Board and other hobby games are a form of entertainment for the people who play them. It doesn’t matter whether these are solo games, family games, heavy games or party games for larger groups of people. There should be a game for anyone and everyone. However, as we know, our large hobby still struggles with who is represented in the games themselves, let alone with what groups of people our community make feel truly comfortable and welcome. In this article, I want to explore why representation and diversity in our hobby matter and what we all can do to promote greater inclusivity in the board game community.
Theory vs Reality
I think we can all agree that board games, in general, offer such a large variety of themes, settings, mechanisms, game length, player counts and other properties these days that there should be games that can be enjoyed by people of all ages, backgrounds and skill levels. I’m not a board game designer myself, but I don’t see any reason why someone couldn’t make a game that features characters who are non-binary, women or people of colour, that focuses on lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or two-spirit themes, that allows players to experience what it is like to be transgender or that is playable by blind or visually impaired people without the need for vision tools or the help from a sighted person.
The thing is, these games already exist. The problem is, they don’t get the attention they deserve. Elizabeth Hargrave is very vocal about promoting black, non-binary and women board game designers. Her website features lists with names of people many of us have probably never heard of. While designers often are less well-known in our hobby than publishers, it’s still evident that we can probably name a good dozen or more white, male designers, but maybe only half a dozen or fewer black or women designers and even fewer non-binary ones.
In fact, even Elizabeth‘s lists show a huge imbalance. There are many fewer black designers on her site than women and non-binary designers. I appreciate these lists are probably not complete, but they do offer an indication of what types of designers our hobby currently attracts. If Elizabeth‘s website had a list of male designers, it would show how hugely male-dominated the board game design space still is. I’m sure that trend continues into other areas of the hobby game industry. After all, the business world in general still mostly consists of white men, so it’s not a far stretch to assume the same is true for board games.
Benefits of Representation and Diversity
I don’t think I really need to spell out the benefits of representation and diversity. It should be obvious. Setting the context for my article does make sense though. So let me explain why I think it’s so important that the games in our hobby are inclusive.
In fact, let me start at the opposite end.
Games that perpetuate stereotypes or exclude certain groups of people create a sense of alienation. Not only that, stereotypes and exclusion are always harmful. Whether it’s done intentionally or not, games that typecast or ignore the existence of people at best tolerate and at worst legitimize hostility towards specific groups. We all know at least one game that depicts women as weak or helpless. We can probably also think of a game that relies on racist or homophobic humour. These games send a message that those groups are not valued or respected in the board game community. In a best-case scenario, this leads to players feeling unwelcome or excluded from the hobby. More often than not though, these games encourage people in our hobby to actively work against specific groups as they feel they have a right to do so.
On a more practical level, by representing more diverse groups of people in games, publishers can reach a wider audience and appeal to a broader range of players. It’s pretty simple economics: the more people you include, the bigger your potential market. As a result, you can sell more games and make more money.
Of course, there is also a benefit to us consumers. Representation and diversity lead to more creative and interesting game mechanisms, settings and themes. If a game draws on a wide range of cultural and historical influences, games are going to be more engaging and thought-provoking for players. I know people often shout they don’t want to have to deal with politics in their hobby. We know that’s nonsense, of course, but even those people should see how the games they love would become much more interesting if they were based on a wider range of ideas, historic events or other concepts.
Board Game Design
While the benefits of representation and diversity should be clear now, achieving these goals is not always easy. There are several challenges that designers, developers and publishers face when trying to create a more inclusive game. One of the biggest ones is overcoming unconscious biases. We are all human after all. It is easy to overlook certain groups of people or fall back on stereotypes and cliches that are so deeply ingrained in us. It takes a conscious effort to be more aware of one’s own assumptions and to actively seek out diverse perspectives and input from others.
Luckily, there are people in our industry who happily help here. Sensitivity consultants are the ideal people to advise on issues that designers, developers or publishers may not be aware of. It makes sense, because everyone has a very specific life experience that’s unique to them. It’s going to be impossible to fully understand other cultures, backgrounds or experiences, unless you are immersed in them. Consultants will be able to help and allow a game to be much more representative and inclusive by tackling biases and generally being able to direct a game’s design.
If sensitivity consultants and game designers, developers and publishers work together, they can balance inclusivity with game mechanisms and themes. After all, games are supposed to be engaging and fun for players. A creative, innovative and collaborative approach can lead to games that are both inclusive and enjoyable. Sure, you might have to think outside the box and accept that maybe certain characters aren’t historically correct, but their presence makes a game more inclusive and at the same time probably also more fun.
Let’s Promote Inclusivity
Tackling the issue of representation and diversity in our hobby is something we all have to do. We can’t leave it up to publishers, event organisers or big names in our industry to sort it all out for us. Making our community more welcoming and inclusive starts at the roots. If you love playing games, then seek out diverse perspectives and input and maybe petition your favourite publisher to make a game about them. Try and overcome biases and actively work to challenge them. Actively look for games designed by people from different cultural backgrounds, different sexual orientations or genders or with different abilities and then buy and play them to expose yourself to new ideas. As you do so, you support game designers who are working to create more diverse games. Talk about your experience with these games with your friends and maybe on social media.
Lastly, but probably most importantly, speak out against games that perpetuate harmful stereotypes or exclude certain groups. Call out harmful behaviour when you see it. If you’re at a convention, report it to the relevant people. It’s time that we no longer accept the status quo. It’s time to move forward and actively make our hobby an inclusive space where everyone is welcome and can feel safe.
What About You?
I know this has been a long article. So thank you for making it this far. Now I want to know what you think about representation and diversity, as well as inclusivity. Have you come across bad behaviour before? How did you deal with it? What games can you name that promote diversity? What designers can you name who are not white men? Is there anything you suggest we should do to make our hobby a better place for everyone? Please share your thoughts in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you.
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