Let’s Talk About It

Two-time Grand Prix Top 8 competitor Brian DeMars tells you how he feels about Crackgate, an issue that enveloped the Magic community last week.

Grand Prix Richmond 2014 was by all accounts a gigantic and adeptly run Magic tournament.

Affinity and Birthing Pod dominated last week’s record-setting field, and the two powerhouse archetypes squared off in the finals. Ultimately Pod reigned triumphant with the trophy, and the new post-banning metagame finally began to take the definitive shape of a complex and dynamic three-headed monster.

However, all of this interesting information has been completely overshadowed by a fringe unfortunate incident, and all I’ve heard or read about for the past week in the world of Magic has been butt crack related.

What an absolutely exciting age we live in!

Just in case you haven’t heard about it, let me take this opportunity to catch you up on some very important news that you may have missed.

At Grand Prix Richmond one player had a friend take a series of portrait style photographs of him posed next to anonymous players’ exposed butt cracks and then posted these pictures on various social media sites. The pictures got so much attention that they made it all the way to Time Magazine’s website, which picked up on the story and made it into a full-fledged media phenomenon entitled "Player Exposes Magic: The Gathering For Everything It’s Cracked Up To Be" that poked fun at the appearance and behavior of Magic players while at tournaments.

Yes, folks, this is real life: butt cracks at Magic tournaments have become a worldwide news story sensation.

No longer is the world of intrusive social media restricted merely to the Lindsay Lohans and Britney Spears of the world; it is now clear that any and every anonymous exposed butt crack ought live in fear of the paparazzi.

In addition, the individual responsible for posing for and posting these pictures received an eighteen-month ban from the DCI for bullying and disrespectful behavior.

Why does this matter? Well, let’s unpack this incident.

Basically, what happened is somebody pointed out the unfortunate attire of their fellow players and the world latched on to it as proof that the preexisting stereotype of the gross gamer is very much alive, well, and kicking.

The stereotype I am talking about is that of the poorly groomed and socially backward geek. The one that sometimes lingers unspoken in the air whenever you tell a new acquaintance that you play Magic: The Gathering. Saying the words "I play Magic" to somebody who has only a mainstream understanding of the game is often immediately met with the response of "oh, you are one of them?" One of those unfortunate unwashed losers who has never talked to a member of the opposite sex and spends their leisure time locked away from the world in their mother’s basement playing D&D.

Stereotypically speaking, of course.

When I sat down to write this, I quickly realized that an article called "A Guide To Being A Little Less Gross Of An Individual At Magic Tournaments" and featuring such helpful pro tips as "Deodorant: Use It" and "A Belt: Wear One" was completely unnecessary because my audience here at SCG doesn’t actually struggle with these first world problems despite what Time Magazine might believe and tell the world at large.

I’m lucky to have a large platform to talk about Magic here at the greatest Magic strategy website in the world. One interesting facet about having written about Magic on a weekly basis for the past three years is that I get to meet lots of my readers at various tournaments and conventions. In three years of meeting and talking with the individuals who read my articles, I have not once been approached by an individual who fits the typical stereotypical dirty, smelly, inappropriately dressed, slob of a monkey person. Therefore, I quickly concluded that whoever and wherever this stereotype comes from, it does not apply to my readers, so basic hygiene tips are unnecessary.

If the people who read Magic articles don’t have a problem with hygiene, then why are we even having this conversation at all?

Stereotyped & Hating Every Second Of It

Crackgate is a study in stereotypes.

Grand Prix Richmond was a colossus of a tournament with well over four thousand players in attendance. Answer me this: is it even possible for a group of four thousand unique individuals to gather and not have a couple exposed butt cracks?

In most casual settings my expectation would typically be no because with so many people it’s likely that some choose to come dressed too casual.

Let’s think of places where we might encounter thousands of people: airports, fairs, sporting events, concerts. I have seen butt cracks and various degrees of poor hygiene in all of those places.

Yet just because there are a lot of people doesn’t necessarily mean that all types of gatherings will always incorporate individuals who are dressed or groomed poorly. My expectation for a symphony or opera for instance would be that I would encounter zero butt cracks among all the people in attendance.

The ways in which people dress and act in various public spaces are dictated by social expectations for appropriate attire and behavior for each particular event. Our expectations for appropriate attire at a Magic tournament is certainly less than that of an opera, but it is also perhaps much greater than that of a Woodstock concert.

If we branch out this line of thinking, imagine an individual went to a professional football game and took pictures of other people’s exposed butt cracks and posted it on the Internet. Do you think that the people who saw these images would immediately jump to the conclusion that all individuals who attend sporting events are disgusting slobs? I doubt it. More realistically, people would think to themselves "well, with so many people there are bound to be some that left that house with substandard attire."

What is disturbing about the whole situation is that while the assumption that because there are thousands of people in attendance of course there will be a few butt cracks is pretty reasonable, Time Magazine’s website picking up the story seems to imply that this behavior is normal and emblematic of gaming and Magic culture as a whole.

A major news outlet could have chosen to pick up on all sorts of topics regarding Richmond’s Grand Prix. How about: 

"Hey, this Magic game has become hugely popular to the degree that thousands of people think it is interesting enough to show up and play in a single tournament!"

Unfortunately, that would qualify as an actual news story, which would be boring. Real news has to be disturbing, unsettling, and unpleasant. So we end up with a more "newsworthy"and grabbing headline for all the folks at home: 

"Gamers are slobs, and you should hate them."

It’s a shame that instead of running an article showing the actual ambassadors of the game like Brian Kibler, Patrick Chapin, or Luis Scott-Vargas dressed in suits and ties and promoting worthwhile aspects of the game like good sportsmanship, critical thinking, problem solving, and teamwork, the only "newsworthy" aspect of Magic worth reporting on are photographs of butt cracks at a tournament.

The media is often a reflection of its people’s biases, preconceptions, and prejudices, and news is often constructed to appeal to what people want to hear, want to see, or already think they know.

Breaking News Bulletin: Nerds and gamers are still a smelly and gross subculture. Congratulations—times may be tough, but at least you are better than these people are.

At least that’s the message that I got from the story on Time Magazine’s website.

The thing is that in reality "nerds" or "gamers" are very likely to be people’s bosses or coworkers and game playing as a pastime is growing rapidly among thoughtful, intelligent, productive, and (dare I say?) normal people.

Stereotypes and prejudices of any kind are unfair and damaging and function to create evil and hatred in the world at large. They exist to make one group of people feel better about themselves at the expense of injuring another party.

The formula is devastatingly simple: one group decides that they believe they are better than another group and latch on to some myth about the other group and use it to attack, subjugate, and berate the other. All intolerance—racial, religious, political, social, sexual—is based upon this basic premise.

The Crackgate pictures and articles are clearly damaging to Wizards of the Coast, the Magic: The Gathering brand, gaming, and gamers everywhere because they reinforce the same old prejudices and misconceptions that have existed ever since the first comedian quipped about and reinforced the stereotype of "those repulsive dorks who would rather play D&D in their parents’ basement than do something better with their lives."

The fact of the matter is that playing Magi in the here and now, nearly 30 years later from the moment those first prejudices were formed, is a very different social experience than the one being mocked back when. Magic is a gargantuan of a game, and the intellectual complexity, collectability, and social and competitive opportunities it provides players and fans appeals to all sorts of different people from all walks of life. The widespread popularity and growth of the game and gaming culture in general is something that has not been properly appreciated or absorbed by many in mainstream culture. For instance, one only needs to look at the popularity of video games to realize that those who are currently "gaming" as a hobby are quickly becoming the majority (if they are not already).

Many Magic players reacted to Crackgate with a gut wrenching "ugh, not again—don’t lump me in with those people." The vast majority of Magic players are not the image posted on social media or reported on by the media and are tired of being portrayed as a culture defined by outdated and insulting stereotypes.

Changing The Paradigm

I’m extremely unimpressed by the way the entire situation was handled by nearly everybody involved, from the individual who produced the pictures and the way it was sensationalized and reported on by popular media down to the way it was handled by those inside the game and the community.

The behavior of the person who produced and posted the pictures is immature and distasteful for a multitude of reasons. I don’t believe any explanation for why posting pictures of people’s butt cracks on the Internet is a bad thing.

For the record, I find exposed butt cracks to be personally offensive when I encounter them in any public space, but the poster’s response and actions simply go way too far. There is a pretty clear difference between a writer like Matt Sperling articulating that people need to cover up their cracks at tournaments because it’s unpleasant to look at and somebody publically shaming individuals by posting their pictures on the Internet.

One aspect of the situation that is striking to me is that the individuals who were photographed were in a public space and photographed going about their business. In a world where nearly everybody has a camera phone and can upload images to the Internet, I’m not really surprised that something like this happened. If a person doesn’t want their butt crack posted on the Internet, wouldn’t it make sense not to go into public with one’s butt crack exposed?

While I might not expect some random individual to go rogue and do an expose of Magic players’ butt cracks at a tournament, I think that adults should have the presence of mind to dress and carry themselves properly when they enter into the public space.

I’m fairly certain that I’m preaching to the choir in this regard. Sperling’s article mirrored the sentiments of 99.9% of players who are literally sick of that sliver (pun intended) of individuals who refuse to get their acts together and dress appropriately and whose behavior continues to besmirch the reputations of the vast majority of players who are normal and want to enjoy a clean fun tournament experience.

These images being picked up and reported on by a major media website is unfortunate for all things Magic because it perpetuates and reinforces negative stereotypes that are unbefitting of most people who game. While the incident may have injured the brand temporarily, it’s important to realize that blaming the whole thing on the guy who posted the pictures of people doing what they do in public is very much just shooting the messenger. If policies had been in place to dissuade the practices captured on film in the first place, there would have been nothing photograph in the first place, and this whole discussion would be null and void.

The banning of the individual for posting the pictures, while on one hand warranted, was in my opinion an ineffectual and inadequate response to the events that took place last week. Simply banning the guy who posted the picture comes across at least to me as protective and supportive of the slovenly and badly dressed (Time’s description of "nerds") behaviors that has been put forward and made fun of.

I would rather the spokesperson from Magic said something along the lines of: "The behavior of this individual and the tournament attire of the individuals in the pictures are both inappropriate and are not to be tolerated in the world of tournament Magic. In response to this incident, we will be enforcing a dress code that ensures a clean, enjoyable, and family-friendly environment."  And then made a rule that forces the last embarrassing pocket of players to shape up or ship out.

Such a response is proactive and works to dispel the false myth that when one goes to a Magic tournament the expectation should be a cesspool of the grossest individuals ever assembled in one place at the same time.

I am very firmly in the camp that "butt crack = game loss" would very quickly solve the problem by changing the expectation for attire and behavior at Magic tournaments. The hilariously tragic part of the situation is that if such a rule were put into the DCI floor rules, I have no doubt that there would be zero exposed butt cracks at Magic tournaments from that moment forward.

There is so much potential for growth in the Magic player base, and the biggest thing holding that growth back are people’s prejudices and negative stereotypes about who gamers are and how they act. My opinion is that the Magic brand missed an opportunity to put a positive spin on an embarrassing moment.

As I touched upon earlier in the article, the number one indicator of how many butt cracks one will see at a public event is the expectation of proper attire. In my estimation if players show up with crack out, then the expectation for a typical Magic tournament has been set too low, and the bar should be raised. Raising the bar for the bare minimum with regard to appropriate attire would go a long way to improving Magic’s public image and would really only apply to a small percentage of players.

I went to a local tournament yesterday with nearly 60 players in attendance, and as I surveyed the room with the hot button topic of Crackgate fresh on my mind, I realized that the stereotype of the "slovenly and badly dressed" Magic player didn’t apply to a single individual in the room. It wasn’t a collection of disgusting nerds with bad hygiene, exposed butt cracks, and rank body odor; it was just a group of normal men and women gathered to socialize and spend the evening playing a fun, popular, and intellectually challenging game together.

While looking across the room, I realized that the stereotype will eventually dwindle and die because Magic is simply becoming too big and too popular for it to apply to so many people. The best thing that Magic can possibly do to grow is to convince normal folk that normal folk play Magic, which is surprisingly difficult when one considers that it is true.

It is significant that many qualities used to delineate "nerd" or "geek" culture (technology, glasses, gaming, computers, valuing intelligence) are rapidly becoming popular culture, and with this transition the myth of the "slovenly and badly dressed" gamer will deteriorate. One need not look any further than America’s preoccupation with online video games, the World Series of Poker, fantasy football, or IOS games to see that game playing is very mainstream these days.

The wonderful friends and great people I have met far outweigh individuals to which the unfortunate stereotype could be applied, and that my friends is why Magic continues to grow and become more popular with each passing year.