Welcome back to the middle of dinner with Elizabeth Hargrave, the immensely personable designer of the award-winning game Wingspan, as well as the recent monarch migration game Mariposas. Normally I take these interviews very lightly; I joke, I lightly make fun of both games and people. But today’s discussion ventures into some serious territory, and I want to emphasize that I do not take discrimination lightly. I have tried to present games and comments to further elucidate the course of discussion, but please do not misread these comments as belittlement or ridicule. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I felt my conversation with Elizabeth was both important and personally enlightening.
DTD: So, you’re also… You’re very big into activism, which I think is just absolutely incredible. You’ve been a great voice for the gaming community. And I have to just commend you, even on your webpage. It’s such a great resource for, just an index of who’s who, that you didn’t think of. Of underrepresented people in in gaming in general. I didn’t know if this is something that you wanted to get into or not.
DTD: Oh, cool, so I was wondering, and I agree that in gaming there are so many underrepresented groups. Do you think that this is something that’s best addressed by bringing it to the attention of the consumers, or is it something that may be better addressed by bringing it to the attention of publishers, and people who would be hiring these people? Or do you think all awareness of this is nothing but good? Do you have thoughts on that? These are just things that have floated through my mind when I worry about it.
EH: I mean, I think that to-do list is different for different audiences. I think it’s worth being aware of it anywhere, because I think at the consumer level, I often get pushback from people who are like, “Yeah, I just want a good game. I never even look at the designer’s name.”
DTD: I hear that, and I understand it, but it also annoys me that people have just this, this gut attack on it. Which I don’t understand.
EH: Right. I mean, number one, I don’t think that’s true for most people who buy games. I do think that they pay attention to the designer. I think they’re throwing that out there to be contrarian.
DTD: I think it used it used to be true, but nowadays I don’t think it’s true anymore.
When I started playing games heavily in the 90s I don’t think I knew about designers. I just kind of assumed companies made games. But it soon became clear that certain people showed up again and again, and I either liked or disliked their style of game. And today, I make it a point to recognize designers on most games I play.
EH: Yeah, I don’t know. But you know, I think the to do list for the consumer is, you know, maybe make sure that you’re doing some work to find the good games that are out there. That are things that you might like better, by people that aren’t like you. Because they might be interesting, and that could be a fun project, right? To find those games. But more importantly, probably, is to be more aware about what’s going on in the spaces that you’re gaming in. If you are someone who just games at home with friends, that’s fine.
I picked the excellent Let’s Make a Bus Route as a game I found that surprised me in how different and “not like me” it ended up being.
DTD: OK, you’re talking about the social aspect of gaming.
EH: But like, any sort of public space where you’re gaming, if it’s like overwhelmingly one demographic, then you need to be really aware that people who don’t fit into that demographic are going to feel uncomfortable walking into that space a lot of times. And there are things you can do to make them feel more comfortable, right?
EH: And so that, I would say, is the big thing to be working on at the consumer level.
DTD: Agreed. It’s tough. Gamers… I don’t know, maybe I’m with the wrong circle of gamers. But gamers tend to be not the most social people in the world, and I have a little bit more… Working as a veterinarian, working with the public, I’ve gotten very, very good at hiding the fact that I am socially awkward and terrified. So, I can invite people in, and I really try to bring more people in, but I remember walking into a gaming store and just standing terrified. Don’t want to join any games, don’t want to talk to any people, and everybody at the tables, who are playing, just kind of look up the new person and look like a deer in headlights, terrified.
DTD: We tend to not be the socially “ept” group. But I agree there should be universal acceptance. I mean that’s… We’re there to have fun, and it’s pretty much more fun if you get someone else in there, playing your game.
EH: Right. And I think that that’s one thing that people who push back sometimes don’t think about, is if we can grow the market for, you know, the number of people who are playing games, that’s only going to strengthen the supply of games that we get to play, and the supply of people to play them with. There is no downside to bringing more people in to the hobby.
DTD: I agree. Well, I mean, you know, in any group, there’s some people who are going to be bad. You can regret inviting that one jerk in here.
EH: Sure, right. You don’t want to bring in more jerks to the hobby! [laughs]
DTD: But that’s not… That’s a universal issue. You get that at the grocery store. So do you think that people should play games, just because the designer is in an underrepresented group?
EH: That’s a good question.
DTD: It’s a tough question.
EH: I mean, it’s something I’m interested in doing, right? I wanted check out things that are done by people who aren’t like me, the same way that I like to read novels by people from other places, and listen to music from people from other life experiences. I think games have the same aspect to them, so it’s something that I’m interested in doing for sure. Right now, it’s not that’s easy to do because…[although] there are more and more women…I think we’re definitely far from 50:50 designing.
DTD: Well, there’s more and more men as well. That’s the problem. More and more games.
EH: And then, like, people of color. People of color breaking into the board games industry are decades behind women breaking into the board games industry. And women breaking into the board game industry are like decades behind any other sector of life that I have ever experienced.
EH: When I started doing health policy in the 90s, I was in a women and health policy group, right? Because the places that we were working were still slightly male dominated. And it was nice to make those connections. That was like utopia compared to the gender dynamics in board games, so…
DTD: Wow. So, should… Well, obviously publishers should be accepting games from anybody. They should be giving equal weight to any game that arrives. Is it that… Well, obviously, less are going to be submitted from underrepresented groups, because they are underrepresented. There’s less people. It’s the numbers.
EH: Right. And I’m concerned that there’s a chicken and egg there.
DTD: Yeah, it is really worrisome.
EH: That to the extent that all the games are being… Not all the games, the vast majority of games historically have been designed by people from a very specific demographic sector, and are there things about those games that that make them less appealing to other demographic groups on average?
DTD: Which then feeds itself.
EH: Right, right. I think that’s part of what’s going on. I think… I would not guess that most publishers are being consciously discriminatory. I think most of them have the intention to take anyone that comes and evaluate all the games equally. There’s a lot of work done out there about unconscious bias.
EH: Which I do think could be at play. But it’s hard to have evidence one way or the other.
DTD: Because it’s unconscious.
EH: But it’s at play, every place that anyone has ever studied it. So, I don’t think we should assume that not at play here.
DTD: Oh, exactly. It would be, it would be ridiculous to assume that it’s not there.
EH: But there’s a lot of other stuff going on, right? So like, as you said, designers are going to come out of the population of gamers, so if the population of gamers is skewed, then the population designers is going to be skewed. And at the publisher level, publishers have always had a strong financial incentive to go with people who have already published games, who have their own following, right?
DTD: It’s less risky.
EH: Like Reiner Knizia is going to be publishing games for the rest of his life. And he should be; he’s earned it. But for every time that a publisher goes back to him, and publishes one of his games. They’re like… They have every incentive to do that, but at the same time, they’re not doing anything to change the status quo. And if we want to change the make-up of the population of board game designers, we have to. publish games by people who haven’t published games before.
Reiner Knizia currently has 620 games listed on BGG. Starting with his self published Digging (Desperados) in 1980.
DTD: And I think it’s all being blocked by the fact that historically, board games is an anonymous industry. You don’t see the person who designed it, you buy a game.
EH: As a consumer, yeah.
DTD: As a consumer, I apologize. As a consumer. So, as a consumer you’re kind of at the whim of what the publishers are offering you. And the publishers are repeat publishing whatever designer. Like you said, if Reiner comes up and says, “Well, you know, I put a lump of dirt in this box. I think it’ll sell.”
DTD: You know, Lookout is going to sell it. Reiner does great games, it’s really funny…
EH: Yeah, he’s just the first name that came to mind.
DTD: Well, he is the name.
EH: I don’t mean to pick on him at all.
We love you, Dr. Knizia. Call me. Let’s get some Pho.
DTD: No no no no no. I hear he’s funny as anything, but I did a little statistical analysis, just of Reiner’s games, and it’s pretty flat with the rest of the industry. Yeah, he’s got a couple great, and a couple of bad, and he’s pretty much on par with all the rest of the games in the industry. He just has 650 of them.
EH: Right. Which is amazing.
DTD: And he’s got some publicist behind him, because he can make one game, and sell it under 6 titles. See, that’s what we need, another Wingspan, just with a different name. We will make it a space game about…interstellar war.
I am exaggerating, but the good doctor is known for selling multiple versions of his games. Modern Art famously has multiple version that not only sport different art, but also some varied rules.
EH: Uh huh. Perfect fit. No one will notice. [laughs]
DTD: No one at all. No. It’ll go over fine. It’ll be great. Trust me.
EH: It’s totally blown out of my head, what I was going to say, oh man. Nope, I’ve lost it, I’ve completely forgotten what I was talking about. I apologize about that.
DTD: I think another sort of stuff, that we haven’t talked about, the publishers could work on, that I hear from people about a lot, is just like the art in games and… Tanya Pobuda did a great study a couple years ago now … Or she actually catalogued what was on the cover of like all the games in the BGG top 200 at the time. And there were like, I forget the statistics. I want to say there were more sheep than women. Might have been that there were more animals than women. There were definitely not many women.
EH: Not many women. And not many people of color.
EH: And it sends a very subtle message, but it is definitely a message that is there. So, my best friends have three girls, who I am doing my best to turn into gamers. I’ve hooked at least one of them. Every time she comes over, the first thing out of her mouth is “Can we play a game?”
DTD: Well, it is our duty to turn everybody into a gamer.
It is a cult.
EH: So, we were playing Jamaica with them a couple years ago and… You know, Jamaica did a very nice job. They do have female pirates in the box, and the girls always want to play the female Pirates. They will not take random pirates; they have to be the female pirates. And one of them was like, “why are there no women on the cover?” Like they are in the game, but they’re not on the cover of the box. It’s only male pirates on the cover, and they noticed that. They notice it. We go to play Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle and they got into this literally crying fight over who got to be Hermione, because she’s the only girl in the game.
DTD: Yeah, you have to get the expansion to get Luna [Lovegood]. It’s terrible.
Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle has Harry, Ron, Hermione and Neville as playable characters. Luna Lovegood is a playable character in the Monster Book of Monsters Expansion. Ginny Weasley is a playable character in the Charms and Potions Expansion,
EH: And so, that’s like another thing, right?. If that is just pervasive through all the board games, and there are generations of new kids entering, being exposed, to board games now. And we think we’ve got rid of a lot of the chainmail bikinis and a lot of truly egregious just stuff.
DTD: I’ve been really encouraged by the backlash against that stuff.
EH: It’s just the experience of like, playing a game, and feeling like the people that designed it just weren’t thinking about you, and what you want like. So, how old was she then? She would have been like 8. It must have been a guy that designed the box cover. [laughs] Yep, it probably was. Welcome to my world.
DTD: I would apologize on behalf of men, but I don’t think they’d allow me. My daughter is in education. She’s working on her Masters in early childhood education, and she’s been working on pre-school, kindergarten, early children, and their exposure through books, through media, through games, to underrepresented groups. And she’s been focusing on LGB. LGBTQ plus. And she can’t find enough material. So, when you’re trying to study exposure through books, and you’ve got…two. That you worked really hard to find. So, I totally understand. And I was thinking in my head, how many people of color were on Jamaica? How many looked like Jamaicans?
EH: Right right, there are no Jamaicans in Jamaica.
Interestingly, the Jamaican flag is currently the only national flag that has no red, white or blue.
DTD: There were no Jamaicans in Jamaica. That’s really…and I you know, my brain instantly starts thinking “Well, Jamaica is an older game,” but no, it’s not. Our industry moves so fast, but it really was not that long ago that Jamaica came out. 2010 or 2011, somewhere around there.
EH: Yeah, I’d have to look it up.
DTD: I don’t I don’t know off hand. But yeah, representation on the cover. And you were talking earlier about artists, and now artists are starting to be recognized like designers. I think there’s been a movement, back in the 80s and 90s, and even before that, I think you’d be hard pressed to find any person who knew who any board game designer was. They didn’t know a single name. And once the euro invasion started, the names started to pop up and you started to… People knew who [Klaus] Teuber was, and people knew who…Uwe [Rosenberg] popped up and [Stefan] Feld popped up. And I mean, it was all European men. And now I think we’re starting to have that same movement with our artists. And certainly, I think Wingspan has contributed greatly to that because there’s such incredible art in Wingspan, and people know the artists. People know names.
Just for completeness, Klaus Teuber is best known as the designer of Catan. Uwe Rosenberg has designed many games including Agricola, A Feast for Odin and Patchwork. Stefan Feld similarly is best known for The Castles of Burgundy and Trajan, although he has a great number of games to his credit.
EH: Yeah, yeah.
DTD: So, I thought that was incredible. I mean, I could… I think that 5 years ago, I couldn’t tell you any artists in board games, and I could rattle off the top of my head probably 10 to 20 today. 5 years from now, I’ll probably be specifically shopping for them.
EH: I certainly will look at any game that Beth Sobel has worked on.
Beth Sobel has done so many fantastic pieces of art, including Wingspan. I love her simple watercolor designs in Herbaceous.
DTD: And she’s near the top of my list for artists.
EH: Yeah, yeah.
DTD: Yeah, her stuff is just incredible. Wow. So. I remember when I first saw Mariposas at GAMA. I think AEG was still debating about the look of it.
EH: Yeah, I guess they might have been.
DTD: I was asked about the stark black, versus another option that was more colorful.
DTD: And I was… I’m happy because I was very strong proponent for this dark black. I thought it looked really cool.
EH: It makes the other colors really pop, for sure.
DTD: It does. It does. It does the minimalistic color palette on that really makes it look nice. That’s, that is a good one. So, what kind of games, what kind of games are you playing now? you said you don’t get to play too many.
EH: Well, I mean, I still do play a couple times a week at least. Just not every day.
DTD: Oh, sure. Some of us play…
EH: We have been on a Terraforming Mars kick.
DTD: Oh, that’s awesome. I really enjoyed it. And I’ve been following pretty closely the Terraforming Mars Dice Game. Kind of milling and churning in the background.
EH: Whoa. I haven’t even heard about that one.
DTD: Yeah, there’s pictures, and there’s little reports. And they’ve got a box cover and Kickstarter sometime in 2021. Custom dice. I’m interested. I don’t know. I like Terraforming Mars a lot. It’s a really cool engine builder but it… I’m waiting to see what else comes out from Fryx[Games]. Because some of their early ones haven’t grabbed me, and some of their ones after Terraforming look, look odd. So, I’m waiting to see what the legacy of Terraforming Mars is.
EH: Yeah, I haven’t watched too closely. Specifically on them.
DTD: Well, I think I watch too closely. I focus too much.
EH: The other thing about play testing is that it just cuts into your time to actually play games.
DTD: That’s what I was going to say, is a lot of designers that I’ve talked to, basically say, “I don’t play games. Because every time I’m at a table with someone willing to play a game, I have to put my version 16,000 game in front of them.”
EH: Yeah, yeah, right. So, I, to make up for that, will often go… There’s a group that meets at a diner about a mile for me on Friday nights, and there’s a couple of guys there, that you know… They always have the newest hot thing. So, I know I can head over there and try whatever.
DTD: See what is out there.
EH: So, that’s where I learned Terraforming Mars, right? I played it a whole bunch when it first came out with those guys. And then, you know not for a couple years. Now we’ve been playing it again during the pandemic at home.
DTD: It is absolutely an addictive game.
EH: I do try and stay up on the new stuff at least a little bit. I don’t know, I think it’s good for you as a designer to play other people’s stuff.
DTD: I would think so. I mean, if you’re going to write books then you want to read everything. And if you’re going to be an artist, then you look at everything. And I think if you’re going to be a game designer, you have to play everything. You want to know a hot new weird mechanic that someone’s playing with.
EH: Right, right.
Next time Elizabeth Hargrave and I wax rhapsodic about old comfort games, new exciting titles, and the dangers of eating with your hands. Come back then for more dinner and dialog.