February is LGBTQ+ History Month. A time when LGBTQ+ people and allies can focus on learning about the all too often hidden history of the fight for acceptance, representation and equality. It is also a time to honour and celebrate the contributions of pioneers and trailblazers like Marsha Johnson, Barbara Gittings and Alan Turing to name but three.
In tabletop gaming representation and inclusion is improving but still could be better. Designers like Nikki Valens, Isaac Vega and Tim Armstrong, as well as good allies like Eric Lang and Elizabeth Hargrave, are increasing visibility of LGBTQ+ people and issues, but finding examples for this article was still harder than I would have liked.
While this blog post looks to promote LGBTQ+ designers, representation and the power of games to create positive communities, it’s important to recognise not all LGBTQ+ folk will be as pumped about Unicorn Fever or a Golden Girls Funkoverse set as me. An LGBTQ+ game designer can put whatever they feel like in their game (see Isaac Vega’s Dead of Winter!). LGBTQ+ folk are just as diverse a bunch as the rest of the world, something recognised in our first spotlight game…
Diversity: Legacy of Dragonholt – Gavin Hudson
It’s fair and sad to say the RPG community are probably a little ahead of the board game community in terms of representation and inclusion at the moment. (Though there is still a fair amount of cis, white, heterosexual gatekeeping persistent in both). It kind of makes sense, given that an RPG group have some free rein to design their own characters and narratives within the rules and boundaries of the system, meaning they can bend the game to their interests more.
In Legacy of Dragonholt, Nikki Valens brings some of this open world design into a board game type experience. The game itself, defies strict definitions of genre; blending RPG character design and decision making with the structure of a narrative game. The result is a game my friends and I had great fun with over Skype during the first lockdown. We were enjoying the freedom it gave us to play our own metagame over its scaffolding.
Avoiding spoilers, the story is also rich in LGBTQ+ representation. There is something about coming into contact with queer narratives as part of a group roleplaying experience that is disarming and supremely positive when it comes to pushing for more inclusive gaming tables.
Valens herself said in a 2019 interview with There Will Be Games, “it's just a longing to be seen and accepted. The "agenda" that Dragonholt puts forth is that queer folk, genderqueer folk, people of color, and all minority and marginalized groups exist and we enjoy gaming just as much as the cishet white men who try desperately to ignore us.”
Legacy of Dragonholt is indeed a challenge to some of the orthodoxies that can hold LGBTQ+ people back in gaming. One that is delivered in a deceptively playful and charming manner. By allowing players to be themselves, it subtly encourages them to accept the characters that surround them too. That can only be a good thing. More of this, please!
It's not just important that games are inclusive and welcoming our tables need to be too. Providing a supportive space in a game group can ensure a much needed safe place for LGBTQ+ people. Here Craig Smith shows how any game, with the right group can create community. Finding acceptance and friendship through the surprising avenue of Betrayal.
Inclusion: Betrayal at House on Haunted Hill – Craig Smith
I recently read ‘The Midnight Library’ by the wonderful Matt Haig. A book about a person who is given the chance to re-live parts of her life if she made different decisions. After I finished reading it, I did what most people probably do. I started thinking about the different decisions I could have made in my life. Growing up, one of my greatest regrets was not coming out sooner. When people say you should only do it when it feels right for you, they are of course absolutely right. However, I felt like I missed out on an acceptance that was there all along. As well as the confidence to live my life how I wanted to.
When I moved to Manchester in 2014, I had come out to a small group of friends. One of whom lived a short distance from where I was moving to. One evening he invited me over to play Betrayal at House on the Hill with some of his friends. These were friends that had extended a welcome to him when he first moved to Manchester two years prior. Between them, they took it in turns to host board game nights once a month.
I arrived and was introduced to everyone. No sooner I walked in the door, the game was unboxed and the fun began. I had never played before so of course it was me who haunt rolled and turned traitor. Doing a horrible job understanding the rules which luckily only added to the hilarity. Also, I had played board games before, but this night felt like a catalyst of something greater. This is what being comfortable in my own skin felt like.
Board game night then became a monthly occurrence for me too. In this safe space I found happiness and belonging. So even though younger Craig feels like they missed out by not coming out sooner, current Craig is happy it happened the way it did. Who knows what else in my story would have been different?
Of course, welcoming tables rely on everybody playing their part. LGBTQ+ history also contains a long list of straight, cisgendered allies who have leant their strength and support to the community. Often putting themselves in the firing line by doing so. Good allies listen first and use their own platforms to push for and open up room for LGBTQ+ voices. My Zatu colleague and LGBTQ+ ally, Favouritefoe shares her thoughts on the importance of diversity and representation and how publishers can listen and respond to concerns of the community:
Representation: Fog of Love – Favouritefoe
When offered the opportunity to celebrate games which recognise diversity and inclusivity in board gaming, I jumped at the chance. And, whilst I am the first to agree that my cis status in no way qualifies me to pronounce upon the unfair and unacceptable struggles facing members of the LGBTQ+ community, I am an ally. I will unequivocally champion designers, creators, games, and publishers who actively encourage equality. Because, quite frankly, positive discrimination is the only type of bias which should ever endure.
With that in mind, my choice for this feature was an easy choice. Fog of Love, designed by Jacob Jaskov and published by Hush Hush Projects. This is a game for two where players create characters. They invent backstories from a number of secret traits.Then role-play the ups and downs of an everyday relationship together. The hope is that their love stands the test of time.
Beginning with “scene” cards filled with first date excitement and then moving through more challenging aspects of sharing life with another person. This game is a simulation in which players are likely to see reflections of themselves and their own experiences. In a further example of art imitating life, the possibility of mismatched destinies shaping each players’ strategies in this game also holds a mirror up to relationships in the real world.
But, is it a game or is it an experience? Occupying the liminal zone between co-operative and more self-orientated game play. Not to mention blurring the line between traditional board games and RPG. Fog of Love is a cardboard metaphor for most relationships. A loosely structured narrative where the ordinary can sometimes lead to human insights which are rather extraordinary.
Whilst Fog of Love is in essence a thought provoking test on how well you think your partner will react to the situations presented and how you in turn respond, there is a positive and welcome move away from gender identity within it. Does it go far enough, though?
In direct response to concerns about LGBTQ+ relevance within the game, the publishers invited Nikki Valens to consult on box-art and scenarios which were closer to aspirational industry best-practice when it comes to representing LGBTQ+ relationships. Combine that with the fact that Nikki is now also designing an expansion which focusses specifically on queer relationships. It is clear that this developing game deserves a space in the LGBTQ+ spotlight.
I am a big supporter of the work of the Trevor Project and their message of it gets better. And, while it has and it does, better is not best. I hope this brief article has given you some insight into the strides made by LGBTQ+ people and the steps that still need to be taken.
At its best board gaming can be a massive driver for change. Through playing and exploring at the table and building freindships and relationships around a game, prejudices can be challenged and overcome. Yet, this doesn’t happen by magic. The players have to actively make their tables welcoming. Publishers have a part to play too in nurturing and providing platforms for LGBTQ+ voices and ensuring they are accurately represented in their games.