Several nights a week, discarding their normal lives or their virtual kingdoms, the planeswalkers meet to conjure monsters in their midst. With a deck of cards and mana at their disposal, these Magic: The Gathering players become warlords and mages within the realm of the world famous card game. But there's a being far more curious to the world of Magic: The Gathering than dragons, angels, or merfolk: female players.
Originally designed as a card game to be played in between rounds of Dungeons & Dragons, Magic has become more than just another product on the shelves of hobby shops. After twenty-one years, Magic has spawned a competitive circuit, a massive and invested community, and financial rewards like tournament payouts and college scholarships. But for all of its growth as a game, there have never been many female players: roughly 10 percent of players according to The Washington Post. A photo of the most recent professional tournament showed a fully male, predominantly white, t-shirt and cargo-shorts-clad top 8.
But women still play the game, and in the last few years they have become more and more vocal about the community’s resistance to their presence. Some players, like Canadian Andy Bruce, have had to create tournaments specifically for players who identify as female due to feeling unwanted at major events. Others have found players far too comfortable with seeing women and their objectification as suitable material for their third-party accessories: playmats, or protective card sleeves.
Planeswalker (which means “wizard”) and artist Polish Tamales was particularly offended by some of the artwork she was seeing at tournaments frequented by younger players. “When I see a grown-ass man in public with a slave bikini girl playmat and painted women being raped on land alters,” she wrote, “he needs to be asked to leave. Immediately.”
Male-dominance and sexism in video gaming is more evident than ever. Designers are repeatedly taken to task for a lack of female characters, which they blame on the time it would take to design them. Female video game developers like Zoe Quinn have been torn apart and harassed for fabricated scandals. And video gaming’s new feminist critic, Anita Sarkeesian, has been chased from her home and banned from speaking at events because of bomb scares and mass-murder threats.
These events, part of a growing controversy entitled #GamerGate, have shown that even if only a vocal minority are the ones causing truly ludicrous displays of misogyny, a male-centric, women-resistant undercurrent is present in video games. So when you have gaming that is played face to face instead of at screens, should we be making sure a #MagicGate doesn’t creep up?
In the last two years, women’s role in Magic: the Gathering’s competitive circles has grown and been challenged more than perhaps any other time in the game’s history. Melissa DeTora became the first woman to enter the top 8 of a professional Magic tournament in 2013. Feline Longmore, an incredibly successful player who is well known for using the card “High Tide,” received misogynist and transphobic backlash for her success this year during the Star City Games Open Series Tournament. Professional player Jackie Lee has also been so successful that she was snatched up for an internship at Wizard’s R&D department.
In February, planeswalker Andy Bruce published a revealing and heartfelt essay about her particular experiences in the Magic community. “I have been the only cis-woman in a 150 player tournament and at a 1200 player tournament, I counted less than 20 non-cis-males participants,” she wrote, “the player base is pretty homogeneous.”
Bruce ended up creating a “safe-space” Magic tournament for women and female-identifying trans players, but received flak from some men who suggested they felt excluded. “I heard rumours that some members of the community wanted to report the store to the Better Business Bureau, saying the tournament violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms because it discriminated against cis-men,” she noted, “even if the rumour was not true, the fact that it was a rumour at all is itself a problem.
Bruce’s essay received a response from English Magic player Sophie Barrass, who took to Manaleak, a Magic-specific news outlet, to recount her personal experiences. Many commenters found her essay less empowering and more patronizing. “Some of these men,” Barrass wrote, “have never seen our kind before and may take a little time to adjust and become comfortable, this does not mean they’re sexist though and it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you.”
While video games and trading card games are two very different forms of gameplay, most Magic players I spoke to said they were also avid video game fans. Magic and gaming involve in-depth worlds that feature both male and female characters. But representation in video games is often problematic: Sarkeesian’s video series “Tropes vs Women” trades in careful and intelligent analysis of how many women in games exist as set-dressing and rarely rise to the rank of developed or even autonomous beings. Magic: The Gathering suffers the same absence of well-crafted female characters and creatures, some argue, and that may not help bring in female players.
Magic: The Gathering’s artwork and universe are not only beautiful to look at, but expansive and masterfully constructed. Imagine being able to manipulate and control bands of characters as immaculately conceived as Tolkien’s milieu and you have an idea of how huge and consistent this world is.
In this universe there are many female characters. There are powerful otherworldly beings like Akroma, Angel of Wrath, or her later form Phage the Untouchable, but even they are sentient creations of male illusionists. For every woman who is lucky enough to be a monarch, a deity or a top-class warrior there are ladies existing purely to be portrayed suggestively in the artwork. Studies by players have found that while women are certainly present in the world of the planeswalkers, there is a significant imbalance in gender representation.
Interestingly, there is often a resistance from fans to hear that beloved characters might even be women at all. Consider the controversy over Daybreak Ranger, a seemingly androgynous character. While some women only receive very shallow identities like Liliana and Garruk others like Emrakul or Captain Sisay have become interesting female figures in the game’s canon. But Bruce argues that just having interesting women every so often is only one stage of the campaign. “In the art, like the female planeswalkers, they are all pretty white,” Bruce said. “If WotC [Wizards of the Coast] were really committed to improving the representation of women they would improve the representation of all women. Not just thin, able bodied, white women.”
The main problem here is not women in-game, but the absence of judges, commentators and staff at Wizards of the Coast (who make the game) who are
One woman who is trying to fight the institutionalized misogyny is Helene Bergeot, the Director of Global Organized Play for Magic: The Gathering. Bergeot is perhaps the best known female authority figure in Magic and has spoken out in the past against sexism in the community. But even she is not immune from the everyday misogyny of some players. Like Anita Sarkeesian, who received so many threats on her life that she was forced to seek shelter at the houses of friends and relatives, Bergeot faced harassment from a French player who made a joke about raping her on an Internet forum. Wizards of the Coast banned him for life.
I sent a list of questions to Wizards of the Coast asking them about recent statistics on gender breakdown, how many women work at Wizards in roles like R&D, and if the Bergeot incident and #GamerGate had any implications on their community development. After a month of saying they would get back to me, Wizards refused to answer any of the questions posed to them and instead sent this statement:
We work to create a welcoming environment to everyone from all walks of life, regardless of gender or any other differences that have no bearing on player ability. Unfortunately, we cannot give you answers for these questions at this time. Please be assured that this topic is a priority for us, and we are looking forward to talking more about this in the future.
In trying to find female players in my native New York, I went to a few tournaments at the Uncommons Cafe in New York City to sit and observe and see the breakdown of contestants. While it was known that there were female players here and there, I found myself most often in rooms of only men “It simply doesn't seem like women are drawn to it,” said Grey May, the CEO of The Uncommons, “And specifically girls, since it's often a hobby that takes root in high school.”
But Magic is not alone in the trading card world for its gender imbalance: nearly every major player at the Pokémon World Championship 2014 was a man.
What Sarkeesian did, and what #gamergate exposed on a larger scale, was show that a whole leisure pursuit was dominated by male privilege and often misogynist images. Without saying a word she proved some gamers have received the worst education possible in gender politics in part because of the very tropes she deconstructs. When communities are dominated by men used to a particular series of decorations, character types and symbols, we have now learnt, it can lead to deeper seated issues. Magic: The Gathering may seem like a niche hobby to some, but it has been around for so long and is played by so many that it is time we finally assess what impacts its culture is having on its players.
While it is wrong to suggest any group of people can only be judged by its worst behaved members, it is clear that there is a need for the voice of women and other groups to be heard by people in charge. At the tournaments I sat in, the players were lovely but homogenous: female clientele slunk into the side room to play Boggle as the main room filled up with monsters, spells, and a gravy-like scent of body odor.
If people are getting into this game at a young age, then there is a duty to make sure they are not only taught how to win an incredibly complex and interesting game, but constructive ideals as well. The rules of the game may not change, but the rules of conduct may need a significant shift.