Tabletop Diversity: Find Yourself in the Cards

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It’s not exactly a revelation that videogames have a straight white dude problem. You can see it in Wolfenstein, The Last of Us, The Witcher, hell, even Bloodborne is chock full of white guys. Which isn’t to say that these games are bad! Of course games starring white dudes can have emotionally resonant plots and enjoyable action. I can usually only see a glimmer of myself in the protagonists, though, and if I am a gay white man, what does that say for my friends who aren’t white, aren’t male, aren’t cis? We might be paying more attention to the concept of diversity in gaming recently, but it’s an issue that’s been alive for decades. It is still something that we are striving toward, and one we are nearing with small steps.

So imagine my surprise when I find that one of the most diverse games I’ve ever seen isn’t a videogame at all, but a card game.

Android: Netrunner is a living card game designed and published by Fantasy Flight Games. It takes place in the not-too-distant future in a cyberpunk dystopia where megacorporations rule the world and the common person has to scrape and scrounge just to get by. In the game, one player plays as a corporation, installing and defending servers in an effort to advance agendas which give them points. The other player, meanwhile, plays as a runner, a hacker trying to invade the corp’s servers and steal those very same agendas. Whoever steals or scores seven points of agendas first wins. It’s a complex game, but it has been building in popularity since it launched in 2012. Now, it is one of (if not the) most popular card game that Fantasy Flight makes.

So what makes it diverse? You just have to take a look at the roster of runners to see. Ask yourself what videogame you can see Silhouette in, who is a badass super spy and a black woman. What about Chaos Theory, the 12-year-old black girl super genius? We have the likes of Edward Kim, Asian anti-android activist who is also an amputee. There’s Valencia Estevez, the Latina journalist. And the most popular runner right now? Andromeda, a woman.

chaostheory netrunner.jpg edwardkim.jpg Silhouette.jpg

The diversity doesn’t stop on the runner side, either. You can find a wide array of powerful people on the corporation side, as well, like Director Haas, the leader of Haas-Bioroid, one of Netrunner’s corporations, or Elizabeth Mills, a vicious and cruel executive for the Weyland Corporation. The fantastic thing about these characters isn’t just that they are so diverse, too, it’s that their diversity is only one facet of their characters. Chaos Theory doesn’t run because she’s black or because she’s a girl, she does so because she’s smart and because she has the know-how and expertise to do it.

Netrunner’s diversity has another effect, too. It makes the world feel more real and alive. The real world is full of much more than white men, and seeing other groups represented gives the in-game world a legitimacy that other constructed worlds just don’t have.

This idea of diversity has been spilling into Fantasy Flight’s other games, as well. Eldritch Horror, a board game that was released in 2013, is another example. While the racial diversity is not that great, Fantasy Flight has maintained gender parity with its player characters. Even after a large expansion, exactly half the characters are male and the other half are female, which is surprisingly rare.

Fantasy Flight aren’t the only ones who have been trying to make their games more diverse. Paizo, makers of the popular role-playing game Pathfinder, introduced one of their Iconic characters in July of last year: a dwarven shaman named Shardra. Shardra, however, was also a trans woman, the first trans character in Pathfinder and a fantastic addition to the game. Shardra joins the lineup of Pathfinder’s other iconic characters, which is already a fairly diverse lineup.

Wizards of the Coast, makers of the card game Magic: the Gathering also just introduced a trans woman to their game. Alesha, Who Smiles at Death is the khan of the Mardu, a dragon slayer, and an all-around badass.

Of course, with talk of diversity, the ever-pervasive question comes up: Who cares? Well, I do, for one. Besides me, of course, many, many others do as well. Those who don’t currently see themselves in games and in media. Beyond the ability to see their own facets represented, it’s important to realize that others besides the typical straight white guy can be the hero of a story. A black girl can be a genius. A trans woman can lead her people to glory. These things are possible.

Now, currently, there aren’t any non-straight or trans characters that are canonically in Netrunner. But do I expect them to come? You bet I do, because Fantasy Flight has proven that they have an eye for representation. And while Netrunner is a fantastically fun game, and while I still primarily see straight white guys at tournaments and game days, I truly believe that the representation and diversity that they have worked into their game is a major part of its popularity.

Videogames are, of course, still working at the whole diversity thing, and they are slowly getting there. As more media forms adopt proper representation, however, I believe that the videogame industry will realize that that is becoming the new normal and efforts to diversify will increase. Until then, however, we must gently (or not so gently) remind the creators of games that there are many more people besides straight white men who play their games, and we want to feel included too.

Bryce Duzan is a freelance journalist and game designer, and strives to bring a queer perspective to board games and tabletop RPGs. He can be found on Twitter with the handle @Spincut.