Equity and Identity in the Game World

Making game play and design accessible to a diverse audience has been a central theme of my residency project. As kids we all play games, creating, exploring and ignoring rules is a condition of childhood.  Playing and watching traditional sports is the most conventional way game play continues into our adulthood.  A huge number of us still play video and tabletop games as we get older but it certainly isn’t the same numbers we see in younger people.  Why?

On Facebook I asked my contacts what barriers they felt kept them from gaming- Taking care of family members and work certainly cuts into our entertainment time but there are other factors at work.  Finding games which entertain and challenge us can be tricky- As a teen in the pre-internet days, I really wanted to know more about Dungeons and Dragons.  There were no game shops that I knew of near by and I didn’t know anyone who played. So geography and access to players was my first barrier.  With meet ups happening around the city and game conventions every few months there is no reason for me not to play.  My barriers now are a little different- I’ve had the experience several times when I’ve been in a gaming store where someone has asked me who I’m shopping for- the implied assumption that someone who looks like a soccer mom wouldn’t be buying a game like Lords of Waterdeep for herself.  I’ve been the only woman in a room full of men at game developer nights and often felt like I needed to explain my gaming street cred before having conversations like this one.

My waitress at the table where I’m writing this offers her thoughts, “I stopped playing games after high school, I really liked Monopoly but I can’t imagine a girls night where we’d play board games- except for maybe the new Sephoria Monopoly, that looks cool” .  Based on our taste in games and fashion I’m thinking Mindy and I are coming from different places, possibly different universes until she tells me this.. “when I’m dating a guy I always suggest we go bowling- you can learn a lot about a person by how seriously they play, if they know how to have fun, if they don’t want to go bowling we’re not having a second date.”

Games like bowling are interesting because many of them especially card and strategy games like chess and go are played globally and the rules stay consistent from country- you don’t need a common language to play-the game is the commonality.


Culinary themed rummy style card game inspiring gamers to get in the kitchen and cooks to level up

When we design games though, language can be tricky.  Last month I presented a card game I’d written “Too Many Chefs” at the DU Arcade games expo.  The game is fairly simple, it is similar to rummy where players make meal books based on ingredient cards.  Each card has an illustration of the food and a number value for the card.  The first couple I played the game with that morning were native Spanish speakers, the husband spoke some English and was able to translate the rules for his wife.  Playing with them was very eye opening- I was delighted to see that the game wasn’t language dependent, though I’d need to write the rules in several languages.  The people who had the hardest time with the game were people who didn’t cook trying to pair ingredients like radishes and jello (just don’t).

In my research I’ve been looking for games which have cultural origins.  Iconically one of my favorite games is Loteria from Mexico… this bingo style lottery game is often reinterpreted for local neighborhoods or as political commentary even Star Wars fan art.   As I look further into games I’d like to design I’ve been reading more folk stories and holidays for narrative inspiration.  In the next few weeks I’d like to collaborate with other artists on a Dia de Los Muertos based game where some of the traditions of remembering loved ones and inviting their spirits back home for the holiday are constructs of the game mechanisms.  At the same time I want to be sensitive to cultural appropriation, not to borrow images for their design elements but instead to represent the holiday sequentially through game play.

Earlier this week I had a fantastic learning experience.  “Playing the Woman Card” has been a phrase kicked around in political and media spheres- On Facebook I asked friends to crowd source a game based on this concept. For the post I created an image of a playing card with a “W” on it and a motif patterns of a floating uterus in the background.  One of the social media groups I belong to “Lady Geeks” asked me to change the art before posting to their site since “not all women or people who identify themselves as women have a uterus”.  My 13 year old daughter backed them up on this and said I should change the card too.  As a designer I wanted to highlight a particular conversation using games as a medium.  My audiences very rightly pointed out that even though my intent was good I was still alienating a group of players.  In the week since I put up my post an artist in Kansas City has been developing a deck based entirely on influential  women with only one joker in the deck and it is stunning.

One of the biggest barriers for entry in table top gaming is financial.  My son said this is the thing that bugs him the most.  He would love to buy more board games but the ones he’s most interested in start at $50 to $100.  As a grown-up with some disposable income I can justify this every month or so- the cost being similar to what taking a family of four to the movies would be.  Also I realize the value of what I’m getting- a shared experience with family and friends, cool art and usually a great story.  For many people though, especially younger ones it’s just too expensive and the gaming world becomes an exclusive club that only some people can afford to play in.  With games offering up so many positives in personal development, strategy thinking, and positive social interaction it is a true bummer that they can’t be played and shared by more people.  As designers I’d like to plan ways to level these particular playing fields.