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.
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