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10 Reasons Why ‘Guess Who?’ Is Such A Controversial Game (Stereotypes,…)

Last Updated on January 25, 2024 by Gamesver Team and JC Franco

‘Guess Who?’ is a board game that was first conceived in 1972 by inventors Ora and Theo Coster. It wasn’t until 1979 that the game was first manufactured and sold. The premise of this easy-to-play two-player board game was simply to guess your opponent’s mystery character before they could guess yours.

At its launch, the game was seen as a fun educational board game for children to help them improve their deduction and social skills. However, as the years passed, the game had its fair share of controversies, a lot of which came from the kids who played the game in the first place.

In this article, we will look at the ten reasons why ‘Guess Who?’ is such a controversial game and explore the events and conditions surrounding these controversies. If you are a fan of ‘Guess Who?’ or board games in general, you are in for a treat!

1. Gender Bias

The original or classic ‘Guess Who?’ board game introduced 24 character cards that had cartoon images of 24 people along with their first names. In a game where, through the process of elimination, you need to guess what character card your opponent has, it was quite weird to have 19 people that were boys with only five girls. 

I remember as a child when my brother and I played. If I ended up picking a girl character as the mystery character, the game was as good as lost. This is because often, the first question my brother would ask was, “whether my character was a girl?”. If the answer was “yes”, he could instantly eliminate 19 of the character cards leaving only 5 cards behind. 

A truly unfair advantage. Don’t you agree?

2. Questions From A Six-Year-Old

It never crossed my mind, but a six-year-old Irish girl had had enough of this lack of girls featured in ‘Guess Who?’ and decided to ask her mother if she could send an email to Hasbro asking, “Why were there so many more boys than girls in Guess Who?”.

The exchange of emails was shared on a blog and went viral on social media as many clearly saw the gender imbalance present in the game and wondered the same thing that I had thought about when I was a kid all those years ago. “Why such an imbalance?” Doesn’t that take away from the entire point of the game?

Such a large difference between the number of girls and boys just made no sense in a game whose entire premise is to identify an opponent’s mystery character through a series of simple yes or no questions. You wonder then, was the addition of more boys than girls deliberate on the part of Hasbro, or was it an oversight or mistake that they didn’t realize until too late? 

3. Stereotypes & Hegemonies

If you have played the classic ‘Guess Who?’ game of the 80s, I am sure at a point you have wondered to yourself why the game forces you to rely on physical features to classify characters? In a way, doesn’t that reinforce certain stereotypes, especially when it comes to gender and racial norms? 

In the original game, for example, most of the characters are white caucasian males with stereotypical white male features such as short hair or no hair, mustaches, beards, and other boyish features. Whereas the few women characters all had long hair, pink cheeks, and delicate feminine features.

As such, many parents and children alike have questioned whether the game is ultimately designed to reinforce certain stereotypes and hegemonies present in society. From the evidence at hand, it can certainly be argued that that is indeed the case. 

4. Lack of Ethnic & Racial Diversity

Apart from gender biases, the ‘Guess Who?’ board game also had only a couple of characters that were ethnically ambiguous. The question is, why? In a world where white people are, in fact, a minority, why did ‘Guess Who?’ have an overwhelming number of white characters as compared to maybe one or two African American or Asian characters? 

5. Hasbro’s Inconsiderate Answer

‘Guess Who?’ may never have become a game with so much controversy surrounding it if Hasbro hadn’t answered the question in such a patronizing and inconsiderate manner. 

According to Hasbro, the game was based on nothing more than a numerical equation, with each character given five distinct characteristics. They went on to say that the point of the game was to draw attention away from gender or ethnicity and focus on things that we all have in common rather than focusing on differences.

The answer sparked even further controversy as it simply didn’t make sense. How else are you to identify a person if not by their ethnicity, race, and gender?  

6. Questions Asked

‘Guess Who?’ is a game where asking the right questions can be the difference between winning and losing. As such, children would obviously ask questions that were most obvious to them. 

However, according to Hasbro, the game wasn’t intended to be played this way. Supposedly, the questions asked should be focused on a character’s facial expressions and features rather than overall appearance. 

Sadly, that doesn’t make any sense as the characters have very few differences in facial expressions. Also, as a kid, would you ask a question such as “Is your character a girl?” or “Is your character frowning?”. A kid wouldn’t even notice the latter so whatever Hasbro was thinking or claiming obviously wasn’t reality.

7. Recent Changes In The Game

It took Hasbro nearly half a century to realize that their version of the game simply didn’t make sense in modern times. The controversies surrounding racial and gender bias had hit an all-time high, and changes had to be made in order for the game to continue to survive. 

As such, new characters were introduced to the game, many of which were females. Males were also added of different ethnicities to encapsulate a more racially diverse set of people. These changes came nearly 40 years after the game’s initial launch! 

8. Advertising & Marketing

When the game was first marketed in the United States in the early 80s, the advertisements used often showed the characters on the cards coming alive and communicating with one another by making witty remarks and cute expressions. 

However, as advertising laws changed, marketers were forced to add a disclaimer to these advertisements stating that the “game cards do not actually talk” to protect themselves from legal lawsuits.

9. The Binary Search Strategy

The introduction of this strategy essentially allowed a player to ask four complex questions that would eliminate 21 out of the 24 characters. The fifth question would then have a 50/50 chance of guessing the opponent’s mystery card, destroying any hope of your opponent ever catching up. 

Those that understood the strategy and had memorized the questions had a very unfair advantage when playing with other opponents. 

10. Lack Of Diversity

The most controversial aspect of ‘Guess Who?’ has to be simply the lack of diversity present in the game. 

A focus on predominantly white male characters in a world where racial and gender bias is still a pressing issue has made the game extremely controversial in the eyes of many people, especially parents and children from different ethnicities and racial backgrounds. 

Final Thoughts

A board game that was originally intended as an educational tool for children has become a topic of controversy in a world where racial and gender bias still runs rampant. 

Looking at these ten reasons, it is extremely clear as to why ‘Guess Who?’ is such a controversial game as it touches upon so many aspects of the wrongs still innately present within our modern society.

Even though Hasbro has recently redesigned the ‘Guess Who?’ board to include non-white characters and more females, many see it as a move taken much too late. 

It is necessary to challenge society’s deeply innate stereotypical views of gender and racial norms, whether it be through something as simple as a board game. Teaching our future generations the importance of inclusion and acceptance of people from all walks of life regardless of color, race, or gender is more important than ever before.

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This article was co-authored by our team of in-house and freelance writers, and reviewed by our editors, who enjoy sharing their knowledge about their favorite games with others!

JC Franco
Editor | + posts

JC Franco serves as a New York-based editor for Gamesver. His interest for board games centers around chess, a pursuit he began in elementary school at the age of 9. Holding a Bachelor’s degree in Business from Mercyhurst University, JC brings a blend of business acumen and creative insight to his role. Beyond his editorial endeavors, he is a certified USPTA professional, imparting his knowledge in tennis to enthusiasts across the New York City Metropolitan area.