On the Defense of the Indie Custom Cube

I only caught the tail end of the Indie Custom Cube tweets that were going around today, but I saw enough to hit the high notes. Later this evening I saw this defense of the Indie Custom Cube by one of the developers. The defense is constructed around the argument that critics of the Indie Custom Cube are ignorant of the basic mechanics of Magic: The Gathering, and therefore those criticisms cannot be taken seriously. The developer then goes on to address each major argument made against the Indie Custom Cube in detail, linking each argument up to Magic and explaining why the Custom Cube is apparently above reproach in the world of games. Luckily, I’ve played Magic on and off, sometimes very intensely, for about a decade. Hopefully I won’t be dismissed out of hand for not producing some sort of documentation.

I’m going to write some responses to the first two defenses, because I think the answers to these criticisms are the most deserving of response.

[note: I’m not going to go into the lines in the original post that equate to “people who call out sexism/racism are the REAL racist/sexists” because that argument is the most patently ridiculous one in the world.]

“Women in the ICC deck are given an extra qualifier: they are “female” developers, “female” artists, and “female companions” (in the case of the “Supportive Spouse”). The same cannot be said of men, who are identified by nationality or personality.”

The core of the defense here is that because there are so few few women who are developers, it is a design “feature” to make them a distinct “creature type” in the language of Magic. In Magic, the benefit of doing this is that it allows players to design specific synergistic decks of single creature types, like a deck made of goblins or elves or soldiers.

There are two problems with this: the first is the word “female,” a typological designation with an immense amount of baggage that carries the weight of 4chan nerds talking about “female gamers,” and which could and probably should be simply replaced with “woman.” However, that doesn’t address the imbalance in the “creature type” designation going on in the design of the Indie Custom Cube. As the designer says, the decision to avoid a “Male” “creature type” was because “it would affect the majority of the creature cards, which wouldn’t work very well.”

The designer is right to say that the number of men in and related to the video game industry is much higher than the number of men who work in the game industry. The designer’s claim is that implementing a “man” or “male” subtype would have made the set’s balance skewed because it would have made the possible combinations of those cards both more powerful and more plentiful.

This is a design failure on the part of the team behind ICC. It is absolutely possible to give all of those other cards a “man” designation while purposefully avoiding implementing cards that boosted or synergized with other “man” cards. There are hundreds of examples of Magic cards with creature types that have zero relationship to the other creatures in their release set, and the same could have been done in this case.

The politics of the design choices that they did make is that women appear to be a small “tribe” (in the language of Magic) that can only synergize with one another and who are ultimately useless outside of those collaborative strategies. We know that this isn’t the case in the real world, and the way the ICC positions it is particularly problematic.

Does that mean that I and the critics who have informed this criticism are calling the designers sexist? Not necessarily. Rather, they have created a game that has sexist politics embedded in its very design.

“Soulja Boy is included as an “unstable” black card.”

The defense of this card is twofold:

1. “Black” is a mana type in MTGThe cards that use black mana are destructive cards that often kill creatures.

2. The card was designed to counter the Jonathan Blow “planeswalker” card because of a very popular video of Soulja Boy playing and not “getting” the game.

First, there is an unfortunate correlation between racial blackness and the color black. There is also an unfortunate correlation between Soulja Boy’s blackness and the fact that the card exists to “kill” other cards. The design intent behind this may not be racist, but the combination of the two is certainly a massive failure on the part of the design team to not catch and at least think about those mechanics and colors in relation to a man who is part of a criminalized and oppressed group of people who are often demonized as uncontrollable and violent (making violence against them justified).

Second, the video referenced by the designer plays into racist tropes about “getting” the “art” of Braid. When that video is passed around in games culture, particularly in forums culture, it is not “look at this person not understanding Braid,” but rather, “look at this young black man who doesn’t understand this art.” At the least, this is racially coded; at the worst, it is straight-up racist. I have personally witness both ways of passing the video around on Twitter, Facebook, and forums, and a design team who isn’t at least able to parse and think about the raced connotations of the life of the video clip has some issues.


When it comes to these situations, I generally (with exceptions, I will admit) go with the Jay Smooth approach: I am not damning the souls of the Indie Custom Cube developers by saying that they’re sexist or racist. I am saying that the way the Indie Custom Cube is designed has sexist and racist elements that can be eliminated and redesigned. If the cube comes back online, I think that those elements should be designed away. The general ire of the twitter community today wasn’t just angsty people throwing slime at a wall–it was the reaction of a group of people looking at a designed product and finding something internally wrong with it that offended them. That isn’t baseless criticism made for fun; the people angry about the Indie Custom Cube aren’t just deciding to be offended because it is something to do. It isn’t arbitrary. It is honest community feedback, and the community found the ideological representations of the ICC problematic in a number of ways. The designers should take that seriously; when a community reacts poorly to an object and has specific criticism, it is best to listen to that criticism, especially if it is in regards to questions of representation.

That’s a rambling paragraph, but what I mean is this: there are real problems with the Indie Custom Cube and the designers would do well to take community criticism seriously instead of deriding it as ignorant “immaturity.”

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7 Responses to On the Defense of the Indie Custom Cube

  1. P says:

    Thank you for this. I appreciate your well-reasoned response. Oh and I also appreciate that you probably won’t delete my comment.

  2. Reggie Rock says:

    So what you’re saying is that no one can put a person of color and a negative attribute together without it being racist?

  3. I think it’s worth pointing out that the Anna Anthropy card can only place guilt counters on “non-black non-Female” cards – it seems pretty clear that the idea of race and the card colour are being linked here.

  4. These developers should have thought a bit more about the connotations of some of these decisions, I agree. On the other hand, I tend to be ambivalent about the (implicit?) assumption that as media-makers and media consumers we are totally without agency at choosing what we want things to mean, which connotations we choose to give weight to, etc. We shouldn’t ignore how horrible 4chan is, but we also do not need to let the worst people on the Internet define what all our words mean.

  5. RE: Women gamer vs. female gamer, I’m certainly not the 4chan type but woman and women are nouns not adjectives. You wouldn’t say “man gamer” or “men gamers” because you’ve just slapped together two nouns and it sounds awkward as all hell. If you wish to qualify the gender of whatever it is you are speaking about you use “male” and “female.”

    “She is a female,” makes it sound like you’re doing the voice over for a nature documentary and though I’ve heard it used by young men unsure of how to refer to their female peers (an understandable conundrum for a young man in our society) it is still ungainly.

    So yeah, I dislike the implicit politics of the ICC but “female gamer” is a preferable term to “woman gamer” and the appalling “girl gamer.” You wouldn’t speak that way about men, don’t speak that way about women.

  6. Michael says:

    I cannot agree with either of the criticisms Laura’s defense.

    On the first subject:
    There’s this lovely thing called the Status Quo that implies certain properties about a group of…well, anything. Wizards of the Coast themselves have only recently started printing the creature type Human because it was no longer the status quo among the cards they printed, and it makes no sense to add the type “Male” to any cards here (Not to mention there are plenty of template issues that could arise from doing so. There’s a reason conciseness is a huge issue for Magic developers).
    Also, I should address the fact that just because some Female cards work in harmony with other Female cards by no means precludes them from being useful elsewhere.

    And the other:
    There are contexts to everything. I don’t believe a designer should take into account what anything he designs will look like taken out of that context. Feeding the ignorant will only propagate ignorance.

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