Thursday, July 23, 2015


Four years ago, I got back into Magic: The Gathering. It's a game I loved as a teenager, and I kept playing it for years after it stopped being a fad at my middle school. As time went on, my hobby increasingly met with eye rolls form my classmates, and I also became hyperaware of the many things that made me "different" from the people around me. I started hating my interest in video games, Dungeons and Dragons, and Magic, and I convinced myself that there must be something wrong with me because I didn't look or act like the popular kids. After my best friend and go-to game buddy abandoned Magic for football and girls, I shoved my cards in a shoebox in my closet, made new friends, and tried to get into surfing, guitar, or any of the other hobbies that were popular at my high school. None of it made me happy.

Magic's latest release, Magic Origins, also focuses on turbulent teenage years. Card art, flavor text, and supplementary materials recount the stories of how several characters grew from fledgling youths to powerful wizards. Each of these wayward teenagers struggles against their environment until arriving at a climactic moment when an inner "spark" is ignited and the character's full powers are released. Many of the set's cards depict events from these stories, and each character has its own special card that can be flipped over to demonstrate the important transformation.

Character-driven storytelling represents a major change from the early days of the game when plot elements occasionally appeared in evocative flavor text printed at the bottom of cards. That hands-off approach created atmosphere without detailing a linear narrative, and this was often a good thing. The game's world felt rich and expansive, as it was bound more by the imagination of the players than by carefully calculated marketing materials.

Indeed, canonizing a specific storyline makes the world feel smaller and the characters less interesting. Nowhere is this more evident than in the series of short stories published to guide players through each Origins character's journey. Although the stories fit into a familiar and well-tested coming-of-age archetype, the resulting fiction too often feels both overladen with details and incapable of creating believable characters and situations.

In "Fire Logic", Chandra's parents give her a job as a black market courier, and on her very first mission she decides to take a shortcut by trespassing through a heavily policed neighborhood, resulting in a series of tedious combat sequences. In "Kytheon Iora of Akros", the title character surreptitiously tries to kill the god of death. These plot points make it hard to relate to the characters, who are defined by their unpredictable and illogical decisions. Scenes like these likely exist for the sole purpose of creating action that can be portrayed in card illustrations.

The stories also make curious departures from established genre norms. "Home" begins with Nissa receiving a prophetic vision of her journey across the world to confront a malignant force that poisons the land. A glittering path appears before her, and she follows it through an escalating series of perils until finally reaching the foretold confrontation. At this moment, she suddenly teleports to a new world with an unrelated and hastily resolved plot. Readers are right to feel cheated. Similarly, "Absent Minds" casts Jace as a troubled youth who is scorned for his special powers. He is taken in by a benevolent mentor, who teaches Jace to control his mind magic while working to end the civil war that has engulfed their world. In a bewildering twist, Jace discovers that his mentor is an evil war profiteer, challenges him to mind battle, and then somehow kills him by erasing his own memory. The story ends with an amnesiac Jace entering a new city and meeting a beautiful woman.

These plots seem to be constructed with the belief that unexpected surprises represent the pinnacle of storytelling. Subverting audience expectations can be a powerful tool, but there's a difference between a story arc that takes an unexpected trajectory and one that abruptly flatlines. These twists and deviations are all the more puzzling because the stories are designed to appeal to a mass audience, and this goal is most easily accomplished by adhering to universal archetypes; if the fantasy coming-of-age story structure worked in The Chronicles of NarniaA Wizard of Earthsea, and Harry Potter, there's no need to reinvent the wheel for a disposable piece of marketing material.

Origins gets it right at least once. In "The Fourth Pact", Liliana turns to dark magic in an attempt to save her brother's life. When her decision dooms him instead, she becomes obsessed with gaining control over death and sells her soul to achieve immortality. The story is straightforward but compelling; we know from the beginning that Liliana is headed down a dark path, but we stick along for the ride because we want to see how it plays out. Furthermore, Liliana remains a dynamic and relatable character because she is confronted with difficult choices when the stakes are high. Deciding to use forbidden methods in order to save a loved one is much more emotionally resonant than trying to kill a god just because.

Dilemmas necessarily lead to meaningful decisions, and this is as true in life as it is in fiction. I quit Magic when I was fifteen because I thought that having cooler hobbies and friends would make me happy. When my high school crush finally got drunk enough to allow himself to make a pass at me, I turned him down. Last month, I left my job because I decided unemployment would be better than remaining in a toxic work environment. Like any character, I'm defined by the choices I've made, and I now realize that choosing what feels right is much more important than trying to adhere to abstract notions of what a good life is supposed to look like. Playing games makes me happy, and that's a good thing. I only wish Magic's writers had the same faith in the imagination and individuality of the game's players.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

THE GATHERING: Special Treatment

Last week, Star City Games published an article by Meghan Wolff, "Women in Magic: The Gathering". Wolff's article outlines some of the reasons why women rarely attend competitive Magic tournaments. Among other things, Wolff calls for content publishers and tournament organizers to take active steps to increase the visibility of female Magic players. She also describes the sexual objectification and other forms of intimidation that women often face when they attend events. I recommend reading the whole thing. (This same topic has been discussed by other female writers in several recent articles.)

At the end of the week, Star City followed up with a response article by Jim Davis, "Women and Magic". Davis says he also wants to see more women in competitive Magic, but he critiques Wolff's approach as one that would create inequality by giving special treatment to women. He contends that players should be courteous to each other, that women should speak up if they are being disrespected, and that female players need to accomplish more in order to earn the respect of the community.

Via Twitter's @CorvusE
I wasn't following this while it was happening, but it appears that a shitstorm ensued, and Star City ended up retracting Davis's article and apologizing for it. The apology has a public comments section that is littered with comments lambasting feminists for being unreasonable, overly sensitive, and opposed to equality. I'm trying to understand the worldview of Davis's defenders, as I find their rhetoric toxic and utterly devoid of empathy. However, I'm willing to bet they feel similarly about my perspective, and I would like to develop a strategy for how to be a good ally to female gamers on this issue.

I cannot ever know exactly how Wolff and other women feel, but I can relate to their description of the unwelcoming atmosphere at Magic tournaments. About four years ago, I had just started playing the game for the first time, and I went to one of my first competitive events: a sealed Innistrad grand prix trial. I was nervous and giddy, and I woke up early to drive east over unfamiliar roads to a small card shop in San Gabriel. I was in unfamiliar territory, but I knew the cards and was excited to attend the upcoming grand prix tournament in San Diego. Sadly, my enthusiasm didn't last long, as it wasn't long before I heard the store regulars cursing each other with homophobic taunts. It was clear that I didn't belong there. Even worse, I felt unsafe. I had trouble focusing on my games. I played poorly and dragged myself home. I never returned to that store, and I never made it to the grand prix.

This isn't the only time this has happened. At my regular store, I've called out other players for making anti-gay or misogynist comments. They have either dismissed my concerns or defiantly defended their words. Similarly, I've met with sarcasm and disdain when I talk to other players about the misogynist language they are using. These interactions have left me feeling angry and rejected, and it also makes me not want to attend other events.

To their credit, the people at Wizards of the Coast have been making positive steps towards creating a more supportive play environment. Starting in Theros block, the creative content and art direction have more consistently featured strong, non-sexualized women, as well as people of color and LGBTQ characters. There is still room for growth; Magic 2015 featured fifteen cards created by guest designers, none of whom were female. I remarked on this to a male friend, who claimed this was because women don't make games. When I hesitated to provide a counter example, he said that I had just proven his point. I'm embarrassed by my stumble, but this certainly doesn't invalidate the excellent work of women game designers in an industry dominated by men. If anything, this example proves the point being made by Wolff and others who have called for increased visibility of women in games.

To bring my own story full circle, I recently registered for this year's upcoming grand prix in San Diego. I'm hoping I will make it this time, and that it will be a good experience, but I would be lying if I said I weren't already steeling myself against unapologetically hurtful comments. The nervousness I (and others) feel before an event should come from excitement and not anxiety or fear. I look forward to the day when this isn't considered a form of special treatment.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Abusive Video Game Lovers: Sabin Figaro

He's careless with his beauty. He's a show-off that wants everyone to know that he's strong and in control. He takes up a lot of space in the locker room, and I'm not just talking about his muscles.

There's a reason why he keeps his eyes focused on the mirror while he's lifting his weights. He wants you to think he's impervious. He wants himself to believe it, too. So he acts like he doesn't need anyone else. Just his weight room. His sports field. His yoga mat.

He dresses casually and comfortably but always shows some skin. His simple jewelry and accessories suggest individuality and nonchalance, and he's convinced himself that his spartan aesthetic makes him purer and less artificial than all the other guys. In reality, he's afraid of committing to a more defined style, so he hides behind the mask of not caring.

Don't be fooled: he still wants you to look at him. He wants everyone to look at him. He just acts like a tough guy because he's afraid of what would happen if someone got close and saw all of his insecurities. After all, he is a tourist. He grew up in the lap of luxury and likes to think that he's a bigger man because he's walked away from it, but his family money will always be there for him when times get tough. This truth makes him feel small and weak, and this is why he won't stop running away from his past.

If you press his buttons just right, he'll put on a great show, but as soon as you get tired or make the slightest misstep, he shuts down and refuses to respond. He makes you feel like it's your fault, but he's terrified that he's the one disappointing you. So he doesn't call. He pretends like it never happened. He hits the weight room and keeps hoping that a big, strong man will catch him when he's about to crumble under the weight of the world.

Watching him is excruciating. His muscles pressing against his tank top. The winning smile he flashes his teammates. The tenderness in his eyes that makes you want to take him in your arms, hold him tight, and tell him he's perfect just the way he is. That sinking feeling when you realize that you never will.