Following a recent post on this blog regarding a Slate article about Wingspan, I received a message about a problematic element of the article I hadn’t explored in my post: gender stereotypes.

I replied to the person who sent the message, Natascha, to applaud her insights and offer her this platform to speak more in detail about the issue. I’m honored that she took extensive time and effort to write the following guest post.

***

Guest post by Natascha Bezdenejnih-Snyder

A few weeks ago, I found myself in an uncomfortable situation while reading an online discussion thread.  At first, I stayed on the sidelines, absorbing points made by passionate members from the two most prominent sides of the conversation – among them, several individuals sharing opinions aligned with my own thoughts. I don’t enjoy debating online, but as I continued reading the exchanges, and noticed a gradual heatedness in the tones of responders, I felt that by not participating – by not adding my voice, as a woman – I would be doing more harm than good, quietly watching a discussion become a debate, and then an argument, with my “side” embodied by like-minded strangers representing me, while I was fully capable of sticking up for myself.

The discussion in question: Perpetuation of gender assumptions within the board gaming community, through an examination of the rising popularity of Wingspan.

I must admit, I have conflicting feelings when I see Wingspan mentioned in the mainstream media.  On the one hand, I am excited whenever I see one of my favorite games broadly recognized outside of typical online board game forums.  Inwardly, I cheer when Wingspan is the focus of a newspaper or magazine article, be it digital or physical, not only as a fan of the game itself, but as someone inspired by the story of Elizabeth Hargrave, the game’s designer – one in which someone, in this particular case a woman, took a chance in trying something outside their chosen career path, resulting in a successful outcome adored by many.On the other hand, the recognition of Wingspan by mainstream media often includes assumptions and invites discussions about gender roles and preferences within the board game community.  They are discussions that can easily turn biased despite the participants’ best intentions.  Such was the discussion I found myself getting involved in just a few weeks ago.

Wingspan and Gender Assumptions

The following list contains several gender assumptions I have noticed individuals use when trying to explain Wingspan’s popularity.  My counterarguments are my own opinions, and I am not claiming to represent the thoughts of all women, or anyone but myself, in fact, which is the point. Every person is unique in their preferences, and I see no benefit in individuals – be they journalists or members of an online discussion forum – making generalized statements about what any gender likes or .

Women like pretty games.

Some people may consider aesthetics a key criterion in selecting which board games to play.  That being said, individuals have different opinions in what they may find attractive in a game based on personal preferences.  I have observed men on board game discussion threads state that they find Wingspan to be a pretty game.  This is probably the appropriate time to admit that I, too, find Wingspan to be a pretty game.

Aesthetics, however, holds little to no bearing on my decision as to whether a game is fit to play. The key criteria most important to me in selecting a game are the following: How does the gameplay scale at 2 players (as my husband and I are frequently one another’s only opponents)?; does the game have a solo variant?; what are the primary mechanics of the game?; is the gameplay strategic or tactical?; if I am purchasing the game, does it have high replayability?; etc.  If a game does not meet my defined criteria of what I consider to be quality gameplay, pretty artwork will not sway me toward playing – let alone purchasing – that game.

Women like birds; or, stated more broadly, “Wingspan has a female-friendly theme.”

I think birds are fine.  In fact, I even find them to be pretty and/or cute at times (see above regarding aesthetics).  And it is refreshing to see one board game themed on birds versus another myriad based around dungeons, dragons, castles, and trains.  (That is not to say I have not enjoyed similarly-themed games, but rather that Wingspan flies in the face of the many key tropes of board game theming. No pun intended.)

Similarly, if someone approached me with several different themes to choose from, depending on my mood at that point in time (and underlying gameplay mechanics, etc.), I might prefer to, say, don an exosuit and search for Neutronium to power a time machine (Anachrony).  Or, I might prefer to search and destroy Xenomorphs, and maybe one of these days(?), survive and escape from my spaceship (Legendary Encounters: Alien).  Or, I might prefer to travel Europa in an alternative 1920s, experiencing encounters with the local citizens, and deciding whether to be a positive, neutral, or sinister leader (Scythe).

My husband, who is my main gaming partner, might have suggestions of his own, as far as what to play, depending on what his interests are at that moment, completely independent of gender stereotypes.  He has been known to want to make and sell wine in a Tuscan vineyard (Viticulture); and, play matchmaker between the lovely Elizabeth Fairchild (or the dashing Charles Fairchild) and a member of a mid-19th century English family (Obsession); and, even tailor gowns and frocks so dancers can dress themselves for a Grand French Ball (Rococo).

The idea of “female-friendly” themes holds no appeal to me, just as “male-friendly” themes hold no appeal to my husband. Likewise, “prettiness,” while making a game easier on the eyes, holds lesser sway to us than mechanics, scalability, weight, and, most importantly, who we are playing against, even if it is merely ourselves.  Granted, board games with themes that we consider appealing do tend to capture our attention a bit more than those we find unappealing, and should said themes align well with quality gameplay, that designer earns extra points in our book.  We both enjoy Wingspan for what it is: a game that allows us each to collect birds within specific habitats.

Women like Wingspan due to low levels of conflict.

Wingspan is a eurogame (BoardGameGeek (BGG) definition used, link here).  There are many individuals who prefer to play eurogames, regardless of gender.  I enjoy Uwe Rosenberg games.  Likewise, there are those who enjoy high levels of conflict in their games, either in general or depending on their mood.  For example, I also enjoy playing Twilight Struggle, which is a thematic game about the Cold War.

I’ll pause here and reiterate my core point: It’s quite possible that if you polled 2,000 women gamers, a majority of them may say that they enjoy conflict in games. I’ll get to such a poll in a second. Such data is worth sharing, as publishers seeking to reach a wide spectrum of gamers can use it to offer themes, mechanisms, and elements they may not otherwise have considered. However, the issue is that each of those data points is a person with unique preferences. We lack compassion and empathy when we say things like, “Women don’t like conflict in games,” just as is the case if someone makes assumptions about you based on your ethnicity or age.

Men are motivated by strategic and competitive games. Women are motivated by accessibility and community in games.

Of all the gender assumptions tossed about in the aforementioned online discussion thread, this was the one which finally motivated me to speak up and share my thoughts.  I felt hurt and frustrated reading the back-and-forth of well-intentioned individuals (predominantly men), believing they were sharing general, indisputable facts concerning women’s motivations for board gaming.  Those “facts” did not align with my own motivations, and I didn’t want generalizations being made, on my behalf or anyone else’s, as to what types of board games I, and others, am expected to like and why.  I particularly didn’t like the general implication that, as a woman, I’m not expected to be motivated to play strategic and competitive games.

Within the discussion thread, someone referenced a survey by Nick Yee (link here), analyzing the primary motivations of board gamers.  While an interesting piece, I encourage those interested in reading his findings to exercise caution, review the survey methodology, and maybe try filling out the survey themselves.  Then, they should review their results first before making, or sharing, broad, generalized statements about gender motivations.

Among the >90,000 board gamers who took the referenced survey (blog post dated April 2017), 72.7% identified as male, 26.0% identified as female, and 1.1% identified as other.  So that’s around 23,000 women. About 21% of the individuals surveyed provided their BGG profile name, though a further breakdown of gender was not specified.  Below, I have consolidated Yee’s key findings, regarding primary motivations of board gamers, into a bar graph and summarized chart for ease-of-reading.

Adapted from: Yee, Nick. “The Primary Motivations of Board Gamers: 7 Takeaways,” April 27, 2017.

Top 3 Primary Motivations of Board Gamers

Men
Women
Non-Binary Gender
BGG Gamers
1
Need to Win (12.8%)
Accessibility (17.7%)
Accessibility (16.0%)
Discovery (22.1%)
2
Discovery (11.4%)
Social Fun (16.1%)
Immersion (14.7%)
Strategy (9.9%)
3
Accessibility (10.3%)
Chance (12.2%)
Social Fun (10.6%)
Aesthetics (9.1%)

Adapted from: Yee, Nick. “The Primary Motivations of Board Gamers: 7 Takeaways,” April 27, 2017.

Intriguingly, the primary motivations of BGG Gamers, a sampling not based on sexual identity, skewed notably from all gender-specific categorizations.  As the exact breakdown of this group is unspecified, the statistical differentiation between a gender-specific versus a gender-unspecific sampling of gamers’ primary motivations demonstrates the inherent dangers of community generalizations based on sexual identification.  Broad, oversimplified statements pertaining to group preferences, however well-intentioned they may be, are just that: oversimplified.

After reviewing Yee’s analysis, I was curious what my own motivation profile would look like.  So, I decided to fill out the survey for myself.  I found that the questions provided were well-written and unbiased, assuming my neutral interest in pirates was only supposed to be a random datapoint and not correlated to one of Yee’s eleven primary motivations.  For transparency, my resulting motivation profile is shared below.

It’s plain to see my motivation profile did not match that of the female-specific profile.  So, when I found myself in an online discussion thread in which persons were speaking on behalf of women, stating how we – as an entire gender – are generally motivated by accessibility and community in games, I found myself being pigeonholed into categories that don’t represent me at all.

Moving Beyond Gender Assumptions

I’m happy whenever I see someone post a new discussion thread online along the lines of: Thank you Wingspan!  So-and-So is finally playing a board game with me!  It makes me even happier when I see people responding with encouragements (ignoring any gender implications about the original post), asking probing questions in an attempt to understand what it is about Wingspan that an individual liked or didn’t like, and then suggesting additional games for the individual to try.

Because that is what is wonderful about Wingspan; Wingspan has the ability to introduce non-gamers to the board game hobby due to its accessibility.  It is a quintessential “gateway” game (or “gateway-plus”).  My hope is that Wingspan encourages non-gamers, regardless of gender, to explore additional gaming mechanisms, themes, and weights.  Introducing gender assumptions – or any assumption, be it racial, sexually oriented, religious, etc. – to try to explain why people may like a particular game can unintentionally lead to exclusive behaviors.  Let’s celebrate the idea of having new gaming partners entering our hobby and continue to promote an inclusive and diverse community, instead of trying to categorize others.  I hope that sharing my thoughts and feelings will help promote a welcome community for new board gamers.

What are your thoughts?  Have you encountered any assumptions?  Do you have any possible solutions to share?

***

Thank you so much, Natascha, for writing this! This is brilliant, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to share this on our blog.

If you gain value from the 100 articles Jamey publishes on this blog each year, please consider championing this content!