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5 Steps to Break Down Gender Barriers in MTG

As we round out the final days of 2021, the gaming world has been gripped with news about the establishment of the first women-only league in CS:GO. In fact, many of the year’s biggest gaming stories have been about gender, most notably the revelations about the years of abuse taking place at Activision Blizzard and the subsequent lawsuits. 

Debates about gender have long been a feature in our own community, too. The years of articles about how to pick up women in Magic and openly misogynistic joke cards are well and truly behind us, but that doesn’t mean we’ve achieved anything close to true gender inclusivity. Ripples of discomfort surrounding the expulsion of serial sexual harassers from the game persist to this day. The percentage of people of marginalized genders playing the game at the kitchen table/MTG Arena level was always higher than you might think – around 35 percent even before the pandemic – and has been steadily increasing, but attendance at organized events of all levels is stubbornly male-dominated. At the highest echelons of competitive play, the field in each Championships-level event is still about 95 percent cis male.

None of these statistics are a surprise to anyone plugged in to the Magic community. The question is – what can be done about it? What needs to change? That feels like a daunting question, and it is. But the purpose of this article is to help all of us – both on an individual and collective level – break that question down together, and in doing so break down the gender barriers that still remain in the game we love. 

three women play a team event

 

Header - Step 1: Admit There's a Problem

Statistics are one thing – but I’m not just talking about attendance levels. It can be hard to accept that the community we love and are collectively part of has deep, systemic flaws. Many players feel very protective of the people and environments that shaped who they are and their connection to the game that means so much to them. But the first step that helps us cross the threshold from status quo to taking action is to face up to difficult truths, and the core truth that we’re dealing with is this:

People who are not cis male have been actively excluded by the actions and behavior of those in the Magic community, both on an individual and systematic level.

Gender imbalances don’t appear out of nowhere. The lack of consistent PT-level players who aren’t men isn’t an unfortunate accident, and we’re not inherently less interested in gaming or competition. People of marginalized genders are made to feel unwelcome in many Magic spaces, whether that’s on a local Facebook group, in a thousand-person GP hall or among a private professional testing team. And we have to accept that we – and I’m not just talking about men, but all of us – could have been part of the reason for that. Pointing fingers at WotC or tournament organizers or “that one guy at the store” only goes so far. We are each of us responsible for how we engage with the spaces we frequent. 

That doesn’t mean you’re a sexist, by the way. Or that you’ve actively done anything “wrong.” I’m not here to cancel you or tell you you’re a bad person. I’m asking for us to acknowledge that we, each of us, make up the “community,” and that our individual action/inaction makes up part of the collective experience. 

 

Header - Step 2: Understand the Causes

I wrote a Twitter thread a while back urging members of the community to question whether their actions have contributed to gender-based inclusion or exclusion. Some examples of these questions are:

  • Have you invited us to test and listened to our opinions without assuming you know more than us?
  • Have you made sure your store/event has clean, accessible bathrooms for everyone?
  • Have you encouraged your sons to play games, but your daughters to read books?

In order to work out how to break down barriers, we need to first understand what concrete behaviors or actions make up those barriers. A large part of this requires working on our listening and empathy skills – and they are skills that can be practiced and strengthened, just like your mulliganing or technical play skills. When someone tells you about a behavior that had a negative effect on them, try to believe them and not to immediately try to gauge whether you would have been affected negatively or whether you think it’s an issue. Even if you think your view is based in logic or rationality, always remember that the way you think and feel is a unique product of your own lived experience.

For example, if a woman in your playgroup is uncomfortable with men explaining lines of play to her, you might think – “well, I enjoy discussing lines of play with my opponents after matches and I don’t see what’s wrong with it.” But she may have had repeated experiences of being patronized by opponents at event after event, year after year, and by opponents who have much less experience than her or who have focused on irrelevant or incorrect points assuming that they know better. That’s why she’s aggravated by a comment that might seem innocuous to you. 

woman playing magic in new jersey

Broadly, exclusionary behavior falls in one of two camps: direct and indirect. Direct problems are easier to spot, because they’re where someone who is a man is given better treatment than someone who isn’t. That doesn’t just mean when someone is being hit on at the table or intentionally misgendered. A less noticeable example might be calling non-obvious lines of play out as mistakes on coverage when a woman is playing, but assuming that the line is correct and you’ve missed something when it’s a man in the feature match area. 

Indirect problems are where it looks like everyone is being treated equally, but people of marginalized genders suffer disproportionate negative outcomes. A big example of this is two-day weekend tournaments. In a society where women are burdened with more childcare duties than men, it’s simply much less feasible for a mother to take a whole weekend away from the kids to attend a large event compared to fathers. That’s not the fault of tournament organizers or players, but it is a very real inequitable outcome.

 

Header - Step 3: Reject Helplessness

“But what can I, one single person, do about any of this?” I hear you ask. “Isn’t it something that will slowly get better over time?” is another common question. But how can things get better, even slowly, if no one person does anything? 

None of us can solve all the problems at once or on our own. Many fantastic initiatives have been launched by marginalized people in our community, but all of our actions make a difference. When I started playing Magic at my local game store, I had no idea it was possible for someone like me to approach the competitive scene that I’d seen on YouTube coverage videos. But one kind guy told me I should enter the next GP if I was interested, because he thought I was good enough to. That one small action opened up this whole world to me, and none of what I’ve done since – casting, everything we’ve achieved with the VML, starting my own business – would have happened without his vote of confidence. 

I speak to a lot of players who tell me that one or two bad interactions put them off engaging with whole swathes of Magic. But the same people are also full of stories of the small actions that made them fall in love with our game. The game store owner who gave them a job when they were down on their luck. The opponent who checked if they were comfortable before giving advice. The judge who gave them extra time because of a bathroom issue and didn’t ask probing questions. We are all capable of enriching our community by actively including people of all genders. 

 

Header - Step 4: Take Action

Okay – we’ve made it to the taking action part. Don’t worry! It doesn’t have to be hard work, and I’m not asking everyone to radically change how they behave all at once. We all have internal hurdles to overcome – whether it’s social anxiety, embarrassment, worry about doing it wrong or simply being too busy to constantly think about it. And that’s perfectly valid. Let’s start off with some reassurances. 

Acting in good faith is what’s important, not “getting it right.” For example, if you unintentionally misgender someone when you’re trying your best to get it right, that’s fine! Marginalized people are very good at telling whether a behavior is malicious, because actively malicious behavior happens to us all the time. 

Speaking up is just as important as other actions. To be excluded is to feel alone. Having someone take your side, even if they do literally nothing else, is often enough. 

You don’t have to give us special treatment or be on constant lookout. Just listen when we speak up, and help out a little if you can. 

For the average player, there are some small changes you can make that have a lot of impact. One of the biggest barriers we face is a shared assumption that Magic spaces are primarily male. Try to envision your Arena opponent or those in your playgroup as people who could be any gender, and treat them that way. It’ll go a long way to extending the sense of easy belonging that men have in these spaces to all.

woman playing magic in cleveland

If you do happen to be in a position of power, such as an event organizer, moderator of an online forum or someone with a large following and influence in the community, there’s a lot more you can do than the average player. Take some time to think about whether you’re using that power in equitable ways. What kind of gathering are you cultivating? Are you taking feedback from marginalized people seriously or just concerned about ticking a box? How are your staff trained? Do you make use of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) consultants? Are the people you’re hiring going to inspire confidence in your commitment to inclusion? 

 

Header - Step 5: Always Look Forward

As we enter a new year, it’s a great time to think about the future we want to create. Change is slow, and piecemeal, and sometimes it can feel like we take two steps forward and one step back. When we’re caught in the thick of daily Twitter drama or in the heat of the moment at the table, it’s easy to get angry at perceived slights or seek instant satisfaction.

two girls playing magic in cosplay

Let’s try to keep our eye on the prize. The reason we want to break down barriers is to reach the other side, a place where, as my VML Co-Chair Carolyn Kavanagh says, gender is no longer something we need to think about every time we walk into a room of players, whether that’s a friend’s living room or a GP hall. And we’re already seeing a vast shift for the better. At that first GP I went to, I was one of maybe 30 women in a room of 2000 men. In November, at MTG Las Vegas, I was overjoyed to find that it would have been impossible to count how many people of marginalized genders were in attendance. 

We’re at a time of flux in Magic, with our game going through huge changes in focus, aesthetic and audience. I think we’ve all been somewhat taken aback by the pace of change, and many of us are mourning aspects that we’ve lost. But let us also see this time as an opportunity to drive the community and the game forward in the best way possible, and leave gender exclusion in the past.

 

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