News : How to (actually) get more women into Magic

How to (actually) get more women into Magic

By Neil T Stacey


There is a well-documented gender disparity in tournament attendees, with Magic the Gathering being an overwhelmingly male-dominated hobby. I have always taken it as given that this is a bad thing which needs to be corrected. As a result, I was a bit shocked when, in the course of a conversation, someone asked why it was so important to get women to play Magic when they don’t seem to want to.

I wasn’t shocked at the question. It’s a fair question to ask. I was shocked that I didn’t have a good answer ready, and I was forced to think about the issue more deeply than I had done up to that point. I had always felt it was important to address the gender disparity but I had never quite focused on the question ‘Important to whom?’

It’s important to WOTC, because correcting the disparity would result in almost doubling their market size and with it, their revenues. The same applies to store owners and distributors. But is it important to women in general that their gender is represented at Magic tournaments? I think we can answer that it is not what you would call a pressing issue amongst the general population. However, one must presume that there are plenty of women out there who would find Magic to be a rewarding and fulfilling hobby if ever they got into it. If they are not afforded an equal opportunity to do so, then they are deprived of something of value on the basis of gender, and that’s a problem.

Male players stand to benefit from a diversified player base. For many of us, Magic makes up a big chunk of our social life and that creates an unhealthy situation where the majority of our interactions are quite limited in terms of demographics. Having diverse social interactions is an important part of becoming and remaining socially well-adapted, and just generally being an okay sort of human. Governments have yet to introduce a quarantine period before anyone from an all-male high-school can be released into society, but until they do we can at least try to avoid creating the same conditions elsewhere.

On balance, those for whom Magic is a business have the biggest stake in diversifying the player-base, but doing so has value for the existing player base and for general society. I don’t believe many people are on the other side of that debate but it is nevertheless useful to clarify the reasoning behind it. It’s all too easy to use the words ‘we need’ in place of ‘I want’. It seems to happen a lot when it comes to Magic, so it’s important to be clear whose agenda is really at stake. In this case, it’s everyone’s, albeit to varying degrees.

Having established that correcting the gender disparity is something that we should all be interested in doing, the only remaining question is how to go about doing it. Recently, a much-discussed post on Channelfireball postulated that the gender disparity can be addressed by players improving their hygiene and modifying their demeanour at tournaments. The same post went on to recommend that we should not treat female players differently but also that we should treat female players differently. One of those two approaches is probably correct.

I’ll take a moment here to point out that despite having played plenty of matches of Magic at a number of tournament venues, I have at no point found any issue with another player’s odour. Now, it is true that women possess olfactory centres somewhat more sensitive than those of men, but the differences are not so significant that I could be walking around and not even detecting odours which would discomfit female players. My sample size of tournament venues is comparatively small so unfortunately, this amounts to anecdotal evidence. Then again, so do the arguments to the contrary. We lack enough solid data to determine if the hygiene problem is a real issue. If it is, it’s isolated to certain venues.

Even in those cases, it seems absurd to assume that it’s an issue that would so disproportionately affect female players. Demeanour is another matter. I mentioned the value of diverse social interaction earlier, and without it groups of guys can develop internal social norms that are off-putting to outsiders. I have played at venues where I was a little bit uncomfortable with the misogynistic comments, and I am an obnoxious male myself. It’s easy to see that kind of environment driving outsiders away.

Again, this is not a universal issue. Different tournament venues will have different social norms. However, there are enough different mechanisms for the transmission of social norms between tournament venues for there to be something of a collective culture amongst Magic players. There are elements of that culture that can easily make female players uncomfortable. As a group, we could stand to clean up the language and cut down on the coarse jokes, there’s no disputing that.

What is up for debate is whether or not it is possible to correct Magic’s gender disparity simply by modifying the tournament experience.

This is another question that demands solid data, so I decided to get some. Now, I’m not writing this as a scientific paper nor am I being paid by Wizards to do market research, so my sample size is in the range that would be firmly categorised as ‘preliminary data’, or perhaps even ‘lousy preliminary data’. I polled students at Wits University at random, asking 30 female students and 30 male students whether or not they know how to play Magic.

5 of the male students responded that they have at least some idea of how to play, while none of the female students did. This kind of sample size doesn’t give a good indication of the actual percentages among the general population and that’s not the only thing that is sketchy about this data. I collected it myself by directly approaching people, so it is subject to unconscious selection bias on my part. However, the difference observed is laughably huge and it matches with what we already suspect. I can say with reasonable confidence that far more men than women know how to play Magic.

It’s safe to say that no-one plays tournaments before learning how to play the game. Consequently, modifying the tournament experience cannot possibly correct the gender disparity in tournament attendance. There is a major gender disparity in basic exposure to the game and until that is corrected, any other measures will have a negligible effect.

Our attempts to fix Magic’s gender problem need to focus on introducing more women to the game. Everything else is secondary. Having more female commentators, for instance, is a definite positive. However, if very few women are watching coverage in the first place then the effect will be small. Making tournaments more welcoming to women is another unambiguously positive thing. However, no amount of modification to the tournament experience can compensate for an overwhelming gender disparity among the player base.

These and other measures are positive steps but they will achieve very little unless we also introduce several million women to the game. If we estimate that there are approximately 10 million players worldwide and that 80% of those are male, then we can conclude that the gender disparity cannot be corrected without first teaching 6 million women how to play Magic. Let’s focus on that.