to see over the coming weeks, things have been quite busy with Broken Ruler and we’re about to show the fruits of our labour very soon. In fact, I’m actually here to write about one of them now.

Before we go any further, I want to let you know this post is in the odd position of trying not to be a marketing post announcing a new product launch on a website that sells it. That is not my intention. For that reason, there will be no links to any products on this website provided in this post. There are other places around here where you can click and access them. But I’m not doing it here.

Some of you may remember a crowdfunding campaign back in 2021 for a game called Pandora: Total Destruction. While it’s very typical to make a short post announcing its release, where you can buy it, and what people are saying about it… I want to discuss something else about this game before that happens. About how a personal discovery of some family history and a national tragedy helped to re-shape this game and make it better. I do this for two reasons.

  1. Full transparency. I’m a white man who has not been directly affected by the systemic institutionalization and generational trauma of Indigenous people in Canada. This isn’t about me. But it is about my family’s connection to it and how that became the catalyst for what you see in Pandora.
  2. It’s how I’m processing these events. I’m a tabletop game designer. This is my art form and how I express myself. To help me reflect and understand what happened, I needed to express it in the form of a game. I didn’t realize that at the time, but I completely believe it now.

So let’s begin. First, we need to ensure everyone reading this understands what Pandora is about. In this game, players take on the role of supers with incredibly destructive superpowers capable of harming innocent civilians, knocking down buildings, and causing total havoc with just a single roll of the dice. Considered to be a danger to all civilization, these empowered people are forced to attend institutions known as Pandora Academies in order to learn how to control their powers and be permitted back home. Until they display complete control, they must remain at the Academy forever.

Back in June 2021, things were moving forward on the production of Pandora‘s core rulebook. It was only a couple months after the Kickstarter funded and money was in the bank. It was at this time I discovered my great uncle’s name was listed in a commissioned report detailing the attempted genocide and generational trauma inflicted on Indigenous people in Canada. He had worked at what was called The Ministry of Indian Affairs during the late 1960s and well into the 1980s (as I recall), reaching levels of importance that he was the writer or recipient of various letters pertaining to residential schools.

Below are a series of screen shots from just one volume of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s extensive report on the history and impact of residential schools. At the time of this writing, I have honestly only begun to scratch the surface. The particulars of these specific letters and examples noted throughout remain within the vaults of Archives Canada and I do intend to request copies of them (or as many as I can get) in order to learn more.

A Timeline of Discovery

Prior to this discovery, it was only weeks after the announcement of hundreds of unmarked graves at two former residential school sites when I started working with my team on developing and completing Pandora. Sometime around the end of May 2021. This was news that shocked my country. Not only because it came out of nowhere, but because it was the hard slap to face people like me needed to realize the severity of what had happened. It was also the time when I was beginning to discuss the safety protocols with my developmental and safety editor on Pandora, who quickly brought up the fact that this game was leaning heavily into that direction. If I was going to do so, I needed to make sure that’s what I wanted or else I needed to start cutting things out.

For example, the text in Pandora was strewn with explanations as to why these Academies needed to exist. Rationalizations and explanations approving the practise of taking people away from their homes in order to “keep everyone safe” and protect the modern way of life. Of course the government has to do this, the previous draft would state. What other choice do they have? And there were others, but this was the one that really stood out at the time.

I thought about it. Initially, that was all. I took some time to reflect on whether or not I wanted to lean harder into this topic (which I honestly didn’t in those initial days). I wasn’t into doing a lot of research. Not even a Google search. I was simply asking myself if it was going to be a good idea to lean into something so dark and hurtful for so many people. I wasn’t qualified as an expert on the subject matter, I’m not a good researcher, and I was sure there was more risk of this looking more like poor taste than a way to make an insightful and mature game about systemic institutionalization.

Then it dawned on me. Didn’t I have a great uncle who worked in Indian Affairs? Yes, I did. Was he working there during the operation of residential schools in Canada? After a little digging, I found out he was. Then came the third question, the one I was dreading. Was he in a position to know about what was happening at these schools?

That’s when I found out my great uncle’s name, C.J. Crapper, was referenced three times in the Truth and Reconciliation Reports, a massively detailed summary of this tragedy as commissioned by a Canadian court many years ago. Multiple times across several volumes of this highly detailed report. All of them referring to letters written by or to my great uncle. Nothing damning on the surface and, to be truthful, I have yet to read the letters. But that discovery shook me. There was an unmistakable fact that my family played a part in this matter. Over the weeks and months that followed, it changed how I felt about these unmarked graves.

At first, it felt like finding out my ancestors owned slaves or were Nazis. But even then it’s not as simple as that. He was a stamp in the layers and layers of bureaucracy that made these crimes against humanity happen. He believed in the system and what he was doing was helping people. Or maybe not. My research hasn’t gone that far yet, but I have no reason to think otherwise at this time. I don’t think my great uncle was a monster. But he was a cog in the wheel that ran over these people’s lives. I can remember how some of my family spoke about Indigenous people when I was a kid and it was not kind. It was racist, I see that now. So the possibility is there. Regardless, the fact was that my great uncle had played a part in this disaster. There was a connection. And it gave me something new to reflect on.

If you type “crapper residential schools” into your brower, the first link refers to the Missing Children and Unmarked Burials volume of the Truth and Reconciliation Report.

If I screw this up, it will not take long for someone to find the same references I did and it won’t look good. (After all, we share the same last name and it’s rather distinct. It won’t take long for someone to make it known. See the screen shot, above, featuring just one possible discovery anyone can make with a simple Google search.) The Kickstarter money was still in my account, none of it had been spent. Refunds were possible and I could move onto something “safer.” Trying to whitewash and sweep it under the rug will only lead to more trouble. Maybe it was better to call the whole thing off. But I also couldn’t do nothing.

I couldn’t. I couldn’t walk away from it. I needed to process this information and I knew this game was my way of doing it. Making this game was going to help me understand and reflect on something that was beyond me because I did not grow up with that trauma in my life. But I could use this as an opportunity to learn about what these institutions did to people – so many people around the world! – and frame it in a way that could help others like me understand these events. By placing characters we revere in our modern society – superheroes – in a situation that would force us to confront this issue.

It made the decision whether to push forward and lean into the systemic institutionalization aspects of the game more important than ever. Not to make a game about Indigenous people per se because it’s not just this one time, let alone in this one country, but to use the information provided in these Reports as a guide for creating a game about super-powered characters facing those same issues. Give other people like me an opportunity to reflect on it.

Leaning Into Tragedy

For me, that’s what Pandora is about and what it’s for. It doesn’t have to be, I’ll admit. Part of the strong emphasis on player agency in the game means allowing everyone to the opportunity to say no and that means players have to be able to say no to everything. You do not have to play it as a dark game and can skim over the heavier aspects of the game to play something closer to the X-Men. For me, however, this game is about this issue. From top to bottom. It’s all over this game. And if that means it cuts down on potential sales, I’m good with that. Because this game does exactly what it was meant to do. I truly believe that. Time will tell, but this is what my heart tells me today as I write this.

It also just so happened to explain some of the more questionable issues brought up in early playtesting. One of the most concerning bits of feedback I received was a perception these Academies were doing a bad job. Students were getting injured, equipment didn’t work, all of this felt like the details weren’t very well thought out. Who would set up a program like this? Now I had an explanation and it fit. Instantly. Suddenly, I didn’t have to find a reason for Academies to continue receiving funding after one of their students went missing or was vaporized to dust. Because the faculty covered it up and no one cares enough to send an investigator. And we know it’s plausible because it’s happened in real life before. This acceptance of systemic institutionalization as a way to explain these previous gaps in believability was because we all knew this was going on, but found a way to look past and ignore it. It was too much for us. But we can accept this premise in the game because deep down we know it to be possible and plausible.

For me, Pandora has been a way to begin understanding my particular angle in this complex and horrible moment in history. In doing so, I truly hope and believe Pandora is a way for others to explore their own angle, even if they were directly in the path of this tragedy. It won’t be for everyone and I accept that. In fact, I prefer it. I know this game will not be for everyone. But it will be for someone who needs it. Even if they don’t know it right away. I didn’t. Not at first. Now, I know in my heart I’ve made something that is better because I began to confront the truth. It’s only just begun, but working on Pandora has given me the ability to keep reading through the Truth and Reconciliation Reports. To take a break when I start to cry rather than stop entirely because I feel a sense of purpose reading these horrible things now.

I hope this informs you before you make the choice to play Pandora. That you know exactly what I intended with this game when the files were sent off to the printer and why I did it. More importantly, I hope it helps in even a small way and that you finish your story with a better understanding of what this practice does to people. Thank you for reading. And now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Todd Crapper
Owner/Publisher, Broken Ruler Games

If you have been impacted by residential schools and the generational trauma caused by them, please call the National Indian Residential School Crisis line at 1-800-588-8717. The National Indian Residential School Crisis line has been set up to provide support for former residential school students. You can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling 24-hour National Crisis line.

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