• Dear Gaming As Women: MtG Planeswalkers

    by , and  • November 14, 2012 • Dear GAW • 3 Comments

    Welcome to the latest installment of Dear Gaming As Women! We invite our readers to asks us anything – and we’ll do our best to offer informative, thought-provoking, and entertaining answers. In today’s letter, a reader asks for insight on gender representation in MtG:

    Dear Gaming as Women,

    The central characters in Magic: the Gathering are called “planeswalkers”.  Of the 34 cards that represent planeswalkers, only 11 are female characters.  (There’s one technically neuter but very manly-looking golem who is referred to with male pronouns.)  I find this deeply problematic, and am very interested in hearing your perspective.  Does a skewed gender ratio among main characters make a game less attractive to female players?  Does it harm a game in any other ways?



    Vivian Abraham:  I’ve always felt that the representation and diversity of female characters is more important than the number of female characters portrayed.  I like to see enough female characters portrayed that it does not feel like tokenism.  Is 11 out of 34 enough?  Maybe, if they are well designed characters.  Would I be happier with more?  Absolutely, and I think the game would be better for it.  I haven’t played MtG in a while (although I once had a complete set of Revised :) so I went to the WOTC site and took a look.  They list 17 Planeswalkers on the site, complete with pictures and bios.  I can see some attempts at diversity and some predictable stereotypes.  In terms of gender, only five are recognizably female.  However, among those five, they are generally presented well.  It may be sad to say, but I find this to be minimally acceptable.  Perhaps I have had to lower my standards :)  But I certainly would like to see improvement. 

    Postscript:  After writing this, I was then introduced to the head designers explanation of why there are fewer women planeswalkers that Jess includes below.  So much for giving people the benefit of the doubt :(  However, my general belief that portrayal is more important than numbers still stands.

    Jess: The 11/34 numbers are right in what I’d call the “uncanny valley” of female representation. Once women are between 30% and 40% of a group, many people start to feel like women are well enough represented and it’s time to stop trying. However, if there are eleven female Planeswalkers, that means there are twenty-two male Planeswalkers (and one golem). That’s twice as many men as women. That’s no small gap – it’s a chasm.

    The question I ask is whether the Magic developers are interested in shifting the numbers, or if they think they’ve done well enough already. I think it’s legitimate for companies to take time to change their approach; institutions are always slower to move than individuals. Unfortunately, Mark Rosewater, Magic’s head designer, seems to want to settle for inequity. He argues that because more men play the game than women do, it’s reasonable to have more male than female Planeswalkers. To me, this is even more problematic than the gender gap itself. It suggests that the Magic developers think men won’t identify with female characters, or enjoy playing them.

    Women are trained from a young age to identify and empathize with both male and female characters. Men, on the other hand, are told to reject women’s activities and stories. This suggests the problem isn’t that women can’t identify with male Planeswalkers – it’s that the game attracts men who aren’t interested in empathizing or identifying with women, who then drive women away. This is a major impact. Speaking personally, the reason I don’t attend Magic events isn’t because of the game art per se. It’s because the company, and many of the players, think they shouldn’t have to empathize with me or people like me. That makes it pretty clear I’m not wanted.

    (Thanks to my partner Chris for pointing me at his discussion with Mark Rosewater on this topic!)

    wundergeek: In terms of numbers, I’m going to respectfully disagree with Vivian. The problem with these sorts of numbers is that – as Jess points out – women are outnumbered 2 to 1. This isn’t just a problem for the planeswalker characters themselves – that number is consistent with the representation of women across all M:TG cards. Even if the depictions of male and female planeswalkers were otherwise equal apart from the numbers, that sort of imbalance in representation has the effect of very clearly marking M:TG as a game that is intended for men and makes spaces devoted to Magic inherently gendered spaces. But it’s not just a numbers game. The women in M:TG artwork are consistently depicted as more passive and more sexualized than their male counterparts, which only serves to reinforce the message that M:TG is a game intended for a (presumably straight) male audience.

    The problem with this is that it sends the message that women aren’t welcome, which prevents women from wanting to get into the hobby. Furthermore, it can have the effect among some gamers of affecting perceptions of women who are trying to be involved in the M:TG community. If some male gamers feel that Magic spaces are male spaces (something which the gender depictions in M:TG products supports), this can have the effect of giving tacit permission to those male gamers who want to behave badly toward their female counterparts. Of course, that’s not to say that all men who play M:TG behave badly toward women. But the problem with this sort of environment is that there’s no clear expectation that bad behavior towards women would be sanctioned since the space is “supposed” to be for men.

    Now all of this is pretty abstract, so here’s where I add my personal opinion. As a woman, this sort of art matters to me because it makes me personally feel unwelcome. I can tell you for a fact that I almost never purchase games with this level of imbalance in their portrayals of women, and I tend to avoid spaces devoted to playing those games as well.


    Our mailbox is always open! To send your question to Gaming As Women, head over to the contact form and tell us what’s on your mind. For more info on this feature and the ground rules, check out the announcement post.



    I am a gamer, a lawyer, and a mom. Not necessarily in that order.



    Game scholar, game design educator, game designer, and most of all enthusiastic game player!




    I’m an occasional game illustrator, and game designer, long-time LARPer, and player of tabletop roleplaying games (mostly indie games). I have a terminal addiction to board games. I also play both PC and console games – mainly RPGs of all stripes, but I do enjoy puzzle games like Katamari as well. My main source of gaming notoriety, however, is the feminist gaming blog Go Make Me a Sandwich. In addition to being a cranky feminist blogger, I am a photographer and somewhat half-assed writer living in the wilds of Canada with a wonderful spouse and two slightly broken cats.


    3 Responses to Dear Gaming As Women: MtG Planeswalkers

    1. avatar
      November 14, 2012 at 17:17

      To Jessica’s point, Mark Rosewater posted recently about the female planeswalkers, and it really reinforces what she says is problematic about the female planeswalker’s representation in Magic.


      On wundergeek’s point that women are often depicted more passively than men on Magic cards – this is clearly correct. But its worth noting that this is an area where Mark has said that WotC’s standards are to have powerful, not objectified, women He’s also has acknowledged that they do not always meet their own standards for various reasons (Magic artists are part of the culture of fantasy artists). Obviously I want Magic art to improve, but I see this as a much more positive position than the “its not broken, so there is nothing to fix” position that Mark (and by extension WotC) takes regarding gender ratios:


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    2. avatar
      November 14, 2012 at 17:26

      As a fairly regular magic player, I find the distribution somewhat…annoying. (AFAIK, though, there are six. Not that it makes it better. It doesn’t.)

      The hitch in MaRo’s explanation is that “mostly men play this game” has also been used to justify using pinup-esque art on various cards. When women are the picture instead of the actor (is there a better way to phrase that?) it’s just fine to put them on cards.

      There’s also another sexist thing at play here. Involving Women, MtG, and awful tropes. It’s been speculated in various places that since the Planeswalker spark only ignites in times of extreme (over the top) stress, women are by and large too delicate to become PWs, and often die or go crazy in the event that sets off their spark. While this explanation has never been given the official seal of legitimacy, it’s been discussed on forums frequented by MtG designers and writers and has also never been officially denied. I’m more offended by this than by the fact that MaRo is claiming the card demographics represent the player demographics.

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    3. avatar
      November 16, 2012 at 15:43

      It’s been a while since I actively played MtG, but I operate a game store and sell them daily, so I have some experience with them.

      While it’s true that there are fewer female planeswalkers than male ones, it’s important to know the power scale for males vs females, too. Liliana is exceptionally powerful, and popular to boot. I had a very long stretch where I couldn’t keep her in stock to save my life. I only have one right now because I took it in trade this week.

      Right now Jace is the only real contender to her for power. Jace and Liliana are also both 4 variation ‘Walkers, a pretty impressive feat. We talk a lot at the shop about who the designers like (favorite children sort of thing) and these two always come up.

      As far as females on cards go, I’d say that there’s an entire tribe of women that are depicted as exceptionally powerful and aggressive- angels. At the moment, one of the most popular and winning Standard decks relies on an angel for its mechanism to win, and I haven’t been able to keep the cycle of angels from Avacyn in since the day they were released because they are so powerful. And absolutely gorgeous- Magic players have a bad case of “ooh shiny”.

      None of this is saying that women aren’t slighted in MtG; just that there’s another side, too.

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