Death By A Thousand Paper Cuts

Feature Article from Thea Miller
Thea Miller
2/7/2018 11:03:00 AM
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It's been three months since you found Magic: The Gathering, and you've made it a point to engage with the game as much as possible. You play Magic Duels on your phone during your commute, conjured a mess of a Standard deck with loose booster packs and watch pro streams on Twitch before going to bed. You understand the basics of the game, so it's time to take the next step: playing in an actual sanctioned event at a local game store.

Before the tournament you get ready, do your makeup, and choose a nice outfit that will make you feel confident and comfortable throughout the day. You walk into the store and feel a mix of excitement and nervousness – it's your first time playing paper Magic with other people! The male cashier seems surprised that you are signing up for the draft, and some friendly small talk ensues. After paying, you walk over to the tables and examine your competition. There isn't a single other woman signed up for the tournament, and before the event has even started you wonder, “Am I even supposed to be here?”

The judge announces seating for the draft table by calling out first and last name for everyone – except you. There is no need to specify a last name with no chance of a duplicate female name. While waiting for packs to be passed out, the men at the table chat with each other about the cards they want to pull and archetypes they hope to draft. You chime in with some input on a rare you recently pulled. There is a daft response from the table and you are quickly dismissed. Packs are opened, and the table-talk and in-jokes continue. You feel invisible and further question your decision to come to a paper tournament.

The draft portion ends. You're drafting Rivals of Ixalan, and you were lucky enough to find yourself in the Vampires archetype. You begin building your deck and somebody asks, “Oh I'm surprised you're in black-white. What did you take over the Impale you passed me in the second pack?” You don't really remember, but find yourself with an unsolicited explanation of common card power rankings and suggestions for your deck. You're ambivalent about receiving the help. “It is my first draft after all, so should I listen? Or should I try to build this on my own?” you think to yourself. The tournament hasn't even started yet, and everything about the environment and interactions thus far make you doubt your decision to sign up in the first place.

Round one pairings are posted. You scour the printout, find your name, and head to the table. You place your playmat and life counter on the table and begin shuffling your cards. A man sits across from you and makes some pre-game small talk. Some red flags go off as you try to discern if he is simply being friendly or hitting on you. You're beginning to regret wearing that cute maxi skirt. The game begins, and while you play he takes it upon himself to comment on and “correct” your lines of play.

“Well, I probably wouldn't do that.”

“The proper block is actually like this.”

“I'll let you take that one back.”

You lose the match 0-2, and he asks, “Can I see your deck?” As a new player, you assume it's smart to take his help. He makes all kinds of suggestions to your deck and explains why some cards are better than others. You're happy to receive the help, but also feel conflicted because you wanted to learn new things firsthand. After he completes his deck critique, he continues to chat with you and ask questions about your personal life. He's nice enough and seems harmless, so you go along with it. The next round starts in ten minutes. You excuse yourself to use the restroom before the round starts – there's no seat covers or toilet paper. You panic slightly, but make it work.

Round two. You're greeted with the same enthusiasm, friendliness, and small talk as the first round. “Wow, Magic players are a friendly community. Maybe my nervousness is for nothing…” you think to yourself. You lose the first game, and the opponent casually talks about what it's like to be a new player and gives you some more tips. You start playing better and win the second game. Almost instantly, the opponent's tone changes, and no further tips or assistance are provided. Game three. The opponent is on the play and mulligans to six. “I guess I'll keep,” he says, becoming increasingly agitated. The game is close, but you manage to win. All the friendliness from the opponent at the beginning of the match has disappeared. He doesn't say good game, fills out the match slip, leaves it on the table, and goes off to talk to some friends. You're excited about winning, but the feeling is drowned out by the discomfort felt by your opponent's reaction.

This round finished quicker than the previous, so you sit at a table and wait for the next one to begin. You glance up from your phone and notice there's a surprising amount of activity happening. People are playing side games, trading cards, and simply having a fun time hanging out. You brought your makeshift Standard deck and a small binder of trades, but nobody talks to you during the downtime. That's okay – you remind yourself you're the new girl and making friends takes time. Out of the corner of your ear, you hear the guy you beat talking to his friends. “Yeah; she just got lucky. I can't believe I mulliganed to six and the hand I kept wasn't that great anyways. This should've been a 4-0 deck though so I anticipate winning my next two rounds.”

About two hours later, the tournament is completed. You ended with a 1-3 record, and don't feel particularly great about your single win if it really was just luck like that guy said. On the other hand, you still had fun! For the most part, people were nice to you and sounded like they wanted to get to know you better. Everyone wanted to help with your deck and gave you some useful tips for future drafts. You decide to go back weekly. That one guy who got mad? He was probably just having a bad day and his deck did actually seem really strong. Everyone starts at the bottom, so you just need to keep improving and being more social – the friends, side games, and more positive social interactions will come in time. Maybe next time some more women will be there also and you won't feel so out of place.

You go back for the next few weeks and slowly improve. Your 0-3 and 1-3 records shift to consistent 2-2s and you have a grasp on the format. Weeks after playing in events and developing stronger game fundamentals, you find yourself subjected to the same repetitive conversations.

“Are you new to the game?”

“Have you ever heard of any of the other formats?”

“Did your boyfriend teach you to play?”

“Actually, this is probably a better line of play…”

It becomes grating and exhausting to repeatedly have the conversations. What you once thought was friendly has become patronizing, unwanted, and sometimes creepy. You feel trapped when men talk to you, but don't want to hurt anyone's feelings so you continue to smile and nod. Occasionally you get paired against another female player and think it might be a good opportunity to make a friend. However, you only see her once or twice at the store and never see her again. Your increased wins lead to increased angry opponents, and more comments about “getting lucky.” At this point you've built a Commander deck from scratch, bought more packs to increase your trade stock, and demonstrate far more gameplay prowess to your peers but you can't help feeling lonely and isolated between rounds. People rarely ask you for side games, your trade binder is constantly passed over, and you never seem to build the positive rapport that your male peers engage in. The bathroom becomes your escape plan if a man talks to you for too long, and you now make it a point to bring some portable wet wipes and hand sanitizer in your purse. You still love Magic, but playing in person isn't…well, it just isn't as fun as you initially imagined…

Time goes on. You're still getting better at the game because you now play Magic Online in between drafts. But there's no reason to go weekly anymore – it's just too uncomfortable. So you maybe go every other week. The conversations, negative assumptions, and unwanted interactions continue each and every tournament despite your best efforts. No matter how much you improve, the store players see you as “the token girl player.” You feel like you have to work twice as hard as your male counterparts with half the results and recognition. Drafting every other week becomes once monthly – only if you have a friend to accompany you to combat the loneliness and discomfort.

It's been six months since you started playing in sanctioned events. You've started dressing down to be more casual and fit in with the rest of the guys, but you still feel like an outsider. The male players are still friendly – some are still too friendly – but nobody is actually your friend. Without friends you never developed a playgroup, and it's still a rarity to be asked to play a side game between draft rounds. You've only been asked to trade once or twice in the past few months, and when you ask someone to trade with you they quickly dismiss your binder. Your collection is severely lacking, and you just can't get the cards to make that budget Modern deck you wanted to try. After all this time of investing in the community, you've never once felt fully accepted at your local game store, despite the friendliness and assistance you've received. In retrospect, it all felt fake and you wonder if people were being so “helpful” because you are a woman.

Another month goes by. You finish 3-1 for the first time ever. Four prize packs of the latest set – awesome! You pull out your phone to text a friend and tell them your result! Out of the corner of your ear you hear “Yeah; she had a Rekindling Phoenix in her deck and won all her games off that. No way she could've won without a bomb like that.”

Something inside you breaks.

It's just not worth it anymore. No matter what you do, you just can't get a foothold in this community. Most of your wins are met with scrutiny and doubt. You've been playing paper Magic for seven months and still regularly get asked if you are a new player. You can play the game just fine on your own but the men at the store insist on giving you unsolicited tips – assuming that you lose to them. An uncomfortable amount of opponents still react harshly to losing to you. When you started playing in sanctioned events, you rationalized it all away by saying, “It's just because I'm new.” But you're not new anymore. And the same shit keeps happening no matter how much you try to blend in and be accepted as a serious player.

You still love Magic. But after all this time, the small interactions have taken their toll and you finally conclude, “Maybe Magic tournaments aren't for me.”

* * *

One of the reasons discussing sexism in Magic is unproductive is because many men view the discussions as a personal attack. Reddit threads are locked, Twitter accounts brigaded, and we find ourselves back at square one. Every. Single. Time. And every time this happens, more women become scared to speak out about their experiences and offer feedback on how to make the game more inclusive. To clarify: discussions about sexism are NOT personal attacks against men, and those of us who speak up about sexism do not hate men. Many women enjoy the company of a male partner, male friends, and honestly the majority of men who play Magic are perfectly nice people. However, women are consistently subject to uncomfortable behaviors, assumptions, and advances at a problematic rate that our male counterparts do not experience. When a woman speaks out, it's not a personal attack – it's simply an acknowledgement that something is wrong and there is opportunity to change. Even if 90% of Magic tournaments are fine, the 10% in which women experience uncomfortable situations are often so impactful that they keep women from visibly engaging in the hobby. The fact that these discussions are so prone to heavy moderation is ipso facto indicative of the hostile environment women deal with.

“Women in Magic” has been a recurring conversation in the community for several years, which is often met with detractors, denial, and flat-out harassment to those who choose to discuss it. Magic is currently a male-dominated hobby and nobody wants to believe that they themselves, their friends, or their LGS acquaintances are sexist. It's an uncomfortable reality to face. According to recently released data from Mark Rosewater, about 38% of all Magic players are women. The question frequently gets asked: If that figure is accurate, why then do so few women play in competitive Magic events? We can't answer this question head-on without acknowledging the systematic sexism that creates invisible barriers to women who try to advance in the hobby.

I know “sexism” is a loaded word that makes a lot of people very angry. But it's okay. We can, and definitely should, openly talk about this as a community. Magic is the best game in the world, and we want to grow this game so players of all walks of life – regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or background – can enjoy it. In order to have a productive discussion about sexism, players need to understand what exactly sexism is and how it manifests in our everyday lives. When most people – especially men – think of sexism, they tend to think of the “big” offensive behaviors that are highly visible and problematic. Things like groping, blatant exclusion, or 1950s-era workplace attitudes come to mind. Many players repeat the platitude, “Well, I've never seen sexism at MY LGS.” To be fair, most players probably haven't actually seen it – because most sexism that keeps women from advancing in male-dominated areas is subtle and invisible.

Women in Magic have a marked lack of social capital, which is the interpersonal relationships, networks, resources, and other social assets of a society or group that can be used to gain advantage and mobility. Moreover, women are also disproportionately subjected to unwanted and unpleasant microaggressions: the seemingly small, indirect, subtle, or unintentional acts of discrimination against members of a marginalized group. In the opening fictional narrative, the narrator takes all the steps that her male counterparts do in order to learn the game she loves. However, the repeated, unwanted, intrusive behaviors from the male player base keep her from ever fully fitting in and developing the skills, resources, and community that would allow her to perform at the levels of her male peers.

When the Magic community discusses sexism, most discussions center around a flawed understanding of what sexism actually is and how it impacts players. I've heard countless times, “Well, women are free to sign up and play just like anybody else! We don't need to talk about sexism!” Sure…as far as I know, there aren't any NO GIRLS ALLOWED signs plastered to the front of most local game stores. Women are free to buy cards, sign up, and play in tournaments just like anybody else. However, these blatant acts of exclusion are not what most women are referring to when they bring up sexism. We as a community need to change the way we think about sexism in order to better discuss sexism, and then start making changes at a structural level.

The good news is that structural sexism can be changed. There are many things we can do as a community to make Magic more welcoming to women, involve women in a more meaningful way, and ensure they receive a greater share of social capital. In order to combat sexism at a structural level as a community, I am presenting five areas to focus on that could be improved. It will take some work, but I'm confident the Magic community can make positive changes over time if we change our approach.

Understand That Most Sexism is Covert

It can't be stressed enough how most sexism is invisible and difficult to spot, especially if you have never been subjected to it personally. You've probably heard the term Glass Ceiling; defined as an unofficially acknowledged barrier to advancement in a profession, especially affecting women and members of minorities. Magic also has a glass ceiling, which is why we see so few women at FNM, on the Pro Tour, and working as judges.

If a woman comes to a judge, organizer, or peer distressed about sexism and they didn't “see” it: listen to her and take appropriate action against the sexist behavior if you are in a position to do so. Detractors will often accuse women of making false claims or being “professional victims,” but these accusations are nothing more than a way to keep women scared, silent, and “in their place.” Women have very little to gain from speaking out, and often times the only thing we do gain is targeted online harassment and disdain from our male peers. It's a vicious invisible cycle that keeps women from ever advancing as important discussions and structural changes fail to get off the ground – but it's not exactly something tangible we can see.

Assumptions are Harmful

Women deal with far more assumptions than their male counterparts in the Magic space. Assumptions, even if viewed as “positive,” are harmful to minority groups. Most women have heard some variant(s) of the following:

  • “Did your boyfriend teach you to play?”
  • “Is this your first tournament?”
  • “Are you new to Magic?”
  • “You're pretty good for a girl!”
  • “You don't look like a Magic player.”
  • “I don't know a lot of women that play Magic.”

The above statements are all examples of microaggressions. Remember, statements like these can still have sexist connotations and undertones even if that wasn't originally the intent. To the person saying these things, it probably feels pretty innocuous and harmless. However, these assumptions carry negative subtext with them. New players are viewed as less-skilled, women always have someone teach them to play Magic and they don't get into it on their own, women are less skilled than men, or women simply don't like Magic. None of which is true! Even if you aren't directly saying those things, there is a strong implication in the language used. Using non-assumptive language can go a long way in improving someone's experience and creating a more welcoming environment. Instead, if you want to make non-assumptive small talk with your opponent it might be better to say something like:

  • “How long have you been playing Magic?”
  • “What do you think of the current Limited environment?”
  • “What formats do you and your friends usually play?”

Language is powerful, and assumptive statements subtly reinforce sexist ideas and stereotypes that exclude female players. Using inclusive, non-assumptive language cultivates a more positive environment for players of all backgrounds.

Representation Matters

Over the past few years, Wizards has done an amazing job increasing their representation and diversity of female employees, coverage analysts, character stories, and card art. If members of an underrepresented group do not see members of their group in an activity, they are less likely to participate. The very act of walking into a store, signing up, and sitting down to “play with the boys” takes a great deal of mental fortitude. Entering an environment with maybe 0 – 4 other female players, no female employees, and no female judges is incredibly intimidating and immediately leads to thoughts of doubt about participating in that space. There are so many amazing women in the community, and something as small as seeing a female judge at your LGS can help reassure female players that the game is in fact for everyone. Ian Doty recently wrote an article about diversity in the judge program, and Program Coordinator Riki Hayashi touched upon why increased opportunities for female judges are important to the Magic community. When the invisible structural barriers are removed and women become increasingly visible in community positions of power (e.g. commentators, judges, content creators, etc.), more women will be incentivized to participate in a physical Magic space.

However, there's only so much that Wizards can do as a company. They've shown time and time again that they are committed to diversity and having Magic be a welcoming and equitable game for all. But changes still need to happen at micro levels within communities to ensure that all people can enjoy Magic without fear.

Recognize Anecdotal Data and Claims

Every time a woman speaks out about sexism in Magic – whether it's an article, a vlog, or even a tweet – men (and sometimes other women) rush in and flood with their own anecdotal experiences to discount the original poster. Common refutes are, “As a woman, I've never experienced sexism at my LGS!” or “Women play at my LGS all the time and I've never witnessed sexism once!”

The reality is the vast majority of women who have participated in Magic events have at least one, and often multiple, negative stories regarding sexist treatment. If you are one of those women who has never experienced sexism, that is fantastic and it's entirely possible you have an inclusive group of players at your store. We all wish we could experience that and nobody is discounting that experience. There is a mountain of evidence from women suggesting that negative experiences in a male-dominated Magic space are the norm, and that is a problem. Even if a woman hypothetically on average has 80% positive experiences playing Magic, those negative 20% are still too frequent and bad enough that they keep women from consistently returning and participating in physical Magic spaces. That 20%, even if it seems small, is the root of a structural problem and why these negative experiences should be listened to and discussed so positive changes can take place. Even if you have a great, inclusive LGS, providing your personal positive experiences in response to someone's negative experiences detracts and lessens the validity of those claims and hinders community progress. We should absolutely discuss and celebrate positivity in the community, but negative experiences need to be discussed, deconstructed, and understood in their own context.

Treat Women as Equals

More than anything, women want to be treated as equal, serious, competitive players. Most of us don't attend a tournament space to meet a boyfriend or be patronized and coddled. We just want to play Magic on the same footing as everyone else. One of the most intimidating facets of participating in a Magic tournament is being immediately “othered” simply by virtue of being female. It's hard to break into an in-group because we aren't “one of the guys.” We are rarely asked to play side games or trade, and we have far less social capital to influence meaningful interactions that will help improve our standing in the game. We are subjected to behaviors, microaggressions, and questions that make us feel awkward and uncomfortable. As a male, you might not see why asking “Did your boyfriend teach you to play?” is so harmful. But think about this: would you ask a male peer, “Did your girlfriend teach you to play?” Definitely not.

I'm not saying all men or Magic players are horrible. No woman who has ever spoken about sexism is saying that. Honestly, the majority of players are decent people who just want to have fun. However, at some point we must recognize the ingrained structural barriers in our culture and society that seep into Magic and keep women from excelling and advancing at the same rate of our male peers.

One of the most common detractions surrounding the discussion of sexism in Magic is that it's all “political,” and politics shouldn't be a part of the game. Whether we like it or not, the media we consume and communities we participate in reflect the everyday inequalities of the world around us. Wizards has made it very clear that Magic is a game for everyone. If we want to ensure that everyone feels comfortable participating in Magic and gets a fair shot at success, inequalities need to be honestly discussed, confronted, and rooted out.

This isn't a bad thing. This isn't “virtue-signaling.” It's simply acknowledging the existence of a problem—and that we can do better. Disposing of structural inequalities will reduce entry barriers, allow a wider variety of players to advance, and help grow the game we all love. That's definitely a win for everyone. Saying “don't bring politics into this” is a politically charged statement in and of itself that implies immense social privilege, and completely dismisses the everyday realities of marginalized groups as simply “politics.” There's absolutely nothing political about recognizing that certain social groups are at a disadvantage and that steps can be taken within a community to create a fairer, more equitable space for all.

It's easy to maintain an exclusionary status quo. It's easy to criticize something you haven't personally experienced. It's easy to dismiss the stories of marginalized voices. But we as a community can make meaningful structural changes - even if it is difficult and will take some work. So the next time you hear “Stop politicizing my game; we just want to play!” remember this:

It's not just your game—and we just want to play too.

Thea
@femmtg




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