Men and Magic: Building community


Just over two years ago, Jim Davis wrote an unfortunate article titled “Women and Magic” in response to a similarly-titled Meghan Wolff article. It started with a rather long and odd allegory about a South Park episode, eventually touching on a lot of points of contention in a rather heavy-handed way. While it was quickly removed and an apology was posted by the editor, there were some major lessons to be learned from both the tone and content of the article. Today, we’re going to take a quick look at the state of inclusivity in Magic in 2017 and use the framework of the Davis article to see what we, the male majority, can do to help.

The biggest problem with Davis’ attitude towards the social issues in Magic is that he essentially preaches inaction over action, as highlighted by the South Park allegory. He states that our objective shouldn’t be to empower women, but rather to give everyone equal treatment. This, of course, doesn’t work, but rather serves to passively empower the also-passive misogyny of the culture. When everyone doesn’t start on the same playing field, we need to take steps to fix that social inequity rather than falsely assume equality. Thanks to active efforts by groups such as StarCityGames and Wizards of the Coast, we’ve made a significant amount of progress on some of the issues brought up by Davis and Wolff, but many are still distinctly problematic.

Visibility is without a doubt the sector where the most progress has been made. Maria Bartholdi and Gaby Spartz are active hosts on the Pro Tour, notable players like Melissa De Tora and Jackie Lee have been visibly working on the game itself, and media projects like Vintage Super League include personalities like Erin Campbell and Rachel Agnes. Emma Handy and Jadine Klomparens routinely sit at the top tables of the SCG Tour, and the Play it Forward initiative highlights accomplishments of women and non-binary players on the Grand Prix circuit. Everybody stands to benefit from a diverse set of role models, and the visibility of women in Magic media has improved substantially since attention was brought to the issue.

There’s still a lot of work to be done, however. The average number of women at each Pro Tour over the past season has hovered around, well, one. It’s hard to highlight a diverse cast in the feature match area when there is no gender diversity to be found. I personally like to view this as the ultimate metric of success for all efforts meant to make Magic more welcoming. Until there are a bunch of women on the Pro Tour, any and all efforts have not truly come to fruition. Why, then, are there a ton of women personalities and players, but so few are able to translate their involvement in the community into Pro Tour appearances?

This brings us to the real problem: our competitive community is still overwhelmingly toxic. This serves as a massive barrier to women entering the scene, let alone being sufficiently enfranchised to consistently play on the Pro Tour. What makes competitive Magic so deeply sexist? Wolff and Davis both talk about the phenomenon of “girlfriendification”, the idea that any woman playing Magic is inexorably tied to their identity as the girlfriend of a male player. Why, after all, would they be interested in the game other than an effort to be more involved in the life of their partner? News flash: Magic is in fact an extremely good game, and it’s actually quite reasonable to like it and not be a part of the male hegemony. It’s actually quite difficult to overcome this hurdle. When I checked coverage of Grand Prix DC this year and saw the name Sarah Zyla at 9-0, my first reaction was, “Oh, that’s Alexander Hayne’s girlfriend.” Whenever I see Rachel Agnes on VSL, I remember that she’s dating Alex Bertoncini.

Having these thoughts cross your mind doesn’t make you a bad person. We think this way precisely because of the innate misogyny of our community. It is, however, on us to act in such a way that doesn’t perpetuate this toxicity. The next time you see a judge ask a woman trying to register for a tournament if she’s there to watch her boyfriend play, call them out. That judge isn’t necessarily a terrible person despite making that mistake, and it’s great to use situations like that as a teaching moment. We don’t think of LSV as Gaby Spartz’s boyfriend, and all women deserve to have their own identities rather than being defined by the men around them.

Language. There’s been a lot of buzz about language in the media and in social discourse as of late, with a focus, thanks to Jordan Peterson and the like, on the idea that social justice types are trying to censor language and restrict free speech to further their own agenda. Before we jump in to a discussion about gendered language in Magic, I’m going to start with a brief disclaimer. You can use whatever words you want. I’m not here to police your language. I’m asking you to consider being more compassionate and thoughtful about how you communicate, because while certain words might not matter to you, it’s entirely likely that they matter a lot more to someone else. If you choose to mock this effort to make language inclusive, consider having a less terrible take on the subject.

A hot topic for people to complain about is the move away from the phrasing of on-demand events as “8-mans” at Grand Prix and the like. This is part of a general movement to try to not use male-specific gendered language to describe groups of people that might include women. Not only is it improving the accuracy of the language, but it also serves to generate a more inclusive atmosphere. Also, it comes with pretty much no downside. Just do it. Call them 8-player queues or on-demands or whatever.

Speaking of free-rolls, you might have noticed that there are a lot of trans and non-binary people who call competitive Magic their home. They take a lot of hate and bigotry from the worst elements of our community, which is a shame not only for reasons of basic morality, but also because nerd cultures like our own have always been a refuge for marginalized people. It’s on us, cisgender men, to fight against this bigotry. We can do this in big ways, like calling out people when they use transphobic slurs or misgender a player. We can also take smaller steps, like trying to use the word “woman” when referring to people rather than “female”, a colder and more biologically scientific term.

Pronouns are an important subject to touch on as well. Just because someone’s appearance suggests to you that they are a man doesn’t necessarily mean that they identify as one or want to be referred to as one. Many trans people either don’t want to or can’t afford to drastically change their appearance for any number of reasons — and plenty of queer and non-binary people exist as well, who would simply prefer to not be referred to in a certain, gendered way.

Now, let’s get real for a second here. A common response to this topic is frustration. I’ve come across many Magic players who aren’t interested in putting effort into figuring out someone’s preferred pronouns before figuring out how to talk to them. I don’t particularly blame them, especially in the context of a Magic event. This game is deeply draining, and at the end of a long day, I sometimes don’t want to talk to my opponents at all, let alone worry about their life story. Try to view this from their perspective, however. While to you, it’s a minor inconvenience to ask someone who appears marginally androgynous what they prefer to be called, to them, it’s their life and their identity. You don’t have to ask every bearded white dude with a Rick and Morty shirt if they want to be called “they”. Use your brain, but also don’t be a dick. Ask. Consider changing your default way of referring to someone from “he” or “she” to “them”.

Now, I’m far from the first to write about this, but if you use the word “rape” to refer to anything about a match of Magic, or infer any kind of assault or non-consensual sex act to define a match result, you’re doing something very, very bad. When people talk about “rape culture”, meaning a culture that trivializes sexual assault, tacitly encouraging it, this is what they’re talking about. Your match of Magic was not analogous to a heinous crime that leaves survivors with a whole host of trauma. Say something else. Anything else. Tell your friends that you crushed that noob idiot, or that you got destroyed by that top-decked Glorybringer. Don’t trivialize sexual assault.

I firmly believe that language and conversation are the best approaches we have to improving the issues we have with a lack of inclusivity in Magic. Nobody who plays this incredibly difficult game is an idiot — except whoever’s passing to you in a MODO draft — and we all have the intellectual capacity to not only understand why compassion is good, but why it’s our responsibility to further that compassion. If you’re a man who plays Magic, and you witness someone saying something or doing something that contributes to the toxicity in Magic culture, be it talking about a woman’s appearance at FNM or mocking the Play it Forward prize, it is your responsibility as a human being to call them out and talk to them.

We can’t make Magic a better place by standing by and doing nothing. We have to talk about it.