The lack of queer people as playable characters with agency or represented appropriately through narrative elements is rarely explored in board games. For many board games, as their popularity increases over years with repeated editions, they can carry forward outdated stereotypes including (but maybe not obvious to many) the invisibility of queer people. To ensure an inclusive and accessible hobby for all, future editions can correct and should update to modern modes of thinking and representation. Newly published games should be dealing with issues of representation throughout the game development process including design, art-direction, and play-testing. While this seems to be occurring with more positive female (for example, Relic Runners from Days of Wonder) and PoC (for example, Freedom: The Underground Railroad from Academy Games) representation, queer characters are not consistently or adequately represented.
In the RPG sphere, publishers seem to be moving faster. Piazo Publishing has made inroads to providing positive representation across the spectrum in their Pathfinder Roleplaying System [source]. Being described “as a robust fantasy world that incorporates classic themes and tropes while allowing including progressive elements at the same time” [source]. Representation of queer characters in that RPG setting increases accessibility by being reflective of the people playing and/or interacting with the game system and any associated transmedia storytelling. Pathfinder also has featured gay and transgender “iconics.” Iconics represent their character class across Piazo’s entire catalog including adventures, modules, and organized play [source] become something of a type specimen for the class and being represented in many publishing outlets.
In Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition “You could also play as a female character who presents herself as a man, a man who feels trapped in a female body, or a bearded female dwarf who hates being mistaken for a male. Likewise, your character’s sexual orientation is for you to decide” [source]. Golden Goblin Press, who produces supplements for the popular Call of Cthulhu Role-playing game created a “Heroes of Red Hook” a series of stories to “try to guide our genre towards a more inclusive future…[and] change the legacy of Lovecraft from one of blame, fear, and bigotry, into something more representative” [source]. All of these are examples of long-running and popular gaming systems revising and updating themselves to better embrace equitable representation.
Why is the board game realm lagging behind? Perhaps this is due to the lack of narrative creativity and story in board games which rely on dry mechanics. However, with many board games melding mechanics and narrative potential, I don’t find this argument particularly compelling. Just look at the diversity of characters in Ryan Laukat’s games Above and Below, Islebound, and Near and Far from Red Raven Games. Perhaps it is indicative of the culture of the board game industry. While games like The Dead of Winter and Sentinels of the Multiverse have more narrative potential and concurrently more inclusive representation, most games fall into outmoded tropes. Dead of Winter and Sentinels of the Multiverse both have playable queer characters, allow for queer relationships, and have related story-arcs. Dead of Winter designer, Isaac Vega stated in an interview that as he was better able to understand himself, was better equipped to include topics in his games related to LGBT issues when he felt supported by the culture of the company. Part of this was being more comfortable to be openly gay in his place of work. [source]
“It allows us to talk about things we care about: games aren’t just fun, but are also a medium for people to experience a new story and see and feel things they haven’t necessarily seen or felt before,” he said. “A lot of people playing may never have interacted with someone who’s gay, or trans, or from a different race. So the game becomes a space to tell these stories, start a conversation around the table that could bring these things to light for a group of players.” Isaac Vega, Co-designer of Dead of Winter [source]
Relationship themed games such as The Fog of Love and The Pursuit of Happiness from Stronghold Games also includes queer characters. Specifically, in The Pursuit of Happiness, players can choose from male or female romantic partners. Each card is double sided with a male and female side and if players choose to have multiple partners of various genders. The Fog of Love include packs of cards and specific modifications on providing a more equitable playplace for a diversity of genders and gender expressions. Despite this, representation can be very difficult to identify unless the game has obvious romantic or related narrative themes.
It is possible that many publishers and artists simply avoid queer characters out of concern or fear that the representation would perpetuate homophobic or misogynist stereotypes.
The invisibility of queer characters apply to numerous games and the actual positive representation of queer characters is restricted to only a few examples. Even in those board game, it tends to fall upon players and how they negotiate representation as needed using roleplay and imagination (“You want queer characters? Just pretend they are queer”). But most board games are not like RPGs and an inclusive game design shouldn’t require players to identify queer characters on their own without overt cues from the narrative, art, and the game mechanisms. Without it being designed into the game to expand representation. It is possible that many publishers and artists simply avoid queer characters out of concern or fear that the representation would perpetuate homophobic or misogynist stereotypes. This is certainly a reasonable concern. However, by simply avoiding any representation at all, again publishers are rendering queer people invisible in board games just as they were once invisible in other mediums such as comics, YA fiction, and video games. Cultural definitions, designer/artist intent, and player experience can and should all play a part in the identity of characters.
Queer gamers would prefer more characters that represent them without falling into well-worn tropes or stereotypes. The simplest fix is to include more queer people in the design, development, play-testing, and artistic direction of board games. Bottom line, if you want more representation other than white, cis-gendered, heterosexual men, the easiest way to ensure that is to include more diversity in the game industry and provide an equitable and supportive culture for that expression. This means that game designers, publishers, and developers need to actively work to diversify industry ranks, and combat poor or nonexistent representation by allowing marginalized groups to develop characters and games through their own lived experience. Now, let me be clear that I am not “industry” and have no inside knowledge to the culture of board gaming. Everything is extrapolated and I welcome the experience of others who are employed in the industry.
…by simply avoiding any representation at all, again publishers are rendering queer people invisible in board games just as they were once invisible in other mediums
However, it bears mentioning that media researchers Adam Brown and Deb Waterhouse-Watson found three important concepts when examining gender in fantasy board games.
- That gender is fundamental to the design – you can’t simply ignore it
- Representations of gender in fantasy board games tends to be problematic, and
- That “board game designers and artist have the potential to reinforce, resist, or revise normative gender representations.”
Developments move slowly and the board game industry is just catching up to the board game culture on this one. With examples like The Lost Expedition providing positive representation, LGBTQIA Board Game Nights popping up at Friendly Local Game Stores, more critical theory based reviews, and diverse cultural icons in the hobby, it seems like, at very least, it is moving forward in a positive direction.
I’d like to take a page from Mr. Brown and Ms. Waterhouse-Watson and say that we need to reinforce diversity in the industry, actively resist outdated stereotypes, and continually revise how gaming culture views appropriate and equitable representation in board games.
Thanks, and please game responsibly.
3 thoughts on “Queer representation in board games”
Thanks John. Beyond the unquestionable importance of representation, there are three further points I would like to add:
1) These characters are inspired by actual people. Diversity has always existed.
2) Diversity (read: variety) serves to make everything *more interesting*. There’s nothing more dull than every character being a variation of the same thing, regardless of their race/gender/age/sexual identity.
3) Isabelle Eberhardt is *so cool*.
I feel like representation in the US board game market will be a problem for quite some time. Tabletop gaming still has a large and entrenched Christian fanbase that is far from interested in being inclusive to the LGBT community. I’ve had the misfortune of playing with many of these people and hearing their unfiltered opinions, including prominent members of the gaming media. We have a long way to go.
I think this is part of why European publishers are leading the way and have to shame the US market into making progress.