My new local board game store is in a section of town with tons of black people…I’ve just never seen any of them in the store. And when I think about it, I’ve rarely seen them in other board game stores, either. Today I talked with a friend of mine about the board game shop we both go to. It’s a really great shop, new in town, and already it’s got a pretty thriving community; it’s pretty rare that you can drive by the shop in the evening and not see it packed with people around long tables, playing various card games and moving figures around the battlefield. But, aside from my friend and I, it seems fairly rare that there are people of color in those groups…and it got me thinking today: Do black people play board games? If so, which ones do black people play?
Obviously, this question is hyperbolic to a degree: yes, I, and other black people play board games, and we play the same board games that everyone else does. But walk into your average board game, and you can see the target demographic for the most part: teenage to adult, male, white. Now, joke as people (including myself) may about Portland being the “whitest city in America,” (76.1% white as of the 2010 census, but that data doesn’t mean too much since the population has exploded over the past five years) the fact of the matter is that there’s a tangible black presence in Portland, and you can see black people just a couple blocks away from the shop during the day: many of them are going to/from the nearby community college, while others are shopping at a small market, getting coffee, or doing any of the other things that you’d see people of any other ethnicity do during the day. So why don’t I see them at the shop at night?
To be fair, I’m not at the store constantly. I tend to show up on Saturday nights for Dice and Drinks, an open gathering where people bring games to play with new people. Last week, I saw one black person other than myself there; I never talked to her, but she looked like she was having fun. My friend virtually lives at the store on the other hand; when I asked him about it he said, “Well, there’s two black people I see come in to play Magic, but they only play Magic.” He then told me about how he used to go to a board game store in a diverse neighborhood in San Jose, California, but he generally didn’t see any people of color there. And that got me thinking about all the hobby shops I’ve gone to, and how infrequently I’ve seen black people at them.
I’ve been going to hobby shops since fifth grade, when my Dad would drive me to Clark’s Comics and Cards to buy Star Wars booster packs. Each shop was a little different, and I’d go for a different reason: specific tournaments they hosted, whether they had certain card games in stock, or whether friends liked going there or not. But usually those friends were indeed white. When I returned to my hometown after college I played board games with a group of friends I met through work; I was usually the only black person at those events. Given, I didn’t spend the whole time scanning the area for other black faces, and I still had a great time at those events and with those friends, but I really do wonder to what extent people in minority communities play board games, and not just home classics like Monopoly and Scrabble.
Though I’m not exceptionally well-versed in board games, I know video games pretty damned well. When I worked at Gamestop, I saw people of all sorts of ethnic backgrounds come in to the shop. There were two times that we’d see tons of black people in particular come in the shop though: the release of a new Madden game, or a new NBA 2K game. Sure, black people played other games, too: everyone plays Call of Duty, and AAA franchises like Mass Effect and Grand Theft Auto had universal appeal. But black people love those two sports franchises in particular, and I wonder if it has something to do with the familiarity of the content and the ability to identify with in-game characters: it’s easy to be familiar with how football and basketball work, and both franchises are made up of a lot of black people, people who are already familiar in the community, making them more comfortable characters to play with and approach.
Let’s get this crap out of the way real quick: I don’t presume to speak for all black people, and I certainly don’t mean to suggest that black people play nothing but the aforementioned franchises. But I do think that there’s a barrier to comfort within gaming-at-large to underrepresented groups of all kinds: not seeing people like you makes you feel out-of-place, inherently uncomfortable even at a subtle, subliminal level. I didn’t realize it for myself until I played Mass Effect 3: the series was my first time playing a game with a fully voice-acted black character. Even more significant, sharing conversations with Jacob, another fully-voiced black character, one who wasn’t spouting off stereotypes or obviously dropped into the storyline for political correctness, felt like talking with family or a close friend in a way I’d never experienced in another game. But Mass Effect 3 was released in 2012: I’d been gaming for decades before I realized the issue. And the only reason my main character, Joshua Shepard, was black was because I designed him to be: any box art or “official” representations of Shepard were white, with the bald, buzz-cut look so popular at the time.
So why do I tell that story? Because, even though video games are becoming increasingly diverse, I rarely recall seeing black characters in card or board games. Media in general makes it difficult to find non-white people in roles not specifically designated for a minority: the Asian shopkeeper, the black “urban” best friend, so on and so forth. Generally the prescription to fix these practices is to involve more creators of color: more directors, more producers, more executives with diverse backgrounds who can identify tropes and think out of the box when it comes to casting and script implementation. The key isn’t to make media specifically for minorities; it’s to allow minorities to fulfill roles that break out of stereotypes, allowing society as a whole to think about that group of people more broadly and realistically.
Searching for “black game designers” on Google pulls a rather small list of figures; they’re people who’ve done lots of work, but are exclusively in the video game space. A search for “black board game designers” seems to utterly confound the search engine, and searching for “black card game designers” seems to just bring up Cards Against Humanity horror stories (it’s not that great a game, folks; it’s just Apples to Apples for people who want to feel edgy and politically incorrect). The only picture of black board game designers I could find was this one for a game called Discover Omaha from 1978. That’s not to say there aren’t more out there, but they certainly aren’t easy to find. I searched for board games that might be marketed for a black audience; most of them were the equivalent of after-school specials, not games that people would play with friends just to hang out and have a good time. Though games can be an excellent opportunity to learn, generally people don’t walk in to a board game to receive a school lesson or guilt (which might be why Black Blocks feels so uncomfortable when portrayed like something I’d just whip out on a Saturday night with friends). And then there’s Ghettopoly, which just plain exploits disgusting stereotypes, presumably for non-black people.
Over the last few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about game creation in under-represented communities. I think games are a fantastic way to tell a story about a place or time, to illuminate a struggle or call attention to an issue in addition to providing people a way to have fun. Though the tools for video game creation can be expensive or require knowledge of coding skills, board games and card games don’t require much other than paper and pencils at their very core. Black people don’t need their own special board games, but they need to be represented in games just like other minorities need to be represented, just like everyone, and not like slaves because of a “historical context.” It’d be great to play a game that has more than just a token black token, one that has multiple people of various backgrounds simply doing what every other wizard, soldier, or zombie hunter would do. That’s the world we live in today, and it only makes sense that everyone have a seat at the tabletop.