Learning Demography with the Guess Who? Board Game

This post was originally published at Sociology in Focus on August 14, 2013. 

What can a board game teach us about demography and the U.S. population? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how the board game Guess Who? fails to accurately reflect the U.S. population.

I realize that board games are supposed to be “fun” (at least that is what non-sociologists say), but as a sociologist, I feel the need to ruin everything.

My child was super-excited to find Guess Who? at the thrift shop last week. I recall this game existed when I was child, but I don’t recall ever playing it. So when we got home, my daughter immediately showed me how to play. My first observation about the game was that while it does a  semi-acceptable job of portraying racial diversity, it does an especially poor job at portarying gender or age as it actually exists in the United States.

As I examined the people on the board, I began thinking about how representative this board game is of America. While my daughter asked me if any of my people had “eyeballs looking to the side,” I was busy doing a census of the demographics portrayed on the board.

Here’s how race, gender and age demographics (or characteristics) are represented in the game:

  • White = 19 (79.17%)
  • Black = 5 (20.83%)
  • Men = 19 (79.17%)
  • Women = 5 (20.83%)
  • Elderly (or those who have gray hair) = 5 (20.83%)
  • Children = 0
  • Adults (18-65) =19 (79.17%)

Based on this board game, the typical American is a white man aged 18-65. Hmmm….sounds a lot like Hollywood. So how far off is Guess Who? from the American population?Let’s look at the actual percentages from the U.S. Census:

  • White = 77.9%
  • Black = 13.1%
  • Men = 49.2%
  • Women = 50.8%
  • Elderly (or those 65 or older) = 13.7%
  • Children = 23.5%
  • Adults (18-65) =62.8%

Analysis

Black men and women are overrepresented on the board game. White people are slightly overrepresented on the board game compared to their numbers in the U.S. population overall. The overrepresentation of black people on the board game is a result of the lack of other types of racial diversity. None of the people appear to be Asian American, Latino, Native American, or multiracial. Two of the spaces should be filled with these other groups.

Of the black people on the board, four are men and one is a woman. None are over age 65.

The same gender pattern found among black people on the board holds true regarding age. Four of those over age 65 are men and one is a woman. The Scientific American reports

  • Women outlive men by about five to six years. By age 85 there are roughly six women to every four men. At age 100 the ratio is more than two to one.

A more realistic portrayal would mean that three of the older Americans are women and two are men.

Speaking of gender, Guess Who? does an appalling job of representing men and women as they actually exist within the U.S.  To be representative on gender, the manufacturer would need to replace 7 men with women. Women are portrayed as a numerical minority, which they are not.

Dig Deeper:

  1. In your own words, explain what is meant by the term demography.
  2. A board game is just a board game, right? Why might a sociologist argue that board games do matter in how representative they are of the actual population?
  3. Now it’s your turn to ruin something. View a television show or movie, read a magazine, or play a different board game than I did. Find something with people in it and start counting. Create a table with the number of people in the item and make note of race, age, and gender. Compare your results to the U.S. Census. How close does your item come to being representative of the U.S. population?
  4. Visit the U.S. Census website. To the left and middle of the page, you will find QuickFacts. Select your state. How does your state’s demographics on age, race, and gender compare to the U.S. population? Does your state “look like” the nation? If not, how does it differ?