Like all worthwhile pursuits, this project started out as a rant on Twitter.
I’d recently attended the amaaaaazing GXAustralia con, where I spent several days surrounded by badass queers insisting on taking up space and feminist theorists deconstructing sexism in video games and trans activists urging designers to examine how limiting the gender binary is in our nerd media (and, may I say again, SO MUCH AWESOME HAIR). I was on a panel with a group of kickass queer women talking about how to build safe and inclusive nerdy spaces. I had the creators of Crucible (a morality tabletop RPG with heavy themes of diversity & inclusivity I’d backed on Kickstarter a while back) over to my house for dinner where I traded cocktail-making for a chance to playtest. “I should put together a casual dinner for people to hang out as the con winds down” turned into my accidentally throwing the somewhat-official impromptu after-party that garnered about 5x the number of people I booked space for. Plus All the Feelings about being in a space where I just felt 100% comfortable and accepted and like I belonged, with no need to ‘defend’ my right to be there. It was an incredible time.
There was only one problem I had with the entire weekend: Pretty much all the talk was about diversity and representation in video games. Where was the discussion on diversity and representation in the tabletop side of nerdery?
Now, I want to be clear this isn’t a slight on the organisers of GX–it was a little bit where their networks were and a little bit tabletop-side sponsors not coming through at the last minute and a little bit that there was only so much that could be fit into the inaugural event with the resources available. But the major issue underlying all of this is: People just aren’t talking about it much.
A few people are–Analog Game Studies is an excellent centre of scholarship in the area, for example. Brenda Romero has an interesting TED Talk on some related issues. And I’ve seen the conversation crop up occasionally among the same crowd working so fervently for increased diversity and representation in video games. But there hasn’t been much attention to the issue.
So my first thought was to determine whether or not it is an issue at all. I started discussions on social media, where responses ranged from “huh, interesting, hadn’t thought about it” to “YES, THIS IS A PROBLEM” to “I don’t really think the situation is that bad?”
So like any self-respecting analyst, the first step for me was to gather more data.
The next morning I dug through every one of my board games for a preliminary survey of “Do people who are not straight white men exist in games I own?” The answer was… sometimes.
A majority of games at least had some depiction of women (although not necessarily playable characters)–only three had zero women depicted in any way. About half had zero acknowledgement that people of colour even exist. Only two or three included any acknowledgement that queer or gender-diverse people exist.
And this was just looking at the standard of ‘exists’. Not a standard of ‘exist in numbers roughly equivalent to their population numbers’ or ‘form an integral part of game play’.
So, yes, tabletop gamers, we have a problem. Maybe not as severe a one as exists on the video game side, but we definitely are not immune to the lack of diversity and representation plaguing the broader nerd community.
It’s time to look at this issue more closely. It’s time to stop pretending that because many games are abstract, there aren’t representation issues. It’s time to talk about the issue of diversity in tabletop games similarly to how we talk about the issue in video games.
I’ll start by evaluating my own game collection and see where we go from there. (I’m also taking recommendations of games to review, so if you’re local, invite me over for a game or come to one of my game nights. And if you’re a designer who wants me to evaluate your own game, you’re more than welcome to send me a copy!)
I’m starting at looking at representation across four broad categories: Race/Nationality, Gender, Sexuality, and Body. Go read The Scale for an in-depth look at the metrics for evaluation, then be on the lookout for the first post tomorrow morning (roughly weekly after that).
Because there is a place at the tabletop for everyone. And our games themselves should reflect that.
A massive thank you to the beta readers who provided feedback and helped me hone The Scale into its current form: @lizduckchong, @surprise_bees, @pinkwink, @CosmGames, @JimmyGeekPA, and Gareth G. In addition to saying all the lovely and supportive things that encouraged me to actually do this, your critical feedback was invaluable. The most important part of being an ally is having people who challenge you and hold you accountable, and thank you for this kind of support as well. Y’all rock and I owe you all cookies.