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Igniting a Spark: Finding Magic in Greenville

by Spencer Bennington
Guardian contributor

What if I told you that within our city there were beings who wield unimaginable power? Mere mortals who have ignited a spark within them, a spark which allows them to transcend time and space, to harness the power of the natural world, summon mythical beasts, and cast the arcana of legend? You’d surely laugh and assume I’m pitching the next summer blockbuster—and you’d surely be wrong.

wonderThe truth is, these powerful “Planeswalkers” not only exist, they thrive here in Greenville, and you’ve probably met one or two without ever realizing it. I’m speaking, of course, about people who play the original American trading card game, Magic: the Gathering.

Since its 1993 debut, Magic: The Gathering, or MTG, served as a historical milestone in the world of fantasy roleplaying by offering gamers a more portable way to play. Because of the fundamental innovations Magic offered compared to clunky pencil and paper board games like Dungeons and Dragons, it has not only seen incredible success over the past 22 years, but is has spawned an unending collection of imitators in the form of other trading card games you might be more familiar with—Pokemon not excluded. That’s right, Magic is ultimately responsible for why every kid who owned a Gameboy in the 90’s knows their Pickachus from their Squirtles.

But Magic: the Gathering and its devotees are so much more than simple innovators. We Planeswalkers affect Greenville positively by fostering a sense of community, teaching cooperation, and cultivating an appreciation for the written and visual arts.

I had the chance to speak with Harry Frank, local business owner and operator of Blue Ox Games, LLC. Blue Ox is Greenville’s home for all things MTG as well as a host of other trading card and board games. “At the end of the day, our mission is simple,” Harry told me. “We want to maintain a hub for the face-to-face gaming experience and get people back to socializing with one another.”

When we discussed some of the finer points of why Magic has endured such popularity and how it affects our city, Harry insisted, “the first thing you need to know about Magic is that it’s one of the best strategy resource games ever made.” Asked to explain why he felt so strongly, Harry said his reasoning was simple: the game is not a stagnant product. Magic is constantly changing every few months as new sets of cards are released, and the cards themselves are multifaceted in their nature. Being a guy who has frequently described himself as “someone who has never found a box he’s comfortable in,” this quality of evolution certainly appeals to Harry and to many members of the community. “There’s two sides to the game,” he says, “the strategy and the lore.” By “lore,” Harry is referring to the strong narrative component that accompanies all MTG products. Since 1998, each expansion of cards has been released alongside a companion novel, one which delves deeper into the world of fantasy that the cards represent. The cards and their often operatic backstories have also been adapted to comic book series and graphic novels over the years, and recently found a permanent home on an online column entitled Uncharted Realms.

Given Harry’s background as an East Carolina University librarian and my experiences as a composition professor, we agreed that Magic often serves as a kind of gateway for children or teenagers who may not have a natural passion for reading. Suddenly, when they start playing Magic, they’re exposed to an often obscure and challenging vocabulary. Parents remark how their children begin adamantly looking up new words, reading online articles about strategy or deck building, or even find themselves diving headfirst into a fantasy novel because of their love of the game. According to Harry, “It’s not just the simple act of reading—these kids are developing research skills, they’re evaluating sources and assessing a variety of information.” Truth be told, these are the skills I desperately attempt to teach college freshman on a daily basis.

But, after listening to Harry, I’d say these literacy skills pale in comparison to some of the social skills the game helps players of all ages to develop: “When people hear trading cards they say, ‘oh, you mean that kid’s game right?’ Or they just assume that everyone in the store is a 300-pound, middle-aged white guy living in his mom’s basement. But I tell you man, we have successful business people, lawyers, doctors, dentists, college students, people of every race, gender, folks in the LGBT community and anyone else that stumbles through the doors sitting together here. Because the truth is, games bring people together. When you sit across from someone playing a game you immediately have something in common… and after that, lots of amazing things can happen.”

One of these particularly amazing things that happen at Blue Ox is the acceptance and nurturing of many gamers, young and old, who wouldn’t necessarily be afforded a competitive social outlet in mainstream sports. Harry noted, “I have at least two or three regulars who suffer from Asperger’s syndrome or exist somewhere on the autism spectrum.” Harry explained to me that these players get to hang out with people their own age instead of being lumped into a group of much younger children, and get to learn the classic lessons of how to win and lose graciously. And because Harry is cognizant of his role as a “community manager” instead of just another business owner, he tries to make sure “everyone sees and respects everyone else’s games.” In this way, Harry actively fosters a space of freedom and acceptance: “I try to model the attitude in my store that it’s ok to be you, so long as you’re not telling someone that it’s not ok to be them.”

If I weren’t already convinced that this MENSA-recognized trading card game was shaping Greenville into a more accepting and forward-thinking city, Harry shared with me some personal stories regarding the strong emotional connections in his own life that Magic has helped him forge. “When I got married, the vast majority of my groomsmen were all guys that I played these games with.” The fact is, these guys shared more than just a few laughs and Friday nights— they shared a whole universe. The same is true for any two strangers who share the common bridge of a game like Magic—suddenly, they can discuss triumphs and tragedies from their past with ease, and the hopes for their future without trepidation.

All this, because of a handful of cards with pretty pictures.

After over an hour, my ears were tired, but Harry just kept on talking. If I would have let him, his passion would have allowed his words to flow with the same level of boyish excitement with which he started. But as I wrapped up the interview, Harry said he had one more story to tell me—perhaps the most important of all.

It was a story of a family of seven. Five kids, all military brats to an enlisted man in Fayetteville, NC. The youngest of these was Harry Frank. “We didn’t have a lot of money in those days, so I remember how me and my Dad would go around to yard sales and buy old board games for a dime or a quarter or whatever loose change we could find. All of us always watched Jeopardy together and kept score. We were always competitive, but we played as a family.” Harry paused for a moment, pained by what he had to remember next. “When I lost my father in ‘96, it was the hardest thing I’d ever gone through in my life.” Harry described how at this point he was struggling to decide what he wanted to study in college and which career path lay before him. It would take him an enormous amount of time before he could fully come to terms with what this loss truly meant to him. Some fifteen years later when he seized the opportunity to buy the inventory of a previous game shop, Harry told me how he was stuck on one particular detail. “I had no idea what to name it. I was tossing around all these generic ideas until one day, it finally hit me. I never heard anybody call my Dad by his real name. It was always his nickname—Babe. And just like that I knew the store would be Blue Ox Games. The idea of gaming has always been within me and I attribute that to my Dad, so there’s no greater name for my life’s work than one which would honor him.”

As Harry spoke those words, it finally made sense to me that, in a way, he saw himself as a father figure for the gaming community he’s helped establish in Greenville. Like his father before him, Harry is trying his best to take the lessons he’s learned from the games he loves, and share them with the people he cares about. “The one thing that I’ve learned from Magic that I apply to my daily life is that you can never stand still. You may build a winning deck and play perfectly at a tournament, but come next Saturday, that’s all going to be different.” He loves “the fine-tuning, the grinding, and finding that optimal build” for a particular moment, but he never lets himself forget that it’s just that—a moment. Harry tries to model this behavior for the community that “I want to be better today than I was yesterday and hopefully not half as good as I’m going to be tomorrow.”

So if you feel like there’s some spark in you that’s destined to ignite some greatness, if you feel like exploring new artistic and creative realms, if you have the desire to meet a variety of people you may have never come into contact with otherwise, or if you’d just like to satisfy that competitive nature of yours in a delightfully challenging, ever-changing way, head on down to Blue Ox and see if you have what it takes to walk the Planes.

Spencer Bennington is an adjunct Composition professor and freelance writer who hopes to be enrolled in ECU’s English Doctoral program in the Fall.

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Responses (3)

  1. Calvin Mercer says:

    Not exactly what you’re talking about here, but I just read a book by Robert Geraci, Virtually Sacred: Myth and Meaning in World of Warcraft and Second Life, analyzing how virtual worlds via gaming are providing a platform for practicing religion in new ways. As Geraci puts it. “…logging in is, for many users, a sacred opportunity to experience what they see as a tiny fraction of the heavenly world to come.” (200) This is one piece of what I’ve been researching for years, ie, the social and religious implications of human enhancement technology. calvin mercer

    • Spencer Bennington says:

      Hi Calvin,

      Though I didn’t go into it specifically in the article, I think you have a definite point here in equating MTG with Geraci’s thesis. In a loose definition, religion can be seen as a quest for the perfected self (through salvation, enlightenment, eternal life, etc.) and Magic certainly provides a platform for gamers to do this. That is to say that some gamers might see a strategically perfect play as a tiny reflection of a more total Nirvanna. Games, especially those with role-playing components, allow players to create their own mythologies in much the same way as sacred texts or traditions and I think that’s why they can create social bonds (Harry’s groomsmen for instance) that have equal spiritual significance.
      Thanks for the comment and the reading recommendation!

  2. Carol Collins says:

    What an interesting article and well written article. I am going to put this on my “to do” list, thanks to you Spencer. And Calvin, I have yet another book you have mentioned to put onto my list to read.

    As a social outlet, I have liked some games, Bridge and Pictionary especially. I especially like Pictionary as a game because it is immediately accessible to nearly anyone with mental age over 4yrs old (no artistic talent required), requires creative thought and teamwork, and requires lots of social interaction that allows participants to engage with and learn about others. Moreover, a single “winning moment” is almost unnoticeable as the laughter and socializing overwhelms all else. It seems that MTG offers a similar experience, even though there may be a steeper learning curve than for Pictionary. I need to try MTG for sure. Thanks for sharing!

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