Every so often a question will pop up on one of the Facebook board game groups, something like "what can we do to get more women playing board games?"
As a woman who worked in the video game industry in the last two decades, I’m very conscious of how female characters have been represented in games. I'm also an immigrant living in California, so when we design game characters, it's important to me that those characters represent gender and race diversity. Gaming is an inclusive hobby, we need to make the effort to reflect that in design. I don’t want a bunch of half naked gals surrounded by nothing but buff bronzed males thank you very much. I want characters that our players will engage with and enjoy playing, and that fit in our setting. With the move to Legacy, and with character development featuring heavily in the game, it's especially important for there to be balance in diversity representation.
When Zombie Legacy was Zombie Rising, we had 5 main player characters: Katie, Ace, Angel, Ben and DeAndre. We started with the back stories for each of our characters as a brief for our artist and some really awful pictures we printed from the internet that we used for the rough paper prototypes. These were sent to our artist with the caveat that the images DID NOT represent our vision for the game, and the briefing that I wanted kick ass women but no boob shaped armor, no scantily clad overtly sexy stereotypes. I'm always disappointed when I'm checking out a game I'm interested in and then I discover the female characters are in bikini armor or worse.
In terms of racial diversity, I thought we were doing ok, until we were at a game convention play testing and someone suggested we should consider swapping the characters out for more ethnic characters. Andrew and I shared a stunned look and focused on taking down notes. I looked at our characters and I saw Hispanic, I saw African American and I saw Asian (for example), I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It really bothered me although I didn’t express it at the time. I thought all of our characters fit into our board game representation of an albeit fictional Bay Area. At the same convention, I attended an authors’ panel about diversity in fiction and it drove home that I had to go back and review our character design, I couldn’t just assume anything.
As we were reviewing our characters, we decided to increase the player character count from 5 to 10, even though this would increase the cost of manufacture. This allowed us to balance men and women equally, and represent more ethnicities. And when players select their back story stickers they can choose from backgrounds that have either gender specific or neutral gender pronouns. Now, although we cannot represent everything, only 1 of our characters is the stereotypical brown haired white male.
So how did this go over in subsequent play testing? Well, we got no more comments on diversity, but we did have one interesting result: Out of our 10 main character stickers, only one character was never chosen - the old bald guy with a pick axe. So no one wants to be old during the Apocalypse and the weapon he has isn't very inspiring. So that's something we're revisiting in our design.
Having a wider range of people playing may turn out to be generational, but I think that for the most part if we want more women playing board games or a broader range of people playing then we improve our chances if we are inclusive in our game designs and aim for more balanced representation in games. Not just in pictures but how those characters are represented, and what type of gameplay roles those characters have.
Check out The Mary Sue for games that do well with gender representation. I also love this Geek and Sundry article on inclusion in gaming
Diversity issues in games are wider than gender and I highly recommend listening to the interview with the founder of I Need Diverse Games featured in Episode 38 of Our Turn: Women on Gaming Podcast.