Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Feminism discourse: Why are women the exception in boardgame design?

Susan McKinley Ross
I've recently come to consider seriously why most of the game designers with which I'm familiar are male.  I became more aware of this observation when I learned of a couple of women who won game design awards over the last few years and realized how unusual it seemed to me at the time - specifically, Susan McKinley Ross, who won the 2011 Spiel des Jahres for Qwirkle (which I only learned of when Tom Vasel interviewed her last November), and Leslie Scott, who won the 2012 TAGIE for Excellence in Game Design for Jenga.

I started to pay more attention to this "exception that illuminates the rule."  At UnPub 4 last January, of over 60 designers on the bill, three were women - Kiva Fecteau, Bonnie Neubauer, and Suzanne Zinsli. (Anna Rutledge was also present but not credited for her contributions to New Bedford and 10 Acres.  I assume that omission was a function of her own modesty and not an oversight.)  And of those women, only Bonnie Neubauer was a solo designer; the others were part of a design couple/team.

Anna Rutledge at 2013
Congress of Gamers
Last January, Anna Rutledge wrote on feminism in boardgames at the Oak Leaf Games blog.  Despite proudly describing herself as a feminist, she recognized in herself the tendency to downplay her contribution to the design of New Bedford and her reluctance to adopt the label of "boardgamer."  But she further observed that female reticence alone does not explain the male majority at game conventions.  She saw that the UnPub 4 publishers panel consisted of eight white males, and she found in one particularly vocal playtest of a T.C. Petty game that she struggled to make herself heard among her male competitors.  She further stipulated that females competing with males is generally frowned upon.  She concluded that
The issue of feminism and boardgames has more to do with feminism than boardgames. Like in all social groups, there is progress to be made in the boardgame community. Part of the responsibility lies in the men to cultivate an accepting community, as well as a society where shared home responsibilities allow women to explore their interests. Part of the responsibility lies in the women to speak up, stop limiting themselves, and give the guys a break once in a while.
Very recently her husband Nat Levan took up the topic on the same blog with a call for respectful discourse, balance, and breadth of perspective in game development business, in game characters, and in theme.  Faced with some thematic controversy regarding his whaling-based game New Bedford, he observed that in dealing with both whaling and gender disrespect, "By pretending it doesn’t exist at all, you negate all the work done to right the wrong."

Nat Levan at 2013
Congress of Gamers
Nat maintains that the under-representation of women among those who contribute to or govern the boardgame creation process figures directly in the over-representation of male protagonists in boardgames.  He feels that gaming would benefit from a wider array of characters and a broader range of experiences.    Nat cited a video-game-oriented article that in turn led me to an extraordinary essay on why we see women in stereotype rather than recognize the true role of women in history and in humanity.

To be fair, I had no intention of addressing how women are depicted in games but how women appear to be under-represented among board game designers.  But given Anna R.'s call to "cultivate an accepting community," and what I will stipulate is the fundamental nature of most gaming as role playing, it's not hard to conclude that a catalog of games that often puts players in the roles of white males exercising power does not express inclusiveness to women.

So is that a valid thesis, that board games customarily put players in masculine roles and thereby discourage women from joining the creative community of designers?

I tend not to think so.  I'd even go so far as to postulate that more women design games than my introductory observation would suggest.  I've started to look at numbers and trends among women game designers.  I'll publish my findings in subsequent posts in an effort to gain a better understanding of real and apparent under-representation of women in game design.

Feminism Discourse Part 2: Who are the women that design boardgames?
Feminism Discourse Part 3: Who else has asked this question?


  1. Here's a link to the Board Game University interview with Susan McKinley Ross: http://boardgameuniversity.libsyn.com/board-game-university-episode-16-susan-mc-kinley-ross

    At the 15:09 Tom asks her about female game designers and she names a bunch working in the market between hobby and mass market games.

  2. Yes, thanks for the comment. That was a really interesting interview. It inspired my 28 Nov 2013 post "Qwirkled" about the "specialty toy sub-genre" of games and the women who design them.

  3. I reread your older post after writing my comment and realized you said the exact same thing there. My apologies for the redundancy. :)

  4. No problem, Chris! The interesting thing to me is that there's a whole community of women designing games that gets no exposure in our "hobby market."

  5. I just want to give a voice of support to your project. I am really curious to see what you discover.

  6. Subscribing as well. Looking forward to more (this has been a controversial topic on BGG in the past).

  7. Interesting article. I recently formed my own board game company, my partner and I plan to release our first original game, Barrage Battle next month! It is encouraging to read about successful female game designers and I look forward to learning more about them and their games!

    1. And I look forward to playing Barrage Battle!