Board Games and Growing Pains

Board games are enjoying a cultural resurgence in North America (Boycott-Owen, 2018; Arnaudo, 2017; Donovan, 2017; Teague, 2016). The global board game market was estimated to be approximately $7.2 billion (U.S.) dollars in 2017 and projected to reach 12 billion (U.S.) by 2023 (O’Connell, 2019). A pre-pandemic market study published in February 2020 projected that the board game market had the potential to grow $5.81 billion during 2020-2024 with a projected year-over-year growth rate of 25.1 percent (TechNavio, 2020). Another Statista (2020) report projected the total overall market was projected to reach $12-billion (U.S.) by 2023. An estimated 77.3 percent of Canadians played board games at least a few times a year, and 25.6 percent reported playing a board game at least monthly during 2018 (Bedford, 2019). There is an upswing of cross-generational, mainstream interest, with board game sales expected to reach more than $12 billion by 2023 with a compound annual growth rate of more than 9 percent during the years from 2017 to 2023 (ReportLinker, 2018; Euromonitor, 2017). While there have been ebbs and flows in board games popularity, Donovan (2016) has argued that board games are defined by their “timelessness and resilience” “and board games have done much “more than just survive” (p. 6).

Once again, in some corners of contemporary North American culture, board gaming is attracting more attention. There were 3,000 new major board game titles launched in 2018, due in part to growth in the number of ways to fund and purchase board games with the rise of online crowdsourcing platforms such as Kickstarter (McPherson, 2019). The growth of indie games is even more dynamic. As of June 23, 2020, there were 24,095 projects tagged as board games on Kickstarter (Kickstarter, 2020). There’s even a healthy board game counterfeiting market with the rise with black-market copies of Catan (1995) and Pandemic (2008) circulating in online marketplaces (Connolly, 2020). Based on 2018 growth numbers, tabletop games consistently appear at the top-funded list of the popular crowdfunding platform, Kickstarter (Taylor, 2018); and the board game category represented $165-million (U.S.) in revenue on Kickstart throughout 2018, up by 20 percent over the previous year (Kickstarter, 2018; Hall, 2018). It is understood that market revenue tallies and predictions tell only part of the story as the definition of games is expanding to include more casual, embedded and hybrid experiences that straddle the traditional boundaries of what might have been considered either digital or analog. During the COVID-19 pandemic which began in late 2019, tabletop games continue to be played via online platforms such as Tabletopia, Tabletop Simulator, Board Game Arena, and the online wargaming platform, Vassal, as well as an-ever growing number of competitors. Tabletopia founders have reported that during the lockdowns that happened in most of North American starting in March 2020, unique visitors to the site spiked up from 1,000 a day to a reported 12,000 a day in late March (Boyle, 2020). Board Game Arena saw 600 percent growth in 2020, and was acquired in 2021 by Guyancourt, France-based Asmodee Group, one of the world’s largest board game publishers (Jarvis, 2021). While total global sales are growing and interest increases, the board game industry and the hobbyist community are experiencing serious growing pains. 

State of Play: Why is Board Gaming So White and Male?

The board game industry and the wider hobby community are grappling with systemic problems caused by a lack of equity, diversity and inclusion, driving an ever-louder chorus of voices in the board game enthusiast community to call for change. A lack of representation in board game production, inclusion in gaming spaces, and an absent diversity of themes, characters and stories told by board games has stunted the potential growth of board games (Sheldon, 2016; Hova, 2014; Davis, 2013). Vocal participants in board gaming have called for board games to be made for a wider demographic of players, and for the industry to open up more opportunities for women, and BIPOC creators (Teague, 2016; Pobuda, 2018; Davis, 2013; Howe, 2019, Huber, 2016; Rosewater, 2019). Despite the growing popularity of analog games, there exists a significant gender and racial imbalance in the labour of board games creation, and a gender and racial imbalance in the hobbyist community (Pobuda, 2018; Boycott-Owen, 2018; Arnaudo, 2017; Donovan, 2017; Teague, 2016). This research effort seeks to fill the gap in academic scholarship on the representation of women, and BIPOC inclusion and diversity in both the gaming industry and in the spaces where board gaming is practiced. The gendered labour of board game production, and the gender and racial gap in board game design and artwork, I will argue, can create a vicious circle of exclusion and delimits the wider adoption of this cultural practice (Teague, 2016; Pobuda, 2018; Davis, 2013; Howe, 2019, Huber, 2016; Rosewater, 2019).

Some commentators have argued that a renewed mainstream interest in board games is due to an intergenerational cultural yearning for face-to-face interaction in a play activity that recalls time before smartphones (Arnaudo, 2017; Donovan, 2017; Pilon, 2016). Board gaming has become a pastime that is enjoying increased attention and active cultural practice; however, the nostalgia associated with board games, tied as it is with idealizations of a ‘simpler’ (read: less complicated, more homogenous, less diverse) time comes with sociocultural baggage (Teague, 2016; Arnaudo, 2017; Donovan, 2017; Pilon, 2016). Mass market and hobby board games have often relied on a narrow spectrum of themes, game mechanics, and imagery, agricultural vistas inhabited by blonde-haired, blue-eyed farmers, the “Eurocentric lore” of knights fighting orcish hordes, Vikings pillaging coastal villages, or sprawling mercantile or imperial empires (Howe, 2019, n.p., Huber, 2016; Rosewater, 2019). Over the past 40 years, popular board games have often been heavily reliant on literary properties such as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (LOR) trilogy, with at least 229 or more unique board game titles, game expansions and LOR-themed game products based on the Tolkien universe, or alternately, based on movies and television shows with games such as Star Wars: Imperial Assault (2014) (BGG, LOR, 2020). As with these literary, cinema and television properties, the games are dominated by mainly white male protagonists styled in the same fashion as the literary and filmic variants of Campbell’s monomyth; these overwhelmingly white male heroes alone have heroic traits and agency to conquer obstacles, slay the monsters, claim the treasure and of course, rescue the damsel in distress (Campbell, 2003). Like the traditional tropes and themes of these intellectual properties, the board game publishing industry, some have argued, is mired in a recursive, regressive, and white male-dominated past (Teague, 2016; Pobuda, 2018: Sheldon, 2016; Ryan, 2016; Davis, 2013; Howe, 2019, Huber, 2016; Rosewater, 2019).

There is a demographic shift happening in gaming, with Selinker (2016) noting that in digital gaming “we are on the cusp of having more female gamers than male ones.” (as cited by Teague, 2016). An increasing number of studies demonstrate that women are fast becoming a dominant demographic segment in digital gaming. Women currently represent 46 per cent of gamers in the U.S., a number that continues to rise (Gough, 2019). Recent digital gamer studies tell us that video gaming is increasingly pervasive and mainstream in the U.S. with 64 percent of U.S. households containing a device used to play video games; adult women players represent 33 percent of all U.S. gamers and in fact, outnumber males under 18 years of age which represent 17 percent of all gamers (ESAC, 2018). Another study found that women made up 46 percent of the computer and video gaming community in the U.S. in 2019, an increase over 2017 up 4 percentage points (Statista, 2019). Pew Research (2017) found that 24 percent of Black respondents reported playing video games often and 21 percent reported playing them sometimes; 18 percent of Hispanics reported playing often and 29 percent reported playing sometimes. In Canada, the average age of self-reported gamers is 39 years old, with the demographic split evenly between those who identify as male and female, at 50 percent and 50 percent respectively (ESAC, 2018). Behind these numbers is a more expansive definition of what is now considered a digital game with the rise of the so-called “casual revolution” (Juul, 2010) which recognizes the inclusion of quick-play mobile games that integrate into daily living more seamlessly than the more traditionally recognized games, such as first-person shooters (FPSs) and open world sandbox role-playing games geared towards the so-called hardcore category of gamers. As Juul (2010) plotted the trajectory of video games from the arcade beginnings where all were welcome to enjoy these early games’s casual welcome. From those beginnings, the video game industry became increasingly commercialized, and an imagined of audience of mostly white male hardcore gamers hardened and calcified the game design and marketing approaches. But as Juul (2010) notes, gaming could not sit in the so-called hardcore valley for long, and a shift to a new casual revolution was nearly inevitable opening up video gaming to an increasingly wider and wider audience.

While demographic studies for digital game players abound, recent surveys of analog gamers are often informal and conducted by games publishers, or enthusiasts outside of peer-reviewed, scholarly processes. As a researcher in the field of digital and board games, I’ve often heard the argument that women, specifically, simply do not play board games, or certainly do not play them with any regularity. This is a talking point I’ve encountered while browsing through posts on r/boardgames on Reddit or on Twitter. If one were to look at available demographic studies conducted by hobbyist sites and enthusiasts, that argument might be lent some significant credence. The numbers of self-reported board game fans among women, BIPOC and other marginalized groups remains very low in these hobbyist studies. A 2019 board gaming study conducted by Meeple Mountain, a board game enthusiast site, found that 69 per cent of those who filled out the online survey identified as men; 27 per cent identified as women and 0.02 per cent identified as non-binary (Booth, 2019). Publisher Stonemaier Games (2017) conducted a demographic survey that elicited 3,427 responses among the publisher’s subscribers (reported to be 30,437 in total) found 91.7 percent of respondents were men and 8.1 percent were women; in 2019, the number of women subscribers rose to 17.9 percent with 81.1 percent identifying as men (Stonemaier, 2017, 2019). The website Daily Worker Placement (2016) published the results of a 2016 demographic survey of 2,397 respondents that found 24 percent of board gamers were women, 1.1 percent non binary and 0.6 percent were trans, leaving the remainder – the majority at 74.3 percent – identifying as male. The overwhelming majority of survey respondents were also white, with the Daily Worker Placement (2016) survey reporting that only 2.1 percent of respondents were Chinese, that 2.7 percent were Latin American, 0.6 percent were Aboriginal and 0.7 percent were Filipino. Booth (2021) noted that only 89 respondents to a survey of 837 for his book Board Games as Media were BIPOC or a little under 11 percent; another survey conducted by Booth (2021) garnered respondents who identified as women at 27 percent.

Board game designer Hargrave (2019) created a presentation for industry representatives and board gamers entitled, “OMG My Wife Wants to Play Your Game” which sparked an ongoing discussion on the barriers faced by women enthusiasts and industry professionals. Hargrave (2019) found women were significantly less likely to participate in online board game fan sites. While this does not mean that women are not active enthusiasts nor does it mean they aren’t interested in game design, their limited participation in these board gaming fora is telling. For example, for top-rated games such as Scythe, only 9 percent of the participants on its Facebook fanpage identified themselves as women. The game sites with the most participation among women, Wingspan and Pandemic, still saw less than 30 percent of the participants identifying as women (Hargrave, 2019). However, as only 18 of the top 50 games as ranked by BGG have online Facebook fan pages, it might be argued that one cannot draw a definitive conclusion about these participation numbers. On general interest board game groups on Facebook, such as BGG, the Board Game Group, Board Game Revolution, Fans of Gen Con, Board Game Spotlight, Everything Board Game Community, the participation of women in these communities range from the lowest at 20 to the highest at 35 percent (Hargrave, 2019). Respondents to a 2017 Quantic Foundry survey found that less than quarter of respondents identified as women. Hargrave (2019) also found that women fail to make up more than 20 percent of the membership of most board game design and industry groups such as Board Game Design Lab, Protospiel, The UnPub Network, Meeple Syrup Show Talk, Board Game Reviewers and Media, Art and Graphic Design for Tabletop Games (Hargrave, 2019). Hova (2014), a board game designer and publisher did a year-long research study to determine who he played games with at a variety of venues, including playtesting events to try new designs, in public venues such as cafes and conventions, and in private. He found that men made up 77 percent of his opponents over the course of the entire year. Slightly more women were his opponent in private spaces, with Hova recording he played with other men at 71 percent which represented 137 games, and 295 opponents. These studies help us see, through a mirror darkly, an emerging picture that suggests that the participation of women, BIPOC and other marginalized groups in board gaming might be constrained and limited. At minimum, these surveys and analyses demonstrate that identities that aren’t white and male are clearly marginalized, and not engaging with these polls, surveys and fora.

What is really going on with these board game fora and gaming spaces? There is clear evidence that women are, increasingly, becoming key consumers of digital games. Women do indeed like to game based on the digital game numbers, but something, it would appear, is holding them back from board gaming. Is it true that women, BIPOC and other marginalized people aren’t playing board games, or are they simply avoiding engaging in these online fora and public gaming events? Some commentators have suggested that board gaming can be an unwelcoming space for people who aren’t white men. Dice Tower contributors Suzanne Sheldon, an Asian-American woman, and Mandi Hutchinson, a Black Canadian woman, shared that a lack of diversity and representation was pervasive throughout the hobby community, which was predominantly made up by white males. Hutchinson shared that she got into board game content creation because, “I didn’t see anyone who looked like me” (Hutchinson, Pair of Dice Paradise, 2018). Sheldon and Hutchinson have reported being the targets of many online attacks on social media, and have detailed their experiences of being targeted at gaming conventions for their critique of the board gaming community. Their voices, along with those of a number of other women, LGBTQiIA+, and BIPOC content creators, designers, commentators and enthusiasts, have also called for game publishers to include more representation of women and BIPOC in both the production teams and in board game artwork, and also called for the hobby to look for ways to welcome a broader demographic of players to gaming spaces.