Women and Magic: The Game’s Lost Tribe

Editor's Note: Several months ago, I put out a call for writers in various topics, focuses, or fields. Out of it, we've had a number of talented individuals join ManaNation as weekly columnists, such as Sean Morgan and Luke Sonnier. Titus is a guest contributor who responded as well, but his interest was not in the weekly column; rather, he responded to my call for someone interested in doing longer-term pieces. His first piece here looks at gender in Magic, a topic which many have discussed recently. I think he takes a solid look at this in some ways that have yet to be examined. Enjoy! —Trick

Sit down. Shuffle up. Glance across the table at your opponent. Who do you see? If your local game store or club is anything like mine, probably a man. In fact, although Wizards of the Coast have no data available on the demographics of their audience, the chances you are up against a guy rather than a planeswalker of the fairer sex is anything up to 90 percent—the proportion of male strategy gamers that constitute Wizards' stated target audience. With an estimated 12 million players in the world, that is a lot of beardy blokes in faded Red Dwarf tee-shirts, hiding from the sunlight to play Magic: The Gathering.

Considering the game we love is one of mental dexterity rather than physical strength or skill (Chaos Orb, alas, remains banned), the lack of women among the player base is a glaring one that persists contrary to trends in other sectors: In 2009, Forbes reported that 28 percent of American video gamers were female, for example. Other studies such as those by the Entertainment Software Association put that number as high as 40 percent. Crikey, if you're looking for evidence that traditional gender assignments are being pushed back, even where physical factors are important, look no further than Iowa. Two high-school girls qualified for the state wrestling competition for the first time in February to fight boys in the same weight category. Magic is being left behind as a bastion of blokedom while the world around it is rapidly evolving—and that is a crying shame.

The roots of the problem lie perhaps in the makeup of the audience who first picked up the game. Magic was initially conceived by Peter Adkison and Richard Garfield as a game that could be played by people waiting around at existing gaming conventions—in short, an audience of hardened gamers, which at the time was almost exclusively male. Despite flirting with mainstream acceptability at the height of the Magic boom in the mid-’nineties, the game has arguably failed to significantly reach an audience beyond the traditional confines of the gaming world. For a product so completely revolutionary, one that could have redrawn the lines of the strategy game audience, that seems a missed opportunity.

One woman who did discover the game in its infancy is Beth Moursund, one of the most recognizable female names in the game's history. She got into Magic having discovered a free booster in her goody bag at Dragonflight 1993, a few weeks after Magic had launched at GenCon, got hooked on the game, playing it casually, before joining Wizards as a net rep. She went on to write extensively for The Duelist, and become heavily involved in judging, eventually developing the comprehensive rules alongside Bill Rose and Paul Barclay.

She was immediately attracted to the complex interactions the game produced, but says that in her experience, "Women seem on average to be more into the social type games rather than the hardcore strategic games. Actually I don't care for the hardcore competitive side of it myself. I got into the rules side and became a judge. I was never much of a player except in a very casual way. So I guess I'm following the same pattern [as other women]."

That much was immediately evident to Sabina Browne, a tournament organizer in Richmond, London, when having picked up the game around Ice Age, she ventured to her first big event: "I nearly turned round and walked out the door," she says. "I thought, 'There's no one like me here,' and only a friend convinced me to stay. So I sat down and played and I remember the first game I ever played in a serious tournament, the guy sitting opposite me was shaking like a leaf. He was absolutely perturbed to be playing against a woman and I think I won just on that basis."

Browne's reaction to the tournament environment might in part explain the absence of women from the game's flagship competition, the Pro Tour. A glance at the Magic Pro Tour's Wikipedia page in fact reveals that a diligent editor has highlighted this disparity in a section entitled "Gender Gap." That it lurks there, in among the achievements of the Kai Buddes and John Finkels of this world, is an encouraging sign from within the Magic community that the issue is at least acknowledged. The short recap of women's impact on the tour to date is less heartening: No woman has ever reached a Pro Tour Top 8.

The most consistent female at the game's top level is Melissa DeTora, who has achieved three money finishes in her Pro Tour career. She argues that women players are in fact picking up the game in increasing numbers: "It's not as rare as you think," she says. "A lot of women play, just not competitively. I was on the Magic Cruise 3 recently, and there were quite a few women playing Magic, maybe ten out of sixty people. Also, if you go to gaming groups on college campuses, you will also find women playing Magic. If you go to a Pro Tour Qualifier, though, then that is when there are few women."

It is a fallacy to say that women do not like competition: DeTora thrives on it ("Once I found out that tournaments existed, I just wanted to start playing and winning," she says), and without it there would be no LPGA or WTA tours—professional women's sports are alive and well. With anecdotal evidence suggesting that Magic's women do attend events like the mainly-for-a-blast Prereleases, there is then something else keeping them away from the game's more rigorous events.

It should not be genre. In a post-Harry-Potter world, fantasy has been readily embraced by the masses on both sides of the gender divide as a legitimate and exciting setting for storytelling and entertainment. A glance around a busy train carriage usually reveals a number of women poring over a Twilight saga vampire romp, Potter novel, or similar. And the Lord of the Rings films (whether you liked them or not) did fantasy's credibility no harm. Fantasy is booming and is as accessible to both sexes as it has ever been. What, then, turns off women from MtG?

Joseph Conrad once quipped that "Being a woman is a terribly difficult task, since it consists principally in dealing with men." He might well have been playing an early precursor of Magic while dashing off Heart of Darkness. The behavior of the Magic fraternity can at times be distasteful in the extreme. Browne, for example, says, "I've had men who literally are laughing because they've been drawn to play against me. There are some very arrogant men in some of these places and tournaments."

The game's unique female national champion—Eda Bilsel, who claimed the Turkish crown in 2003—is similarly withering about the behavior of the young men she faced while playing Magic. "That was something that bothered me during the time I played," she says. "I was used to trash-talking kids from playing online, but when I went to the Berlin World Championship that year, I realized that young American players are much louder and ruder than Europeans. If the people I saw there reflect the general player base in the U.S., I understand why girls aren't attracted to this community."

While brash loudmouths are unfortunately not the unique purview of the U.S., Bilsel's observation chimes with issues being faced by the video-gaming industry. Michael Patcher, an analyst for Wedbush Morgan, told Forbes in 2009 that ". . . the biggest obstacle to growing the female gaming community is the trash talk that goes on in the online area." With face-to-face still the main mode for Magic card-slinging, the effect can only be more intimidating to women trying to pick up Magic. The game has an important social element, and if it is to continue to thrive, its players must create a welcoming atmosphere for newcomers of all stripes—not stoop to comparing penis size across the table.

Nonetheless, says Browne, Magic players in her experience are often stunned to discover their tournament is not an exclusively male affair. "They expect a male organizer," she says. "They get strangely confused half the time when I appear. I think they do expect it to be fully male." That might explain the bizarre situation acclaimed Magic artist Terese Nielsen found herself in at San Diego ComicCon a few years ago. As she stood at her booth, her artwork laid out before her, a young man stopped to peruse her prints. "Wow, these are really good," he said to Nielsen. "When's he going to be back?"

Browne now presides over a club where her gender has had a positive effect on players, where a relaxed and social atmosphere prevails. It is something she says the Magic community at large is missing out on. "It also just makes life more interesting, if you have a good variety of people," she says. "It's like when you go to an international tournament and there are people from all sorts of cultures and countries there, it's lovely. You can't speak the same language but yet you're having fun playing a game."

Precisely because Browne cherishes a civilized atmosphere at her events, she has always willingly taught the game to curious female friends, or girlfriends of the male players at her club. She is critical of Wizards' recent decision to stipulate that Friday Night Magic be held only on Fridays. For Browne, it is nothing short of a disaster as far as attracting women players to the game goes. "That really upsets me," she says. "Friday night in Europe is a night for going out with your mates. It's not a night for sitting in and playing Magic. That gives it even more of a 'saddo' mark, and I think it's one of the stupidest things they've ever done." Run during the week, FNM normalizes Magic as a sensible hobby choice compatible with a hectic nine-to-five working life. Forced to compete with a mainstream social night, the fantasy card game comes off as a marginal pursuit. That stigma makes the game a far harder sell to potential new players.

The FNM decision is an inadvertent blot on the record of a company that is in other ways mindful of its female audience. Though Wizards say they do not target women per se, they should be saluted for their responsible attitude to creating female characters in the game. Though artwork is explicitly commissioned to appeal to men aged fourteen to twenty-five, Nielsen is pleased that Wizards wants powerful female characters to inhabit the Multiverse, not just 1970s-style fantasy floozies clinging to a barbarian's leg: "I like women in fantasy art to be empowered and look like they have a brain, instead of just being some little doll in a corner," she says. "Wizards doesn't want just bimbo women. They flat out say that they want them to be strong and powerful and not just a pair of breasts."

Moursund says that that much was apparent right from the game's early days, when key figures such as art director Sue Ann Harkey were female. Says Moursund: "Wizards is actually more conscious of that than many gaming companies." Peter Adkison's post-Wizards career would seem to bear out that assertion, as he is now the publisher of Bella Sara, a card game aimed at young girls.

Similarly, as long as the DeToras and Bilsels remain rare, Wizards' recent shift to providing pick-up-and-play products for the more casual Magic player help make the game more accessible to new female players, or lapsed Magic-playing women who once played with a brother, boyfriend, or dad. Duel Decks and their ilk are good products for teaching Magic and removing some of the pressure that comes from picking up a game "cold" that now involves 10,000 unique playing pieces, often expensive or hard to come by, and of initially mind-boggling complexity. The Commander preconstructed decks coming out in the summer should also be seen as a potential tool for bringing women into the game as the multiplayer-friendly decks can introduce them to the game's social side. That does not preclude any women who pick them up from foraging in the cutthroat tournament world, but it does allow them a more interactive, relaxed, and fun gateway into the game.

Browne says, tongue-in-cheek, that she would like Wizards to run an advertising campaign targeted at women, under the strapline "Want to meet single men?" Although that is unlikely to happen, the release of more and more ready-to-go casual products seems like the perfect opportunity for Wizards to actively seek out a more diverse player base. There are obvious pitfalls to avoid ("Hey, time to add that sixth color of mana: Pink!"), but no reason why the 28 to 40 percent of women already happy to play video games could not be reached. Or why top female players such Bilsel and DeTora could not be leveraged for marketing ("When I am explaining Magic to nonplayers," says DeTora, "I just tell them that I have traveled all over the world to play, and even made money. Then they usually think it is cool."). Or why the girls who revel in reading about Harry Potter slinging spells against Voldemort could not be invited to Open Dueling events and have an Intro Pack pressed into their hands.

Bilsel, though, warns against attracting "Justin Bieber fans," and Moursund says "we don't want Barbie" to play Magic. That unfortunately seems part and parcel of the problem Magic has had in reaching new audiences—a gaming community that sees itself in glorious isolation, elitist and exclusive, rather than open to all. Simply ostracizing "Barbie" does her and the game a great disservice. It also runs contrary to the mantra coming out of Magic R&D—that the game must be kept at a "grokkable" level of complexity, so it can be picked up by new players regardless of their previous gaming experience. Richard Garfield has previously said that "What I want for Magic is for it to be a stable, classic game that doesn't rise up, peak and then fall off, but just becomes more like bridge or chess." Those classic games may well have an elite level (dominated by men), but no one tells Barbie she can't play chess. Despite Bobby Fisher's infamous antics, it is perceived as a noble game that can educate and improve—one that Barbie can be taught in ten minutes, to face off against a grand master and enjoy, even if she might not immediately win. Jessica Simpson, Heidi Klum, and Julia Roberts love playing chess—would you turn them away if they asked you how to play Magic?

Though there exist real barriers to playing Magic, such as complexity and cost, as a community we should be embarrassed to erect another with antisocial behavior, misplaced elitism, or simple prejudice. More women playing the game would be a boon for Magic, one that enriches the social side of a game often reduced to a chase for ranking points, store credit, and glory. The game needs new players if it is to enjoy a long and healthy future, and there is no good reason a healthy number of those should not be women.

Practically, if you are a woman reading this who has never played Magic, there are a million and one steps you can make toward it, depending on how much you like to jump in at the deep end. Start out playing other games with friends, such as Carcassonne or Ticket to Ride, if you've never played more than Monopoly before. Or for a feel of what it's like to build decks of cards to play a fantasy game, try Dominion. If that tickles your fancy, look for off-the-shelf Magic products, especially Duel Decks, which are inexpensive and can be played with a friend. Then, take the hobby as far as you want: to a local club or store, to tournaments, or to the Pro Tour like Melissa DeTora. I hope you will find a community ready to pull up its socks, welcome you in, and make achieving whatever your goals are a blast. If not, it is their loss—and one more significant than any they might suffer in a game of cards.