Representation matters for all marginalized groups, but today I’m going to talk about something that creates little challenges that I have to face every day: I am a woman. It’s 2020; this shouldn’t matter. But somehow it still does.
Before we get into that, I’d like to acknowledge my many privileges: I am a white, upper middle class, heterosexual, cisgender, educated, Canadian. That’s a lot of privilege and something I’m thankful for. And even with all of this privilege, I’m still not on equal footing.
I’m a woman who works in STEM and obtained a bachelor’s degree in engineering. I’m used to not being represented in my area of expertise. What I didn’t expect was for this to be an issue in my hobby. I love board games. I love them a lot. The types of games I especially seem to love are the ones that have old white men on the cover.
If you’re reading this and thinking, “it’s not that big of a deal”, you’re both right and wrong. Yes, it’s not overt sexism, but it reinforces an implicit bias that negatively impacts women. There are so many “little things”, also known as microaggressions, that women have to just accept on a daily basis, so I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a little representation in our hobby. Here are a few things that may seem small, but add up to a system that, intentionally or otherwise, excludes women.
Far more men are depicted on board game covers than women
If I look through my own collection of games and specifically count the ones depicting humanoids that clearly present as male or female on the cover, there are 51. Of those 51, only 28 show female-presenting characters, and of those games only 18 female-presenting characters are in the foreground. That’s barely more than a third.
Here are some other numbers for you. Of those 51, only 3 don’t show characters presenting as male, meaning there are 48 that depict men but only 28 that depict women. If you’re having trouble visualizing that, here’s a handy little pie chart.
Of course, that’s just my collection. Let’s take a look at the BGG Top 100. At the time of me writing this (March 2020), there are 67 games that depict humanoids presenting as either male or female. Of those, characters presenting as female are in 37. This means 29 of these 67 games don’t depict women at all. Compare this to the 3 games that don’t depict men. Here’s another pie chart. It’s even less equal than my chart above.
In the very few cases where the scenario is flipped and no men are represented in the game, there is public outcry. In 2018, Tonya Pobuda, PhD candidate, summarized some reviews of One Deck Dungeon, a game that only features female characters. And because I can’t say it better, here’s an excerpt:
A small collection of 1-star Amazon.com reviews cropped up around the game’s release. One reviewer called the game “One sex dungeon” and another called it simply, “sexist.” Reviewer Zach C on Amazon.com complained, “…only women characters. I guess they don’t want me… Misandry noted. If they make a version for me, or for both sexes, I may buy that.” (1)
I guarantee you that if it had been a game with only male characters, no one would bother to call it “One Sex Dungeon”. We are so used to men dominating board game art that we are surprised when it’s not the case.
Something that I’d like to note is that in order to write this, I did make assumptions about gender based on appearance. I tried to use inclusionary language to make this clear, but just in case: please don’t assume someone’s gender based on appearance.
Most board games are designed by men
If we look at the BGG Top 100 again, we have 94 games designed solely by men, 3 games with male and female designers, and 2 games designed by only women (1 game, Go, does not have a designer to credit). This isn’t because women don’t like board games or because we aren’t clever enough to think up intriguing games. When an industry is dominated by men, breaking into it as a woman can be nearly impossible due to discriminatory presumptions and preexisting loyalties to prominent male designers.
Since there are so few, there is a lot of pressure on female designers. They aren’t just designers; they represent women and their abilities. If a man fails at designing a game, no one will say it’s because he’s a man. Unfortunately, that’s not the case for women and we can’t all be Elizabeth Hargrave.
Most popular game reviewers are men
Dice Tower (Tom Vasel), Rahdo Runs Through (Richard Ham), Shut Up and Sit Down (Quintin “Quinns” Smith, Matt Lees, and Tom Brewster), and the now defunct but hugely popular Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop. These are the big board game names on YouTube, and they all have one thing in common… You guessed it, they’re all men.
But men aren’t the only people who review games. As you might have realized, I’m a woman and a board game reviewer, and I have a few teammates here at Meeple Mountain who identify as women as well! We mainly do written content, so if you prefer YouTube here’s a list of non-male video content creators you should check out:
- Annette Villa (Nettersplays)
- Becca Scott (Good Time Society)
- Brittanie Boe (Be Bold Games)
- Crystal Pisano & Ambie Valdés (Board Game Blitz)
- Ella Loves Board Games
- Liz Davidson (Beyond Solitaire)
- Mandi Hutchinson and Suzanne Sheldon (Salt and Sass Games)
- Paula Deming
- T. Caires
- Teri Litorco
- The Players on Girls’ Game Shelf (The Players include Christina “Kiki” Aimerito, Beneeta Kaur, Fertessa Scott, Melissa W. Bailey, AnnaMaria Jackson-Phelps, Theresa “Terry” Castillo, Savannah, Michelle Ridge, Paula, Kaitlin, Iselle, Estela Garcia, Monique, and Kailey Bray)
Exclusionary language in rulebooks
Here’s another thing that you may think is minor, but adds up and becomes exhausting. So many rulebooks give examples saying “he does this, he does that”. Sometimes rulebooks will say “she”, which is great, but I don’t see the need to gender players at all. Why use exclusionary language when there is an inclusive option. If you ask any linguist, they’ll probably tell you there’s one very easy way to do it. Hint: I just used it in the last sentence.
In a discussion on representation in board games on reddit, user plasmatorture commented on rulebooks that stray from the norm and use female pronouns in their descriptions:
It’s always amazing to me how uncomfortable reading rulebooks that do that makes me. It just don’t feel natural at all and that’s pretty sad and depressing – I wish I wasn’t culturally trained to expect my gender’s pronoun as the default.
Once upon a time male pronouns were the default. But there was also a time where women couldn’t vote. Just because something was done a certain way in the past doesn’t mean it’s right for the present.
I’ve told you the problem, so what’s the solution? Well, I’m not an expert but there are some important things you can do. Yes, you!
- Start by changing your language. If you’re teaching a game or just talking about one, don’t assign genders when you don’t need to. Why would you want to alienate a group of people just for your own ease?
- Give lesser known games by female and non-binary designers a chance. Even better: be intentional, and seek them out. When you find a game you like by one of these designers, buy it, talk about it, review it. Signal boost that women can design games too.
- Consume content made by women, whether it’s reviews, discussions, or playthroughs. Women play games too and we have a lot of insightful opinions about them.
Before we finish, I want to end similarly to where I began. This article is focusing only on the lack of representation of women in the world of board games. I haven’t even gotten into other minorities or marginalized groups; that’s far more than can fit into one article. Suffice it to say, the board game industry has a lot of work to do when it comes to representation.
1Tonya Pobuda, 2018. Assessing Gender and Racial Representation in the Board Game Industry. Analog Game Studies. http://analoggamestudies.org/2018/12/assessing-gender-and-racial-representation-in-top-rated-boardgamegeek-games/
I am a white, upper middle class, heterosexual, cisgender (male), educated, American; I couldn’t agree with you more.
I am ZiLa Games (yea, just me) and I own the rights to the 1980s era role playing game “Arcanum.” As I was putting together the 30th Anniversary Edition, I tried very hard to ensure that the artwork represented males and females in equal measure; I tried very hard to ensure that the language I used was inclusive. I will leave it to others to decide if I was successful.
I am working on other projects now: follow-up material for Arcanum, a board-game (“The Conquest of Ironseed”), and so on. In each project, I continue to work towards inclusiveness. Like you, I see this as quite important. This may be a niche market, but it is *our* niche market and it should be as inclusive and representative as it can be.
Thank you for writing this. I truly appreciate it.
Thanks for reading and for doing what you can to help the tabletop world be a more inclusive space for everyone!
Also, Tanya Pobuda did a good study along the same lines as your counting that’s worth checking out (and might have been your inspiration — things have changed since she counted!): http://analoggamestudies.org/2018/12/assessing-gender-and-racial-representation-in-top-rated-boardgamegeek-games/
Thanks for reading! Yes, Tanya’s study is excellent and was a great resource for this piece. I actually didn’t come across Tanya’s work until I had done my own counting of the Top 100, otherwise I might not have done it again. But as you said, things change so my efforts haven’t gone to waste. 🙂
An important and understated message, I myself as a white british man have gotten into board gaming only in the past few years and have been frankly appalled at what I’ve found on this front. Mean on the covers, and all over the boards and cards, 20-page rulebooks using male pronouns exclusively, and the rare occasion when a female is a playable character… well, fantasy tropes and that.
I brought it up in a facebook group one time as a quick aside wondering aloud after I saw Plaid Hat games exclusively used “she does this/that” in their rulebooks and was met with a mixture of indifference and hostility, which is sad for a hobby with such a low barrier for entry. One Deck Dungeon is a breath of fresh air in its depiction of capable and heroic women, and I for one want to see much much more of that. I’m so tired of white old men on covers!
Hi Samuel, thanks for your comment. The sexualisation of women that appear in board game art (the fantasy tropes you are referring to) is definitely another frustrating truth. Thanks for bringing that up. It wasn’t something I had the bandwidth to cover in this piece, but it is definitely something worth talking about.
Cherry picked stats. A lot of games are wargames, historically until very recently only men fought in war, that’s obviously going to skew things. Maybe stop looking for things to complain about in one of the most inclusive hobbies I’ve seen and make positive contributions instead of shaming people for who they are.
A woman who board games
Hi, Editor here. Kathleen’s only covering what she, and many other women have experienced. It sounds like either you’re not bothered by any sexism you’ve experienced, or you’re one of the fortunate women who hasn’t been directly touched by it. You’re right that board gaming, in many cases (most?), is a wonderfully inclusive hobby. In fact we’ve written extensively about community and the positive experiences that people have had with board gaming, including those of women. But that doesn’t meant we shouldn’t expect better.
You say we shouldn’t “shame people for who they are”, but if “who they are” is someone who disparages women, then they deserve to be called out.
Hi Josie, I’d like to take a quick moment to address your comment on the stats being cherry picked. You are certainly right that historical war games focus on men (even though women were historically very important in research and manufacturing for war efforts). My stats only looked at games in the BGG Top 100 that had people on the cover, and from a quick glance I don’t believe that any of those games are historical war games. I’m sorry that you had such a negative reaction to this article, but I assure you I didn’t skew the stats in my favour.
I wanted to say something about this comment. Both Mr. Matthews and Ms. Hartin expressed my thoughts in far better terms — and with more class and politeness — than I would have been able to muster.
I will add is this: It is important to always remember that you are not the mean; and you are not the outlier. You are but a single datapoint. This means that, although you may not have felt the effects that were being discussed in this article, this does not mean that anyone who does is cherry picking data or looking for things to complain about. It just means that their experiences are different from yours.
One last point: this article is the very definition of a positive contribution.
Hi, Kathleen. This was well done and it’s, unfortunately, hard to disagree with any of it. I was writing in a similar vein a couple months ago (https://therewillbe.games/87910/7721-wingspan-and-women-in-gaming) at TWBG. K. David is right, above, in that things will only change if our little corner of the world works together to make it change. Here’s hoping.
Hi Marc, thanks for your comment and for sharing your article. I particularly liked your theory about the accessibility/popularity of Wingspan:
“If you’re a new player, who perhaps identifies as a woman, and so is already looking at two barriers to your being accepted in these situations, Wingspan might be the open door with the warm, tavern light streaming forth because it helps create a scenario that makes you feel more welcome; like you already fit in (which you should.)”
What an insightful thought about the game breaking down some of the existing barriers to entry for new female players. While I’m a fairly competitive player who enjoys games about space and castles, I’d still rather play a game where the art features birds as opposed to a bunch of men and one scantily dressed woman.
I am a new gamer and your article came at a time when I was thinking a lot about this question – specifically – non-male board game reviewers. Thanks for highlighting the names of non-male board game reviewers. Given a choice, I prefer to reading than watching videos. I am wondering if you could recommend where I can find more board game content (written content) produced by non-males? In short, someone like yourself. Thanks!
So if you scroll up to the list of authors and editors on the right side, you can click on their name and it will bring up a page with all their articles and reviews they have written. So Kathleen has a page full of all her work here at Meeple Mountain. I would encourage you to check other Kathleen’s other pieces and after that you could check out other non-males written content. Hope that helps!
Hey, if you prefer written content I highly recommend two of our writers here at Meeple Mountain: Ashley Gariepy and Tiffany Leigh.
Obviously I may be a little bias, but both of these writers create excellent reviews!
Thank you, Kathleen, for the recommendations about women boardgames reviewers! I had already been following Paula Deming, whose YT channel mostly did video playthroughs (loved the series of her navigating Rise of the Tomb Raider) before focusing on boardgames. She is now part of the On the Radar team with Chaz Marler and Spencer Williams.
I fully support this article – thanks for writing it. I will try harder!
Thank you for writing this. I’m hopeful this is a period where this kind of representation can and will shift toward equity.
Thanks Kathleen, really insightful and telling article. As one of the grizzled old white dudes I think it’s incumbent on me to help change the default of ‘normal’ everywhere – make it more flexible, welcoming, unbiased and without the baggage it currently has. Though it’s a small thing, for a tiny site, we seek out female designers, flag problematic themes of colonialism and use the gender-neutral ‘they’ (or often, ‘you’) when writing our games guides. If someone says “it’s just a game” it always reminds me of the responsibility-avoidant “it’s just a joke”. Words have meaning. So do pictures. So do themes, and all a part of the paradigm we set up for the people around us.
“Give lesser known games by female and non-binary designers a chance. Even better: be intentional, and seek them out.”
No. I will choose the game by theme, mechanics or the renown of the author.
A quick note on pronouns and the English language.
While defaulting to he/him may come off as sexist there is also a typographical reason for this: male pronouns are shorter. Using female pronouns adds one letter (s)he/her and they/them adds even more!
When typesetting long rulebooks this simple change can add pages to a book and given the industry of book binding has a history of keeping to certain page counts due to the math behind printing a book (4 pages minimum per sheet but often a multiple of 16) it becomes clear that while the choosing of pronouns may appear sexist today it actually has a basis in the fundamentals of printing.
A good editor can juggle pronouns over the course of a long manuscript or resize art to make space. However, they also need to be careful to pick a pronoun and stick to it, nothing worse than having pronouns switch in the middle of a rulebook causing confusion due to the reader thinking the rule is referencing multiple people when it only references one.
On the subject of art, BGG is not necessarily the best source for data. Most of the BGG top 100 is full of small market games. As popular as Gloomhaven is there are more copies of Wingspan in print, if you look at Hasbro games, well…
Speaking of Hasbro, look at the advertising for older games like Battleship. The advertising from the 1960’s showed father and son playing at the table while mother and daughter were in the background washing dishes! My 1970’s era copy had two kids (male and female) playing on the cover and the current edition is just ships with no people.
You could say “male pronouns are shorter” is a “reason” but it’s certainly not a good one. And the notion that 1 extra character over the course of a rulebook adding up to multiple extra pages, much less 1 extra page is a highly unlikely. Anyone doing typesetting could account for the additional characters with a bit of kerning adjustment.
I actually did a study on this in graduate school. Games that are considered to be complex are actually more likely to use male pronouns than less complex games. So while yes, some games pronoun usage can be chalked up to cultural or practical norms, the fact that strategy games are more likely to use male pronouns suggests a sexist assumption then women are less likely to play games that involve high level of strategy.
As unfortunate as that sounds, it tracks…even though it’s 100% not true. If you have this material published Kristina, I’d love if you’d consider linking to it here.