The Grantland Discussions: A Dance with Diversity

In the previous post in this series, I looked at how one Dippyist, Dave Maletsky, felt new players were not finding their way into the Hobby. I think, if we look at the Hobby as a whole, it’s easy to see that it really isn’t very diverse at all.

David Hill’s article about the World Diplomacy Championship in 2014, “The Board Game of the Alpha Nerds“, captured this lack of diversity:

The gathering of amateur diplomats for the 2014 World DipCon was a fairly homogeneous group. Among the 87 players were only two women, two players under the age of 21, and four African Americans.

https://grantland.com/features/diplomacy-the-board-game-of-the-alpha-nerds/

Take a look online at photos of Diplomacy tournaments.

24th European Diplomacy Championship, 2016.
DixieCon 2022
GenCon Dip tournament, year unknown
Origins Dip tournament, 2011

Yes, you’re right, I could have manipulated the choice of pics, but I didn’t. I went with four pictures from Dip tournaments using the search term ‘diplomacy tournaments’ and clicking on images.

This isn’t the full story, of course. The 2022 DixieCon results feature Playdip’s own Lauren Lloyd in 17th place! But that’s the only definite female name on the 2022 list of entrants (with apologies if I haven’t recognised any others).

FTF tournament players – in fact, whether FTF or not – tend to be male. There are some very notable female players in the Hobby, but perhaps they’re notable because they’re a very definite minority. Similarly, people of colour are a minority. And the age of players tends to be comfortably middle-aged (like it or not, guys!).

I think this is partly because the game is an English language game (although it has been produced in other languages), a game aimed at Western culture, and – perhaps – the nature of board gaming – or competitive board gaming – is more appealing to men.

You can find a list of non-English language Diplomacy sites here: http://uk.diplom.org/pouch/Online/nonenglish.html However, of these links neither of the Dutch sites can be found; of the French language sites, only Diplomatie (of the clear gaming sites) is accessible and it doesn’t seem to be a Dip site any more. Of the German sites, Lepanto is still going. The rest of the links either don’t work or seem to have been taken over by non-Diplomacy sites. This may simply be that the Pouch’s online resources list is at fault; the Pouch has been somewhat neglected of late and certainly the links don’t seem to be maintained at all.

This isn’t to say that the game isn’t played in other languages. The French and Dutch hobbies are very strong, and the Italian and Swedish hobbies are notable, too. With the 2023 WDC due to be held in Thailand, and the growth in the Thai Dip community, Diplomacy is certainly making ground there.

However, Diplomacy was invented as an English language game and is played – very often – as an English language game. International tournaments tend to require players to speak English. Immediately, then, there is some barrier to play; not a barrier that can’t be overcome, but it’s a barrier nonetheless.

The game is set at a time when the Western World was seen as the only truly important part of the globe. It’s a game of imperial expansion, with the seven major powers being mainly Western: Russia, on the verge of revolution, and Turkey, being the exceptions. But the game is about Western style international power politics.

This, potentially, means that it is somewhat distasteful to non-white players. There’s no denying that the playerbase is not homogeneously white, but the vast majority is white. If you’ve grown up with the impact of white colonialism affecting your life, as it still does for many non-white, non-European, communities, then perhaps you’re not going to be favourable towards the game, anyway.

And there’s a lack of female players in the playerbase, too. It isn’t that women can’t play the game: women are just as capable as men. It’s that women don’t seem to be attracted to the competitive aspect of the game, or of tournaments in general. Maybe women just have a healthier attitude to Diplomacy than a lot of men; maybe the male pride aspect is part of it.

I’m making generalised statements here, and basing my musings on a poverty of evidence as to why tournament Diplomacy attracts white, male, middle-aged players. The middle-aged bit is probably easier to understand, and I’ve mentioned it in a previous post: it has something to do with the cost of attending tournaments. You need a disposable income to travel and stay at events. Organisers make every effort to reduce the financial costs but they’re there.

Siobhan Nolen, in Hill’s article, had this to say:

“I don’t know that it caters itself to men, but it’s a very intimidating game.” Nolen once brought her best friend to an event. “Bless her heart she tried, but when we were finished she gave me a look and said, ‘Never again.’”

https://grantland.com/features/diplomacy-the-board-game-of-the-alpha-nerds/

This doesn’t mean that women don’t want to be involved; Siobhan’s an example that women do get involved – in her case, very involved – in the Hobby. Siobhan’s introduction, though might well have been more favourable:

Nolen got hooked on Diplomacy when she was 13 years old. Her father had brought her to a gaming convention called Conquest. She was a bored adolescent wandering around the convention with her brother, not interested in playing any of the games. Then she came across six people sitting at a Diplomacy board, many of them not much older than she was. The oldest player, a man in his fifties, beckoned. “We need one more player.” Nolen looked at the board, the pieces, the players. On the face it looked like another boring war game like her dad played. “No way am I going to play that,” she replied. But Diplomacy was different from any game she had ever played. It wasn’t just tactics, just pushing pieces on a board. In fact, it was barely that. It had a human element. She found that in her very first game she was able to win against older, more experienced gamers just because she was good at convincing them to help her out. She was captivated by it. The older player asked her if she’d like to play again sometime and asked her for her email. His name was Edi Birsan.

https://grantland.com/features/diplomacy-the-board-game-of-the-alpha-nerds/

This doesn’t sound like a tournament game, to me, just a game that was being organised at a board game convention. it won’t have hurt that the Dipmeister Edi Birsan was involved! Now, go back and read what I said about encouraging new players into the Hobby.

There’s bound to be a natural barrier here. Humans are hardwired to be tribal. Our brains reward us by releasing a hormone that makes us feel happy when we’re with people who are like us. It’s a survival technique. Gather in numbers to survive, and make sure those people are like you. Given that the playerbase is white, middle-aged males, then that base is going to be more appealing to white, middle-aged males.

Does Diplomacy need to be more inclusive? Does it need a more diverse playerbase? I’m not a fan of diversity for the sake of diversity but, if we’re wanting to strengthen the Hobby, then the answer should be yes.

There’s not a lot we can do about the culturally Western nature of the game. But there are a lot of culturally Western board games out there, and race and culture don’t present a barrier to playing board games (most of them). The issue here is getting people interested in playing Diplomacy for fun, as with any other board game. Again, perhaps the competitive nature of organised Diplomacy events is an issue.

It’s difficult to judge how the online Dip communities are made up. Online play is very much anonymous. For all I know, I could have been playing Diplomacy against a majority of women. I don’t think I have been, though. In those communities, women tend to identify themselves. Oh, and for those who doubt (those still in the backwaters of the 1950s) women are just as likely to be great players as men, if not proportionally more successful.

Race is less easy to decide online, as it should be. When you’re playing remotely, you’re not likely to know the colour of someone’s skin. Which is exactly how it should be. You are more likely to be able work out if someone’s first language isn’t English; this can lead to discrimination, unfortunately. There are a lot of people who play online who are dismissive or poor English grammar, probably not considering that perhaps they’re playing against someone whose first language isn’t English.


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Published by Mal Arky

I'm a Diplomacy nut... if you haven't guessed. I write about the game Diplomacy, mainly as played online on websites, such as Playdiplomacy, webDiplomacy and Backstabbr. I write books on Diplomacy, too. First one to be published soon!

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