Back when I was studying for my MFA in Creative Writing, there was a recurring social event among the writers in our group dedicated to playing Risk — I think it was Risk Legacy. It was an all-evening affair involving pizza, booze and sleep-deprivation, attended primarily by men. Like most of the other women in our group, I received an email invite, but consistently declined to go. At the time, I thought: “Well, I don’t like playing Risk. Board games just aren’t my thing.”
It’s true: I have a hard time paying attention to rules explanations, and a history of being bad at chess. Once, I threw a Stratego board across the kitchen at my sister when she beat me.
Interestingly, when I declined to attend the Risk night, I felt a similar anger, but at the time I couldn’t articulate why. The men in our program never told us we weren’t invited to this event, and others like them — drinking power hours, Sunday football with homemade hot wings, late-night anime and video game marathons. And these men were poets, prose artists, self-styled cultural critics, all pursuits I didn’t think of as traditionally masculine.
My misconceptions and lack of feminist insight feel silly now, but before entering academia, I’d been a horticulturist, prep cook, and farm worker. My dad got his bachelor’s in Electrical Engineering and my mom was a nurse, both middle-class people who valued responsibility and hard work. Raised by them, I learned a defensive feminism linked with handling outright sexual aggression on the part of male co-workers and strangers. I didn’t understand the subtle chords patriarchy plays in the world of the hyper-educated. Graduate school in the humanities is touted as a land of progressive social values, but over the years, I learned that was a lie — traditional roles exist, but are disguised, or denied in eloquent and confusing ways.
During my MFA program, I carefully watched the ways the men in our group bonded over Risk Legacy. They had inside jokes and mystifying references to previous encounters. I felt excluded, but publicly stated I didn’t believe everyone should be invited to everything. I ascribed my anger and confusion to personal insecurities, social awkwardness, and being a little crazy (women, please let me know if this sounds familiar).
Then, after I graduated, I ended up joining a group of people who were passionate about board games. After graduate school, I was lonely, in need of a new social home, and I returned to my undergraduate roots as an unapologetic nerd. The majority of the group was men, but some were women, and I had a lot of fun. I attended that game night pretty regularly, and got to try a lot of different popular indie games: 7 Wonders, Mascarade, Skull, Coup, Pandemic, Splendor, Mysterium. Eventually, I even invented a game for a local board game inventing competition, CUDO Plays. I began to feel that board games were “my thing.”
During this time, I observed a pattern in many women who played board games — behavior I also shared. Though they always showed up to the gatherings, these women seemed less invested in winning games than the men. Some quit halfway through to post on Facebook, or claimed they were “bad at math.” And I felt a strong internal pressure to act similarly. I was timid, indecisive when it came to my turn. After a while, I realized the reason for this behavior was that women are not socialized to value beating their friends in contests of intellectual or physical strength. Are we competitive? Yup. Are we sharp? Hell yeah. But we only compete when we value what winning means, and don’t fear its social consequences.
As an experiment, I decided to try value winning. I resisted the very strong fear that I’d be disliked if I crushed my new friends with superior drive and intellect. My aggressive, competitive side emerged, and I started looking at strategic environments as fascinating and manipulable, rather than as pointless exercises. I learned how to become a threat, and to express my personality while doing it.
This helped me understand my reaction to the Risk Legacy night. For me and many of my female friends to enjoy attending, we’d have to actively push against our socialization as women, like I did when I decided to want to win. On the surface, we were excluded by our interests; but interests are partially determined by gender (and class, and race) — our hobbies are not just what we like, but who we are.
I do think it’s okay to create social events based on interests only some people share. Board games are one of my favorite ways to hang out and relax, and I don’t want to give that up. I imagine my friends who played Risk felt the same way. But like any social event, a board game night should be planned intelligently. A diverse group could make your game night feel like an adventure, rather than acting as a mechanism of social division. So here are a few suggestions for feminist ways to re-make your board game night:
Consider that a group full of interesting personalities could be just as fun to play games with as a group of people who already have an extensive knowledge of game systems.
Play a higher-level game of rhetoric — where success means persuading female friends to actually participate in competitions of intellectual strength, and then being comfortable when they win.
If women join the group, but don’t seem to care about winning, understand they aren’t “playing the game wrong” as long as they obey the agreed-upon rules of the board game at hand; they may be deriving a different kind of satisfaction from fantasizing and interacting via the game, rather than simply trying to win.
Create social events that include board games, but also offer opportunities for other kinds of connection and engagement.
Contemplate the impact of rapid-fire references to inside jokes, and the use of group-insider language, especially on newcomers and group members with different cultural backgrounds.
Actively welcome women to join your game group and demonstrate the ways you will make them feel safe — rather than just CC-ing them on an email in a half-baked attempt to prevent them from later writing blog posts about the insidious ways you reinforce gender norms.
If someone makes you feel uncomfortable, relish the experience, and wonder why you might be drawn to difficult board games, but the easiest of social situations.
I acknowledge dismantling entrenched gender roles, and working to make people feel safe, is very hard. It’s confusing, and requires effort, attention, and nontrivial thinking on the part of both men and women. But people who can win at strategy games are logistical, organized, detail-oriented and creative —the exact skills needed to make outsiders feel more included.
Those skills are also key to leadership and service, which are things I’ve noticed both men and women are feeling particularly called to do right now. And that’s why even though attending to the social dynamics of your board game night may feel small, its actually a big deal: like Risk Legacy, most board games are tiny models of real-world systems, and teaching power-compromised players how to game those systems might transform the way they work.
That’s certainly been true for me. Board games became my thing, and now my thing has become board games: I see my career (and its patriarchal challenges) as a series of strategic moves. This call to make board gaming inclusive is one of them. I hope you’re as interested as I am in talking about the positive political plays that games, and gamer culture, can make next.