The Box Matters: How Publishers Can Prioritize Diversity

21 March 2019 | 26 Comments

When Elizabeth Hargrave sat down with me at Gen Con 2016 to pitch Wingspan to Stonemaier Games, I was just looking for a good game, and I got one. But I also got lucky, because despite our focus on inclusivity, we weren’t doing everything in our power to attract a diversity of designers. I was lucky that Elizabeth gave us a chance anyway.

Today I’d like to explore some of the things publishers can do to prioritize diversity. I could spend a whole article talking about why I value diversity and why I think it benefits everyone in the industry, but if you’ve already made up your mind that diversity doesn’t matter, I doubt anything I say will convince you otherwise. Instead, I’ll just give 2 quick reasons/examples:

  • I want to play and publish games with a variety of themes and mechanisms. While men are fully capable of creating a variety of themes and mechanisms, I think the umbrella expands even further when women design the types of games they want to play too. As a gamer, I enjoy variety, and as a publisher, I like finding new ways to invite people into the hobby. That’s exactly what has happened with Wingspan. 27% of the members of the Wingspan Facebook group are women, compared to 8.5% in the Scythe group.
  • I have two amazing nieces, and I want to provide them with every opportunity possible to have happy, fulfilling lives. I believe that they should have women across every industry to look up to. As Elizabeth says, “It’s one thing to tell a kid that they can be anything they want to be. Seeing people like themselves in the world makes all the difference.”

Before I continue, I want to be clear in saying that diversity isn’t just about gender. It’s about sexuality, race, ethnicity, age, nationality, religion, and more. Some of the methods I describe below address all types of diversity and inclusivity; others focus on only a few of those categories.

Also, I want to give a big shoutout to Lila Sadkin and her eye-opening article about Wingspan and diversity. I’ve read it a number of times just in the last few days, and it’s had a profound impact on me.

How Publishers Can Prioritize Diversity

  • Display the Names of Designers AND Illustrators on the Cover: I really, truly think the names on the box make a difference, both in terms of marketability and inspiration. While the number of female game designers is small but growing, there are quite a few female illustrators, so the box is a great opportunity to feature them (and any illustrator–they have a big impact on the game). In fact, seven out of the eight games published by Stonemaier have lead female artists (Charterstone isn’t shown below because it’s a husband-wife team under the name of Mr. Cuddington). As Elizabeth tweeted, “I’ve definitely gotten some notes from parents about their girls noticing my name on the box. It matters.”

  • Feature a Diverse Array of People in the Art: I think we subconsciously are drawn to visuals that reflect ourselves (or who we want to be). Whenever I send instructions to an artist, I specify up front that we’re looking for a wide variety of people–I don’t assume they’re going to automatically do that. Also, we stopped offering paid customized art a long time ago because it didn’t give us control over the variety of people who paid to have their portraits in the game.
  • Send Games to a Diverse Array of Reviewers: This is another way to reach a wide spectrum of people and offer potential customers a variety of perspectives. Here’s a list of 33 female-led game reviewers (some are husband-wife teams) that we support, and others are welcome to join the Stonemaier Games list reviewer list here. (Thanks to Beth Sobel for encouraging more female reviewers to add themselves to our list.)
  • Examine Your Submission Process for Unintended Biases and Barriers: Part of this involves asking hard questions like, “Do you think there’s anything about our submission process that may (accidentally) discourage more female designers from submitting games?” Another part that Elizabeth mentioned to me is offering several different submission methods, as some designers might not be as comfortable at a convention or in a video playthrough. That’s why we offer a variety of options after the initial form submission (which I require all designers to fill out–there is no back-door method that could result in unconscious bias).
  • Consider a Diverse Array of Applicants When Hiring: Hopefully this goes without saying, but I’m saying it just in case!
  • Attract People Who Believe in Inclusivity: You have the power to set the tone for the entire culture by calling for volunteers in an inclusive way (look at the wording on our Ambassador page for an example) and by reinforcing those principles in public groups and forums via no-tolerance policies on sexism, racism, etc.
  • Localize and/or Translate Your Games: There’s a vast variety of people out there in the world who can offer interesting perspectives, but many of them don’t speak English (or your primary language) fluently. By offering localized or translated versions of your games, you greatly expand the breadth of people you reach.
  • Seek Diversity Among Playtesters: At Stonemaier Games, I coordinate multiple rounds of blind playtesting for each product, working with different lead playtesters each time. For each round, I try to select a mix of male and female blind playtesters so I can get an array of perspectives about the game. This is a direct impact on the final product.
  • Broadcast Your Desire for a Diversity of Designers: AEG and Jellybean Games have both done this; from what I’ve heard, in a short period of time they attracted significantly more female and minority designers than they normally would have. My hope is that this article will have a similar impact for Stonemaier Games. If this resonates with you and you’ve designed an amazing game, please take a look at our submission guidelines.

***

In your constructive opinion, what can publishers do to better prioritize, encourage, and enable diversity and inclusivity? I’d love to hear your answers to that question in the comments.

If you ever have something specific you’d like to say about Stonemaier Games in regards to diversity and don’t want to post here, you can reach me at contact@stonemaiergames.com. While that’s not your responsibility, I genuinely want to improve, and information helps. I applaud the courage of people who are willing to first go to the source to highlight concerns and solve problems.

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26 Comments on “The Box Matters: How Publishers Can Prioritize Diversity

  1. Going a step farther than the name on the box, I’m a bit surprised that games have rarely taken their cue from literature in displaying pictures and short bios of the creators somewhere on the packaging.

    1. That’s interesting, Logan. I’ve only seen that on a few box bottoms, and it’s always struck me as a bit odd. I don’t know if that’s because it’s so rare or if it’s the juxtaposition of art next to a photograph or something else.

      1. I think as a reader I am paying more attention to the names of authors, wanting to read their next book etc. whereas I suppose a lot of more casual gamers are already overwhelmed by the many games to choose from and simply don’t care about the „author“ of the game – so personally I want a pretty box and one that lets me know a little bit about the game on the back. But I would love to find information on the designers and illustrators and maybe on why they did this game somewhere inside the rulebook because this lets me connect to the game and it’s creators in a more personal way. I know that space in a rulebook is valuable but maybe something like this would be possible?

  2. Great blog on an important subject.

    Thanks for publicising Lila’s excellent article. I agree with her point about a wider range of themes appealing to people who may be turned off or feel excluded by fantasy and war-based themes. I’d add that in terms of game mechanics, the rise of cooperative games can also be a factor in helping broaden the appeal of gaming to a wider audience.

    Some other thoughts for publishers (hopefully obvious, but worth checking):
    – Ensure rules are written and proof-read from an inclusive perspective – eg if using names of players in examples, then use non-gender-specific names or a balanced gender mix, and use names suggesting a range of ethnic backgrounds;
    – Watch out for perpetuating stereotypes within the game, eg if you have characters/occupations/roles in the game check whether more powerful roles are predominantly male; consider whether gender specific terms are necessary – eg would ‘Ruler’ or ‘Monarch’ work rather than ‘King’?
    – Design in accessibility for people with visual impairments, eg pay attention to text size and font to make as clearly readable as possible; look at components under different light conditions using colour vision deficiency simulators to check that components don’t appear similar [there are good apps available that simulate different types of colour-blindness, eg CVSimulator] – use shapes as well as colours where possible, etc.
    – When republishing/reprinting games actively review all the artwork, text, components, credits etc with diversity/inclusion in mind.

    1. This is an awesome list, Dave! I usually use second-person (“you”) in our rulebooks, and, when necessary, the singular “they” instead of he/she. I like your comments about colorblindness too. I’ve been using a mobile app called Color Blind Pal that’s really cool.

    2. I was so frustrated to open up the Coimbra rulebook recently and come across “the player…he.” I literally said out loud, “I guess I’m not supposed to play this game.” Major publishers should know better at this point.

  3. Most of the more frustrating ones of these don’t apply to Stonemaier to my knowledge but are worth bearing in mind all the same. I can only speak of autism and LGBTQIA+ issues (bisexual, in a same sex relationship, specifically) with authority, everything else is second or third hand.

    Don’t make your representation a stretch goal, or even save it for the expansion. “All the characters are men in the base game, but the expansion adds four new characters, two of them women” or “3 out of four of the characters are men, but there’s an alternate art stretch goal that gives all four characters opposite gender alternate art” is a really poor way of doing representation, since it sends a very strong message, and not the message you want to be sending if you care about diversity – It tells people that they’re an afterthought. I thought this had stopped since I was on kickstarter more regularly until it was specifically flagged as a thing that’s still a thing in a fairly recent Dice Tower episode.

    On inclusiveness in art specifically – Please consider aspects beyond gender and race, which is what discussions of representation in board game art typically focuses on (Though those discussions tend not to be frequent enough – These are both areas that the board game hobby needs to improve), but also a wider variety of body types, depicting disabilities in a positive light, and have the depiction of same sex couples in way you might for different sex couples such as a couple holding hands in a piece of art.

    If you’re using flavour text to flesh out characters, and would mention a male character’s wife in that flavour text, putting the representation of the fact one of the female characters also has a wife rather than leaving that for supplementary material might be a good idea? Or maybe this fantasy world has one of it’s kingdoms ruled by a same sex couple, as Magic the Gathering had a couple of years ago. Giving people more than just subtext, however incidental to the experience, can go a long way. (That depiction of a same sex couple in Magic? I hadn’t been playing the game for several years when it happened, and I still heard about it, and it absolutely makes me more likely to dabble with Magic again in the future (And almost a certainty if Arena ever comes to iOS or Switch))

    Or, better yet, go further and mechanically support same sex relationships. I believe Dead of Winter changed the text on one of the cards to not assume the characters are all heterosexual due to feedback from a play test – Which also streamlined the rules text on that card since it no longer cared about what gender the characters on the location were. While likely necessary for some themes, it just gets tiring to see heterosexual relationships mechanically supported, implicitly or explicitly, and any acknowledgement of other relationships entirely absent after what feels like countless games doing that.

    Equal numbers of playable characters across gender lines (or even unequal in favour of female characters – The balance has been towards us men for so long, it would take a… Specific kind of individual… to object to the occasional game with 4 women and 2 men as the playable characters). Maybe have double sided player mats with equivalent characters of each gender on each side, though that approach doesn’t allow for representation of people who don’t identify as either men or women. Still, better than five player mats four of them depicting men, and only the pink one depicts a woman.

    This one’s kind of a big one – Consulting with communities rather than just depicting them can help with the exoticism issue that board gaming (all nerd hobbies, really) can have, particularly with the depiction of South East Asian cultures.

    If there’s a small dexterity or otherwise physical or speed element to a game, like the sand timer in Wordsy, having official variants that remove that element can make the game more accessible to people who would struggle with that for whatever reason, and sure – people can come up with variants themselves, but having the variant in the box lets people know you considered them.

    1. This is fantastic, Stephen! Thank you very much for sharing. There’s a lot to like here, and I think my favorite part is, “a wider variety of body types, depicting disabilities in a positive light, and have the depiction of same sex couples in way you might for different sex couples such as a couple holding hands in a piece of art.”

      1. Thanks. That’s really helpful advice.

        For Euphoria: Ignorance is Bliss, we asked playtesters to submit suggestions for recruit names based on their own country and region.

        We were locked in to having a lot of white western men, though, because some years ago we asked the community for help with recruit ideas and let them submit photos and names for those recruits. I was really happy to represent those people who had helped us, but the effect was a bias in recruits (we did what we could to balance on the remaining recruits).

  4. A big part of this, is being willing to seek out a diverse group of gamemakers. Lots of contests and requests for submissions will garner a fairly homogenous group of people, despite perhaps getting an overwhelming number of results. You have to be willing sometimes, to pass on some of those results, to make room for a more diverse set of folks you’re involving. That work, in our relatively small community, can rub some folks the wrong way. While that’s understandable, it’s also a barrier publishers have to be willing to climb past, if we seek to create a more diverse gamesverse.

  5. Great article on diversity that is applicable to life as well as publishing games. There is a reason for the rise in the awareness of social issues. They exist because there IS a problem with sex, race, and religion inclusiveness in modern society.

    Having a progressive perspective on diversiy is great and means a lot when a person of leadeship point the way down the path. The hard part for most people is, there is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.

    1. 03/21/19 DS Comment on Stonemaier Diversity Post, “The Box Matters”

      Tim:
      Your last sentence deserves to be in ALL CAPS!

      To get more walkers, might there be a newly created site that collects all the suggestions, where role model gatekeepers—game publishers, designers, artists, writers, reviewer, PR personnel et al—can sign up to “adopt”/commit to implementing specific suggestions and reporting the observed effects of doing so on both themselves and the newly included. Such actions could gain status if they were rewarded concretely (e.g., diversity catalyst awards) in addition to the personal satisfaction derived from doing good.

  6. It’s great to see companies considering the lack of diversity in the industry. It would be great to see conversations like this include people of all genders as well! As a nonbinary designer, I often feel left out of these discussions.

    Publishers can also make sure rule books use inclusive language and work harder to make sure designs are accessible to people coming from a wider variety of experiences.

    And of course all these ideas are great on a small scale, but having a greater diversity of people running the show makes such a huge difference! A company run by a person who is a minority in this community won’t have to ask a lot of these questions – they will naturally bring these ideas along with their personal experiences to the table.

    My partner put it really nicely: “If you have diverse decision makers, you will have diverse games.”

  7. This is an awesome article, and it means a lot to me, a transgender woman trying to break into the industry, to see yet another company striving for diversity. My only complaint is that a lot of what you mention are subtle changes. All of what you mention are great steps, and while they help promote diversity, and promote the idea of wanting diversity, I would argue that actually prioritizing diversity takes a much heavier hand.

    If a publisher really wants to prioritize diversity the best way to do that is by going out of their way to make it happen. It’s one thing to put the right words and phrases on your website and wait for the diversity to come to you, but to actively seek it out and strive to fill a gap that you want to see filled is much more valuable.

    Imagine if a major publisher put a call out to designers for games with LGBT themes in their games, or for games specifically designed by teenagers, or for games that are geared specifically for couples to play together.

    AEG did something amazing last July and announced that their theme for Big Game Night 2020 would be women game designers, specifically calling for women to submit their games to AEG for the event. That is exactly what I want to see more of.

  8. The use of “they” as a genderless singular word is interesting to me as a Dane. The corresponding Danish word is “de” and if you use that in the singular you’ll be met by jokes like “you don’t need to refer to me in plural majestatis”.

    Previously, it was used when talking to a single person in a formal way, but basically no one does this today.

    The result is that when “they” is used in the singular in English it grates my ears and it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I realized that “they” could actually be singular. This is not me trying not to be inclusive :-) it’s just 40 years of conditioning. To understand this, try to imagine reading a text where “she” was used to refer to multiple people – it would likely grate your ears :-)

  9. This is a great post, and it means a lot to me as a transgender woman trying to break into the industry to see yet another company striving for diversity. All the things you mentioned are great steps in the right direction, but they are all rather subtle. I would argue that prioritizing diversity often requires a much heavier hand.

    If a publisher really wants diversity, they need to do more than just open the door. They need to be actively seeking that diversity out. Imagine if a publisher put out a call for games with specifically LGBT themes, games that were designed by teenagers, games that feature a disability as a core mechanic, or put players in the role of a minority.

    AEG did something amazing last July. They announced that the theme for Big Game Night 2020 would be women game designers, and specifically requested that women submit their prototypes for consideration.

    I truly think Stonemaier Games is doing an amazing job promoting diversity. This post alone is a great example of the type of heavy hand that’s needed. My Little Scythe is another amazing example of seeking out diversity.

    Diversity is hard. It takes effort. In an ideal world it wouldn’t be this way, but until the industry begins to look like the demographics of the real world more can always be done.

  10. I have always been a stranger to the gender diversity topic. When I was graduating university I remember this also being a daily topic, but most of my classmates were women and I never realized that. Now, in business, it is the same thing. I’ve never thought about a person by their gender and I’ve never had any friends or associates that do that (excluding when having interest in a girl or something like that, of course), maybe it strongly depends on the field?

    In board gaming here lots of people were commenting about Elizabeth, but I’ve never heard a comment like “Wow, she’s a woman!” or something like that. Nobody seems impressed or cares that she’s a girl, she’s a good designer that made a good game?

    I don’t know if this is a good or a bad thing, but I myself have also never been impressed that something is done by a woman (or a man, for that matter). But again, maybe it depends on the field.

    1. You may not have heard it, but I’ve heard directly from a lot of people who say it means a lot to them to see a design by a woman do so well. Especially parents of girls who have noticed my name on the box. Especially other women who are designing games.

      That’s because many of them have never seen such a thing before. Wingspan is the only game in the top 200 on Board Game Geek that was designed solely by a woman. There are only a handful of female co-designers in the top 200.

      To be so far away from 50-50 is a pretty strong sign that the industry could be more welcoming to women.

      Everyone I’ve ever heard say that they don’t see gender in games is in the vast male majority. The women in gaming that I have spoken with are acutely aware of gender, because it’s a very strange and uncomfortable feeling to walk into a room full of people who are visibly unlike you. To be the odd one out.

      And yet some of us keep coming back to those all-male events anyway.

      My hope is that more diverse designers will attract more diverse people into gaming, and some of those gamers will, in turn, become designers. I’d love to see that positive feedback loop get a push from publishers who understand that when you’re missing 50% of the population who could be designing games, you’re probably missing 50% of the innovations and awesomeness that are possible. All gamers will benefit from balancing out the extreme lopsidedness in this industry.

  11. IF I ever have an opportunity to start my own publishing company, I intend to make sure everyone is credited with their contributions to the process exactly the same way a comic book or graphic novel does.

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