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Listening to Magic

by Mike Sugarbaker

Look around in mainstream culture and it seems like everyone who has actually heard of Magic: the Gathering is irritated with it. Newspapers and local TV news programs do wary, bewildered features on it every now and then. The occasional bored parent takes noisy exception to its spells-and-demons medieval-fantasy trappings. Critics of Magic, in the zine world and elsewhere, dub it "Cocaine: the Addiction." Mostly, though, Magic is a topic of at least some small level of controversy amongst all the people it touches.

Magic, like Dungeons & Dragons before it, has launched an entire industry of similar games. In fact, trading card games threaten to usurp the popularity of role-playing games almost entirely. (Magic's publisher, Seattle-based Wizards of the Coast, recently purchased Dungeons & Dragons publisher TSR.)

For those unfamiliar, Magic is a strategy game in which two players, each with their own deck of collectible game cards, face off with monsters, spells, and circumstances until one of them dies or runs out of cards. The game's reasonably clear, medium-complexity structure (a starter deck comes with an adorable little 64-page rulebook) makes it easy to expand or change by changing the cards in your deck. And here's where it gets just a bit dicey: expand it does, with "booster packs" of 15 cards (or fewer, in some games) going at $2.50 a piece, individual rare and powerful cards going for prices as high as $200 for certain out-of-prints, and three "expansions" a year - new sets of cards sold only in booster packs (which hardcore players place advance orders to purchase in entire point-of-purchase display boxes).

Magic earned its "Cocaine: the Addiction" nickname for some good reasons. For a certain kind of person, Magic is a breathtakingly efficient viral meme. Its preferred host organisms come mostly from the already-established cultures of gaming (that is, role-playing games and other narrowly-marketed strategy games), science-fiction fandom, card-collecting and comics. Increasingly, though, Magic is drawing young fans directly, with the promises of cash prizes and the cruel emotional satisfactions of its chess-like tournament play. Magic is the most efficient drug the geek cultures have yet produced.

"Geek culture" (syn: "the geek cultures") is a tricky term, and I only use it because there doesn't seem to be another one handy. It refers to the set of interlocking subcultures, hobbies, and enthusiasms that tend to involve complex created worlds, induce almost obsessive behavior among their fans, and provoke a reaction of amused disgust from those not drawn to them. I like this definition because it's vague enough to include certain cultures which are actually "cool" (such as alternative comics, indie rock, and zines) but are widely noted for their tendency to produce zealous, hair-splitting, obsessed people who have absolutely no sense of perspective about their interests. (Many of us know someone who has become so cool that s/he can no longer relate to anyone around him/her, since anyone who expresses a cultural opinion of any kind to this person will always be met with scorn, condescension, or cries of "sellout.") But, of course, the word "geek" has become more commonly associated with a different set of cultures. The geek culture this article talks about is the culture of (mostly) youngish males, largely white but increasingly mixed, who are into science fiction and fantasy, Star Trek and X Files, computers and video games, traditional comic books, and/or gaming (as defined above). Many geek cultures support cottage industries and regional gatherings at which fans and vendors gather every year or so to cross-pollenate ideas and indulge in a little weekend escapism. It's customary for many of these activities to be represented at vendors' booths at each other's conventions - there's always a Trek memorabilia booth at comic book conventions, for example. Most geek cultures now use the Internet as a site for heavy information-trading and community-building, and many have been driving forces on the net for years, since many of their participants were also technological "early adopters."

What most geek cultures have in common is a love of the beauty of systems. Pure, useless systems of interlocking information; systems as art. The plots of Star Trek or Babylon 5 are good examples, with their complex backlogs of intrigue and plot minutiae, all of which must be honored to the letter in future episodes, or else all the fans on the Internet will howl with indignant fury. The fictional technology of Star Trek, made up on the fly by desperate writers who'll do anything for a plot twist, fills thick Technical Manuals. Role-playing games are specifically marketed as systems with which to make worlds. And Magic introduced a game structure that evokes an endlessly expanding structure more compellingly than anything else on the market. You can now buy collectible card games about World War II, superheroes, giant robots, James Bond and Monty Python, just to name a few.

What is it, exactly, that makes "Cocaine: the Addiction" so addictive? A trading card game is a hypertext. Each card carries a piece of the story, or more accurately, a piece of the world in which the game takes place. A new player gets a good-sized grounding in the game (usually, starter decks contain basic starter cards that don't appear in boosters, where they're replaced by fancier elements), but many of the basic cards contain allusions to cards the player might not own, either in their "flavor text" or in their actual rule text. The fragmentary, expandable nature of the games makes them easy to get caught up in, since it's easy to discover more: just go out and get more cards.

In his article "Polymers, Paranoia, and the Rhetorics of Hypertext," hypertextual theorist Stuart Moulthrop quotes from Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow: "...the onset, the leading edge, of the discovery that everything is connected, everything in the Creation, a secondary illumination - not yet blindingly One, but at least connected..." Moulthrop elaborates further: "This is not exactly clinical psychosis (the syndrome Pynchon has in mind is chemically induced), but rather a transcendental enlightenment, another way of knowing". These tidbits go a long way toward explaining the mania of collection. Whether or not the Magic player knows that he'll never have the whole story in his hands, or get to a point where there is no card he doesn't still lust after, he is intoxicated by the search. It's the process of collecting, rather than the end product of a perfect collection, that brings with it the greatest rewards. And if we take the Pynchon quote and relate it to a definition, by pop critic Douglas Coupland, of role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons - "for adolescents: half-formed personalities roaming (in packs) in search of identity" - it becomes apparent that the idea of the forever-receding not-yet-One can be turned back onto the self. "You are only as complete as your card collection."

Knowledge of the mythological, emotional, and practical systems of the real world is fed to all of us with mother's milk, in pieces, over the years. As we grow andform our own ideas about what the world is, everything contributes: television and movies as well as print media, friendly conversations and intimate relationships continue to operate by feeding knowledge about a large constructed world in small, disjointed snapshots. Getting a mythology in pieces, one card at a time, is more realistic in its way than getting a mythology in one linear story. A hypertextual means of describing a world is maybe more like an oral tradition - not even an Oral Tradition of linear stories, with a beginning, middle and end, passed down whole; but instead the random, disjointed gleaning of information from what people tell you in pieces over time, or the experiential knowledge that comes from actually living in a world for a time, speaking with its inhabitants, putting it all together. This provides the feeling of getting to know a world, and eventually becoming a native, that many players may be missing, or not patient enough for, in the real world.

As far as the GAZEBO research team can tell, Magic is not an actual Satanic text or a way to cast spells on your mother. It does, however, have many ritualized aspects. Everything must be done in a certain order, from the cutting of your opponent's deck before the game, to the sometimes perplexing order of resolution of card effects in play. Games can be a powerful form of ritual, reinforcing feelings of order, community and transcendence, or transformation, that are sometimes missing in life. (This idea comes from Tom F. Driver's very accessible book The Magic of Ritual.) In the past few years, I've been interested to see that many informal gatherings of my young-adult friends, most of them honor students but not really geeks, have ended up falling to watching a rented movie together. People have a need for entertainments that take them out of the system of their own lives and place them in another. "When people are looking for something fun to do, games are often dismissed because many people say they don't like to play them," writes Magic designer Richard Garfield in his column for Wizards of the Coast's Duelist magazine. "In fact, I've found that people who claim not to like game-playing often really enjoy themselves when invited to play the right game." Mainstream American culture tends to reserve game-playing for children and families, with the exception of the occasional Trivial Pursuit-ish fad. Most adults get their ritual satisfactions from passive entertainment like movies or television. Games are actually about focusing human beings on each other, while simultaneously offering escapist entertainment. Garfield also writes, "Games could be as big as the movies. ... I hope to see gaming become a vital part of our world rather than a ninety-pound weakling on the beach of entertainment." To this end, Wizards of the Coast has opened a lavish GameCenter in Seattle, a combination arcade, snack bar and game library that seems intended as a trial balloon for a nationwide chain. The idea that our nation's mainstream culture could support a Hard Rock Cafˇ of gaming is certainly an interesting one; would a commercially successful network of GameCenters be the site of amusing and productive clashes between geek culture and the mainstream, or will games remain in the background, as oil and water continue to refuse to mix?

© copyright 1998 Mike Sugarbaker

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