In January, an article was posted on the Magic: The Gathering website entitled, “The Truth of Names.” It was a story about a young leader named Alesha, and it was a great example, right off the bat, of Wizards of the Coast including cool, strong, interesting women in M:tG. But then, as I continued reading, I realized this wasn’t just a great story about a leading female character – it was a story about a transgender character:
“She had been so different—only sixteen, a boy in everyone’s eyes but her own, about to choose and declare her name before the khan and all the Mardu…Then the khan came to Alesha. She stood before him, snakes coiling in the pit of her stomach, and told how she had slain her first dragon. The khan nodded and asked her name.
“Alesha,” she said, as loudly as she could. Just Alesha, her grandmother’s name.
“Alesha!” the khan shouted, without a moment’s pause.”
And just like that, Alesha, Who Smiles At Death became Magic’s first transgender character, one who is proud of her identity and accepted by her people for exactly who she is. Her identity as a trans woman does not hold her back or even totally define her – it is simply one aspect of a multifaceted, complex character.
Two months before Alesha’s story came out, a different – but equally important – story was released. Narset’s story.
In October, a story called “Enlightened” was posted online, featuring Narset, the leader of the Jeskai clan (the current M:tG block centers around various clans that each claim a different mechanic as their own). It’s a first person story, in which Narset describes the experience of growing up different from those around her:
“I found solace in my own mind and often had difficulty knowing how to talk to others. It was as though my mind was always five steps ahead of my mouth. It was so taxing interacting with others. I never knew what to say, often causing me to blunder, and I was embarrassed in front of my teachers and classmates.”
At first, it seemed like this was simply another interesting female character being introduced to the Magic multiverse (which is still cool in and of itself, considering the somewhat dire state of equal gender representation in gaming – so, props to Wizards for including so many great female characters that I can even say “simply”).
No one thought much of Narset – who, at the time, was featured on the card, “Narset, Enlightened Master” – or of the story, until the monk was named as the newest planeswalker – “Narset Transcendent” – in the Fate Reforged set. As the focus of such a powerful card, people started talking about her again, and one person talked about her to Doug Beyer, a writer and designer for M:tG. Specifically, they asked Beyer about Narset’s differences:
“Q: [Narset’s restlessness, sensory overload, and self-distraction] heavily code Narset as being autistic. I am autistic myself and it would mean the absolute world to me to know that a character in a game I care deeply about is like me, and many other folks. Is this something you can confirm?”
“A: That was the intent, yes. The most important part of Narset’s character is her amazing mind, which is central to her potential as a powerful Planeswalker and as a pursuer of knowledge — but it happens that she processes information and input differently than a lot of other people. Tarkir denizens might not have a term for the autism spectrum or being neurodivergent or neuro-atypical, but those terms would correctly describe her.”
Narset isn’t just a leader, she isn’t just a planeswalker, and she isn’t just a woman – she’s autistic. And that distinction, which is all too often regarded as a disability, is the key to her power – planeswalkers are some of the most powerful beings in the multiverse, and it is Narset’s ability to think in the way she does that allow her to become one of those beings.
Indeed, in the next story about Narset, this very idea is written out clearly: “‘I wouldn’t be too hard on that ankle if I were you,’ the aven said, nodding down to Narset’s left foot. ‘Often the things we perceive as our most undesirable imperfections turn out to be our strongest assets.'”
Narset’s autism – her restlessness, her inability to comfortably interact with others – can be seen as an “undesirable imperfection,” and many people who fit somewhere on the spectrum of autism may experience the feeling of being imperfect or flawed in some way. But Narset’s autism is, in fact, her “strongest asse[t],” and it helps transform her into the powerful planeswalker she becomes. “Hey,” Wizards is saying, “let’s not just recognize differences – let’s celebrate them.”
But while many in the Magic community welcomed Narset, some people weren’t happy about her. Some accused Wizards of “tokenism” and of changing Narset’s story only after Alesha had been well received, while others complained that the representation of various groups or kinds of people was unnecessary in a card game – if it didn’t matter to the gameplay, why put it in?
I’m part of a great group of Magic players at my LGS, and one of them has been trying to get his son into Magic for years, with little success. But as soon as his son learned that the new planeswalker was autistic, he expressed interest in playing – because he himself was autistic. Representation matters, because people can see themselves in what they are playing. They can feel a personal connection to the game in front of them, and they can start having conversations with those around them about the attributes they share with their favorite characters.
It matters, even if it doesn’t affect the nit and grit of gameplay (though Narset’s abilities, which focus on internal action, repetition, and reducing external distractions, seem to fit her personality pretty well), because the types of characters in a game have the effect of implicitly spelling out who is welcome in that game. Are there mostly white men? Maybe that game is mostly a space for white men, then. Are there all straight men and women? Maybe that game is mostly a space for straight players – and so on.
Does representation sell products for Wizards? Probably. Is that part of their motivation to widen the kinds of people they put in their games? Maybe. But if they’re trying to reach a more diverse audience because of a monetary motive, well, they’re still reaching a more diverse audience. More people are becoming a part of the community, which it makes it harder to say that gaming is for a certain kind of person – gatekeeping is hard to do when the games you play are welcoming and diverse, and have characters like Narset and Alesha.
Narset’s autism, while a powerful part of her, isn’t central to who she is, just like Alesha’s identity doesn’t define her – they are women who are making a difference in the world around them. They also happen to be autistic and transgender. Wizards has worked hard to create characters that represent different kinds of people without making parts of them the whole. They’re not just throwing in an autistic character to make their fans happy. They’re thoughtfully considering all aspects of who a person can be. And that’s great. It’s not “tokenism.”
Narset’s awesome. Alesha’s awesome. And I, for one, am looking forward to whatever Wizards has in store next.
What are your thoughts on Narset? Do you have a favorite planeswalker? Let us know in the comments!