Don’t bring gender into (board) gaming – or, why I’m sick of seeing dudes ask what games their wives might like.

On Boardgame Geek (in various forums), or even occasionally on Reddit or on Twitter, I’ll see requests from (usually) male boardgamers asking what games they should get to play with/buy for their wives/daughters/girlfriends. I want to look a little at this to see why it’s problematic to frame your questioning this way, and how it can only further drive the divide between the perceived binary of genders in gaming.

I want to state up front: I am not opposed to people seeking out recommendations for games to play with their significant others or children. I am all for bringing people to the hobby, regardless of if they stay a casual player or become very much a more frequent gamer. If the person you’re trying to encourage is willing to try out stuff, then great! If not, then you can’t magically make them enjoy games, no matter how great you think those games are (this is hard to swallow! I know!) and just asking for recommendations based solely on gender will certainly not help with that. I’ve had great success by playing accessible, casual games with people, leading to a great and enthusiastic response – rather than saying something akin to, “Oh hey! You’re a lady therefore you most likely sew, and therefore will enjoy this game Patchwork”, which is never a safe assumption (although that person may end up enjoying that fantastic 2p mostly abstract game with challenging decisions because it’s awesome).

So, let’s move on. The most important point here is gender. Within gender as the focal point here, the false assumption that gender identity is binary and the essentialism that goes along with that assumption. Essentialism is the concept that something (an object, an animal, a group of people, etc) is marked by an unchanging, assumed state of being, that something has an “ultimate reality” – for instance, that cultural practices are static and unchanging, or that the earth is definitely flat and that can never be different.

This gender essentialism – 2 options, unchanging, unmalleable – tends to plague a lot of questions about what games to recommend to a person (usually without meaning to, or realizing). Gender essentialism when asking these questions is, by its very nature, quite reductionist. That is, thinking that every man shares the same interests and wants to play certain games, and that women would have a different set of interests and therefore different needs out of game playing, means you have 2 narrow definitions of people. What this doesn’t take into account is the spectrum of gender that all of us exist on – no one woman is precisely performative of the ideal “feminine” concept of what a woman should be, nor is any man entirely representative of the “masculine” concept for men. On top of this all, the gendered questioning regarding game recommendations completely ignores those who are non-binary, gender fluid or trans*.

When I see a request for game recommendations for “my wife/girlfriend/daughter”, it very rarely comes with any qualifying factors such as “has this person played games before at all?” “has this person has enjoyed (x) type of game?” or “this person enjoys (y) type of theme or (z) type of gameplay”. What these sorts of gender-based queries assume is that women who aren’t gamers (or at least game infrequently) will all be interested in the same kinds of games. That’s a presumption that shouldn’t be made about anyone – even if they’ve not played board games before, or even if they have!

I understand, of course, that nouns such as wife/husband, daughter/son are useful in a way that defines the poster’s relationship to this person rather than saying something like “I’m looking for games Betty might like”, a less helpful pointer as to who the person is. Unfortunately, this use of nouns then lands us in the waters of murky gendered assumptions, where the “wife” must be understood in feminine terms as must the “son” or “daughter” in terms of what games they’d be interested in (where, with children, I believe age is a far more important category to use for game recommendations, on top of interests/games enjoyed previously).

Personally, I would hate to be stereotyped into a box of what “women” are, and should like as far as board games go. My interests are varied outside of board games, and that drives me to be interested in trying all sorts of games, especially when theme is involved. But it must also be realized that my interests don’t define me entirely. I’ve certainly never been interested in building an estate in medieval France, but heck if one of my favourite games isn’t Castles of Burgundy. I love the gameplay so much!

If you had a partner who had assumed on behalf of your gender presentation alone that a particular game might not be up your alley, you might never know what games you’re missing out on. Make the effort to consider someone as a whole person – their interests, the types of fun they like to have, what games they’ve liked before – and you will likely be far more successful in encouraging that person to game, and have fun while doing it. And – as a bonus – come back for more!

I’d like to leave you with an image that I keep going back to when I see all sorts of gendered marketing and gendered questions when it comes to finding toys/games etc. While it is pretty basic (it tends towards biological assumptions rather than gender identity) I still think it makes a great point. Don’t boil your decisions down to something you’re assuming one “type” of person is – in all areas of your life, it will be a great way to go forward.

Image by Kristen Myers. Click through for more info.

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10 responses to “Don’t bring gender into (board) gaming – or, why I’m sick of seeing dudes ask what games their wives might like.”

  1. Sarah Lane says :

    Thank you so much for this. I’m so tired of well-meaning (and not-so-well-meaning) people making assumptions based on my gender and my sex, and getting offended when I gently point it out. I just had a long, terrible chat with some acquaintances who can’t seem to fathom the basic premise of feminism and I’m too tired now to carry points of the argument over, but what you’ve written here is very well-said and necessary. Again, thanks.

  2. Willie says :

    I think the focus on feminism ignores the basic reason people come to others to seek advice on games. We want the people whom we will share them with to enjoy them. My wife and I get to sit down and play games together maybe twice a month. Board gaming is primarily my hobby (and even then I get to make it out to game night only a few times a month) My wife wants to share that hobby with me, just as she wants to learn about the books, television shows, movies, restaurants and countless other things that might excite me at any moment. Doesn’t mean she will read the book or watch the show, but she wants to share my excitement.

    In turn, I want to play games that will most appeal to her and give her the most enjoyment. There is nothing worse than realizing the hour you’ve set aside to spend time playing board games together is wasted because one of you isn’t having fun.

    It is for this reason that I sought assistance from community groups for ideas on what would appeal to my wife when we were first exploring gaming together. I did not want to assume that games I enjoyed she would just be satisfied playing. Most often these conversations expose the elements of the games that appeal to different people. It allows gamers to explore the language of boardgames. If I do not explore games that might be outside of my initial attention then I am merely giving my wife my opinions on board games without allowing the exploration of new experiences.

    I’ll add an additional perspective. Shortly after my wife and I started gaming together, she started having problems with her eyes. She discovered that she had cataracts which were taking away her sight and she had to wait months before she could have the surgery to correct it. Her favorite game, Seasons, was impossible to play because she couldn’t read the text on the cards or differentiate between the symbols on the dice. The things she enjoyed were being taken away from her, the idea that this new hobby we were exploring together would be off limits to her was remarkably upsetting. Rather than let this get in the way, I went to the same community of gamers who helped lead me to games my wife was fond of and asked them to help recommend games. It was in this manner that we were able to discover Splendor, which remains one of the games we most enjoy playing.

    When I asked for suggestions it wasn’t because I wanted to assume all people with limited eyesight like Splendor. It wasn’t because I was looking to label disabled approved games. It was because I wanted to consider things from a perspective I did not possess, so I could broaden my horizons as effectively as possible.

    When my wife discovered she was a Celiac and was upset that we wouldn’t be able to go out to eat any more, I sought out people who would give me advice on what restaurants we could visit. It wasn’t because I assumed all people who eat gluten free like the same thing, but rather I was discovering the options available and engaging in the discovery of the language of dining with dietary concerns.

    People remember, most people who are asking these types of questions are new. By attacking them because you see a slight you are discouraging people from engaging the community. From what I have experienced, leaving people out is not what this community is about.

    • nicolehoye says :

      I don’t believe this is really about feminism – it’s about gender assumptions. And I am not slighting those who choose to ask for recommendations at all – my issue is with the reductionism of people down to just a wife or girlfriend without any other context. I see this often, and especially in the assumptions made by those who answer the questions. I am not saying there is malicious intent in these questions, I just want people to give context to the partners and children they’re asking about recommendations for. If I asked “what games would my boyfriend like?” there’s so relevant info there about his interests, if he’s gamed before, etc. Recently there was a question on BGG from a guy about his wife and what games to play with her, but it wasn’t because she was new at all – and I don’t buy that we can make that assumption on all of these questions because then we’re all doing a disservice by using preconceptions to judge what a person is like.

      • Willie says :

        The point is, if they are asking, they generally are new. They do not necessarily have the experience or vocabulary to begin a conversation the way you as an experienced board gamer would approach it. To paraphrase Hanlon’s Razor, do not attribute to gender assumption that which is adequately explained by being a novice to the hobby.

        As the more experienced gamer, I would suggest that if you’re seeing the question asked in a manner that you feel is inappropriate, you have an opportunity to shape the discussion into a more efficient and rewarding way. Most often, however, I see this already happening.

      • nicolehoye says :

        No, these people are not new. In my experience they are gamers who are looking for advice on what games other people might like. In my experience when I have tried to input that context about a person is more relevant than gender, I am bullied. What I am seeing is people saying “what would my wife like to play” and that is it. It’s not goof enough. There’s assumptions made then about this person solely based on their “wife – ness”, and that is what I find problematic.

  3. GaryBoyd says :

    My partner and I are getting married next month and we will continue to call each other partner as we always have. We’ve held out this long because the institution means nothing to us, but the insurance offered by my work is really bad and my son and I can’t get on her insurance without us being married.

    My partner is more competitive than I am. She is better at many games than I am. She enjoys games ranging from Eldritch Horror to Terra Mystica, from Funemployed to Animal upon Animal. She is a gamer. Our daughter is a gamer and our sons are gamers. We are part of the gaming community and we game at a store that preaches and strives to live up to open and inclusive gaming.

    I’ve read the countless threads where men are hounded by wives who won’t let them play, resent them for buying games, or any other variant of deeply ingrained misogyny lashing out in a safely anonymous public forum. And I’m sorry that it’s so easily dismissed.

    As one of the most privileged subset of humanity based on sex, gender identity, socio-economic status, residency, and ethnicity I can safely say I’m sorry things are fucked up and I’ll try to do my part to fix them.

    This reply doesn’t really speak enough to your post, but it was all I could think to say in response. I know patriarchy is a … Would you believe I was about to type the b word? I know you would.

    Billy Board Game

    • nicolehoye says :

      I think recognising it is a huge step, and then going forward into the world/internet with it in mind is important! Recognition of privilege is not something that comes easily. Thanks for commenting, it’s greatly appreciated!

  4. Larissa says :

    Fuck you. Stay away from my wife and me, you can be sick of yourself.

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