A SPACE WHERE WE BELONG
Ellen Knight speaks to four extraordinary women, forging new and exciting paths in the worlds of tabletop gaming, from games design to building their own media platforms to find out about their experiences in this complex, ever-changing industry and their visions for its future.
‘Can we talk about the women on the box cover?’ posted games designer Elizabeth Hargrave on the BoardGameGeek forums back in March this year. The artwork that had caught Hargrave’s eye was for the Gamelyn Games’ Tiny Epic Dungeons, whose protagonists - at least the female ones - appeared to have set off on their adventures in a hurry forgetting to dress with dungeon-crawling in mind.
As you might expect, Hargrave’s question was met with a barrage of hostility all-too-familiar to outspoken women on the internet, with many of the 278 replies to her post needing to be removed by the site’s moderators. For all the progress made in the past few years, it’s evident that women – both the players and the protagonists of these games – are not yet treated with the equity and respect that they deserve.
Hargrave is, of course, one of the most celebrated board game designers of the last few years, her work drawing upon both the natural world and ‘a desire to play games that break away from tried-and-true themes.’ Her first game, Wingspan, won the coveted Kennerspiel des Jahres in 2019, and remains a runaway success within the board gaming community. Confidently outspoken, Hargrave is unafraid to speak her mind.
‘Art to me, when I look at it often is either depicting a woman who has agency, who’s an active protagonist in the story or who is just something to be looked at,’ she explains, noting that those artistic representations often carry through to a game’s mechanics. Do the women characters themselves have agency, ‘or are they just passive?’
Despite the abuse hurled at her online, Hargrave remains positive about the industry’s direction of travel.
‘I think that more and more people are becoming aware of how established certain tropes are around how women are depicted in all kinds of media,’ she says, pointing out that ‘as that awareness spreads, more publishers will take a critical eye to the art that they're getting from their artists, more artists will think to ask exactly what kind of depictions the publishers are looking for.’
Observing that Wingspan has resulted in players discovering an interest in bird-spotting, Hargrave ponders the capacity ‘for board games to actually affect ourselves, to affect us outside of the magic circle of when you're playing the game,’ noting that the games we play affect – both consciously or subconsciously – our outlook on the world.
With a view to taking personal responsibility of how women are depicted in the games we play, Hargrave doesn’t think we should be going full-on ‘out with the old’ but learning to recognise inappropriate depictions and that being vocal when we do is certainly a step forward.
‘On one level that might mean picking and choosing which games you're buying or playing, it might mean acknowledging when there is a game that you want to play because you love the mechanics, but maybe the art or other depictions are not what you want them to be. Just acknowledge that out loud.’
Speaking up, of course, comes with consequences, something that Hargrave is all too aware of. Still, when fans of Tiny Epic Dungeons hit back at her for her criticism of the original over-sexualised art she believes her position as a wildly successful designer protected her.
‘I just feel I'm in this very unique position where complaining to my publisher is not going to hurt me, right?’ and Hargrave says that looking to the future she is keen to make use of this pedestal.
“I'M IN THIS VERY UNIQUE POSITION WHERE COMPLAINING TO MY PUBLISHER IS NOT GOING TO HURT ME, RIGHT?”
‘I've been trying to have the biggest coattails I can,’ she adds, and this is tangibly true with a page on her website dedicated to uplifting women and non-binary game designers. Created after Hargrave became ‘tired of being called “one of very few non-male board game designers,”’ the page now has well over 200 designers listed.
‘I can be outspoken and I don’t feel like the blow-back has much personal effect on me, which is a pretty amazing position to be in. So then I feel like some responsibility to take advantage of that.’
As Hargrave’s list of designers goes to show, she is just one of a number of women who are redefining the tabletop space. Kismet Rose – real name Patricia Willenborg – first set up her website Kismet’s Dungeons and Dragons back in 2002 to share her plans for her first D&D campaign. In the near two decades since, the site has only grown and now covers everything from tips and tricks for her fellow gamers through to Willenborg’s own writings on the gaming world.
One of her pieces, More Than Wenches and Wives, on the effects of gender stereotyping, was borne out of her own frustrations. ‘I began writing about women in gaming because I am one,’ Willenborg explains. ‘I wanted to show folks that women were out there playing, running, and designing games; writing about them seemed the best way to do that.’
Realising that her own gaming often hinged on outdated tropes, Willenborg realised that she ‘probably wasn’t alone in these subconscious habits,’ and used this self-awareness to write about how to resist these ‘gender-based stereotypes.’
Willenborg’s own experiences in tabletop gaming have shaped her views and she is well aware of the cost of speaking up. ‘Gods forbid anyone complained about women being sexually objectified in art,’ she says. ‘The fast and furious response would bury any hope for understanding.’
Still, like Hargrave, Willenborg remains hopeful for the future and that more and more the value of women’s input is being acknowledged. Observing a change in the community’s demographics over the years she believes things are changing for the better and emphasises how today the gaming community ‘is the most welcoming it’s ever been’ with even previously hostile spaces especially as ‘game stores can’t afford to alienate anyone, and are usually supportive.’
Moreover, the ‘bleed’ of real life into the fantasy gaming world and vice versa is something Willenborg believes can help to shift old-fashioned perspectives, observing that ‘one of the greatest fantasies gamers buy into is that we leave the real world behind when we play – but we don’t. Our fantasies are all based on this one.’
‘In the end,’ she concludes, ‘I see it this way: in games of imagination we can shift boundaries and behaviours more easily than in the real world and, in a social hobby, we have every reason and duty to do so.’
“IN GAMES OF IMAGINATION WE CAN SHIFT BOUNDARIES AND BEHAVIOURS MORE EASILY THAN IN THE REAL WORLD AND, IN A SOCIAL HOBBY, WE HAVE EVERY REASON AND DUTY TO DO SO”
Part of the new generation coming through and bringing more progressive attitudes with them is South-California based nursing student, and one half of 1MinuteBoardGames, Raina Medina. Set up to create bite-sized board game content, from tutorials to overviews and recommendations, 1MinuteBoardGames has amassed over 250,000 followers on video-sharing app TikTok in just over a year, with every video clocking up thousands, and in some cases millions, of views.
With a younger audience - over half of TikTok users are between the ages of ten and thirty - Medina believes she has avoided much of the abuse directed at her older peers. ‘I feel that at 25 I am on the younger side of the board game industry, so I assume I attract those around the same age,’ she explains.
Whilst Medina feels ‘very fortunate to be successful in the tabletop community as a younger, woman of colour’ and lucky enough to not be an outright target of misogyny, she notes that she still received a backlash in the comments when she made a TikTok addressing the issue of representation in the board gaming community.
And whilst Medina might have cultivated a more open space, she’s aware that represents just a part of the community as a whole. ‘I think that like any hobby you can find the corner that is welcoming, however it is just that, a corner of a rather large room,’ she adds. ‘I think the front face of the board game community could still be more welcoming to women.’
From her perspective, the issue of how women are depicted in games is still a work in progress, as she points out; ‘if women are portrayed at all in board games, they’re typically white, unrealistically proportioned, and sometimes, barely clothed.’ For Medina, change is happening but there is still ‘a lot of work to do.’
Still, with the quarter of a million followers that 1MinuteBoardGames has garnered, Medina, like Hargrave, is also aware of the responsibility and opportunity that such an extensive platform provides. That opportunity to influence young peoples’ attitudes towards board games, both encouraging interest and acknowledging existing issues within the community, is a mammoth task but Medina believes she can use her platform to 'make sure everyone feels welcome.’
Where Hargrave and Willenborg have been focused on trying to change entrenched attitudes, and Medina in curating a space where those attitudes can flourish today, games designer and publisher Ellie Dix has her eye on future generations. After all, if Hargrave’s Wingspan can make birders out of gamers, why not use board games to encourage positive behaviours in future generations?
Dix’s company, The Dark Imp, is a board game publisher focused on creating games for families and schools. It’s a one-woman show; Dix designs, develops, playtests, markets, and sells the games, a feat that she hopes will ‘make family game experiences more positive’ as well as hosting a radio show, The Game School, which covers how tabletop gaming can be utilised in teaching and learning.
DIX BELIEVES GAMES CAN DRASTICALLY SHAPE A CHILD’S WORLDVIEW
One of The Dark Imp’s core aims is to ‘reclaim family time’ and to re-engage young people with board games - Dix believes games can drastically shape a child’s worldview.
‘We learn how to fail,’ she explains. ‘Games provide us a platform for us to fail, over and over again. This is liberating, and makes us behave differently. More experimentally, more freely – and this stays with us and affects the way we approach other things. Failing is such an important skill to learn.’
The board game community, from Dix’s perspective, can and should be a wholly welcoming and positive space and that ‘the neuro-diverse nature of the community lends itself to inclusion.’
Dix also believes strongly in the social impact of gaming, how they can make us, as people, grow; ‘It’s really about human connection, regardless of age. I think it’s easy to dismiss board games as just another activity or hobby, but it’s worth delving into why playing games can create such a solid human connection between people.’
This human connection, Dix suggests, can aid social skills and shape a child’s worldview. ‘Through board games I know how they’ll behave when they win, when they lose, when they don’t understand the rules, when someone winds them up, when they’re secretly very pleased with a cunning move and when a plan doesn’t quite come together.’
It’s clear that attitudes are changing - as much as Hargrave’s original post was met with abuse, it also led to a huge groundswell of support leading to many long-overdue conversations and, notably, changes to the artwork. There will be setbacks and stumbles, but speaking to these four women it feels like the future of board games is in safe hands. Maybe not now, but one day soon, new generations of gamers will no longer need to fight to be included as equals at the table.
‘Tabletop games provide a special shared activity through which we can connect to others, strengthen relationships and ultimately,’ Dix concludes, ‘provide a space where we feel like we belong.’
If you want to know more about any of our interviewees you can find:
Patricia Willenborg at dnd.kismetrose.com
Ellen Knight is a freelance journalist based in Birmingham. Her writing and broadcasting tends to focus on current affairs, but at any point can veer off into absolutely anything. Find her on Twitter at @ellenmjknight
Carly A-F is a freelance illustrator and author, who combines hand drawn elements, painted textures and graphic shapes to create picture books, book covers and more. You can find her on Twitter at @carlydraws
Prints of 'Creating Together', the cover art from this feature can be purchased from Inprnt.com
This feature originally appeared in Wyrd Science Vol.1 / Issue 2