Sunday, October 4, 2015

Play Entry 6- "unhappy" play -emotional engagement and the Battle for Zendikar Pre-Release

During this week more than others I have encountered play by participating in it in the dual spaces that are my "fun" and my "work". It is also not surprising in retrospect that is was also impossible to make time for updating this journal.

On Sunday a week ago it was Pre-Release for the newest version of Magic the Gathering - the site through activity that ultimately is the field for my anthropological work. Pre-releases are the ones most geared by the corporation to be welcoming and fun, this is also the beginning of a new attempt to have non-gameplay aspects of the design be communicated and integrated into the design of the gameplay and unified through the other means of communication owned and organized by the corporation.

In previous pre-releases aspects of things that felt/looked-like "play" were pretty high for me from a subjective standpoint - I'm a native participant observer, I always go to pre-release events - its part of my personal habit and tradition and it's one of the places where I feel "safe" to learn and make mistakes - the crowds are different for pre-releases even at my home store.

I was stressing over a paper and writing in general - part of the journal is a self created requirement it's taken effort to write at all since I've returned from the UK. In the stress of sorting my thoughts and figuring out if I could write them at all, I over-produced for the assignment and wrote something different than the expectation - so three days of writing eight pages of a thing that required probably a day of sorting thoughts to write two pages instead. I did not spend those three days playing the game.

I also did not spend any of the time I allocate "for myself" doing any of the things I consider "not work" which I and still not sure is the same as "play"

Things I would normally do would have let me read the fiction that underpins the game release. So I know the outline of the story only from the things prior to the corporate approved ramp -up to pre-release.

In previous pre-releases the game created events that allowed you to self identify and provided tools inside the games themselves. You chose a color, picked a guild, got involved with dragons or clans that were led by distinct personalities - there was a sense of joining AND identity that made me engage with these things whether or not I fully agreed with them - and this is an interesting part - affected me even if I never found a clan. There was emotional investment in NOT finding a space.

So in the Ravnica expansion I ended up identifying with Azorius and being disappointed that it never pulled through on the aspects of what Azorius were that made it appealing to me - but this time 3 years ago my girlfriends and I represented our guilds with pride and spent the year examining whether or not the game design reflected our guilds "fairly" - remember the design team made our guilds in the first place

I would just like to point out that in true Azorius fashion my manicure matched regulatory guild color schemes down to the pantone number.
In the Theros release the colors that make up one of the aspects of game environment were all given "Paths" or philosophies - you chose you colors and used that path to play against a Hydra with a group at the end of the pre-release event. Personal identification with a group was not a part of this play environment but uniting against an entity collaboratively was and the element of choice meant that you also "chose" your play experience. In MtG players frequently identify themselves by something best understood as "core color values"

"I'm mostly a blue mage" means the person speaking to you plays decks and cards that are usually about counterplay and controlling the actions of the board state. "I'm a red mage" means they will play strategies that involve direct damage spells, fast small creatures and then big finishers that are fast. the other three colors also have associated strategies - combining the colors is also strategic but not relevant to this discussion of "play" and identity. What IS important is by choosing a color you are also tilting the chances of being able to participate in the way you most enjoy "playing" the game - these pre-releases are all made from sealed packs and random chance. The cards you get might not support your favorite style of play. That doesn't mean you won't enjoy playing it but it does mean you declare an identity or preference or idea of what you like BEFORE settling on the best deck to build out of your cards.

So this is the idea of Theros - you are the hero - the entire block is based around the Hero's Journey complete with underworld. The color is just one of many tools you might use to be there, the event allowed you (if you wanted to) to participate in a way that allowed you to build your own hero milestones while working with others in the community. I played five events to try each of the colors. I "had fun" and also enjoyed the play based design of this expansion as well. I knew what was going on and felt connected to the art.

Remember this is a journal entry not a formal critique of either game design or the event design - this is my personal experience of "play"

The next pre-release would take place while I was at my first field site environment - "play" meant many things but the event was once again "pick your color" which was tied to specific iconic characters and then had a special "fight against the Big One" element which even if you didn't choose to do it lead to solidifying a sense of "picking a team" and knowing the various main characters were all involved in reaction to this one threat.

Then the next major release used an Ottoman Empire influenced fantasy setting that took 3 colors each - choosing clans based on color was not something I felt very invested in but the art itself and the interpretations of the Ottoman empire cultures as "inspiration points" did create emotional resonances for me and this art in particular:

Rattleclaw Mystic MtG Art by Tyler Jacobson

The reasons are because my family is diasporic from the area represented by this tradition - it's complicated but resonant for me because underneath a lot of our performance of a "mainstream" version of my religion are cultural echoes of something else entirely. It is underneath the way women in my family are raised and even when in opposition or active attempts at assimilation they have survived - little hard define - not-shared-with-outsider-tags. It is now mostly subconscious and I do not discuss it even in-family so when they pop up things are slightly surreal. This is an engagement through play and emotional resonance that it would be impossible for corporation-gamedesigner- artist to intentionally create - it is still part of my "play" during my very, very limited ability to participate in this expansion's season Rattleclaw Mystic is in my mind's eye every time I touch one of the cards from the block. She is "my team" or I am hers. 

There is a slight underpinning of desire to play for her to make her proud or share a connection - it is difficult to define. Because she is single colored as a card but produces mana (color coded "energy" that powers spells as a game mechanic) of other colors she does belong to a clan but I don't think of the clan, I think of her. 

The block ends with Dragons leading the groups of humans and other entities instead of the non-dragon leadership the block starts with. I cannot tell you who any of the dragons are except Slumigar - I remember vaguely enjoying that last pre-release but not caring as much because everything had shifted to a dragon focus. There mechanics ( too detailed to enter here) were the driving force of the game and "gameplay" and in many ways the set felt like it was just setting up the release I missed all the set-up for last Sunday. 

The story I know about this week's game I know because of story information released over the year through other events and outlets. I know because the Magic Origins pre-release (once again focused on iconic characters and "fixing" some issues with their stories made in the past) sets up this release "Battle for Zendikar"

I however don't care about Zendikar. Ultimately possibly because I know little about it as a place other than where a bad story choice happened that undermined the competence of a previously competent female character and then because the primary bad-guys are ubiquitous throughout the set. 

because I could not "play" through my own personal time all I can do is react to the art when I see it and the game play- I am almost never this unknowing when engaged in the launches of the game either as a native or as a "working ethnographer" 

But a significant difference this pre-release was the removal of "choice" from the pre-release game experience. 

A significant improvement in tactile effects was made because the product delivered itself in a usable deck box  - however it did not extend it's usefulness enough to handle being able to hold all of the cards that would be opened in protective sleeves - for outsiders to this culture these next sentences will be almost gibberish:

I pulled a Kiora which would have put me in green/blue but I was unaware of "Devoid" before I opened the packs and also was able to build a very strong red/white allies deck. Once I understood that Devoid meant that colored casting meant colorless cards I could also build an acceptable deck around Kiora. I built two full decks to sideboard Kiora , but led with the allies. 

The problem that will now be understandable whether you play the game or not is that the provided deck box couldn't handle holding 2 fully sleeved 40 card decks. 

Photo from

this meant that I could not use the box to hold more than one of the decks at a time - which meant since I didn't bring an outside deck box I was transporting one or the other as "loose cards" between each round. I was now worried about moving of losing the cards. 

What I was also noticing was that I couldn't easily read or differentiate cards being played if they were part of the main theme of the set - the colorless Eldrazi cards or the cards with Devoid" 

Let's take a look at the design choices that lead to that problem:

The cards are too similar in theme and in this search for "Visual Spoiler Battle for Zendikar Eldrazi" the cards that are easily differentiated are from other releases - another problem that happens in this set is that the contrast and lighting on the computer versions being seen is significantly brighter and higher contrast than the printed cards which are fairly muddy in their physical form. 

There is a fill under the text box of Magic cards generally but the fill is a  much MUCH lower percentage on the eldrazi associated cards. 

On the computer version the higher brightness makes it look readable in print, for me - along with the "floating frame that continues the art to the edge of the card giving my eye no symbolic edge to stop "reading" the combination meant that I was hitting right into the things my learning disability needs to compensate for which since it's pretty much just a vision processing thing means I will eventually start having neurological symptoms expressed through physical presentation, vertigo, nausea, a loss of ability to interpret things I don't normally have a problem processing - remember all vision is really just signals to the brain interpreting shape-symbols. When I over-stress that, I can't actually recognize physical objects and things that are normally not affected like "reading english" become affected  because of whatever my brain chemistry does to work around "mixed symbols" 

There's a lot of stuff I already do to read a card - I wish the printed version of this were closer to the color and contrast balance here but frankly it all ended up looking like black and gray jagged mush. 

I recognized the problem that I might have had constructing my own deck with cards like this and chose to "lead with" the clearer and easier to read red/white deck BUT I didn't remember that I would be spending the rest of the day reading my opponent's cards - where without the disability issue I imagine there is less difficulty reading the cards. 

That means I'm subjecting my brain to a kind of slow tapping water torture and fully unaware of it to consciously counteract it. There is a thing called "tilt" where you end up with outsized reactions to small frustration and I was near it by round 4 but finding out there needed to be a round 5 put me over the edge. 

I was nauseous and upset but nothing bad has happened - it was only when in the car and headed home I recognized that "nauseas" felt like vertigo and I was having trouble reading road signs. (I was not driving) and then placed it in it's proper cause and effect. 

The way I normally deal with LD issues is by preparation and exposure to the cards - but I did not have that, nor did I have any emotional connection to the gameplay other than being happy to play Magic again, I did enjoy the first three rounds but my 3rd round opponent was using a lot of the colorless cards and I probably built up tiny "injuries" through the fourth round - that's already 5 hours of "play" and there is an obligation to complete the competition for the "5th" although if I understood what was happening I would have conceded to that player. 

The 4th round though was playing a deck very much like mine and then the description I gave at the time was it "wasn't fun" playing the same deck strategy against "the mirror" which is what we call it when the same basic decks face each other - so the last two games "played" were not "fun" 

But they were "play" 

And since I was there as myself primarily and not on the clock they were my own choice time and definition of "personal play" 

And I will not sugar coat it when I was clear of everything from the physical symptoms about 45 minutes later I was in tears recognizing that if I'm having this much trouble with the cards in this set they are going to be in standard for 2 years and I was fully overwhelmed. 

I had tag neurological symptoms through Monday.  

- but I also realized that I was missing a thing that had gotten me through similar rough patches at other pre-releases - which is emotional engagement in the story - the entire set has a kind of flattened affect for me - everything is gray and dreary, I did not play in the first visit to the plane so I have no nostalgia factor that makes me care about the creature based art and there are very few groups or entities represented in the art of the cards that made me care about them as characters or people. I literally have no engagement with them- most of the anthropomorphic characters are viewed a middle distance and the art is lovely but the card art shows them at approx. 2.25 x1.5 inches for the most part.

If I "care" about the story or the things represented by the cards more does that element of connection/kinship/identity/choice  help me reduce the side effects of the neurological work? Or does that level of engagement simply create "play" effects that counteract negative physical effects. 

Maybe it is something along the lines of this - if the element of connection/kinship/identity/choice I am engaging with the visual and physical components using MORE than the visual stimuli and attendant processes - so like using multimedia input "engaged play" might be using different neural connections than "mechanical play" which would be how I experienced this pre-release as opposed to the previous ones. 

I am an outlier player - I am sure some of my experiences were experienced by other players but would have lower physical effects or (as I almost did myself) be written off as being "in a bad mood" or "not liking the set" but they may well be that limiting modes of "playful" interactions puts more impact on "play" as function. 

I was cranky through Monday where and element of working was then fully suffused in "play" and I realized later "broke" through the effects of the previous day's play. That will be the subject of the next entry - this was a  long and complicated week for work/play. 

End reflection: After playing again this weekend and protecting the areas that would be affected by the unique aspects of the new cards "playing for fun" was not effecting me negatively but I still only "had fun" helping others have an opportunity to play - I am still not engaged positively with the set and worse I don't even really remember any of the cards I played with or handled. 

I don't feel like "play" should only be justified through positive neurological or cognitive effects but due to this self-examination I am wondering about how much "fun" might be involved in play and what happens when this nebulous thing is or isn't present. Can it be created? Is it individual? 

Am I only "performing play" if a thing I enjoy is actively causing me distress? what is play then? 

No comments: