The Lens

Those who keep up with my writing will know that gaming is hugely important to me, as are the relationships I’ve formed through a lifetime of playing.

The article below is an anonymous submission from another gamer, to whom the gaming community was perhaps even more vital. If you’re part of our world – and especially if you or those you love have been affected by mental health issues – I strongly recommend giving it a read.

I’m going to talk about a few topics that I view as intertwined. I’m going to talk about how self improvement relates to playing games (specifically Magic: The Gathering). I’m going to talk about why I love the shop I play at and that shop’s community. I’m also going to talk about my personal life a bit. Just a bit. It’s important to provide context for the first two topics.

I’ve suffered from clinical depression twice in my adult life.

The first time was when I was around twenty three or so. I went to the doctors and saw a psychiatric nurse weekly for a while. The one thing that the nurse pinpointed was that I didn’t have a hobby, and I didn’t really have any friends. I’d disappeared into a relationship and had lost touch with a lot of my friends from high school as a result. I used to play Warhammer and casual Magic and such when I was teenager, but had packed away my Space Marines because I wanted to go out drinking and meet girls.

I got in contact with a friend of mine who still played games, and that’s how I started playing trading card games.

The first game I was got into competitively was a great card game that I’d gush about for longer than the length of this article. Eventually the game ran out of steam and died as lots of card games do. I’d met lots of good people that had helped get me through a rough patch in my life without them really knowing about it. When that game died they mostly moved on to Magic. I wasn’t very happy about it because Magic players had a bad reputation amongst people who don’t play Magic (I don’t know if this is still the case), but eventually I followed suit.

I had some success at Magic in local terms. I even went to the Pro Tour. I got to be decent at limited and fine at constructed. I didn’t think this at the time. I thought I was the big man on campus.

There was a problem.

This is where we get to the second instance of depression, which I started seeing a doctor about when I was around twenty eight. The exact details are sort of fuzzy. The main issues that had caused my first bout of depression had not been addressed. I was still in a job that I hated and made me miserable. I was eating way too much junk food and was extremely over-weight. I had quite low self esteem. I felt trapped by my circumstances and stuck in the town in which I lived.

I split up with partner of ten years around this time. When we very having our last heart to heart conversation she told me that she believed I’d never really came out of the first depression. I disagreed with her at the time, but with hindsight I can see she was correct.

The problem was that I had used card games, and especially Magic, as a means to make myself feel better. I would oscillate between elated when I was doing well, to crushingly low and angry when I was doing poorly. I hid from my larger problems within Magic and Magic Online in particular. I burned money chasing draft wins on MTGO. If I scrubbed out of a draft I would immediately join another. If I did poorly in that draft, I’d run it back. This often led to me being up extremely late in the night and strapped for money to do other things.

The larger problem was the person I had become. I was a very different person then than I am today.

I was a prick.

I treated people poorly. A friend of mine (who thankfully is still a friend of mine) described me as caustic. I prefer my description above.

I was not a nice person.

So there I was: Dumped. Stuck in a dead-end job that I had zero interest in. Not at all happy with my weight. Miserable to be around for a number of reasons.

Not for the first time in my life I went and got a knife. I’d thought about killing myself daily for a long time. The closest I’d came was slashing a pair of scissors across my wrist when I was younger. I didn’t cut myself deep enough to cause any lasting damage or even leave a scar.

I sat on the couch for a while and stared at this big kitchen knife, unsure what I was going to do. I’m not sure why I didn’t do it. I don’t think I had some revelation. I think I might have just got tired and decided to go to bed.

That was thankfully the last time I went that far with the idea of suicide. I still have this voice in the back of my head that crops up when I feel a bit low, and it tells me that I should kill myself. The thing about depression is that you’re never entirely over it. It’s not necessarily going to be a constant battle, but you have to be very aware of warning signs and prevent them from going any further.

I didn’t immediately pull myself together. I’m not going to pretend I did, but eventually I started to make changes.

I’m not sure if I would have able to do so if I didn’t play cards. I use it as a lens to understand the world and myself.

One of the most important lessons I was taught early doors was to admit that I had made a mistake. This is the first thing you have to take on board to start getting better. You need to own and own up to your mistakes. You need to realise that the attack you made was incorrect, that the hand you kept was poor, that you shouldn’t have countered that particular spell, etc. You need to have it within you to be humble and say that something that you’ve done it wrong.

This concept is also the base level of self improvement. You have to assess actions you’ve taken honestly and decide whether they were correct or not. In my case, the first thing I tried to correct was my behaviour. It seemed to be the least long term of my problems. I made an active effort to be nicer.

The second lesson is about developing good habits. Having good habits is great in Magic. A good habit to get into would be tapping your mana correctly every time, even if you don’t have another spell to cast or have any reason to bluff. If you leave yourself the most coloured mana options after casting a spell as a default then you’ll not have to waste mental energy on it when it really matters. You’ll just do it as a matter of course.

I got into the habit of being nice to people. I got into the habit of eating healthier. I got into the habit of going to the gym.

The next lesson is about entitlement. This was a big problem of mine. I felt entitled to win games of Magic. I’d storm off in a rage sometimes if I didn’t. Magic is great for showing you that you’re not entitled to anything. Sometimes you’re going to keep a perfectly good hand and then never draw another land. Sometimes you’re never going to draw another spell.

You’re not entitled to anything. Everything has to be earned. If you want to achieve something you’re going to have to work for it.

This isn’t exactly great, or even original wisdom, but armed with it I was able to turn my life and myself around. I didn’t do it on my own though, so let’s talk about that.

When I was at that lowest point, I drove through to my local shop for Friday night draft. I didn’t feel like being on my own. I just sat in a corner until the draft and kept myself to myself. I could have played a draft on MTGO, but I wanted the human interaction you really can’t get across a monitor.

I made going to draft one of my habits. It was a good one to have.

I wasn’t a Facebook user back in those days, so Friday draft was one of the few ways I had to keep in touch with my friends. I talked to some of them about the problems that I was having. They offered advice or just listened. One of them decided that it was perfectly fine to wind me up about it. They didn’t do it constantly, but every now and then they’d slip in a little slagging or a joke. It wasn’t cruel or mean spirited. They were just jokes at my expense. And that was utterly refreshing. I was used to people who knew my circumstances tip-toeing around me, and having someone just take the mickey out of me was so normal and awesome. It was a big deal to me.

I love the community that has built up around my store very much. The faces change and people take breaks from showing up all the time for various reasons, but most people tend to come back and play every now and again. New people come in and get involved.

I don’t think I can really express what the community means to me.

Without hyperbole I can say that they saved my life.

Thank you for reading.

It’s the Community, Stupid

A recent discussion on a Facebook page has planted a seed in my mind which, in typical fashion, has grown shoots, leaves, branches, arms, legs and all manner of other appendages.

The subject: gaming communities… and the conditions which help them to flourish.

I’ve written at length about gaming culture before, primarily of a competitive nature, but the subject of how best to nurture a gaming scene is different enough to pique my interest.

Back to basics

The question which prompted this post was one I found myself asking as I read the Facebook Discussion mentioned above.

That discussion focussed on how a competitively-minded person might forge a competitive gaming group – a subject worth discussing in its own article at a later date – but many of the points read across very easily into a wider question: What’s required to support a gaming scene?

I’m going to assume that a game worth playing is a given.

Beyond that, there are a few things which suggest themselves:

  • The equipment to play the game – Dice, Magic Cards, miniature soldiers, replica buildings, gaming software etc.
  • A suitable place to play the game – a tabletop, a garage, a function room, a game server.
  • A group of players – other people who want to play the game.

The last point is, rather obviously, critically important. If you want to play a game, but have no one to play with, you’re stuck at square one; you can’t play at all, never mind play regularly, or for prizes and personal development.

Put simply, you need a community.

How do I get one?

If you’re lucky, it’s already waiting for you. Perhaps it has already coalesced around a gaming store or a club – great news, because all an interested player needs to do is discover it. Navigate to, pop in some geographically relevant search terms… And you’re off to the races.

At the other end of the spectrum lies the possibility that no-one is playing organised games in your area – or at least not in the way you want to play. In such a case, you are going to have to force the issue.

To understand how this kind of effort unfolds, I spoke to a friend who has undertaken just such a project – we’ll call him ‘Doc‘ – and I’ll explore some of his insights as we progress.

Establishing a community – motivations

Building a functioning community from the ground up is a daunting task, on paper. What motivates a person to start down this road?

Doc was pretty clear on the subject: “I had been out of my hobby for a decade, but I wanted back in. The members of my old gaming group weren’t into the idea, so I had to go looking.”

At the outset, he established some goals:

  • To play regularly
  • To establish a group of 3-4 regular opponents
  • To be able to game in the comfort of his living room

“This meant a couple of things,” Doc told me. “I had to find people that I got on well with and whom I could feel comfortable inviting into my home, who shared my interest in the game. I still wanted to go for it, though. It seemed like a pretty fun, empowering thing to do.”

Lesson 1: If you’re setting out to build a gaming community, you must ‘want it’ enough to take the necessary steps – and you need to have a clear vision of what you are aiming for.

Establishing a community – first steps

Doc began to explore the gaming landscape in his area. It quickly became apparent that there were 3 different pools of gaming interest:

  • Local games stores and their customer/player base
  • Local gaming clubs
  • Less formal groups which were closed or invisible to those on the outside

“Some exploration of the stores and clubs quickly revealed that it was tough to find the kind of people I was looking for,” Doc explained. “The importance I placed on the social chemistry within the group meant that it wasn’t simply an open door policy. The other groups were inaccessible. I realised I’d need to try something different.”

He began posting on popular internet forums related to his hobby, being very clear about what he was looking for; established a Facebook group; and continued meeting people face to face through the store/club route.

“Ironically, for such a socially focussed activity, face to face meetings were probably my least successful venture,” he observed during our conversation.

Lesson 2: Approach your project methodically. Visit clubs and stores if there are any nearby; become part of online communities that might contribute to your own community; be open and honest about what you’re looking for. There’s no point in hinting and hoping.

Momentum and consequences

Doc’s efforts paid off, delivering a small, friendly group of gamers with a similar outlook. But things didn’t stop there; his Facebook group continued to grow in membership, some more active than others, but all with a shared interest in the game. However, this did lead to a dilution of his original vision.

“I was more successful than I had anticipated at attracting interest,” he admitted. “Did I get what I originally wanted? Yes, quite quickly. Did it grow beyond my ambitions? Definitely – but this did mean that the social chemistry aspect fell by the wayside. The group became progressively more like a standard gaming club.”

As the group transitioned into a Facebook-powered open door phase, Doc began to feel the absence of a ‘code of conduct’ or other means of establishing norms: “When we were just a few people, the way we interacted was determined by just a few close personal relationships. There was never any need for rules or moderation; that became a problem as membership exploded.”

Eventually, after 2-3 years of involvement, Doc stepped away from the group he had built. “I recognised that it was no longer what I’d set out to do,” he told me. “Once that was apparent, bowing out seemed natural; I kept contact with the close group of players I’d wanted to establish and left the larger group to others.”

Lesson 3: Don’t lose sight of your goal. If what you’re building starts to change, make sure that it’s a change you have decided on or are comfortable with, rather than a drift into uncomfortable territory.

Reflections on the adventure

I asked Doc what factors he felt had helped and hindered his efforts to scratch-build a gaming community.

“For me, the most important positive was having the right chemistry in my gaming fraternity. Being selective about who I played with was quite important, although that might be different for other people doing something similar. The most negative impact came when big personalities came into play, as the group was expanding very quickly; because we hadn’t planned for it, we weren’t ready to handle some of the ‘wrecking-ball’ exchanges that took place.”

If he were to become a builder again, what would he do differently?

“I’d decide exactly what kind of community I was building and stick to it. If it was a tight-knit circle, I wouldn’t be afraid to be exclusive; if it was an open-door club, I’d have a clear code of conduct and strong moderation, so new members could get a sense of what to expect quickly and settle in on that basis.”

Wrapping up… for now

Since I started thinking about this topic, it’s become apparent that there is more depth to it than I can reasonably cover in a single post. The detail of how communities succeed or fail, the dynamics which exist within them… these are subjects worthy of more discussion. In particular, I think there’s much more to consider about communities of competitive gamers and how those groups interact with more casual circles.

For now, I’ll keep my conclusions high level and brief.

If you want to establish a gaming community of your own and see it flourish:

  • You’ll need a clear vision of what it should look like
  • You’ll need to be committed to seeking out members who share that vision, through whatever avenues are available
  • …and you’ll need to make sure it stays on target rather than drifting until it’s unrecognisable.

If any of you in Internet-land have insights to share on this subject, I’d be very interested to hear them – so don’t be shy.

Until next time, keep your dice tumbling, your decks shuffled and your measuring tape primed.