GUEST POST Making Magic: The Gathering as diverse as its players

I’ll admit I’m relieved. My book Generation Decks, about the fantasy card game Magic: The Gathering has been out for a fortnight and I’m yet to be trolled for having an “agenda”. I know it’s coming of course – seemingly any content creator in any fandom who has the temerity to say, “How about being an inclusive community that treats its members with respect?” is going to be derided at some point for such an offensive, stifling idea. But if we’re ever going to drag knuckle-dragging nerds out of their caves and into the light, it’s vital geeks of every stripe speak up for the values they want to see in their communities.

That said, there is also a responsibility on the part of the creators of favourite films, television shows, comics and games, to make products that reflect the diversity of the modern world – and to stick with it when the moaning fan boys begin their boorish assault (*cough* Marvel *cough*). In that sense, I’m grateful to be a Magic player – because, while the game itself has been lumbered with a fairly homogenous player base for many of its 20 plus years, its makers, Wizards of the Coast are trying harder than ever to address it.

It’s worth noting that right from the game’s beginning in 1993, its creator Richard Garfield was conscious of trying to represent one segment of society in a new way. He recognised that role-playing had often dragged fantasy into misogynistic dungeons, and reduced women to bikini-clad babes whose only purpose was to yearn for rescue by a brooding barbarian. At his insistence, this well-worn trope was banned from Magic’s art. While Garfield admits it didn’t have the immediate effect of attracting female players to his game, it did at least signal a willingness on the game’s part to grapple with the problem of representation.

Flash forward a couple of decades, and representation is again at the forefront of Magic’s thinking as mature, progressive members of the community clamour for greater efforts towards diversity. The game’s creative team especially have taken up the gauntlet. They are now regularly writing Magic fiction on the official website that fleshes out lore around the game’s minority characters. That includes highlighting not only arse-kicking male and female warriors, but also characters who are either transsexual (Like Alesha, Who Smiles at Death) or non-binary (Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver). It’s a bold step that sends out a positive message about who belongs in the Magic universe and by extension its player base.

Another recent example of the game taking pains to get representation right was the creation of its first black, female Planeswalker – a type of emblematic character in the game. Kaya, Ghost Assassin, was created with the help of journalist Monique Jones from Just Add Color. As Kelly Digges from Magic’s creative team put it: “We know that there are pitfalls specifically in representing black women in media, and we don’t labour under the impression that we know what all of them are or how to avoid them.” It was an honest approach to creating a card that spoke to an underrepresented part of all fantasy fandom and went down well with the community.

Of course, the need to reach out to a consultant, while preferable to not doing so, does say something about the make-up of Wizards of the Coast, Magic’s makers, and the game design sector in general. The actual nuts and bolts of making our favourite entertainment products is still largely the preserve of straight, white men. And as well-meaning as many are, I think the communities they serve want to see that situation evolve. In Magic’s case, the argument often goes, there are simply not enough high-level female players to recruit to the other side. Indeed, by recruiting two of Magic’s best-known female pros of recent years (Melissa de Tora and Jackie Lee), Magic R&D has left something of a vacuum at the top of the game’s ranks. One positive sign though, is the growth of video – both vods and Twitch – which have allowed what is beginning to feel like a critical mass of women Magic players to show the community that they exist, that they’re great and that the game is much richer because of them. Hopefully from their ranks will rise future champions, future storytellers and future game designers, too.

GS Guest Blogger: Titus Chalk / @tituschalk

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