For the past week, I have been thinking about a tough question about representation in all forms of media – TV, movies, books, and in particular board games. This mainly stems from the idea of the #ownvoices movement in literature. This means that an author is writing characters from their own experience. So for example, if I wrote a book about a multiracial API man, I would be writing from an #ownvoices perspective because I actually live that experience. I personally love this idea because this pretty much ensures an authentic* representation.
*I say pretty much ensures authentic representation because everyone has a unique experience and cannot be expected to speak for everyone of that identity. While some folks of those identities might really resonate with the story and characters, other folks of the same identity might not… this does not mean the story is less #ownvoices than any other.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how does the #ownvoices movement fit into board gaming, specifically when it comes to themes that use cultures and countries. In my experience, there are two types of games that fall into this category: 1) Games about Europe or the Mediterranean. 2) Games that appropriate other cultures for the ‘exotic’ theme. I see those two exclusively because there are very few game designers of color. Most designers, both in the US and globally are White. White men to be specific. So I question the authenticity of representation of different cultures and countries as an entire theme. I make this distinction because I think art within a theme can reflect diversity well without taking an entire culture as a theme (for example, see Dead of Winter, One Deck Dungeon, or Trickster). Still, when a game takes a culture on as a theme, no matter how it does so, I think it can be problematic when folks from that culture are not integrally involved in the creation process.
One game in particular popped up for me recently in this realm called Dubai: Rebuild the Ruins**. My honest first reaction to the theme (after looking through who was involved) was… this theme was picked for no apparent reason. This could have been set in England or Dubai or Tokyo or New York City. Very little ties the game mechanically to the theme, which I can tell from the pledge page. I could be completely wrong since I have never actually played this game, but in my experience, few games are absolutely tied to their theme. Of course I tweeted about the game without naming it and I DMed by a couple of followers asking what game. I got mixed reactions about my take on the theme. Some folks agreed wholeheartedly with my initial reaction. Others thought this was a refreshing new theme with great diverse representation. After a couple of different conversations, I was still deep in thought about how I felt about Dubai.
**A couple things I do want to note about Dubai. First, the designers are fantastic people. I love the games they have designed and they are open to talking to anyone. Seriously. Second, the publishing company in my experience has been a very inclusive publisher. And lastly, I did do some research and there was one publicly credited person of color involved with the creation process.
The artist for the game was the only person of color involved. I think that’s a positive because I have seen how damaging art depicting people of color can be in board gaming by White artists. Further, it was released that the artist’s father was consulted for the Arabic names in the game, since his father is an Arabic linguist. As soon as that information was released, it was almost if folks who at first were questioning the theme were suddenly okay with it. That one POC and one consultant focused on Arabic names made the theme okay. I do think both of those are huge wins for board game publishing. Publishing companies usually hire a White people throughout their development team and do not consult on anything. However, I still question the use of the theme despite those two details because everyone else involved in the project (publicly credited) is White to my knowledge. And I do not know if the artist or the consultant has lived in Dubai or the UAE or has cultural heritage of that region.
Which brings me to my question:
Can a board game (or book or movie or etc.) have fantastic, authentic representation of a marginalized group of people and still be appropriative?
To start off, I want to be clear what I mean by appropriative. Here is a generic definition of appropriation: the action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission. And when talking about the dynamics of privilege and oppression in the United States and globally, we usually see folks from the privileged groups appropriating culture among other things from the oppressed group (e.g., White people taking from people of color). Therefore, cultural appropriation is allowed by and in support of systems of racism. But if we always go by this strict definition, White authors and creators will not go out of their way to include marginalized identities because they are afraid of the backlash. By this definition, any White creator using anything outside their experience could be appropriation. I posted in the past about ‘doing diversity right’ in board gaming pertaining to Hawai’i and this same question came up. My goal is not to scare White folks away from engaging with the need for diversity in the board game hobby and I think I have solidified some of my thoughts since my post in December.
First, White authors and creators… I do not have time for you all to be afraid. If you are serious about diversity you will jump right in and be open to the conversation, both the positive and negative (maybe this was the case with Dubai). Second, if designer, developer, artist, other folks involved with the game are all White or mostly White (I am using race as the example but this goes for all privileged identities), you should be cautious about using a culture or representation outside of your experience. You should be asking questions about why there is a lack of diversity in the industry. You should be consulting people with those experiences and paying them. And again you shouldn’t be afraid but you should expect folks with marginalized identities to question the lack of representation on your team and to call you out. Third, I always question… who is profiting from all of this? You might say board game designers and publishers make little money but my question still stands. If you take a culture as a theme in the board game, are folks from that culture/community profiting or gaining any benefits?
This is a complex question and this does not just pertain to Dubai. I happen to stumble on the Kickstarter as I was thinking about representation and appropriation. I have played numerous games and own a few games that I think represent different cultures well, but appropriate said culture. I want to make it clear that I am not saying this game should never be made, but we all need to be critical about diversity in the hobby, how it is presented, and what a diverse theme really means.
What are your thoughts? Do you think it is possible to write/create outside of one own’s identity and have positive representation? Do you think those instances can still be appropriative?