#663: Modern Horizons Cards, Part 4
This is part four of a four-part series on card-by-card design stories from Modern Horizons.
Posted in Making Magic on August 19, 2019
As my title hopefully gives away, today I'm going to be talking about diversity. The point of this article isn't about explaining why diversity is good in general (it is, that's just not my topic), but why having diversity in your game is good for game design. To do this, I'm going to be revisiting a bunch of lessons that I shared from my top-rated 2016 Game Developer Conference talk, "Twenty Years, Twenty Lessons" (available in numerous forms—video, articles part 1, part 2, and part 3, and podcasts).
Before I jump into explaining why you want diversity, I guess I should start by defining what I mean by diversity. Diversity is a conscious recognition of the wide variety of individuals who exist in the world across a number of spectrums (including, but not limited to, race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, age, physical abilities, ability/disability, neurodiversity, religious/spiritual beliefs, and political beliefs) and the attempt to communicate those differences through representation. In short, making your game mirror all the different kinds of people that exist in the world.
This lesson was all about the importance of players feeling like the game speaks to them, that they had a personal connection to the game. If something about the game speaks to you on a personal level, you're far more likely to form an emotional bond with it, and, as I often talk about, human decision-making mostly revolves around reaction to emotional stimuli—so making your game something that speaks to the player on an emotional level greatly increases not only their willingness to start playing it but the habits they'll form to keep playing it.
I also talk a lot about the human need for comfort. That is, that people have a strong desire from a primal level to stick with things that they're familiar with. From a biological sense, this comes from early times when eating unfamiliar berries could kill you, so the brain learned to prioritize familiarity. The offshoot of this is having an affinity for things that are similar to the environment you were raised in, including prioritizing things that look like you. There's just a physiological thing that happens in the brain when you see yourself represented. It feels comforting.
So, we want the ability for players to make a personal connection to the game. The brain does that when it sees things that look like itself, so it's clear that as a game designer, you want to make sure that every player has the potential to see themselves in your game. It increases their ability to form emotional bonds which makes them more likely to start playing and more likely to keep playing.
This lesson explained that the key to success in game design is making sure that your game has something for every player to be passionate about (and not necessarily the same thing). Success comes from making sure every player loves something about your game, not from focusing on making sure no player hates anything about it. What does this have to do with diversity? Quite a lot.
The trick to getting everyone to love something is to have some breadth in what you offer. For example, I often talk about how often when designing Magic I'm thinking about all the different kinds of players there are. There are drafters and Standard players and Commander players and Modern players and Vintage players and Pauper players and a whole host of other formats. There are players who focus on two-player play and others who focus on multiplayer play. There are Timmies and Tammies, Johnnies and Jennies, and Spikes. There are the Vorthoses who live for the flavor of the game and the Mels who thrive on the mechanical artistry. There are collectors and traders. There are cosplayers. There are people who experience the game and/or express their feelings for the game through podcasts and videos and blogs and articles. And every time we make a set, we must be aware that all of those different kinds of players exist. We help each of those different types of players fall in love with something by making sure we provide things catered to them.
Now imagine that we didn't do that. What if every set we made was just for Spike drafters? We didn't try to make cards for any other format. We didn't care about multiplayer play. We didn't care about any other psychographics. We didn't spend any energy more than needed on world design or work extra hard to make mechanical gems. The game was just about this one tiny sliver of the Magic experience. What would that be like?
Well, for the Spike drafters, it would be awesome. Every set, every card, every theme, every mechanic, every choice was made to make them as happy as possible. Everyone else, though, would be less happy. Other formats would exist. They'd do the best they could with what we made, but it would be far from optimized. Commander players, for example, might wait years until we made a set that revolved around drafting legendary creatures to get more commanders. Fewer people would play because the thing that pulled them into the game, the thing they love about Magic, might not have been there. And those who do play, at least the non–Spike drafters, probably stick around for less time because there's fewer new things for them to fall in love with. All in all, Magic would be worse off.
You can make the Spike drafters happy with far less than 100% of the set. Crafting every card to maximize their happiness is just lessening your ability to make other types of players happy and, at some point, really isn't making them all that much happier. As long as each type of Magic player has a subset of cards that focuses on what they love about the game, they're happy. If they're things they don't like, they won't play with them. They'll focus on what they do like.
Okay, now let's swap out the type of Magic player someone is for the type of person they are. Designing every card in the game for the same type of person is the same mistake as designing the game for the same type of player. Making the game all about (or even mostly about) just one demographic is not taking advantage of what your game can do. It pigeonholes your design and decreases your ability to reach more players.
This lesson talks about the importance of details because one of the things that helps players emotionally bond with your game is them finding some component that specifically speaks to them. That component doesn't necessarily have to be a big thing, just something that the player can connect with. In fact, it's often very tiny details that can create the strongest bond because the player feels like they've discovered something small enough that their interest in it is unique to them.
Which brings us to the concept of social identity and otherness. In a society, groups are formed as part of the social structure, but it's the group in power (most often the group that is the majority, but not always) that gets to define itself as the norm, establishing another group as an "other," that is, someone who, by definition, is an outsider. It's not easy to be an "other" as it comes with a constant sense of not belonging. For those who are less familiar with this concept, think back to a time where you were the clear minority in a group where there were more people unlike you than like you. A common place to experience this is traveling to another country where you're outnumbered by the people of that country. The more the culture of that country differs from your home country, the stronger the sense of otherness. Think back to how it was clear you felt like an outsider, that you clearly "didn't belong."
As a straight white cis man, I'm not often an "other," but there one way in which I am—my religion. I'm Jewish. Because religion isn't something with a strong visual signifier, I have the ability to blend in a little easier than most "others." However, I've had a lot of experiences where it was assumed everyone was Christian and I was forced to feel as if I clearly wasn't meant to be there. That gives me a little insight into what living life as an "other" is like, although, understandably, a mere taste compared to the experience of people who seldom get to leave their otherness aside.
The concept of otherness is important to understand because the sense of belonging can be taken for granted if you're not used to missing it in your daily life. One of the side effects of otherness is that you don't get to see yourself reflected nearly as often in things like entertainment. So, when that happens, it can create a very strong emotional connection because it allows you to feel accepted within that form of entertainment, ideally, something you already have some attachment to.
I bring all this up because one of the things that details allow a game designer to do is hit a wide range of different life experiences. For example, a player shared with me how much Chandra being of a mixed racial parentage meant to them, because it mirrored their own family. This little detail might be glossed over by many players but was a defining moment where that player felt connected to Magic. It melted away their sense of otherness and bonded them with the game.
The whole point behind spending time and energy on your details is to strengthen emotional bonds with your players, so using diversity as a tool to do that will bring large dividends.
This lesson talks about the importance of customization. A big tool in helping players bond with your game is giving them the tools to make it personal. Players connect easier, faster, and more completely with a game that they had a hand in creating. This means you want to design your game in such a way that you give your players choices over how they play it. This also means that you grant them the means to express things about themselves.
So far, I've talked about how diversity can be used to help your player emotionally bond with your game. This lesson talks about how they can use it as a means to interweave their identity with the game. That the game can become yet another way through which they can express to the world who they are.
The best example here is the card Alesha, Who Smiles at Death. Alesha is the first openly trans character in the game. (You can read the short story about her here.) I can't count the number of letters and posts and emails I've received about her, many talking about how they've made an Alesha deck and how liberating it is to have the character as something they can play. That point keeps coming up. It's one thing for your game to reference something. It's even more compelling, though, when you make it a game piece so that the players who want to bond with that element get to interact with it as well as use it to show who they are.
Diversity can be empowering to certain players, allowing your game to transcend just being a game and make it part of their identity. That is as close to a person as a game can get, and it helps make your players lifelong fans.
This lesson talks about the dangers of designing to please too many audiences. To do your best game design, you have to understand what audience each component is aimed for and then maximize that component for that audience. Also, included in this idea is that it's okay if a different audience doesn't like that component. It's not being made for them. (A quick aside that if that component is actively insulting to another group, for example, showing them in a bad light, that is a problem. You shouldn't make one group happy by actively denigrating another group.)
The reason this lesson is key for understanding the importance of diversity is that the people who belong to the group in power probably are used to having a high percentage of representation. Lowering their representation to allow you to have an opportunity to showcase others is sometimes met with criticism because you're lessening their representation. They're taking the status quo as a baseline. Lowering that baseline can sometimes be seen as an attack because you're taking something away from them.
My counter to that is that your game needs to be reflexive to the needs of everyone playing and not just the most dominant group. For example, Commander as a format didn't exist for many years. As such, we didn't design with it in mind, but as we started to see interest in the format, we began incorporating it into our designs (even making a product specifically for the format). By doing so, we increased awareness of Commander which, in turn, led to more people playing the format.
The parallel here is that designing for a particular demographic will increase that group's comfort with the game which in turn will help encourage more players of that group to play. For instance, we made a conscious decision years ago to have gender in our worlds in art match the real world (meaning an even split). This more realistic portrayal of gender representation in the game (along with a breadth of diversity of female roles) has led to an increase in women playing the game.
The lesson here is that, as a game designer, you not only have to be constantly looking at who is playing your game but also who could be playing your game. The key to growth is allowing yourself to design components which will welcome a new audience. The trick is being able to look at the full breadth of your game and make sure that something is being designed for each segment of your audience. Just don't get caught in the trap of believing that every component has to be for everyone, especially the dominant group.
This lesson talks about the importance of taking risks in game design, that players are far more forgiving of you trying something new than they are of you just making the same old thing you always make. This is important in the diversity debate, because one of the most common rebuttals to diversity is that there's no need to change things. Things have been a certain way for a long time. Let's just keep them the same.
That, I would argue from a game design sense, is a recipe for disaster. Every time, for example, I or others have tried to push boundaries of what Magic can do, there's been a push back. The Game Support team wrote a letter to the then CEO begging him not to print the "pitch" cards from Alliances (the cards like Force of Will that allow a player to cast them for no mana cost if you discarded a card of the same color). The lead developer tried to kill the split cards in Invasion in the very first meeting. Hybrid mana, double-faced cards, a land-focused set, a guild block, full-art lands, a fairy-tale set . . . so many great innovations of the game were met with resistance.
Part of allowing your game to expand is a willingness to push boundaries and diversity, which brings up a different benefit. So far, I've talked about what the diversity does for people who are being represented. Let's talk for a second what it does for everyone else. It adds variety to your game. It makes things feel more unique. It helps the new things feel different from the old things. It also allows your players to be exposed to things they might really enjoy. While people like seeing themselves reflected in their entertainment, it's also very freeing to see others represented. Perhaps they might remind them of other people in their own life. Maybe it can educate them about things they were unaware of. Possibly it can entertain them by allowing them to see things through a different lens. Diversity is not just about letting people see themselves, it's also about allowing other people to see them as well.
As you can see, diversity is a powerful tool for a game designer. It can help players connect with your game and change how they interact with it. It can create growth as it brings new players to your game. It can help you push it in new directions and keep your game fresh. In short, adding diversity to your game will make it better.
Today's column was a slightly different take on diversity, so I hope you all enjoyed it. As always, I'm eager to hear your feedback through email or any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram).
Join me next week for my annual State of Design column.
Until then, may you find ways to add diversity to your own projects.
This is part four of a four-part series on card-by-card design stories from Modern Horizons.
In this podcast, I talk about the history of Magic's oldest alternate-win condition.