Panel Recap: Making Games that Bring People Together
One of my favorite things about gaming is that it is transformative: you get to become someone (or something) else: you can be a warrior mouse, an anthropomorphic mushroom, a dragon, or anything else that the game setting allows for.
You can also become a new friend to someone who shares the same passions for games that you do.
There are plenty of stories about players creating groups to play together, forming real-life relationships, or whose lives evolve because of the game and the people they’ve met playing it. This year, at GeekGirlCon, I got to sit in on a panel with Featured Contributor Elaine Chase, who has a direct hand in influencing people’s lives in this way.
Elaine Chase is the brand director for Magic: The Gathering at Wizards of the Coast. Magic is a trading card game–the oldest of its kind–where players build decks of cards and use them to cast spells against their opponents. “The cool thing is that even though it’s a game, really it’s an experience and bonding,” Elaine explained. “Lots of times it’s the first time they get in a room with other people who care about the same things they care about, at the end of the day it forms these long-term friendships.”
Like most veterans in games, Elaine’s path to her current role wasn’t especially clear. “My degree is in elementary education. I started out as a substitute teacher, but in my last year of college I discovered Magic. I left college, started substituting and played a lot, and even played in a few pro tours.” After that, she moved within the company through research, development, and then finally brand marketing.
Elaine said that there were three main things to talk about in bringing people together: representation, creating memorable moments, and celebrations.
It make a difference if you can see yourself represented in a world. “The good thing about fantasy worlds is that all types of people can and should fit in that world,” explained Elaine. I think that representation drives home the realization not just that you are welcome, but that everyone else is welcome.
Historically, gaming was perceived to be the domain of a very small group of people (typically white men), and game companies had to make an effort to expand their player base by being more inclusive. Elaine discussed the process at Wizards for creating new characters: “We take our art descriptions and specifically call out diversity. The community really appreciates it—when they see themselves in the game, it really makes a difference to them.”
She described some of the characters from recent Magic sets: there was a neur0atypical woman, a trans woman character with story about how she found her name, women riding dinosaurs and being pirate captains, and also women of all ages and body types. “I can’t wait for the cosplay!” Elaine joked.
But representation doesn’t stop at the game product. Representation also translates to representation in communities. Elaine described Guardian Games in Portland as “one of the best stores in the world for making new Magic players.” In actual numbers, the store made 700 new players in one year, which is an amazing feat. How did they do it?
“One thing we know is that the more diverse your staff is, the more diverse your community is,” Elaine observed. “And the community makes a difference to people you see playing. For example, you see women going to the Pro Tour and the World Magic Cup. It makes a difference on who you see streaming your game, if you see people like you. It makes a difference in who you see casting the games and doing commentary.”
According to Elaine, part of the reason that Magic works so well is that there are so different ways to play the game. As the game requires players to use cards to battle each other, applying particular strategies can help create memorable moments between players. “Even the very best players only win 60% of the time—this is because of the way you combine the cards together. It’s really about the journey, not the end.”
The moments aren’t just there for two players involved in the game; there are communities that spring up based around the game, and the community can also come together. For example, for the Shadows over Innistrad release announcement, packages were sent out to the community, and Magic players had to work together to solve the puzzles in those packages. Getting the community together for those “aha” moments when they collectively discover new things about their fandom are the ones that Elaine’s team tries to create.
Finally, Elaine talked about the way that the Magic community came together to celebrate its various milestones. For any fandom, bringing the community together also helps to create new experiences about the game.
A new Magic set gets released about four times a year, and there is a celebration every time. Those events also take place globally: “It used to be that they were only in major cities and rather exclusive,” said Elaine. “Ten years ago, we decided we wanted this celebration moment to be one that everyone in the world can experience.”
As a result, there are now about 6,000 stores around the world where organized prerelease events occur. On top of that, there’s Friday Night Magic at those stores as well. Friday Night Magic is essentially what it sounds like: you can go to any of the participating stores on a Friday night and find other people to play with.
“It’s like this anchor, this heartbeat for the community,” Elaine explained. “How welcoming that group is is an indicator of how thriving that community is. Because of this face-to-face interaction with everyone, and because you have to show up in person at your local store, it means that the Magic community tends to be awesome and friendly because we have that face-to-face anchor.”
Wizards of the Coast just had their 10 millionth Magic sanctioned game in Toronto earlier this year. “This is only possible because of the strength of local communities,” said Elaine, describing the simplicity in how Wizards of the Coast made games that brought people together. “The one thing you have in common is that you know you both love this game. To bring people together in the world all you need is a bit of empathy and games like Magic.”