Might as well have a "No Blacks, No Girls" sign on the box...
Today’s piece was scheduled to be a review of Ares Games’ Last Aurora, a post-apocalyptic adventure game. I played it and thought it was decent, but it’s a game that has a huge problem. Our very own Matt Thrower pointed it out on Twitter with the photograph above. It should be readily apparent what is wrong in that picture. The “Leaders”, save for a token female, are all white men. The co-pilots are all hot white girls. In this post-apocalypse, only white people survived, and the power dynamic is clearly sexist. To be frank about it, “it’s a good game if you are a white guy” is not a review I care to write and ultimately Last Aurora is a failure. A game that cannot adequately represent as many folks as possible through a diverse, inclusive cast of characters isn’t worth the time or effort when there are plenty of games available that acknowledge that players aren’t just white males.
But here’s the reality of it. Hobby gaming has – until just very recently - been largely by, for, and about white males. “Gamer” often meant a white straight male by default, regardless of the fact that pioneers like Jennifer Schlickbernd and Janelle Jaquays were present and often working alongside men that have received far more credit. Also despite the fact that there have always been queer, non-white, non-binary, and female game players, the hobby has traditionally been a pretty white, male, middle-class thing from the industry down to the local gatekeeping white boy club overlords. I grew up playing games in the 80s and 90s and those were times when token representation was barely even practiced and racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic images, content, and attitudes were common- because gaming was rife with white male privilege and white male supremacy.
It wasn’t even 20 years ago that Puerto Rico’s inherently racist narrative of brown “colonist” disks harvesting tobacco barely caused a brow to furrow. Today, we have “accidental” racists like Daniele Tacsini suddenly learning that racism is a thing and far-right scum like Robert Burke lurking in the fringes. The owner of Funagain Games is posting sexist retorts on social media. And then there’s the batshit Libertarian uncle of the hobby, Phil Eklund. There are still content creators that think it’s funny to put on ethnic costumes and adopt stereotypical accents to review games about other cultures. Publishers still use incredibly dated “Asian” fonts to impart a tone of “Orientalism”. There is still a huge demand for 4x games, where you Explore regions that aren’t yours, Exterminate whoever is there, Expand into them, and Exploit the resources. Noted rune goon, Aryan Ubermensch, terrible RPG designer, and convicted murderer Varg Vikernes locked horns a couple of months ago with Osprey Games and Scott Malthouse for daring to depict people of color in Romance of the Perilous Lands, a game about Arthurian-era fantasy England.
And here I am calling out a brand new game and declining to review it for not bothering to acknowledge that the era of the white boy’s club is over. So the fight isn’t over. But there is progress.
The good news though is that all of the above- from Varg fucking Vikernes to Last Aurora- is on the way out. The recent explosion of hobby gaming is in no small part due to the increase in inclusivity, representation, and diversity. The audience is wider, the subject matter broader, and the content better represents more people. But the bad news is that all of the above are still being dragged along with the successes of the gaming community and industry because some folks just can’t stand to let the old white boy club baggage go. It’s time to cut loose the dead weight and move forward toward a hobby where everyone- apart from fascists- is welcome at the table.
Some of what needs to be cut loose is hard to acknowledge for white people such as myself, speaking from positions of privilege. For example, are you ready to come to terms with the fact that some very popular, very pervasive gaming subjects are by their very nature exclusionary? Are you willing to pass on that 8.5 BGG rated game that is about European colonization? Will you stop supporting publishers that enable people like Phil Eklund? Can you stop making excuses and start taking action to shake free the ideas, attitudes, and concepts that have kept gaming a white boy club?
The truth of it is that I’ve run a white boy club myself, having worked in the industry. I’m thinking back to the time when I had a game shop. We were on the Georgia Tech campus in Atlanta, and we had what was probably an unusually high number of Black customers – and almost uniformly, they were all coming in to play, buy, and talk Vs. This was a Marvel and DC CCG and my shop was one of the top stores in the region running it. We had a great community and I loved having these enthusiastic, committed players elevating the shop. But this didn’t stop my business partner (the bad one) from commenting “maybe we should cut the hours on Sunday night, I’m a little concerned about the criminal element here”. Sunday night was Vs. night. Typical white fear of urban Blackness. Gotta keep the white boy club white. I shut that idea right down.
One day I was playing a game of Vs. with a kid who was waiting for his mom to pick him up. She came in a little before we finished the match so she looked around. She pulled a game off the shelf and had an incredulous look. I heard her say “what kind of games are they selling here?”. She put the game back on the shelf and I saw that it was one that at the time I really liked and played a lot, one that was hugely popular and still well regarded today. It was Martin Wallace’s Struggle of Empires. And there on the side of the box was an image of a black man in chains.
I want to be clear that I don’t give a fuck about historical authenticity in games, they are all fiction. Historical accuracy is often an excuse for white supremacist attitudes and even historical games with the best intentions are often problematic. As Hamilton has famously demonstrated, people of any ancestry or culture can participate in historical fiction. But at the time I didn’t think that way and up to that moment I probably would have defended it as “historical” myself. Regardless, I was phenomenally embarrassed. Absolutely mortified. Now, I could have gone over and made a big fuss about “historical games, blah blah blah” but the fact of the matter is that the image and the subject of colonization on a board game product immediately cast this mother and by proxy her son as marginalized outsiders in my store, it was a reminder that they were in a white boy’s club. I took the game off the shelf and I didn’t carry it anymore. I don’t think I ever even played it again.
This incident also made me think about why these Black kids were into Vs. but not into Warhammer, D&D, Magic, or any of the board games. Marvel and DC may have their own sins against diversity and inclusion, but as a gaming subject matter it’s not about destroying or subjugating another culture, white governments fighting over territory or resources, or European history. It’s no fucking wonder they were playing a game about Spider-Man punching Batman instead of Struggle of Empires or Puerto Rico, two of the most popular white boy club games at the time. Game makers at the time were making virtually no effort to produce titles with diverse, inclusive subject matter or to adequately represent anyone other than white males.
But here in 2021, it’s a different gaming world and it falls on us to see a situation like Last Aurora and put a hard stop to it. “We didn’t think about it” or “In Italy it’s not a big deal” or whatever is not a valid excuse any longer. Neither is “we’ll fix it in the expansion”. And if the excuse is that the characters are depictions of the creators and friends, family or backers I'm still not letting it off the hook. When you design a game, you are engaging in an alchemical process whereby players transform the base material of rules and components into the gold of an executed, performed game. In order for this to work, every player has to be adequately represented and acknowledged. Maybe this means providing subject matter that does not alienate or marginalize, maybe this means supplying sufficient character options to support as many types of players as possible, or maybe this means avoiding stereotypes or caricatures. But whatever you do in order for a game to be successful today it simply must appeal beyond the confines of the last vestiges of gaming’s white boy club. It’s what we should be demanding and supporting, especially those of us who have spent decades in this hobby.