The Magic Street Journal: How to Handle "That Guy"

In this edition of The Magic Street Journal, MTGS editor Alex Haggstrom outlines common social problems that face local game stores. She explores the origins of these problems in depth, focusing on how human nature can create problems that damage communities by driving people away and harm the stores that serve players by shrinking their customer base and profits. She arrives at several suggestions for players, judges, and store owners to keep local game stores as safe and welcoming as possible for all Magic players.
Who Is That Guy?

Everyone who plays a game socially with a regular group has met That Guy at some point. That Guy can also be That Girl, but this article will use That Guy for brevity's sake as the majority of such players are male. In brief, That Guy is the one who brings the group down. They're the one who keeps acting in an obnoxious manner without taking any hints to stop. They're the one who shows up an hour late every time, or who doesn't show up at all without explanation. They're the one who never chips in for pizza week after week despite taking more than their share of it. That Guy isn't limited to Magic by any means, and the concept is widely acknowledged in a wide range of games.

That Guy appears in all games, whether bringing a misfit deck for the meta in Magic or making an annoying character in Cyberpunk. 

In Magic terms, That Guy is the one who rips new players off in trades. They're the one who treats Friday Night Magic like it's the Pro Tour. They're the one who mocks and belittles others over play mistakes. This kind of behaviour is widely regarded as unacceptable both by That Guy's peers and by Wizards. Peer groups handle That Guy behaviour through enforcing the group's norms, and if that fails, the offending player can easily be shunned or asked not to return. These solutions are by necessity informal and Wizards takes a more formalized approach, with the Judging at Regular document listing aggressive, violent, or abusive behaviour as a Serious Problem, and the Infraction Procedure Guide listing a wide range of Unsporting Conduct violations. In both cases, the underlying message to That Guy is the same: Don't cross the lines, or be punished or removed entirely.

Why Does it Matter?

Wizards wouldn't police players' behaviour if it was a simple case of enforcing values. If it were, they'd leave it to individual stores to set whatever standards work best for them. The reason that Regular events like FNM consider a broad, nonspecific "aggressive, violent, or abusive behaviour" to be a Serious Problem is that any range of antics can easily drive people away from the game. Consider someone going to their first FNM. They make simple but reasonable mistakes, such as forgetting triggers, trying to activate a creature's tap abilities the turn it enters the battlefield, or trying to target an opposing creature that has hexproof. Their opponent repeatedly calls the judge and demands the new player be penalized with warnings, game losses, and other punishments not administered at Regular REL. Often, these demands are for punishments that would be severe even at Competitive REL. After losing, that player is loudly called a "stupid scrub" and mocked for their errors.

Is that player likely to return?

The key to understanding why this matters so much to Wizards is that harmful behaviour does more than simply hurt people's feelings. It can drive them to leave the store, and in some cases quit the game entirely. Local game stores aren't like common retail outlets such as Wal-Mart, where sales volumes are high and personal customer interaction is low. A local game store lives and dies on its ability to create and maintain a loyal community. Harmful behaviour can damage that community, and if word spreads, it can keep that community from growing as people avoid trying to join it. This in turn makes it more likely for the store to stagnate, a problem that could prove fatal to the bottom line if left unchecked. One of the quickest and easiest way for a store to lose customers is for its reputation to be that its regulars are primarily rude, aggressive, and obnoxious. Even if many or most players aren't any of that, a loud minority and unpleasant minority can give outsiders a distinctly bad impression, and rare is the small business that can survive a widespread bad reputation.

But why care at Competitive REL? The theory, as it tends to go, is that "mind games" are just as important as technical play. Unsettling one's opponent can provide a competitive advantage, and angering them or otherwise putting them "on tilt" can cause them to make mistakes. At Regular, the JAR leaves it open to the judge's interpretation for how to apply its guidance. Yet when it comes to Competitive, Wizards very clearly draws the line in ways far more detailed than at Regular. Unsporting Conduct includes using vulgar or profane language, demanding opponents receive penalties, taunting opponents, insulting another person based on their identity, and other examples of That Guy behaviour. This is explained as being because "[a]ll participants should expect a safe and enjoyable environment at a tournament." So why would Wizards explicitly prohibit behaviour that certain subsets of players defend as a "mental game"?


Every single judge is given the same guidelines and should all
uphold the same values Wizards promotes.
Image © Wizards of the Coast
The reason is that, while local events leave some degree of freedom to local judges and tournament organizers to set a bar that best fits their community and culture, events run at Competitive REL are held to a higher standard. Players can and commonly do come from all over to play in these events, and the inevitable clash in values and attitudes towards certain issues can create friction. These events need to be held to a higher standard in order for higher-level Magic play to prosper. It keeps focus on playing the game itself, rather than on trying to "play one's opponent." It also keeps competitive Magic accessible to people who don't fit in with established cliques.

Wizards needs a consistent standard of player conduct in order to ensure competitive Magic can grow. If Grand Prix Trials, Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifiers, or other Competitive events were only attended by pros and grinders because local and casual players felt unwelcome, then holding large numbers of Grand Prix and Pro Tour events wouldn't be feasible. Keeping a detailed list of prohibited behaviour helps keep Competitive events open to newer and less experienced players, which in turn allows Wizards to arrange for more of those events. By preventing That Guy from acting in harmful ways at FNM, players start to feel more comfortable with tournaments and are thus more likely to try moving to more competitive venues, where That Guy is held to an even higher standard not to belittle, disparage, or harass others. Between players, tournament organizers, Wizards, everyone wins.

 

Where Does the Problem Come From?

Unfortunately, Wizards' ideology doesn't fit all players' values. No one gets highly invested into a game without identifying with it in some way. People who play the game regularly and enthusiastically take pride in calling themselves Magic players or collectors. A strong tournament record, an expensive deck, a large collection, or even just good experiences and memories are precious to the people who took the time and effort to make them. Groups of players can easily become longtime friends, and successful local game stores serve as centres of community in addition to being retail outlets. It's something people can take security in because being part of the Magic community represents safety and belonging.

As with any community, certain sets of norms and values become entrenched to the point where they're an expression of group identity. A group of grinders may put significant value in their standards of skilled play and personal development. A casual group of Commander players may put significant value in the good times and camaraderie they form through their play. A group of players who each use the game as a social outlet to deal with the stress of work may put significant value in how the game allows them to relax and have fun. A grinder attempting to join the Commander group simply wouldn't fit in, and may even be asked to leave if they brought a hyper-competitive commander like Arcum Dagsson to a table of casual commanders such as Rorix Bladewing, Mageta the Lion, and Kangee, Aerie Keeper. Likewise, the player seeking stress relief from the game wouldn't fit in with the grinders, as their more casual aims would be seen as dragging the group down.

 


"Oh, budget tribal birds? That's cool. I search for
don't have an answer? I guess I win, lol."

Outsiders, therefore, are generally only accepted if they can fit in to some degree. When this concerns social groups rather than tournament settings, this can be perfectly fine. No one's forcing a group of Standard-playing, stress-relief-seeking employees to accept the Commander player at their kitchen table. Having to learn a new format simply to accommodate a newcomer would certainly be stressful, and attempting to do so undermines their reason for playing. But things change radically once we consider tournaments, where someone is forcing all participants to accept each other: Wizards. Unfortunately, human nature doesn't distinguish between social and tournament settings quite so easily, and as a result, outside challenges to a group's values and attitudes can be met with resistance even when outsiders aren't posing a challenge in the first place.

How Does This Problem Express Itself?

In a group that never changes or faces any outside influence, the status quo will be a peaceful one. Problems arise when outsiders come in who don't fit with the group's norms in a way that can't be met with simple acclimatization or expulsion. It's easy to tell a person that it'd be best they not come back next week for some kitchen table Magic if they don't shape up. It's another when that outsider will be back at the next FNM or the next PTQ. In those cases, it's important to understand that there's a dissonance between who ultimately has control over the social space versus who comprises the bulk of that social space. A store owner has the final say in whether someone can play at the store, and barring exceptional circumstances, a prudent store owner won't ban a player from the premises. The dominant play group will therefore attempt to dissuade the unwelcome newcomer from returning, a soft ban that comes not from legitimate authority but from the notion that their values, attitudes, and norms should be paramount.

The elephant in the room is women and minorities playing Magic in unwelcoming areas, so let's not dance around that issue. Magic has long been regarded as a hobby for boys and men, and the implicit assumption about the average player is that they're going to be straight, white, and cisgender. This stereotype persists despite that approximately two out of five Magic players are women because those demographics don't bear themselves out at the store level. It's simply easier and safer to play in accepting social groups than to try and work one's way into store environments that are, by many accounts including this recent piece, rude and unaccepting towards women, towards gender and sexual minorities, and sometimes even towards racial minorities.

There's a common image in circles resistant to women and minorities becoming more visible and more central to gaming, that of busybody outsiders stomping into someone else's hobby and demanding everything change to suit them. In more extreme cases, these outsiders are seen as having little real interest in the hobby itself so much as a desire to exert power and dominance. In other cases, women and minorities are seen as being oversensitive or having thin skin for wanting fair and equal treatment. In either case, it's a "persecuted majority" mentality, and it often appears in Magic when mistreatment is brought to the forefront. This is exacerbated by the fact that the response to women speaking about women's issues frequently tends to be glossed over by men taking a "no, let me tell you as a man what women's issues really are" approach. When the response to a minority group speaking up is to try to speak over them, the majority group is pushing back and marginalizing that minority group no matter their intentions. This is more than merely annoying behaviour, and has a number of deleterious adverse effects that may not even be intended.

To many people, "sexism" conjures an image of a man using physical violence on a woman, asserting that women shouldn't have basic rights such as suffrage, and the like. "Racism" conjures up an image of Klansmen surrounding a burning cross. "Homophobia" conjures up an image of the Westboro Baptist Church with their "God hates ****" signs. "Transphobia," in the cases where it's even respected as a real thing, conjures up an image of murdering a woman after discovering her history. Similarly strong words are linked to similarly strong images. People who engage in problematic behaviour will then bristle at being called sexist, racist, homophobic, or other such terms, because they don't do those extreme things and are hurt by the perceived insinuation-by-association that they do.

 


This kind of talk should not be allowed to pop up at your LGS, no matter how
sincerely the speaker believes trans people are mentally ill and that
legitimizing their "condition" is harmful.

Framing the common perspective among perpetrators is important here. Sexists, racists, homophobes, transphobes, and the like are regarded as bad people because they do bad things, and since people who engage in problematic behaviour in Magic spaces don't see themselves as doing bad things, they won't regard their behaviour as sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, etc. To such players, it's wrong to call them racist since they aren't a part of a hate group, and by impugning that player in a way tantamount to slander, the accuser is then seen as a bad person themself. This is why rhetoric like "you're the real sexist" is so common. It's not deliberate, disingenous deflection. It's a sincerely held, if erroneous, belief.

This is why it's important not to frame discussion of problematic behaviour in those provocative terms. Even though they may in fact be acting in a racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, or other such manner, stating it explicitly only makes them defensive. The key to getting through to them is to make them understand the effects of their behaviour without applying a controversial label to it. If a peer, judge, store owner, or other individual can make someone recognize they're being That Guy, then the person being That Guy is more likely to change their behaviour. Someone's more likely to accept they're being "That Guy" rather than "sexist" because "That Guy" is a more personally relatable category, one without an extreme mental image accompanying it. If they can accept this about themself, then in time they might reexamine their actions on a more introspective level and realize what they were really doing. But that introspection doesn't come from provoking them. Gentle educating them on the ways in which their behaviour is harmful is more likely to produce positive results. To that end, here are several ways That Guy's antics affect minorities disproportionately badly.

Excessively "Testing" New Players

Every social group tests new members to ensure they're a good fit, but in some cases, people test different members in very disparate ways. Women and minorities may be met with varying degrees of hostility, or at least resistance. The common excuse given for this by people who defend the practice is that it's essentially a form of hazing, a way to see if the new member can gain acceptance by putting up with behaviour that isn't given to other, non-minority members of the group. Women may be met with sexist or sexual comments, while racial minorities may be met with negative stereotypes. Gay men may be met with "no homo" type jokes, lesbian women may be variously met with advances or slurs, and trans people may be insistently misgendered. Bisexual men may be told they're "actually gay," and bisexual women might be invited to threesomes. Straight, white, cisgender men rarely if ever receive this form of negative social testing. Even when they face negative testing, their identity is never attacked. Where a straight, white, cisgender man might be "that ******** who plays blue" until he's accepted and the insults slow or stop, a woman may be "that bitch who needs to get back to the kitchen and make us sandwiches," and the "social testing" insults may never stop.

What's really happening here is that the people who engage in this kind of harassment are uncomfortable with more diverse play groups, and are actually testing the prospective new members to make sure they can put up with that discomfort being expressed openly. Since it's an unconscious motivation, people quitting as a result of it are seen as "unable to take a joke" or as "wanting everyone else to change to accommodate them." Since the perpetrators are part of social classes that don't experience significant discrimination, they don't have the experiences to establish context for what they're really doing, and as such think expressing discomfort through put-down humour is simply making a joke. This leads us to the next thing That Guy does to harm social groups.

Ruining Experiences Through Stereotypes

As stated above, That Guy tends to think that expressing discomfort through put-down humour is acceptable. That Guy simply doesn't see any difference between put-downs and regular humour. Therefore, That Guy tends to react to being told to rein their antics in with accusations that women and minorities want to be treated in "special" ways. Unequal treatment is That Guy's status quo, and That Guy sees change to that status quo as an unacceptable intrusion. If That Guy is used to offensive humour towards women and minorities, then it's not important that That Guy doesn't make disparaging jokes about men, straight people, or cis people. That Guy might disparage individual straight white cis people, thinking this is the same thing. Oblivious to the nature of that behaviour, That Guy figures that if women and minorities have always had to deal with it, they're acclimated enough not to need "special treatment."

 

Furthermore, a common defence from That Guy sounds like, "I don't see it happen, or I only see it happen very rarely, so they're being overly sensitive." Actual accounts by people on the receiving end disagree strongly. Just like someone who's never played a deck can't speak to its intricacies, someone who isn't part of a class that receives regular verbal abuse can't speak to how frequent it is. When considering whether there's a problem, one should always listen to the victims over the perpetrators. Most people are honest by nature, so cries of "they're oversensitive and exaggerating" don't hold up as a defence. Pretending there isn't a problem can't help. It can only hurt.

Another significant problem with claims That Guy's antics are simple social fitness testing is their treatment of different gender, racial, or identity groups is anything but equal. Getting That Guy to recognize this fact is paramount when it comes to fixing this behaviour through education. The nature of this disparagement can be quite subtle, as illustrated by Randall Munroe of xkcd fame:

 


It's pi plus C, of course.

In the left case, the accusation is that a specific individual sucks at math. Nothing is being said about any specific group, whether based on gender, race, orientation, or identity. This makes sense, because "wow, boys suck at math" or "wow, gay people suck at math" would sound patently absurd. In the right case, an entire group is being disparaged, but the speaker isn't thinking of themself as being sexist per se. What the speaker thinks they're saying is, "You suck at math, which reinforces this one stereotype." To the recipient, that comment may even be functionally similar to the left case, but what about other women who overhear "wow, girls suck at math" repeatedly, in many different contexts, with little to no reinforcement to the contrary? What happens when such messages are repeated consistently over long periods of time?

Wouldn't you start to feel that you're not welcome? Wouldn't your performance suffer even if you did keep trying?

 


Seemingly minor cases of harassment
or rude behaviour can really add up.

This isn't specific to Magic, either. It's called stereotype threat, and the American Psychological Association has quite a bit to say on the matter. The takeaway is clear: When That Guy engages in racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, or other discriminatory antics, they aren't having a bit of harmless fun. They're reinforcing social structures that both harm communities and keep them from growing properly. They're harming people's performance and undermining an equal ability to succeed and achieve. If merely being at an event serves as a stressor because the chance of being freely harassed is so high, it's impossible to focus on the game to the same extent That Guy can. If someone's put off because of a sexual advance or the use of slurs or aggressive stereotyping, it can be that much harder to play to the best of one's ability. A similar effect could be if a player lost a loved one, suffered a breakup, or faced other personal tragedy. Hammering that point to "play the opponent" or even doing so accidentally out of ignorance would be seen as unquestionably bad. It's the same thing with attacking someone's identity.

That Guy's behaviour should never be seen as an isolated incident, but as part of a greater pattern. That Guy may easily see these antics as a rare problem because they don't see it when done everywhere else in other venues. They don't see how women and minorities routinely have to put up with harassment both subtle and gross multiple times a day. Little things add up, and while one individual case may not be overly significant, the sum total of all these cases can cause real harm. This is why this needs to be treated so seriously. When people dismiss reported cases of repeated harassment as being lies, exaggeration, or "not that bad," they excuse real harm being done.

Change is possible. After all, it wasn't so long ago that "that's gay" was a common derisive phrase, and that calling someone a "*******" was a catch-all insult. Nowadays, that's seen as the province of foul-mouthed 12-year olds on Xbox Live. In other words, it's become a powerful example of something not only to be avoided, but to be mocked. Effecting change is simply a matter of being firm but patient. Being understanding of where bad behaviour comes from does not mean condoning that behaviour. The end goal is, after all, to get similarly problematic behaviour to the same level as throwing "gay" around insultingly.

How to Curb Bad Behaviour

The most important thing to keep in mind is that punishing someone for That Guy behaviour is counterproductive to building and maintaining a healthy community. It may feel good to be vindictive and focus on the punishment aspect of things, but bear in mind rehabilitation is always better than retribution. The goal is to keep everyone involved interested in remaining members of the community. Driving off That Guy still winds up losing the community a member, potentially more if others quit too. With that in mind, there are several approaches that can be taken by a person's peers, event judges, and tournament organizers when someone's behaviour becomes problematic.

How You Can Help as a Fellow Player

If That Guy is a member of your play group or a player at your local game store, the best thing to do is to ensure a consistent admonition of "okay, not cool" whenever someone acts in a problematic manner, even if it's just a quick one-liner. Racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and other exclusionary behaviour feeds off social interaction and peer approval. People only continue to do it because there's a degree of peer acceptance. They may hold ugly opinions, such as that women are inherently bad at Magic, that people of colour are more likely to steal their cards, that gay people are sexual predators, or that trans women are actually men, but they won't voice these opinions or turn women and minority group members into offensive jokes if they know that would be unacceptable. Therefore, there's no need to be excessive in handling this. Some simple disapproval can go a long way.

How You Can Help as a Judge

If you're judging an event and That Guy starts making offensive comments, then things get a bit trickier. First and foremost, you cannot simply let incidents slide. You may mean well, and you may not want to be the "fun police," but when someone's fun comes at another's expense, it's your job to step in and put a stop to it. Giving out an endless supply of cautions only tells That Guy that they can get away with their antics forever. If verbal admonition doesn't work after several attempts, then That Guy should be removed from the event per the Judging at Regular guidelines. This may seem harsh, but when you're speaking as a judge, you aren't acting as a member of someone's peer group. You're acting as an authority figure representing both the store and Wizards of the Coast. Inaction is not neutral, but tacit acceptance. Tacitly allowing behaviour that alienates people sends the message that alienating people is officially acceptable at Magic events.

A common but incorrect approach to handling these situations is to give a weak caution to That Guy, then try to reassure the victim. This tends to be done to avoid conflict or to appear non-confrontational. Unfortunately, empty platitudes don't stop That Guy from alienating people in the future, and preventing offences is always preferable to hoping they don't happen and then trying to clean them up when they do. It's better to solve problems early than let them fester. If someone gets away with offensive jokes, disparaging comments, inappropriate advances, or the like for any length of time, they'll be that much more resistant to change down the line. Early action is always easier than waiting.

 

Punishing someone when they may have had no ill intent is a difficult thing to do, and there's no denying that, but by becoming a judge, you've agreed to uphold Wizards' policies and values even if it's not fun to do so. It's the same kind of thing as disqualifying people for rolling a die to determine the outcome of a match. They're unpleasant but necessary parts of the job. At the end of the day, judging is volunteer labour, and needs to be given that level of respect. What matters when making the call aren't your personal feelings, but your professional judgement. Being light-handed and personable is often the best way to serve your community, but knowing how to balance that with the occasional need to be strict and dispassionate is imperative to success as a judge.

How You Can Help as a Store Owner or Manager

Store owners have much greater responsibilities when it comes to shaping their store communities because they're the ones with ultimate responsibility over the premises. Only the store owner has final say in who can and cannot be at the location. The store owner determines how events are marketed and ran. The store owner determines the atmosphere of its events by setting formats, rules, prize structures, and social guidelines. The store owner makes decisions about the storefront, the store's layout, its décor, its product offerings, and any services it may provide. If a store is an open, brightly-lit space with plenty of shelf space dedicated to different games and events with flat payouts run for every game under the sun, it's because the store owner wanted a more casual and friendly environment. If lighting, space, and products aimed at periphery demographics take a backseat to having more game tables, offering more top-heavy payouts, and having multiple counters for sales, appraisals, and other services, it's because the store owner wanted a more competitive environment.

 


This wasn't posted by a concerned player.

Game store owners aren't like managers of general retail outlets. Your clientele is interested in more than just retail transactions. You're a community manager, not just a retail manager. It's your job to ensure that you set clear guidelines for your community and communicate them clearly. If your store's website has a clear and easily-accessible section where your policies towards disrespectful behaviour are laid out, you won't encounter as much arguing about being "capricious" or "unfair." If your judging staff knows that you'll back them up in enforcing expectations of courtesy and respect, they'll be more willing to do the unpleasant task of handling disruptive but non-malicious players. On the other hand, if your judging staff doesn't feel confidence you'll support their decisions, they're more likely to let foul conduct slide. This ultimately harms the local community and, in the end, your profit margin. Put simply, if you don't take a strong position as local community manager, you'll undermine your business on two fronts.

The need to be diplomatic is even higher given that you're the ultimate authority within your store. Your goal is to be as inclusive as possible, not exclusionary towards anyone, and that includes That Guy. The ideal solution is to reform That Guy's behaviour and keep everyone involved part of your local community. If you have to pull the trigger and let someone know they aren't welcome, it should only be after all other avenues are exhausted and their behaviour is clearly causing damage to the community. Often, by the time the damage is visibly and readily apparent, it's past the point where any ideal solution is impossible, so the focus is on keeping things from getting to that point.

Conclusion

Inclusion isn't about being excessively preferential to a specific group. Anyone who truly needs to be mollycoddled in order to stick around is going to be gone before too long anyway. Rather, what matters is in dissuading behaviour that harms communities and prevents growth. Store owners need to ensure they help create the largest, healthiest communities they can. Judges need to enforce Wizards' values and vision for the game fairly, impartially, and above all consistently in order to keep the game friendly and welcoming. Someone doesn't have to act maliciously or even intentionally in order to turn people off the game or harm their performance, and the proper response isn't to push the perpetrators away any more than it is to let the perpetrators push their victims away. Education, rehabilitation, and coexistence is the best possible outcome, and no matter what your position is in guiding and nuturing your local community, you can help realize this goal one step at a time.

In the end, it's not about making radical shifts to social paradigms or about enforcing any kind of agenda. All anyone's really asking for is for everyone to shift their definition of That Guy outward a bit to include a few extra off-putting things. It's not that much, and as a result, it's actually fairly easy to ensure your local gaming scene becomes more accepting and starts growing to meet its full potential.

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