The Newly Converted: Gender can be a Dicey Subject

Tianna Henry

 

Greetings fellow nerd-game enthusiasts! Newly converted woman (board) gamer here, hoping to shed some light on an often, dicey subject: gender and gaming. This topic has enjoyed considerable limelight as of late. One recent internet phenomenon referred to colloquially as #gamergate, can be described as an ongoing ‘culture war’ that pinned a game designer and a media critic (both women) up against legions of gamers because they dared to criticize the often problematic depictions of all things feminine in video games. Many people came on the defensive, claiming compromised journalistic ethics, and the role of bias in online gaming press was debated. However, what overshadowed the debate was a multitude of personal attacks on the aforementioned women. The hate mail escalated to death and rape threats, and all because the prevailing culture of the gaming world was challenged. The intense cyber bullying that followed served to back up their initial criticism, reifying why issues of inclusivity and diversity need to be immediately addressed.

The perceivably unwelcome climate of gaming begs the question: Just how many women–identified folks out there are active participants in the mainstream video gaming world? Turns out, a lot. According to a study by the Entertainment Software Association (2014), roughly 50% of computer and video game players identify as adult women.

But what about board games? There is a definite lack of information on the interwebs concerning this topic and, as far as I can tell zero statistical data on board games and gendered participation. It became clear during my research that any classic games designed and marketed exclusively to the women demographic, began and ended at adolescence. Games such as ‘Dream Phone,’ ‘Mall madness’ and ‘Mystery date’ are a few examples of very popular games that entertained legions of preteens.

 

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‘Mystery date’. Surfer ‘Tyler’ is Chris Evans, guys. ‘Electronic Dream Phone’ 1991.

 

Pink boxes and cardboard pictures of hunks are not marketed toward adult women; it appears board game advertising perceives them as facilitators of family friendly gaming, rather than standalone enthusiasts.

Speaking of family games, here is a fun fact: the quintessential board game of our time, Monopoly, was originally designed by a woman. Elizabeth Magie, a suffragette from Maryland, had called it ‘the Landlord’s game.’

 

 

Originally published in 1903, Magie intended to expose players to the unfairness of capitalism and land ownership. A man named Charles Darrow then appropriated the fundamental themes of this game and ‘Monopoly’ is now notoriously utilized for facilitating hours (and hours) of family fun!

So, what does this all mean for women, and people of all genders for that matter, who want to play games that don’t include hyperbolic, gendered depictions and offensive characters?

A quick google image search of ‘board gamers’ reveals about half of the happy players are feminine presenting. Perhaps the prevailing stereotype of white cis-man nerd types playing ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ in their parent’s basement is just that, a stereotype.

 

 

 

Luckily for us, contemporary board games are more likely to be marketed and designed with theme and mechanics in mind over all things gender–focused.

Games like ‘Seventh Hero’ and ‘Ca$h'n Guns’ impose no assumptions or designations based on gender – you play as the character that you draw, with each one being similar levels of badass. There are many games that have been recently developed with an obvious attention to diversity and inclusivity. See: Pandemic: The Cure. This game involves health professionals that work together to find cures for a variety of illnesses. Out of the seven characters available, three are presented as women, three as men. The seventh is portrayed as gender neutral. Their skills and tasks are not gender–specific and they are all equally important. This game also gets points for the ethnic diversity of the characters.

Despite some recent cause for optimism, I hesitate to declare total victory.

In the vast majority of the contemporary games that I, and my peers, have played, the instructions are written using male pronouns. A seemingly arbitrary point, this common approach to rulebooks perpetuates the long-held standard that the default player also uses male pronouns. Perhaps it is because game creators assume what most do – that the majority of players identify as men. Unfortunately, this method can result in deterring others who do not see the games as made with them in mind.

I think what is so neat about board games is that it can be an inclusive pastime for all people, and for that reason it makes it all the more important that we in the hobby encourage diversity and call out stereotypes and prejudices. An example of this is evident in the discourse around women and girls in online ‘nerd’ communities. Review site BoardGameGeek, a commonly used resource for board gamers, has a plethora of moderated forums. Search ‘women’ and you will discover pages upon pages of cleavage shots of women posing with board games. This kind of display works to posit women as the ‘other’, fetishizing their perceived role in the geek cyberverse. While elements of this site prove to be disappointing, there are segments that counter this dominant ethos. For example, I found discussions in many forums about young daughters of gamer respondents that possessed impressive gaming prowess. There is also a dedicated forum for “Women and Gaming,” where women gamers can connect with each other and the greater gaming community.

Starlit Citadel, an online board game store based out of Vancouver, almost always features two women in their board game review videos. Whether this is an attempt for the company to appear progressive or not, their online presence helps to normalize the existence of women who not only enthusiastically play board games, but are also knowledgeable enough to review games for others.

As I venture into a brand new world of board gaming, I will do so knowing that I will come across some problematic themes and language. It only makes my discovery of a progressive board game more joyous.

My participation in a board game company is often met with surprise, I am not assumed to be into this kind of hobby, and until very recently I would have agreed with that. Although I am realizing, as I witness more and more people discovering their own love for the hobby, that there really is a board game for just about everyone. However, this does not mean that we need to be complacent with the same old standards. By opening up the discussion, we can add to the online presence of people who challenge prevailing ideas of gamers and nerd culture in general. We can demand inclusive games that are designed with everyone in mind.

Now if you excuse me, I have to get back to playing. I am about to find out who my mystery date is, and I reeeally hope it’s Tyler.

 

missingA blowdryer, really?