Over the last few weeks I have been thinking a lot about inclusivity, diversity and microaggression in boardgames and the boardgaming world – in terms of design, playing, advertising and assumptions that are made by those commissioning, publishing and promoting board games.
According to the YouGov Profiling tool, I am very much THE average UK boardgame player – female, 25-39, middle class, works in education / research / entertainment, lives on the south coast and has less than £125 per month spare. The only place we differ is in the average UK boardgame player’s tendency to be slightly right wing (which, thankfully, I really am not!!).
I don’t, however, look that much like the illustration used (she looks like a kind of slimmed down Nigella Lawson)… although, much more like that than the average BoardGameGeek reader/user from the same poll (although this is based on a tiny sample size of 6, so not statistically very useful – used here more as a provocation).
I’m not surprised by this at all – I personally FEEL very much like the average boardgame player in this country. However, this may come as quite a surprise for many of those in the groups that hold dominant positions in the boardgame industry and discourse around boardgames more widely – I really don’t LOOK like them at all. I don’t have a particular axe to grind here – I love and respect people of all genders and identities, men, women, cis, trans, non-binary, and of all manner of persuasions, races, creeds and cultural background equally. What I’m interested in is the true diversity of humans and human experience being better represented in this community that I am part of.
I’m consistently heartened by the outright feminist stance of the (predominantly white, middle class and male) team behind Shut Up and Sit Down – you can read their excellent review of Cards Against Humanity here. It’s refreshing to see and hear commentary by those who are actively re-examining their positions in relation to dominant discourses, who are approaching the hobby they love with an increased sense of responsibility to ensure a greater inclusivity and an awareness of the politics that surrounds making and playing games.
In response to last summer’s GamerGate controversy, Matt Lees (SU&SD contributor and video / board game journalist) made this video to help address issues around a reluctance to talk about the implicit politics involved in games and gaming. He’s talking more directly about the video games industry but I think there are clear relationships to the boardgame and ‘hobby’ game discourse here too.
Luckily, the level of overt aggression and the excessive trolling experienced by those involved in GamerGate doesn’t translate so much into the world of boardgaming – it is far harder to be overtly abusive to those who sit across the table from you within what was charmingly termed as ‘slapping distance’ in this Unplugged Games interview with Esther MacCallum-Stewart.
This does still leave us with those covertly aggressive or hostile actions, and the actions taken that may not even be seen or deemed as in any way aggressive by those making them. Gil Hova (boardgame designer and player) writes about this eloquently in his post on the idea of Invisible Ropes.
“An invisible rope is something that most people in gaming don’t notice, but that can turn off someone just entering the hobby. They start walking to us, but then they get stopped by one of these invisible ropes. They turn away, and try to approach from another direction, and hit another invisible rope. Then they try another approach, and hit another invisible rope. And that’s it; they turn away. All these ropes add together to tell them: Gaming is not for them. They can’t tell us why, because they can’t easily see the ropes that kept them away. Again, this isn’t about one huge wall keeping people away from gaming. This is death by a thousand tiny cuts. It’s a bunch of tiny actions we perform.” (Hova, 2014)
Hova goes on to list and expand on many of the factors (repeated “microaggressions”) that might dissuade anyone outside of the dominant white cis male group from joining the community (as players, and by default as designers or working within the industry):
- lack of representation of women as equal female characters on the covers & within boardgames and gameplay
- inadvertently condescending strategy help
- the language used in rulebooks, to communicate & discuss games
- reinforcing societal expectations of gender roles
He also reinforces, in the post, that these are on the whole unintentional actions, and in my experience I would tend to agree – when I find myself in different situations within the boardgames industry, hobby and community, my being a woman is not usually an overt problem. People I meet on the whole are welcoming, friendly and simply love to play and talk about games – they are excited and passionate, sometimes even evangelistic about this community they are part of. There are, however, regularly times when my experiences, abilities, perspective, ways of thinking, tastes, likes and dislikes are belittled, ignored, ‘mansplained’, assumed or excluded. And this is coming from me, THE average UK boardgame player and someone who is pretty embedded in the hobby, community and industry – I have already passed the ‘invisible ropes’ Hova describes, I am ‘in’. Imagine what it is like for anyone ‘outside’ of this…
At last weekend’s UK Games Expo, I was excited to see Cat Tobin (chair) (MD at RPG publishers Pelgrane Press), and speakers Esther MacCallum-Stewart (research fellow and author) & Monica Valentinelli (author and game designer) talk on inclusivity and diversity in games. I had intended to live tweet the event, but was scuppered slightly by my patchy internet connection. What follows are snatches of the conversation (composed originally as tweets), so apologies for any slight mis-quoting or paraphrasing. The panel were coming from highly-qualified positions in the world of RPGs, rather than strictly boardgames, but again (as with the crossovers into the video game discourse) much of what was said relates.
“Addressing under representation, why bother? People don’t notice the absences or lack of diversity.” Esther MacCallum-Stewart
Much like the ideas expressed in Gil Hova’s ‘invisible ropes’, Esther MacCallum-Stewart raised the point that many people involved in gaming (design, publishing and playing) don’t actually notice the under-representation of diversity throughout the hobby. It’s worth taking a look now at the boardgames on your shelf now as a quick test – how many of them explicitly feature female, non-binary, non-white or disabled characters on the box and in the gameplay? How representative / diverse is your gaming group? Are there any potential barriers or ‘invisible ropes’ stopping that from being wider?
“People want to see themselves represented. There’s a business case for this too…” Monica Valentinelli
These aren’t simply questions about tokenism or political correctness. The case was made repeatedly during the panel discussion that games publishers are missing out on large potential markets by unintentionally excluding people through under-representation. Monica Valentinelli also raised an important point of difference between the positions of ‘essentialism‘ (only writing from your own background and experiences) and ‘mutual respect’ (writing from careful research, not making assumptions about a person’s experience our background and not reinforcing stereotypes). There was also a strong recognition across the panel that writers and designers are working harder in the background to widen representation, and that things are starting to improve slowly.
“Creating characters that are three dimensional is important, really human rather than with bolt on ‘female’ attributes” Esther MacCallum-Stewart & Monica Valentinelli
“On making interesting characters: The recently rebooted Lara Croft is a real person doing real things, and struggling with them” Esther MacCallum-Stewart
MacCallum-Stewart and Valentinelli both called for more application of the ideas of mutual respect in design – rather than characters depicted and played in games (and I would say by extension modes of gameplay and game mechanics) being included simply to satisfy a quota or a set of out-dated assumptions about what would attract players (through imagery, marketing, art direction and visual styles), that publishers should be rethinking the ‘human’ qualities being addressed and represented. This sense of beginning with human experiences, and a wider and more thoughtful consideration of experiences outside of your own, should lead designers to a wider diversity of styles or play, types of representation and more diversity in the industry as a whole.
“Gamers are coming into the hobby from lots of different directions. We need to consider this when designing for new players.” Esther MacCallum-Stewart
This represents a potentially uncomfortable shift for those in dominant positions, as Matt Lees alludes to (above) in his tongue-in-cheek comments about the ‘fearful, pitchfork chat about how ladies might get into game and make all the games about lady things’, but if the industry is going to catch up with the demographics they actually serve, this needs to continue to build quite rapidly.
“Including more people and more perspectives doesn’t mean that your game will be bad…” Esther MacCallum-Stewart
“Multiple perspectives means more challenges, but this is really productive for design […] There’s some outreach that can be done to encourage fans to become makers and producers. This would encourage a larger variety of voices in the industry.” Monica Valentinelli
Again, these statements speak to the need for a shift in the culture and mindset of the industry as a whole. The panel offered some useful examples and strategies for starting to think about how to achieve this through writing and design – eg in RPGs, using archetypes to allow for wider representation and developing of richer characters, or the use of the gender neutral pronoun ‘zhe’ in Mortal Remains RPG. They also addressed the complex problems that arise when designers and players encounter or meet head-on challenges to a desire to create safe spaces within gameplay.
“How to deal with historical detail that might be sexist, racist or exclusionary? Important to put this in context for readers/players in bite sized bits rather than replay existing dominant narratives” Monica Valentinelli
“Having people roleplay to treat genders equally is difficult because of ingrained and learned behaviours, phrases and challenges.” Esther MacCallum-Stewart
The suggestion is that these could become points full of creative potential, and that the space of play (and design) allows those involved to confront and question dominant narratives rather than simply conform, reiterate, repeat and reinforce them (knowingly or unknowingly). Pretty amazing stuff, right?
My hope is that, in future, when I use the word feminism in conversations to do with boardgames, it won’t be misunderstood, disregarded or thrown out. In this case, it really refers to the process of working to identify and slowly change things. It about challenging assumptions, HAVING MORE FUN & MAKING EVEN BETTER GAMES!!! And don’t worry, we can still swear, drink booze, have a laugh and get on with enjoying ourselves around the table…
Here’s a little pep talk from Anita Sarkeesian if you’re still a little nervous about using the word feminism yourself…
“So when we talk about how to be a feminist, for me that means being committed to something much larger than ourselves. It’s understanding what role you play in our collective movements for liberation. It’s reexamining our desires and interests and understanding how those are often shaped by capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy. It’s understanding our own intersections of privilege and oppression and how that will fundamentally change our behaviours and attitudes and values. It’s realizing that being a feminist is a life long learning endeavour and that we will make some mistakes on the way and we should be compassionate to ourselves when that happens. It’s realizing that others will make mistakes and we should extend that compassion to them as well. Feminism is not about striving for perfection, its about striving for justice.” (Sarkeesian, 2015)
Rachel Dobbs is the founding organiser of the Plymouth Board Games Meetup, a regular open games night held in Plymouth, UK. She also works as a freelance art director for Grublin Games (an indie boardgame publisher based in Cornwall, UK) who have just won the UK Games Expo Best Family Game for Waggle Dance. You can check out Rachel’s recent tweet from the UK Games Expo on @