Why Is Board Gaming So White And Male? I’m Trying To Figure That Out

Why Is Board Gaming So White And Male? I’m Trying To Figure That Out
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Board games have been having a bit of a cultural moment. They experienced a resurgence of popularity at the beginning of the pandemic. A Statista report projected the total overall board game market might reach US$12-billion by 2023.

It makes sense that board games gained popularity during the pandemic. Board games can provide relatively affordable, reusable, home-based entertainment. Scrabble was designed by Alfred Mosher Butts during the Great Depression. Eleanor Abbott created Candy Land after her contracting polio and spending extended time in the hospital during the epidemic in the United States.

I have loved board games my whole life and in the last 10 years spent my time browsing shops for the newest releases, growing increasingly addicted to watching board game channels on YouTube and collecting games — a collection which has taken over several rooms in my home.

I regularly noticed that these friendly local game shops were filled with mostly white men, often on their own, wandering the stacks. It made me wonder, why is board gaming so white and male?

As a doctoral student at X University and York University in their joint communication and culture program, I have noticed a lack of contemporary scholarship on board games, as most game scholarship focuses on video games.

To fill this gap, I decided to spend the last four years of my life delving into the industry.

Socially shaped and constructed

Board gaming, like many other cultural spheres, has been socially shaped and constructed, with products being created for an imagined audience. The imagined audience for board games is, most often, a cis, straight, middle-class able-bodied white man.

The result of this social shaping has been that board gaming spaces have, over time, have become an exclusive preserve for this default, imagined audience. Sometimes, this kind of social shaping, intentionally or not, can create a vicious circle of exclusion for other identities.

As I talked to people in board gaming communities and examined the games themselves, I realized that there were big, systemic social, labour and economic issues that were limiting the wide-spread adoption of board gaming and market growth.

My research argues that one of the key factors facing board gaming is the homogeneity of the current board game design labour pool and limited representation on the products themselves.

I found that 92.6 per cent of the designers of the 400 top-ranked board games on BoardGameGeek were white men.

board games
92.6 percent of game designers for the top 400 BoardGameGeek-ranked games were white men. (Tanya Pobuda)

The cover art images on the boxes of the top-ranked 200 BoardGameGeek ranked games with games such as Gloomhaven (2017),Marvel Champions: The Card Game (2019), Terraforming Mars (2016) and Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization (2015) skewed heavily toward white-presenting males. Of the total 1,974 figures analyzed during my board game cover art analyses, white male imagery was predominant.

Images of men and boys represented 76.8 per cent of the human representation on covers, or 647 images in games such as Great Western Trail (2016) and War of the Ring: Second Edition (2012), compared to 23.2 per cent of the images of women and girls, which represented only 195 of the images counted as in games with more gender representation like Arkham Horror: The Card Game (2016) and Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 (2015)

board games
Men dominated the covers of the top 200 games on BoardGameGeek. (Tanya Pobuda)

White imagery was found on 82.5 per cent of the images or 528 compared to BIPOC imagery which made up only 17.5 per cent of the images, or 112 total images.

board games
Imagery of white people dominated the top 200 BoardGameGeek-ranked games cover art. (Tanya Pobuda)

Representation matters

A lack of representation sends a message to potential audiences. But does this lack of representation matter to current board gamers?

I conducted an online survey of 320 respondents in late 2020. In total, 70.7 per cent of respondents shared that they play board games at least once a week. More than half (53.5 per cent) of the sample have been board gaming for 11 years or more.

I tried to get a diverse sample through exhaustive recruitment efforts as I was looking to hear from voices that were not often heard from in other board game surveys.

I got back a set of respondents who were mainly from North America (73.8 per cent). The majority of survey respondents identified as women at 60.4 per cent, including trans women which represented 4.9 per cent. More than a quarter of my survey respondents identified as men at 25.3 per cent and 9.4 per cent identified as non-binary.

Most of the respondents were white (74.9 per cent), while 20.4 percent identified as BIPOC. More than half of the sample (52.8 per cent) identified as being part of the 2SLGBTQiIA+ community.

The survey respondents shared that gender and racial representation did matter to them, in fact it mattered a lot. Respondents agreed or strongly agreed (80.2 per cent) that board gaming has a problem with a lack of equitable gender representation in games design and 84 per cent agreed or strongly agreed that board gaming has a problem with a lack of equitable racial representation in games design.

Another overwhelming majority (83.6 per cent) agreed or strongly agreed that board gaming has a problem with a lack of equitable gender representation in board game artwork. Similarly, 84 per cent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that board gaming has a problem with a lack of equitable racial representation in board game artwork.

The current reality? Despite straight white males making up roughly 25 per cent of the U.S. population — the U.S. being one of the world’s largest consumer markets and straight white males being an even smaller portion of the global market — they currently make up about 80 per cent or more of the representation in board games.

Do these realities — the board game industry’s persistent focus on a small demographic and its skewed representation on the products toward this small population — create the necessary conditions for market growth and expansion of the board game industry?

The answer can only be no.The ConversationTanya A Pobuda, PhD Candidate, Graduate/Research Assistant, Communication and Culture, Toronto Metropolitan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


  • If your choice to play a board game is hinged on whether the artwork is diversified enough or not.. I think you have bigger problems that you should be worried about.

    • Kinda like those people who claim they are now going to play a game purely based on somebody else’s negative take/criticism.
      Weirdos man, what can you do?

    • If that’s so, why do so few people who are not white males play or design them? Seems like something is stopping them. Doesn’t seem unreasonable to ask what that might be.

      • They don’t want to? In the Kickstarter era there is nothing whatsoever from stopping anyone from creating a board game themselves and pushing it with whatever visuals they desire.

        And saying females don’t play board games is beyond an idiotic statement. If the research is pointing at this then it is fundamentally flawed.

        • Nobody’s saying women and girls don’t play board games. But it certainly looks like a lot *more* men and boys do. Likewise, women and people of colour are obviously not physically prevented from designing board games. Nobody is suggesting that. But if they don’t want to design or play them, then why not?

  • “ 2SLGBTQiIA+”
    Sweet Jesus how are you meant to keep up with this thing
    There’s a 2 in it now and an S and they’re before the LGBT for some reason. A lower case i and a capital I, dios mio.

    Anyway I know it’s purely anecdotal but the games I tend towards don’t have whitey plastered all over them, I think. I’m usually drawn to nice artwork, like Root or Mysterium. Then there’s Citadels which is nicely diverse.
    I need to take a closer look at my collection. The result might surprise me.

    • Had this conversation with my mum a little while ago:

      In short, your not and don’t have to.
      The fact you’re even open to the idea that there are other lenses to look through outside your comfort zone is honestly enough.
      Being able to say, I don’t get this but being open to trying when needed, is infinitely better than just saying, I don’t get it so it’s all bullshit.

  • 2SLGBTQiIA+ means:

    “Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and others”
    in case anyone was wondering.

    And “Two-Spirit” is a term used mostly by Indigenous North Americans. I believe it’s someone who has both a masculine and feminine spirit and who takes on particular ceremonial roles within their community.

  • “intersex, asexual, and others”
    got sidetracked trying to figure out what the other I is and hit enter too soon.

  • Its takes like this that make me wish Kotaku AU and US were 2 completely different entities.

    Nothing is stopping anyone from playing board games… Nothing.

    There is a rising female or LGBTQI (or whatever letting you add to it this week) player base in all of gaming, with 99.9% of them being welcomed into the community with smiles and open arms. The 0.01% that don’t get welcomed are people who come in to only exclaim bias or want preferential treatment because they’re “special” or “minority of a diverse group” (aka a$$holes).

    If you act entitled or like a toxic person, then you won’t be accepted into a community with gaming, its an attitude thing. If you’re happy, open and accepting (and have a thick skin for jokes) then people will accept you. Act like trash, expect to be taken out.

    • Watch out! I asked for a specific US tag and when our aussie editor in chief said they were trying a certain someone got all narky saying most of the content is us anyway and barely any aus content here so no one really reads here for Aus content.. might as well rename the site!

      Meanwhile Kotaku UK articles used to have their own tags when it was alive and that didnt cause any drama =P

      • He wants to get us a tag, but that there’s lot of factors involved. Personally, I don’t have an issue. It’ll be nice for people to be able to tell what’s AU and what isn’t at a glance.

        On topic of board games…How doesn’t games like drop it and Twister alienate people? It’s possible that because of the cost of board games, and the experience that people usually only play things like monopoly, it’s taking a while for people to realise how good they are.

  • Because only uber-nerds buy them and get seriously invested in them, buying all the expansions like the good little consoomers they are.

    • Ha, yes, good job, Gamer Joker, we’re all very impressed by your ability to have a contrary opinion that hopes to offend. FYI, Bunnings have a sale on chisels this weekend so you can continue to remove all the smooth corners in your house until there’s nothing left but edges.

  • I don’t think the lack of representation should be the main focus, it should be the smell

  • And in today’s comments ‘sensitive white men don’t understand why something that doesn’t affect them isn’t affecting them.’

    • Awkward moment when non-white (and let’s be honest, when people say white, they mean anglo-european) me, hasn’t been represented in any of the board games I play.

      So please, go ahead and “educate” me on how I should be feeling, according to you.

      As I said before, if the reason you choose not to play a board game because of the lack of diversity or representation in the artwork, you have bigger problems.

  • >I regularly noticed that these friendly local game shops were filled with mostly white men, often on their own, wandering the stacks.

    Friendly local game stores are unfortunately somewhat notorious for being unwelcoming to women. All it takes is one guy being a pig.

  • Researcher: here’s some interesting research about what people care about.

    Gamers: despite research and evidence that clearly shows that people care about this topic it makes me mad to think about things I don’t identify with so nobody caaaaaaaaaaaares

    • Pokedad: Im going to ignore the title of the article, the reason for the article so i can make my slight against the people my twitter feed says its okay to have a go at.

    • Hi poke

      If the article was “Why is x so black and male, im trying to figure that out” or “why is x so jewish, im trying to find out” would you still take no issue with the article?

  • I get that this is a lazy crosspost, and that the author isn’t present here, but I’m going to respond as if it were something of value.

    This approach is… baffling. To me, it reads of “hey I just learned how to use R and wanted to look at some data”– the question of ‘why is there such a lack of diversity in X luxury hobby space’ isn’t new or novel, and the factors associated with causality here are, frankly, bizarre; a better thing to do would have been to look to an outspoken community frontpost on the matter w/r/t boardgames, or even adjacent spaces, like tabletop gaming or card games like MtG. Eric Lang has written at length about the struggles of diversity in the industry.

    The primary societal pressures that have squandered diversity in the hobbyspace are identity based, with the follow-on economic pressures as a secondary issue. Women are generally pressured away from hobbies to begin with, especially ones that are purely entertainment or ‘intellectual’ in scope; Gloomhaven is currently selling for around $160 online, and this hobbyspace where ‘just one game isn’t enough’ is the pervasive mentality pushes out those less financially gifted from considering the hobby. These effects are further cascaded by the large overlap between hobby enthusiasts and incels or other conservative groups that seek to use leisure spaces as a reinforcement for their worldviews, actively excluding individuals not like themselves.

    This is also to say nothing of the anecdotal horror story trend, where a person of color or non-male-presenting is harassed or mocked for their presence or interest in the space.

    Packaging *is* a factor, surely– but to say its anywhere as responsible as the above, which also pervade all of the adjacent hobby spaces? At best, poorly researched, at worst disingenuous.

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