Screenshot/Graphics by Callie Beusman

If Magic: The Gathering Cares About Women, Why Can't They Hire Any?

When two fans of the fantasy card game started looking into its history, they could hardly find any women making Magic.

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Jul 18 2016, 7:05pm

Screenshot/Graphics by Callie Beusman

Since the GamerGate controversy, geek culture has grown increasingly concerned about the relative lack of women in gaming. Many game companies have responded by declaring their commitment to creating a welcoming environment for a diverse range of players. Wizards of the Coast, the makers behind the fantasy trading card game Magic: The Gathering, are among them. Traditionally, Magic tournaments play host to a sea of male players, and women gamers are a rarity.

In recent years, however, there have been a proliferation of articles about how more women than ever are getting involved in the game. Broadly previously reported on the female Magic enthusiasts who are struggling to make it in the game's competitive tournament scene despite negative comments from territorial men. Last year, Mark Rosewater, the game's head designer and the public face of Magic, even took to Tumblr to solicit advice on how everyone in the Magic community could help female players become more visible. Viewed from a distance, all of this activity around inclusion might look like a gaming company behaving progressively. But in our extensive research on the economic history of Magic, born out of our love for the game, we found that there's good reason to doubt the depth and sincerity of Wizards of the Coast's commitment.

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Even as the company is taking steps to diversify who plays with their cards, the people behind the scenes are still mostly men. According to our count, in the game's 23-year run, only nine women have worked on Magic's design and development teams, in contrast with over 100 men. Some of those women don't even work at the company anymore; four of them worked on sets released between 1994 and 2004. (Wizards of the Coast publishes the names of the designers and developers for each set of cards. This article by Mark Rosewater about the most recent set's design notes, without any apparent concern, that its designers were all men.) And while Wizards of the Coast refuses to answer questions about the gender breakdown of its employees, Magic's current creative team is also dominated by men, as is the team of freelance writers responsible for Magic's ongoing story.

Everywhere we looked, we continued to see men making Magic. Take the game's card art. When we conducted art analysis using Gatherer, Wizards of the Coast's database of every Magic card ever produced, including a record of the card's artist, we discovered that Magic has been almost exclusively illustrated by men. Our research found that since 2000, women artists have not illustrated more than ten percent of the cards in any given set. The game's last four sets—Battle for Zendikar, Oath of the Gatewatch, Shadows Over Innistrad, and Eldritch Moon—all had eight percent or less of their cards illustrated by women. All told, female artists illustrated 78 cards total in those sets, while male artists accounted for 984. That doesn't seem like the work of a company that prizes gender equality.

Photo by Hannah Scharlin-Pettee

If anything, it was Magic's first three years of existence, 1993–96, that saw women most involved in the making of the game. Beth "Bethmo" Moursund was one of the first rules managers, and author of the first editions of the game's official encyclopedia. Early Magic also had female art directors and several prominent women artists. We calculated that by 1996, 27 female artists had illustrated 22 percent of the game's cards. That's hardly ideal, of course, but it was the closest to gender parity that Magic would ever get.

Back in the mid-1990s, the game also featured a wider variety of artistic styles—ranging from the realistic to the cartoonish to the abstract—and depicted a less narrow range of women characters.

Magic cards from the 1990s

During that time, Magic was cerebral and whimsical; it sought to "feed the head" via card sets based on Lord of the Rings, the Arabian Nights, and Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. But after that there was a clear shift. As ex-Wizards of the Coast employee John Tynes laid out in a 2001 Salon article titled "Death to the Minotaur," Wizards of the Coast gradually went from being freaky and alternative to conservative and corporate as its founder and CEO abandoned his utopian plans for the company in favor of branding and other business philosophies.

Indeed, in late 1990s and early 2000s, Magic became increasingly focused on its tournament scene—the Pro Tour—which started in February 1996. This also changed the game's style, eschewing its original weirdness in favor of an "edgy" aesthetic designed to appeal to the young men who still dominate the matches. In 2005, Matt Cavotta, Magic's creative lead, wrote an article that featured an excerpt from the game's guide, which describes "Magic's attitude." In it, he stresses to the card illustrators: "Remember, your audience is BOYS 14 and up," emphasis his. ("I hope this is not offensive to the female Magic fans out there," he notes in an aside.) Whereas early Magic had ostensibly been intended for a broad fantasy audience, by the mid-2000s, it was a fantasy exclusively for young boys.

Women artists started to fade from the game. Between 1998–2008, only five women regularly illustrated Magic cards, their work accounting for less than six percent of the cards published during that time. Even fan favorite artist Rebecca Guay was not always given assignments. Wizards wasn't exactly coy about why this was: In a February 2003 article, the game's art director, Jeremy Cranford, explained that he hadn't assigned any cards from the current sets to Guay because her artistic simply wasn't suitable for his team's rough-and-tumble vision. These tendencies peaked with Conflux (February 2009), a set of cards with no women credited on either its design or development, and featuring no art by any women artists.

Remember, your audience is BOYS 14 and up.

At the same time, the game's tournament scene was growing toxic toward female players. The few women competitors who braved it were openly harassed. Fall 2011 saw a player receive a lifetime ban from the game after threatening to rape Wizards of the Coast's director of organized play, Helene Bergeot. There was also a particularly ugly episode in which male Magic players took to the internet to trash Gizmodo columnist Alyssa Bereznak, who had written a less than flattering account of an OK Cupid date she went on with one of Magic's top pros, Jon Finkel. The situation got so vile that one prominent Magic writer, Geordie Tait, published a rant decrying the misogyny of his fellow players before walking away from the game.

Women players started facing severe challenges from all directions. In 2011, Tifa Robles founded the Lady Planeswalker Society (LPS), a support group for female players. Soon afterward, she landed a job with Magic's brand team. And you might think that Wizards of the Coast would have been interested in having her do outreach to women gamers. But according to Robles, Wizards forbade her from speaking with the press about LPS, and finally made her choose between her job and running the group. She quit.

It's hard to find any commitment to player diversity from Wizards of the Coast during that time—instead, one finds excuses for why the game lacked it. In 2012, some players began asking why more of the game's most prominent characters ("Planeswalkers") weren't women. Head Designer Mark Rosewater's first inclination was to deny that there was much of an imbalance. When a reader corrected him, Rosewater defended the relative lack of female characters, explaining that the Planeswalkers were "player analogues" created "for our players to want to emulate."

Since most Magic players were men, Rosewater reasoned, most of the Planeswalkers had to be male: "The skew comes out of the current natural gender skew in the game," he said. When a reader then asked if that wasn't overly simplistic, Rosewater stubbornly replied, "There is a lot of scientific evidence that people associate better with people more like them. This isn't just gender but every attribute across the board. Humans relate better to what they know." The fact that actual scientific evidence about gamers' preferences contradicts this doesn't seem to have bothered him.

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But it's been the company's policy for a while now that the people who buy the cards get to see themselves reflected in them. In 2005, the game featured an Eastern European-themed setting just as Wizards started publishing Magic in Russian. A more recent block drew inspiration from Eastern Asia, no doubt in order to appeal to growing markets in China, Thailand, and Indonesia. As it happens, Russia and China are "priority markets" for Hasbro, the owner of Wizards of the Coast. Meanwhile, the forthcoming fall 2016 Magic set, Kaladesh, will feature an India-inspired setting, presumably because Hasbro has identified India as an "emerging market" in "2016 & beyond."

As for women, it seems the primary lesson that the company has learned from GamerGate is that there's a lot of money to be made in proclaiming that diversity is a priority, and that it doesn't make good financial sense to alienate half the geek population. But this is not a true commitment to diversity; it's diversity as a marketing strategy. Presumably it will last only so long as women keep buying the cards made by the boys 14 and up who work at Wizards of the Coast.