This week I sat down, virtually, with my sister who is currently living about 350kms away from me, stuck in social isolation with my parents. Our game of choice this week was Guess Who, and when I started my research on this childhood classic little did I know the fascinating content that would emerge.
You’ve no doubt seen it in action before. Guess Who, the classic two player guessing game which relies on differentiation, deduction and carefully crafted yes or no questions to eliminate possible characters, the winner being the first to determine which card their opponent has selected.
The game dates back to 1979, when it was first created by Theora Design, “a family business which in the past 4 decades has become a world leader in the invention and design of games, toys, activities, crafts, dolls, electronic games and novelties”. Now owned by Hasbro, the game has, over the years, undergone various iterations and character changes to land at the version we played virtually this week. The original game I remember playing as a child looked something like this:
And the game we played online this week looked like this:
Playing this game again for the first time in many years, it certainly became apparent that the synthesis between a game theme and its “setting” are highly important when it comes to an individual’s experience of a gameplay.
Whilst the theme of the game has remained relatively consistent, the different iterations throughout history and evolving setting have evidently influenced the experience of gameplay, and further, the reception of the game by different audiences.
As Vitto (2013) writes, “the original version of Guess Who? seriously lacked diversity… the original version of this childhood favorite featured only one black character, Anne, in a sea of white characters”
One player wrote on a google review: “Don’t buy this version!! It’s extremely dated! There are only five women and everyone has the same skin color”.
Whilst playing Guess Who? as a child felt fun and harmless, I was completely oblivious to the role that a game like this might play in shaping identity and fortifying particular racial or gender stereotypes in the highly malleable mind of a young child. As Alexander (2019) argues, “this game ultimately teaches and reinforces certain stereotypes and hegemonies within our society…I realized that the entire premise of the game was anything but objective or disinterested.”
The video below illustrates this very comedically, as Amy Poehler and Ike Barinholtz try to play the game without being racist, sexist or homophobic.
It was interesting playing the online version of this game, which has come a long way since the original edition. With “Chap” and their bald head and pink beard and “Bob” with their facial hair and long blonde hair, it is on first glance a much more liberal, ambiguous and unconventional game experience. The question “Is your character a boy” sometimes harder to answer than “is your character wearing bunny ears”, which makes me feel as though the game has come a long way for diversity. That is, however, until you see “Frank” and “Buba”, with their brown skin, large lips, dreadlocks and Jamacian coloured bandanas- the epitome of a racial stereotype.
I sat down with my sister to discuss our game experience, reflecting of the changed experience of gameplay since we were children, our perceptions of the game, and the different mechanics and experience which results from playing online, rather than face-to-face.
“It just wasn’t the same… it was really boring”