Showing my work

Earlier this year, an Indigenous gamer1 asked what I was doing to find, create, or advance actual Indigenous voices in the board game industry. On hearing my answer, they suggested I ought to be more public with that information, to raise awareness and promote taking action as a norm. (Tied to the concepts of showing your work or paying the rent.)
I find it a touch uncomfortable to talk about2, but I see the point / overall benefit, and a bit of discomfort on my part seems far outweighed by helping to normalize good stuff. So, here’s some things I do.
(Note: this is intended to help normalize taking action. It is not intended to fuel one-upsmanship or scorn. Different people can manage different amounts and kinds of action; more on this at the end.)

As a white male game designer, I believe I have a responsibility to try and support / elevate underrepresented voices in the board game industry – which is overwhelmingly & disproportionately white, male, and non-Indigenous.
Some actions I take include:
  • Monthly support of the Tabletop Mentorship Program, which (among other things) provides micro-grants to underrepresented creators;
  • Supporting AB Con, and other crowdfunding endeavors by African designers;
  • Crowdfunding support of games designed by BIPoC / non-male designers (whether by ordering the game or just chipping in);
  • Trying to make the Spirit Island playtesting group more diverse, because playtesting can sometimes serve as a stepping-stone to paid opportunities in the industry. (There’s also sensible self-interested reasons to do this, such as getting a better diversity of viewpoints.)
  • Giving priority with professional assistance to BIPoC / non-male folks I’ve met who are in (or would like to get into) the boardgame industry – conveying industry information, signal-boosting projects, playtesting (if in person), networking (on those rare occasions I have useful contacts), etc. This is honestly a pleasure in and of itself – I like helping! – but time and energy constraints mean it’s not something I can do for everyone I meet. So, I try to prioritize folks who face systemic barriers / underrepresentation when allocating the time and attention I do have for that sort of thing.
  • Donating to New Voices in Gaming, a sort of scholarship fund for game designers from underrepresented backgrounds to attend professional events.
If you’re making money in the board game industry and are part of any of tabletop’s disproportionate majorities (white folks, guys), I encourage you to join me in addressing the field’s inequality in some tangible manner.

As the designer of Spirit Island, and as a non-Indigenous resident of the United States, I believe I have a responsibility to try and support Indigenous and environmental causes in general. Although Spirit Island doesn’t portray a real-life Indigenous culture, it draws on the history, stories, and zeitgeist of colonial-Indigenous conflicts, so it seems right to pay some of that back. And like all board games, it has an environmental impact3, so I also see an imperative there.
This largely takes the form of donating to charities (listed below), though I also make contributions to a local Indigenous group, and have found occasional one-off opportunities to help in other ways, financial or otherwise.
The primary organizations I’ve supported have been:
  • Native American Rights Fund – a legal-assistance group that’s been fighting for the rights of Native Americans since the 1970s, taking on all manner of court cases, winning many of them.
  • Rainforest Action Network – pressures the companies and industries driving deforestation and climate change to shape up. More scrappy/confrontational than the big environmental charities like WWF, Sierra Club, etc (who often take more of a “partner and persuade” approach). Works with front-line Indigenous communities.
  • Cultural Survival – an advocacy and partnership group for Indigenous peoples worldwide. They work primarily through grants and other support of local initiatives. While the environment is not their primary focus, it’s very much on their radar as an issue that has huge impact on Indigenous peoples. (See here, about halfway down.)
  • Fonkoze, which empowers Haitians to help break the cycle of poverty. Haiti has massive economic and political problems, which can be traced directly back to the colonial & imperial pressures it’s been forced to contend with for its entire existence.
I think everyone should support Indigenous and environmental causes, but I particularly encourage folks who live on land taken by colonists to provide tangible support of money and/or time, and board game publishers/creators to actively support environmental causes – there are loads of things you can do, some as straightforward as changing your bank. Any designer whose game has benefited from the heritage of other cultures will hopefully have already respected that via paid cultural consulting, but if not, post facto support is vastly better than none at all!

Finally, to get more concrete:
From 2017 – 2021, my contributions for the above were around 20-25% of gross royalties (roughly 30-35% of my post-tax income); as of mid-2022 changes to my family’s financial situation mean I’ve stepped that down to around 8-11% of gross royalties (roughly 12-16% of my post-tax income). I acknowledge that I am deeply fortunate to be in a financial situation where I can afford to help others to this extent – board games are not a lucrative industry, and many people in both the US and the world as a whole must make do with far too little.
I mention numbers both to hold myself accountable, and to show that I genuinely believe these are goals worth supporting in a more than token or offhand way – not to make people feel bad, nor to prompt toxic comparisons of who’s doing more / most / the properly sanctified things / etc. Rather, it’s about making certain types of actions normal, a thing people do, rather than something exceptional or unusual.
I hope this might prompt people to act, because it’s not about whether you did the Most or the Best, it’s about whether you are Doing at all. And if you are: thank you!! Keep it up, as your life permits!

1 Who’d been very kindly spending their time to give me thoughts on a Dahan-centric Spirit Island expansion, something I appreciate immensely.
2 Our culture is weird about saying “I did this thing and it was a good thing to do”, particularly when it involves money.
3 I am keenly aware of the irony of the game’s “plastic = the enemy” framing resulting in the manufacture of so many plastic Invader pieces.

Changelog since original publication in mid-2022:
  • 2023-Oct: Added New Voices in Gaming, tidied up wording, added local Indigenous contribution. Set up footnotes section and moved a few parentheticals there. Updated “changing your bank” due to defunct WaPo link.