Spirit Island question: Dahan proactiveness, or lack thereof

Recently, a fan of Spirit Island who studies anticolonialism asked me a really good question, and I thought others might be interested both in the query and in my answer. The questioner was kind enough to give me permission to quote them if I anonymized it, so here’s their query and the (lightly edited) core of my reply.
In one of your design-diary-entries you wrote the following:
“I realized that the Invaders felt not merely implacable (good) but inhuman (bad) – here they are facing down all these inexplicable disasters, and it doesn’t affect what they do? At all?”
Fear as a mechanic now creates some sort of “collective memory” among the invaders, which I really appreciate!
Now I am looking at the Dahan who are witnessing ravaging and the killing of their own people for the 10th time and still only strike BACK? And only after being attacked? I know this has to do with balancing but thematically I think at some point they should be clever enough to see that these invaders from across the seas do not come in friendly manners and the ravaging and killing is no single case. At the moment the Dahan feel helpless and in a way also stupid not taking any form of precautions against the colonial menace. The invaders are getting scared from round to round but the Dahan carry on with their business as usual from the beginning to the end all the same way. What do they think of all the ravaging and killing happening around them? Can you see my point?
I know, this is addressing a core mechanic and balancing of the game but for the feeling of the gameplay this could enable an understanding of anticolonial resistance as human-work and not some supernatural spirit-work only (except for some random events). Maybe you can consider this for future developments on Spirit Island.

Indeed – what’s up with that? There’s several things going on.
  • Partly: the question is entirely correct, it’s a deficiency in the game. The base game in particular doesn’t do nearly as much to represent Dahan activity, attitudes, and agency as I’d like. The expansions which add Events improve the situation a bit, but I’d like to do more – I’m currently working on another expansion for which the core intent is creating more detail for the Dahan, and hopefully some agency as well.
    • It ended up this way because at the time I was designing Spirit Island, it was much more complex than most published co-ops, and I was trying hard to keep that under control. I did experiment with changing Dahan attitudes towards the conflict, but those efforts didn’t seem (to the me of 2013-2014) to pan out well enough to justify the additional complexity / barrier-to-entry. Mea culpa.
  • Partly: Dahan communities are caught on the horns of a dilemma similar to one faced by many real-world Indigenous peoples: if they take pre-emptive action, the colonists brand them as “aggressors” and “savage” and enact immediate large-scale reprisal. Historic Indigenous communities often had internal disagreement over the best way to handle the incoming tide of colonists, because “keeping the peace” and “starting a fight” could both prove disastrous, in different ways.
    • This is why some Fear cards involve Dahan attacking: when the Invaders are daunted, it allows those Dahan who favor direct action to persuade their communities that now is the time to strike.
  • Partly: because Spirit Island is a board game (requiring a very high level of abstraction), and because the players directly enact the game mechanisms, and because we perhaps have some awareness of how history went and what colonialism was like, it is tremendously easy for us as players to perceive the structural inevitability of the Invaders’ aggression. But in the “inside” view – i.e., considering the fictional world the game represents, which contains vastly more detail and nuance and exception than the abstractions of the game system permit, and has no 3rd-person-omniscient viewpoint – a particular Dahan community is not going to have perfect information about exactly what the Invaders have done, why they have acted as they did, or what they will do several years hence. Larger patterns will take longer to become clear, and matters of the future will seem much less inevitable than they seem to us as players. A given community might see striking first as closing off all hope of peace / making dangerous conflict inevitable.
    • Another factor here is that Dahan and European cultures have different conceptions of “warfare” – what it means, what types of it there are, what the normal progression of escalation is, how it’s used, etc – so there’s also a certain amount of confusion caused by each side not understanding why the other is acting as they do, and having trouble predicting the other’s likely actions.
  • Partly: when a Dahan piece is Destroyed in the game, while that can (and often does) represent literal physical harm – bloody fights, massacres, etc. – it can also represent cultural damage and/or assimilation (on a smaller scale than something like the Sweden escalation effect). So a Dahan piece removed from the board might represent a huge number of deaths, or it might represent few to no deaths. All it signifies for certain is “this group of Dahan no longer plays a significant role in the unfolding conflict”.
    • To put it another way: some percentage of the people represented by a Dahan piece destroyed in a Ravage are still alive – perhaps living in another Dahan community, or perhaps in an Invader settlement somewhere. In one game that % might be near or at 0, in another it might be very high indeed; it all depends on the story being told by that specific play session, as suggested by things like Events, Fear Cards, player imagination, etc. It’s entirely plausible that some Dahan might decide that, should living peacefully near the Invaders prove impossible, they would rather adapt and persist (even if that means assimilating) than start a violent conflict which could risk annihilation. Survival is a form of resistance, even if that particular means of survival does not suit the Spirits’ desires.
…and a pair of asides that are a bit relevant, but much less determinative than the above (for reasons in parentheses):
  • The colonial situation is far from the only thing occupying the day-to-day thoughts and activities of any given person among Dahan communities – they are living their own lives! (However, they are not generally oblivious, and will notice the danger, particularly as it unfolds in their local area.)
  • Each Dahan community (as a whole) works largely via consensus and persuasion. This handles some sorts of problems much better than a hierarchical society is likely to, but consensus takes time and effort, and in uncertain situations it can be tricky to reach consensus that action is needed, let alone what action to take. (However, Dahan society has social structures specifically to deal with this, both through traditional ways of dealing with uncertainty or deadlock, and by appointing individuals into temporary leadership roles when the need for decisiveness / quick reaction / having a single coherent plan is high.)