How Board Game Geek Helped Make Board Games More Inclusive
Aaron Trammell on Being a BIPOC Gamer, the Exclusionary Old Guard of Nerd Culture, Privilege, and More
When I began to seek out modern board games in late 2007, online details were scarce. As a transplanted doctoral student living in the rust-belt town of Binghamton, New York, I had a good deal of time on my hands and few things to do with it. Seeking out activities that might break up the tedium, I found myself frequenting the local hobby stores where board games were sold alongside popular sellers like Magic: The Gathering cards and Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks.
My interest in board games began modestly, with the silly and widely distributed games that were common at that time. Light card-driven games like Munchkin, Killer Bunnies, Fairy Tale, and Bang! would hit the table when I entertained friends. One day, my sister gave me a copy of Ticket to Ride as a gift and I was hooked. Eager to explore the latest board games, I made checking in at the local game shop a part of my weekly routine.
My new fascination with board games led me to seek out reviews so that I could make wiser purchasing decisions with my limited graduate school budget. I had been used to locating reviews for video games on magazine-like websites such as IGN and GameSpot, or in subscription-based paper magazines like Game Informer. I also checked in on the hobby game scene through Dragon Magazine, which offered readers content geared toward fans of tabletop role-playing games.
Given the ecosystem of periodicals I consumed as a game fan, it should come as no surprise that I sought the equivalent of a paper magazine for modern board games first. Finding none, I repeated my search online, which led me to an enigmatic forum called Board Game Geek.
The Board Game Geek forum was full of user reviews, with a cartoon of a bespectacled and blond white man in the upper corner running with what looked like checkers. Reviews were a mixed bag—short or long, full of typos or meticulously proofread. Having been acclimated to the politics of the old guard from my days reading Dragon Magazine, I braced myself for casual microaggressions on the forums.
At first, I found the forum to be welcoming, and even inclusive. Contributors had bio pages where they could list not only their favorite games but also their “flair”—badges and GIFs used to communicate their personalities. Perhaps most important of all, contributors proudly boasted their country’s flag on their bio page.Because the old guard of hobbyists perceived themselves as nerdy outsiders, they were able to form communities of practice that embraced a white suburban libertarian and even isolationist ethic.
Browsing the website, I was awestruck at the global community that had gathered to discuss modern board games. My experience browsing other game review websites like GameFAQs, where there was not an equivalent culture of self-disclosure, cast Board Game Geek’s user profiles in stark relief. Digging deeper into the interface, I learned that Board Game Geek’s entire content base was submitted by users. The site was just a skin for a massive database of user-generated content that lurked beneath the surface.
Along the left side of the site was a simple list of trending games titled the Hotness. Although the site contained user-generated content pertinent to each board game, it also tracked user behavior. Board Game Geek could use behavioral data to curate lists that helped users better discern what exciting games were to them.
Board Game Geek is a website that aspires to be the worldwide locus of all board game data. It is driven by a sprawling database populated by over a million and a half users. The site contains so many features that have been smashed together that it is inscrutable to outsiders. The site’s modular but counterintuitive interface hasn’t evolved much since the site’s original development. Its modularity allows for configurability.
Perhaps that is the point. The “geeky” core of Board Game Geek demands that users be committed enough to learn to navigate the interface as well as the content. Like on Reddit, on Board Game Geek enthusiasts maintain a profile where they can list, rank, and review the contents of their board game collection; contribute to game-specific forums that contain reviews, errata, news, play logs, design notes, articles about strategy, and images; participate in user- and company-driven giveaways and contests; trade and sell games from their collection; buy games from other users through the site’s market or linked marketplaces like Amazon and eBay; manage a blog; advertise their projects and local conventions; and access a majority of the site’s user-populated database to conduct quantitative research on board games.
Since its development in 2000, Board Game Geek has achieved creator Scott Alden’s ambition of being the “worldwide definitive resource for board games.” The reviews on the site drive the board game industry. In digital games, reviews are curated through online magazines like IGN, GameSpot, and Polygon. By comparison, Board Game Geek places reviews by established syndicates like the Dice Tower and Shut Up & Sit Down next to those by amateur contributors like Richard Ham (Rhado) and Lance (The Undead Viking).
Beneath the surface of Board Game Geek lies a modernization of the same formula that has historically connected members of the old guard through networks of privilege. Board Game Geek updates the fanzine formula of the Mixumaxu Gazette and Alarums & Excursions by streamlining distribution costs and offering content to users for free. They offer to contributors “geek gold,” which can be used to buy cosmetics and “flair,” in an annual end-of-year fundraising drive. The money earned in this drive supports Board Game Geek staff and pays for the administrative tools to keep the site up and running.
Because the old guard of hobbyists perceived themselves as nerdy outsiders, they were able to form communities of practice that embraced a white suburban libertarian and even isolationist ethic. These communities of practice were often beneficial to predominantly white hobbyists.
Within these communities, members were able to parlay specialized knowledge to access opportunities that weren’t afforded to outsiders. The overall effect of the community was to fortify the structure of white supremacy—helping white suburban youth gain the social and intellectual skills necessary to inhabit positions of power within broader society.
A more accessible iteration of the above formula persists on Board Game Geek. Because the site can be easily located through all major search engines, people from all over the world participate in the community. Despite the ease of access provided by the site, rhetorical and symbolic holdovers from The General and the Alarums & Excursions discourage BIPOC people from participating in the community. Users with detailed biographical statements note their appreciation for Lee and Rommel’s tactics and compose reviews that heap praise on games like Gettysburg and Afrika Korps.
Debates around colonization and slavery in board games are endemic, with many users dismissing critiques of these themes in board games. Even though Board Game Geek is far more accessible than the paper fanzines and magazines that have historically been the home of hobby gaming, the techniques of exclusion that have been cultivated in paper magazines continue to shape who is encouraged to participate to this day.
Board Game Geek, like the many fanzines and magazines that focused on hobby gaming before it, is neither all good nor all bad. Perhaps inadvertently, the old guard created a white supremacist enclosure that incentivizes participants to accept the status quo of white suburban values.
However, I want to make space to appreciate the autonomy of the self-sustaining communities that this isolationism has produced and recognize how the work of community members and organizers has helped hobby games to thrive. Not all hobbyists jive with the white suburban values of the network, and Board Game Geek’s global community has helped to accelerate this change.
In pursuing the utopic values that defined the early internet, the modern board game community has found a similarly fertile ground for growth. The self-sustaining (although not tremendously profitable) hobby model of economic growth has predominantly catered to an audience of geeky “outsiders.”
Scholars of technology refer to the ideology that has governed economic growth in the late twentieth century as “cyber utopianism.” Cyber utopianism is the idea that through the collective and participatory work of many, we might come to build platforms that cater to the values of the many. Like the communal vistas that drove migrations to California in the sixties and seventies, cyber utopianism replicates this sense of adventure, community, and frontier online.
Board Game Geek’s structural ambitions align with the utopian visions of the internet that proliferated before the dot-com bust of 2001. The site’s original structure had been pulled from Scott Alden’s earlier 1996 endeavor 3DGameGeek, a similar site that hosted discussions about digital games with three-dimensional graphics. Alden created a flattened space of utopian discourse where the community collectively engaged in the leisurely work of game punditry in order to better support and engage their leisurely play with board games.Not all hobbyists jive with the white suburban values of the network, and Board Game Geek’s global community has helped to accelerate this change.
Such online forums are a holdover of what Fred Turner links to ideology of communalism from the 1960s. Communalism discourse entered the tech sector and shaped a new motif of labor where work could be joyful and individuals could form communities free of institutional and government scrutiny.
The utopianism that Turner describes was very much alive in conversations about digital technology in the 1990s. Thinking through the potentials of immaterial labor, Pierre Lévy optimistically termed this utopian strain “collective intelligence.” The acceleration of communication provided by web technologies would yield things like “a deterritorialized civility that coincides with contemporary sources of power while incorporating the most intimate forms of subjectivity.” In other words, by working and thinking together—for example in fan discourse on Board Game Geek—folks might find a common ground of understanding that transcends state borders.
With the benefit of time, it’s clear that social media did not achieve the transcendent ambitions of collective intelligence. Nonetheless, it’s important to situate the work of Board Game Geek within the larger motif of digital networking and collective intelligence. After all, all users present a badge that identifies their country of origin as they coordinate to flesh out Board Game Geek’s tremendous knowledge base.
From The Privilege of Play: A History of Hobby Games, Race, and Geek Culture. Reprinted by arrangement with NYU Press. Copyright @2023 by Aaron Trammell.