The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Future Fragments: Magic: The Gathering + Growing Up a Female Gamer

Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor

Once upon a time, I was a pretty epic Magic: The Gathering geek. I was the only girl at Wizards of the Coast’s GameCamp back when Hasbro didn’t own them and Richard Garfield made personal appearances to talk to middle schoolers and sign cards. GameCamp was so short-lived (and so long ago!) that there’s almost no history of it on the ‘net. It truly represented an era: fanatical play in-person, obsession with the novelty of the BattleTech pods downstairs in the Game Center that offered the best VR us campers had ever seen, guest speakers and a big center right in the heart of Seattle. Technology has leapt forward incomprehensibly fast since then, but Magic the Gathering has stayed popular–and now, with the iPad version of Duels of the Planeswalkers, I’ve even started playing again. Looking at Magic: The Gathering then and now, in both digital and physical arenas, reminds me both why I stopped playing and why I almost wish I hadn’t.

I still have binders of cards sitting on a shelf in my basement, including the cards I had signed those two summers at GameCamp. Traveling out to Seattle from Maryland to go to camp might sound crazy, but for an uber-geek the announcement in InQuest magazine was irresistable. Gamers were still scattered in those days, so the best competition I had came from playing in the cafeteria. It was exciting when the first Magic: The Gathering computer game came out in 1997–a strange hybrid of an Ultima-like role-playing game with the card game, with a limited set of cards and often painful AI strategy. I was instantly addicted, especially because this digital version got around one of the biggest hurdles to my love of M:TG: finding someone to play against.

Magic: The Gathering in MicroProse’s hands was a prelude to hybrid games like PuzzleQuest (imagine Bejeweled as a role-playing game if you haven’t played it), and it digitized the card mechanics as ultimately an ideal single-player experience.

Looking back on late ’90s gaming is both a reminder of how far we’ve come–and how far we haven’t. I wasn’t quite the only girl at GameCamp that first summer: they hired one female counselor, and I was told when I applied that I could only come for a session when she was there. That was no doubt so she could enforce important policies like keeping the door to my dorm room open at all times if a boy was there. As much as I enjoyed having a floor of the dorms and an entire college dorm bathroom essentially to myself, I was very aware that even in this geek haven I was still an outsider. The next summer was a little better–another girl showed up–but we were still very much a novelty, and even at that age I couldn’t help but notice that my initial application was so unexpected that it required new policies and “accomodations.” When I showed up after my first solo flight cross-country with a carry-on suitcase and a few chosen decks of cards, the counselor who picked me up congratulated me for packing “so much less than the guys.” I’d missed the memo about bringing my entire collection, but at least I kicked ass in some booster draft and sealed deck tournaments where an extensive card collection doesn’t do any good.

The images of women on Magic: The Gathering cards are arguably strong, but back at that stage in the game there weren’t too many “good” ones to choose from. I bought pack after pack searching for the Serra Angel, pictured above, because she seemed like one of the most powerful and untouchable female characters in the game (and I liked playing blue/white control decks). Looking at the classic illustration of her now I’m frankly uncomfortable–urm, what is she going to do with a sword at that angle? How does that dress even stay up? Is the gravity-defying cleavage part of the “flying” attribute? But I can understand why it was one of my favorite cards then–after all, it’s a lot better than the Fire Elemental:

The art of Magic has hit controversy a few times: one card depicted an implied scene of sexual violence and controversy over a Grand Prix playmat featuring apparent sex slaves that was quickly withdrawn. But this is nothing next to the invisibility of women within the gaming community itself. A few months ago, competitive player Jackie Lee was sexually harrassed during a tournament in Baltimore. She’s one of the few women playing competitively at that level even today–not surprising, given a few years ago when curiousity drove me out to watch the M:TG national tournament in Baltimore there were few women around in any role. The same types of players I remembered from my brief adventures at GameCamp. Jackie Lee has been playing since the 90s, and she noted in an article on women in M:TG: “I’ve been playing since 1998, and things were a lot worse back then for women. If I’m still playing now, it’s fair to assume I’m in it for the long haul. If I could endure all those years of ignorant comments, what’s one more to me, really?”

As middle school transitioned towards high school, I stopped playing Magic with anyone but family and close friends. I certainly didn’t bring cards to school anymore–around the same time other girls started asking me which of the “loser guys” at the geek gaming table I was sleeping with, or if I was just a “dyke”, which would explain the poor taste in clothes and my total lack of comprehension of make-up. This was by no coincidence when I discovered that working on restoring old computers in the lab or building the middle school website was an excellent way to miss lunch entirely. I’d soon be more of a closet gamer, playing computer games obsessively and living my life online in chatroom role-plays or MMOs, but not seeing much of a future for card games that required actually playing with other people. I honestly thought the game would have disappeared by now, just as it did from my gaming life.

So, as a female gamer–and former Magic player–who wasn’t in it for the long haul with M:TG, it’s been interesting to return to playing it again to see how things have improved. The iPad version of Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers comes the closest to approximating the experience of the card game, complete with multiplayer. The touch screen brings a tactile element back to the interface, while the ability to zoom in on cards (particularly on the retina display) allows for full appreciation of the artwork–including the female opponents:

The game’s foundations haven’t changed much since I filled those binders (alphabetized by color, naturally) with cards, and the artwork still pronounces a strong masculine gaze. –but I’m still not lured to Friday Night Magic, despite the many advertisements within the game reminding me that there’s a world of “real” opponents out there. Why not? Well, perhaps in the end it sounds too much like my day job, and online harrassment is easier to submit to Fat, Ugly or Slutty. Or perhaps it’s because so many players did stick with M:TG, but for me it lives mostly in memory, making even the iPad version a portal to nostalgia–which would explain why the women, while slightly better-dressed, still look so much like I remembered them.