A Seat at the Table: Board Gaming Is For Us Too

Why are our Black and Latinx youth so addicted to their screens? It’s not only the TV screens, but also their ipods, androids, iphones, ipads, you name it! They love playing games, but they limit themselves to video games creating more social isolation than we are used to. In an article published by “TheGrio,” the author reminds us, “Studies indicate Blacks, Hispanics and those in lower socioeconomic groups play, spend more time, and buy more video games than other groups. According to The Kaiser Family Foundation, African American youth between the ages of 8 and 18 play games 30 minutes more per day than White youth, while Hispanics play an average of 10 minutes more”. 

Occasionally, in retail stores like Target and Walmart, it is easily observable how parents of color pass the modern board game section without a glance and instead go to the video game consoles section instead. However, I want us to challenge ourselves not to overlook the board games we so leisurely walk by and never pay attention to. One can argue that board games are expensive and inaccessible but in comparison, the average price of a board game is $30, whereas the average price of a video game $60.

Modern board games are highly educational and create plenty of opportunities for learning, social interaction, critical thinking skills, and of course, fun! However, why is it that we have been socialized to believe that these “educational” hobbies are only for White folks? While it is true, that the board game community is predominantly White and male, it has been a long time overdue for us to create our own communities of gamers of color. My purpose here is to offer an alternative to youth’s screen addiction by highlighting the ways that board gaming can increase our sense of community with young people through creating time and space for developing social, cultural, historical, and critical thinking skills.

Board gaming aids us in bridging the generational gap when we sit with our youth and level the “playing field”. While traditional board games allowed us to pass the time simply moving pawns across the board, modern board games are different in that instead of passing time, we are making time for the high quality, dynamic, and multidimensional detail that is put into modern board games––it consists of a social experience. According to Haunted Game Cafe:

“When I rediscovered board games a few years ago, it was clear to me how far they had come over the years. The art was vibrant and much higher quality than games of the 70’s and 80’s. Instead of simple plastic pieces, these games had sculpted figures. The game boards were heavy instead of thin and fragile, and the rules sheets had gone from simple black and white to rich, colorful examples and pictures.”

Modern board games allow us to brush up on social and emotional skills through the genre of cooperative and team-based games. When we think of games, we usually think of competition. However, in the modern board gaming world we have been introduced to the concept of “cooperative gaming”. Also, there are other types of board games such as card drafting, push-your-luck, deduction, dexterity, and the cooperative “German Style” board games (like Pandemic and Forbidden Desert) that have the potential to increase socio-emotional literacy. In cooperative games, you are working together to win against the game itself. Team-based games are also cooperative in nature where you may be competing against another team. For example, cooperative games such as Escape, Hanabi, Forbidden Island/Desert, Pandemic, Castle Panic, Flash Point, Elder Sign and some team-based games such as The Resistance, Codenames, and Reverse Charades have the ability to make teens put down the video game controller for at least a small period of time.

When I introduced the cooperative style board game Forbidden Desert to teens in Harlem, they were dissuaded from playing at first because it was a new and unfamiliar concept––the idea of working together to beat a board game. After insisting on playing a quick game, they ended up having a blast and learning how to work together against the game. Afterwards, the teens continued to ask me to bring the game a couple of weeks.

Photo by author: Playing Forbidden Desert with teens in Harlem, New York.

These games provide great social/emotional skills that create a true community setting in ways that video games cannot. The kind of critical thinking these games induce is worth the price!

Similar to cooperative and team-based games, there are strategy games that truly challenge us to use and further develop our critical thinking skills––making us think outside the box. All games require some sort of strategy. Chess requires strategy, but it may not be everyone’s kind of strategy game. For example, board games like Qwirkle, Sequence, Risk, Jaipur, and Carcassonne are among the favorites. Furthermore, while playing Carcassonne with the teens, I shared with them the fact that there is a real city called Carcassonne––an important city. While these games are competitive in nature they push our youth to think strategically and begin to “plot” their next move. It sparks our brains to create plans, moves, and strategies that we can enjoy and yet still involve plenty of flexibility. You can push your luck by rolling dice and combine your strategy with affordable games like Celestia. You might lose sometimes, some plans might not work out––such is life. 

Left: Teens playing Carcassonne (Photo by author). A board game based on a real city in France. Right: Carcassonne, France.

Other games that challenge us to think outside the box like dexterity games including Flick Em Up and Ice Cool, games that involve using your fingers by flicking pawns and pieces around a board or a scenario. The teens also love deduction board games like Mysterium, The Resistance and Werewolf: Ultimate One Night (now Werewolf brings an app!) which end up in incredible laughter and finger pointing. Seeing that some of these games focus on European and Greek myths, I set out to look for games with other cultural themes that could relate to my teens.

Notice how their electronic devices are not too far from them as they play Qwirkle. At least they put them down––for a little bit (Photo by author).
Playing Ice Cool–a dexterity board game that involves flicking penguin pawns in order to catch fish (Photo by author).











However, in doing so, by finding board games like Freedom, Mombassa, and Pow Wow it was clear to me that many game designers (read: White) have created these games that focus on themes of colonization, exploitation, and commodification of our cultures. Especially, since the board gaming market has become a billion dollar business. Board games such as Mombasa, Freedom, Puerto Rico, and Conan attempt to de-politicize the legacy of colonialism and slavery. Some reviewers believe the cooperative board game Freedom to be an “educational tool”. The game is all about White abolitionists helping Black slaves in the south make it to the north of the United States. You may be wondering why this is so problematic. This is problematic because not only does it make freedom from slavery a game, it also emphasizes the white patriarchal savior trope. I’m not sure these game designers would create a Nat Turner game expansion. The only way I would expose my teens to this would be to teach them to think critically and learn to identify problematic themes in board games. As the Atlanta Black Star points out, racist board games have quite a history in the United States.

Freedom: The Underground Railroad designed by Brian Mayer.

While board games with Aztec or Chinese themes exist, themes surrounding African empires and myths, or themes of empowered Black people in general remains almost non-existent. However, there are some not so problematic and useful board games that celebrate our cultural histories such as Zimbabwe, Mexica, Tzolk’in, Targi, Cacao, among others. It’s not like we haven’t designed games before––for most of human history people of color have been designing board games! African board games like Mancala and Chinese games like Go have existed for centuries. It would be interesting to create new games that build upon these games or including different decorative themes that are relevant to the times.

Hence, it’s important for students of color to create their own games while being critical of the content they are including in it. It is also possible for them to pursue a career in game design, gaming theory, or even, developing the technologies that now a lot of board games are expanding to, such as, apps and iOS features. There are many possibilities in the world of board gaming for us. It is time for us to reclaim our seat at the table and start playing again!

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11 Replies to “A Seat at the Table: Board Gaming Is For Us Too”

  1. Wonderful article, adding some of the games to our library collection. Many public libraries host game nights, taking the cost of games to nothing and amping up the community building by meeting new people. Lego clubs too, I’ve seen some amazing forms of consensus building come about when the kids get to the bottom of the LEGO bin and there are not enough pieces left for what everyone wants to accomplish.

  2. I love this article! Yes, as an avid African American board gamer with over 200 games in the family collection, I can say this article is so correct. It is for us too. When I tell other African Americans about my hobby you can see the eye glaze and know they are say “This man is playing kids games!”, but I keep preaching and will keep trying to rely what you wrote about. Thanks so much for writing about it!

    1. RT about our people thinking board games are for kids.

      While my mom’s family (Yankee) introduced me to the classic board games when I was hella young where we would all play as a family when I’d visit during summers, my dad’s side (East Indian), however, think board games are just for children and can’t seem to understand why I would want to spend my time playing them.

      They don’t seem to realize that the market for adult-oriented board games is beginning to eclipse youth-oriented games.

      At least I got my cousins playing some board games, like Eldritch Horror, Carcassonne, and Catan.

  3. Wow. Great article. I host a very large gaming community in and around Detroit through my business. While I have strategies for getting poc (& women) engaged once they show up to see what game night is about, not many show up.

  4. Just FYI, Freedom: The Underground Railroad is not “all about white abolitionists helping black slaves,” it is about antislavery activists black and white helping enslaved African Amercians. That is, there a re African American, as well as white, avatars one can represent. True there is still much emphasis on white patronage, but the designer was more thoughtful than you suggest here. It’s a fine game that does a much more responsible job of representing African American history than you suggest.

    1. I was coming to say the same thing, there are stand-ins for Harriet Tubman and Fredrick Douglas in “Freedom”, and I do hope that the reviewer does take time to play it and explore how some games grapple with the subject of slavery.

      I have seen a deeper criticism leveled at Freedom though- the game literature asks if you would sacrifice a runaway to save others, and that’s a deeply unhistoric question to pose. None of the people on the ground in the fight for abolition would have considered “sacrificing” anyone. While I think the game is a fine educational tool and proof that a game can be about something, we’re still hunting for games that can explore the period fully.

      Another one for the author to look at is “This Guilty Land”.

    2. There’s also a Nat Turner card in the game. Guess it just didn’t fit his narrative…

    3. Interesting take on Freedom by the author, I’m looking forward to playing it again with a more discerning eye to its bias. I found it to be a challenging and thought-provoking game: our FLGS brought in extra copies and they had inquiries for the educational supplement from local teachers whose youth were regulars at the store. I passed my copy onto a friend who had worked previously as an educator in the prison system, but missed it in the collection and acquired a new copy!

      I’m interested to see how my perception of it has changed, after being exposed to a lot of new ideas and perspectives. Cheers!

  5. So much truth in what you wrote. I work with kids downtown. Lots of black and hispanic kids. I talk to them about what they’re doing to pass the summer. Boys are playing fortnight, CoD, or GTA. ALL OF THEM. Girls are on their phones doing Tik Tok or other social media. It scares the crap out of me. I try to get them to pursue a hobby, read some books, or something else. They look at me like I’ve lost my mind.

  6. If you look a bit deeper, I think you will find that North Africa and it’s cultures are well represented in board games. In particular the Egyptian empire and African elements of the Ottoman empire play important roles in many games.

    I agree that other African cultures are under-represented, which is both a shame and an opportunity.

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