Tabletop Tuesday: Chris Bennett on the history of women's suffrage games

January 19, 2023
Kathleen M Smith
Image of parts of the board game Votes for Women, with document reproductions

The Hohbach Hall Seminar room was jam-packed on Tuesday, January 17, 2023, as a large and enthusiastic crowd came to hear game designer Chris Bennett present on the past and present of suffragette games.

The event was part of Tabletop Tuesday, a monthly showcase of tabletop games, their history, and cultural impact, that began this summer. Previous topics have included "Counterculture in Games," "War Games," and a custom version of Clue inspired by Richard White's Who Killed Jane Stanford?

Chris Bennett is a longtime game designer who has worked on successful franchises including The Sims and Diner Dash. He is an affiliate at Stanford GSE where he teaches students about Game Design Thinking. Chris is also an edtech advisor helping global companies to increase student engagement.

At January's session, Chris reflected on the history of women's suffrage games, while also expounding on what makes games a compelling format for the study of the past. Unlike a historical documentary, he explained, agency is demanded of a game player, a willing participant who takes a side. This immediacy also places more onus on tabletop game designers to be mindful of not only the history they are portraying, but also of the players at the table and what they are being asked to do.

Modern Suffrage games are particularly illustrative. The Vote (Hollandspiele, 2020), sets the players in two roles: Equality and Supremacy, in an illustration of political dysfunction in action. Suffrage (Athena spel 2021) is a card-based game that is more personality-driven in that it takes on the roles of 6 historical women in the suffragette movement. Votes for Women (Fort Circle Games 2022), which was on display, is a card-driven board game covering the US women's suffrage movement from 1848-1920. There are competitive, co-operative and solitaire modes of play, which acknowledges that some players might not want to play the anti-suffragette side. This game provides a sense of the political grind and the long legal process behind the ratification of the 19th Amendment, as well as the multiple perspectives.

By contrast, the original suffrage games from 1908-1910 were games sponsored by the movement to gain notice for the cause and help to raise funds:

--Suffragettes In and Out of Prison (published by WSPU, 1908) is a game with a mechanism similar to Chutes and Ladders, which itself was based on an ancient game from India called Moksha Patam.

--Suffragetto (WSPU 1908) can be compared to Checkers/Go, as a game of occupation between two players around a grid board representing the streets of Edwardian London. One side plays the radical suffragettes whose objective is to break through police lines and enter the House of Commons and prevent police from entering Albert Hall. The other side plays the police whose objective is to disrupt the meeting of the suffragettes.

Only one physical copy of this game is known to exist, and Chris brought a reprinted game board and pieces to recreate the experience of play after his talk.

Image of Chris Bennett demonstrating a board game with little blue pieces and a colored board

In showcasing the modern games, Chris highlighted recent developments in tabletop game design: the rise of cooperative and solo modes, and the move away from a competitive-only, winner-take-all perspective. Historical games that grapple with complex questions benefit from other modes of play, especially those that allow players to wrestle with conflicting narratives. The modern games, for example, reflected the intersections of race, class, economic status, in the movement for women’s suffrage and among those fighting against suffrage.

In terms of larger questions about why games matter, these historical games are perfectly suited to an academic environment, since they allow students to make mistakes without suffering real-life consequences, to understand connections, and to reflect on experience within a safe environment.