Why Asking The People Around You Is A Crappy Way Of Seeing If Your Culture’s Okay.

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 7.236% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I watch a lot of Gordon Ramsay, the notoriously foul-mouthed chef. I especially like the episodes where he strides into dying restaurants that serve crappy food to a dwindling customer base, and attempts to convince the owners that their microwaved lasagna is not worth anyone’s $12.00.

These owners are, inevitably, going broke, or they wouldn’t have called in Gordon Ramsay to harangue them. But I’d say about half of them are absolutely convinced that their food is great.

“You don’t see them complaining!” the restaurant owners cry, waving their hands at the five dismal retirees huddled miserably around a table.

Which is true. They’re not complaining. The trick to understanding life is that most people, when doing something for fun, don’t actually complain.

They just go somewhere else.

If a meal at a restaurant is terrible, it takes either a massive fault in customer service or a massive asshole to call the manager over and say “HEY! YOUR FOOD IS TURDS ON TOAST!” A handful of people will leave negative reviews online.

Most people just shrug, say, “That was disappointing,” and go searching for a place that is actually providing good food. They don’t bother to tell you personally because they’re not invested in your restaurant’s success.

Their feedback is absence. They don’t come back.

It’s a nebulous message, but then again, they’re not concerned about giving you a message. They just wanted a nice place to eat, and this? Is not it.

So when that restaurant owner waves their hand around to say, “My food is good! You don’t see them complaining!”, this is true. The regulars at this place may actually like it. But if you’re trying to determine whether a restaurant is successful, taking a poll of the regulars may not actually tell you what you need to know, because the people who could give you the useful feedback have walked out the goddamned door.

And so it goes with most hobbies.

I say this because right now, Magic: the Gathering is dealing with a huge problem – about 45% of their players are women, but when it comes to the professional Magic tournament scene, probably less than 1% of the pro players are women. And why is that?

And the interesting thing is that a distressing amount of the male Magic: the Gathering fans are that restaurant owner. They wave their hands about the room and say, “Magic doesn’t have a sexism problem! You don’t hear them complaining!” And they point to a room of almost all dudes.

Who they’re not listening to is, you know, all the women who tried playing in high-level in Magic tournaments and found people assuming they were some real man’s girlfriend and being scorned for their appearance and having their skills questioned at every turn and oh yeah, also being hit on a lot and then scorned when they weren’t there to date…

They left.

Most of them didn’t go out in a blaze of “HERE IS WHY I AM GOING” – they weren’t sufficiently invested in pro Magic, which clearly didn’t care much for them, to turn their “fun hobby” into a “gruelling crusade to change the cultural face of Magic.”

They just kept playing at kitchen tables, where it was fun.

And the lesson is this: whenever you’re asking, “Why aren’t more people here?” the answer will often not be found anywhere among the people who are there. The answer will be found among the people who left – people who are harder to track down, people whose voices you may well have been prone to ignoring in the first place, people who just wanted fun and found overpriced microwaved lasagna.

And sometimes – as with Magic – the answer is “There are lots of people here, but note the people who aren’t.” Which, if you’re concerned about attracting a different audience to your game – and Wizards is very much concerned about having 40%+ of their audience not playing in their high-profile events – is a hard question to ask when you can’t just take a poll of everyone sitting at the table.

But you need to. Because the answer to your question is often, “I wanted fun and got turds on toast.” And then you have to figure out what’s more profitable – the five pensioners at the table, or the hordes of people outside who tried your food and found a better cafe.

Message ends.


  1. Douglas Scheinberg
    Mar 28, 2019

    Note that sometimes “the five pensioners around the table” actually is the right answer to “which is more profitable” – not everything needs to try to appeal to as many people as possible. Sometimes there’s a tradeoff between pleasing your existing audience and trying to appeal to a wider one, but you do have to actually consider the question in order to get the right answer.

    • The Ferrett
      Mar 28, 2019

      Absolutely! There’s nothing wrong with military sci-fi appealing to a dense but a deep audience. But if you’re looking around at some failure state, then the answer’s usually elsewhere.

  2. JoanneBB
    Mar 28, 2019

    I walked away from a few different interests because I got tired of the gate keepers (and your description is so apt for so many). Until there’s an actual financial incentive, I don’t see things changing. I hope things are less toxic for my daughter (she’s 4), but I’m not holding my breath.

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