Ceri tweeting on way to conference

Last summer I presented a seminar on MtG spaces and communities as part of the internal geography seminar series at the University of Sussex. Yesterday, however, was the first time I’ve presented any work on MtG to a wider audience. So, I thought now would be a good time to get this blog started (I’ve been planning to for a while, but marking got in the way!)

I was invited to present a paper entitled The Planned and Unplanned Consequences of Top-Down Representations of Gender Diversity in the Card Game and e-Sport, ‘Magic: The Gathering’, as part of a one-day conference called ‘Post-Patriarchal Masculinities‘, held at SOAS, London. The conference was organised by Dan Artus and Amir Massoumian, and attracted a fascinating and eclectic mix of papers, from ethnographies of (amongst other things) testosterone and sex clubs, to the re-imagining of the ‘new man’ in ‘new India’, and the masculinities of drag acts. Perhaps most related to my interests was a thoughtful presentation by Annie Kelly, a PhD student in American Studies at UEA, who presented on antifeminist masculinities in the digital sphere and their overlap with alt-right masculinities. The venn diagram of gaming communities, antifeminist masculinities and the alt-right is sadly not three separate circles; as I’ve observed in my own work, and Annie demonstrated in her analysis of the subreddit KotakuInAction.

Ceri presenting at the Post-Patriarchal Masculinities Conference

Here I am (making some sort of emphatic hand gesture!), as I introduce existing research about gaming and masculinities before talking about MtG more specifically. With regard to gaming and masculinities, there is a lot of literature about gaming which is implicitly about men, due to the ‘male default’ gamer being assumed, whereas when gender is explicitly discussed it’s normally in relation to women and other marginalised identities in gaming. Taylor and Voorhees, editors of the very useful Masculinities in Play (2018), suggest that the nascent literature on masculinities in gaming can be summarised into two themes of inquiry, as follows:

The first aims to understand how patriarchal ideologies and artifacts communicate and mediate masculinities. The second, arguably less clearly definied trajectory explores how masculine subjects are recruited via games (alongside other media industries), to support the neoliberal state’s projects of political, economic, and environmental subjugation.

(Taylor and Voorhees, 2018:4)

This is clearly a new area of academic research, so it will be interesting to see how it develops, and what new themes emerge. In the context of my own research on MtG, I think it’ll be interesting to consider how men who play games like MtG fit – or don’t fit – into popular conceptions of masculinity, and whether this shifts as WotC make a concerted push into e-sports.

My next step was to discuss some of the ways in which WotC have attempted to increase gender diversity in a top-down way. Not least through evolving card art and the greater prominence given to non-male characters. MtG has always had lots of female characters, but we’ve definitely seen a shift in representations over the years.

card art and how its depiction of women has changed over the years
Changing depictions of women in MtG card art, from passivity to agency

In the context of such changes, it’s interesting to reflect on what seems to be a genuine commitment to diversity from staff at WotC coinciding with the potential business interest in increasing their player-base. In a fascinating article for the mothership, Mark Rosewater reflects on the importance of creating ‘resonance’ in game design. In order for a potential new player to want to get into MtG, they need to be able to connect with the game, including emotionally. In explaining this, he explicitly links to WotC’s efforts regarding diversity.

This, for example, is one of the reasons we’ve made such a push for diversity in Magic because when players see people like themselves in the game, it increases their ability to connect and bond.

Mark Rosewater, 2019, DailyMTG

Along with card art, there are other changes WotC have made, including giving greater publicity and coverage to non-male players, employing women commentators, and the shift to the singular ‘they’ pronoun in rules texts… But, the shift in card art from ‘bikini armour babes’ to women wearing practical outfits is perhaps one of the most obvious!

Of course, these changes haven’t gone unnoticed by those who apparently feel that WotC is ‘pushing politics’ into ‘their’ game; something that has been picked up upon by non-MtG specific gaming community discussions, and even by right-wing media outlets like Breitbart. As is often the case in such discussions, the Delingpole article draws on the notion of ‘ordinary people’ and ‘everybody’, to position his view as the majority, common-sense, view:

Like Gamergate, it concerns ordinary people who just want to be left alone to enjoy their hobby.

…playing games is not a left-wing thing or a right-wing thing but an everybody thing

Delingpole, 2017 (read here, for an archived link)

Unfortunately, this discourse of ‘normal’ people, having their fun impeded by (by implication, abnormal) political correctness, is familiar. It was a rhetoric used during GamerGate and it may even be familiar to those who followed the D&D discussion in the late 1970s around whether women dwarves have beards (see Aaron Trammell’s chapter in Taylor and Voorhees, 2018, for a useful summary of those discussions). What is particularly concerning is when it’s not just the Delingpoles of this world who spout this, but also those who claim to be left-leaning, such as the popular gaming YouTuber Boogie:

I love this game. Always will. They’ve [WotC] made a TON of mistakes over the past few years, one of which is to press a overly progressive narrative on its gamers. I love progression. I lean left. That’s fine. But It doesn’t benefit the community or the game itself to do this.

@Boogie2988 on twitter, 26 Nov 2017.

As is often the case when efforts are made to try to increase diversity (gender or otherwise), there has been a backlash. Yesterday, the keynote speaker at the conference, Nikki Van Der Gaag, reminded us of the 1991 book by Susan Faludi, Backlash. In it, Faludi, states how backlash against women doesn’t happen after women achieve equality, but happens when it appears that women may be on the verge of achieving a breakthrough in the direction of equality. This seemed pertinent to some of the reactions to efforts to increase gender diversity in MtG. Sadly, it is often prominent women players, MtG personalities (including cosplayers) and content creators who bear the brunt of this backlash, suffering trolling, harassment and having to take measures like locking down their social media accounts.

Thanks to all the participants, and especially the organisers, Dan and Amir (and all the volunteers they recruited to do food!) for a really inspiring conference yesterday. A really great start to the summer for me; now a few bits of marking to finish off, then I get to get on with writing an actual academic piece about the social science of MtG communities!