This post is written for the Dungeon Master, the Planeswalker, the Force Sensitive, the nerds who lived in the dark days before autosave was invented. It contains a complete adventure, for some contained within their lifetime, for others, a mixture of legend and experience. It also introduces the worlds of basement start-ups and beleaguered teenagers suffering through high school, both worlds sustained by imaginative escapism that was for them, by them, and also, strangely, a little antagonistic towards them. This post will teach you how to see the micro-ecosystems of delight that are now and have always been all around you.

More than forty years ago, Gary Gygax and his company Tactical Studies Rules created Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), a game of high fantasy, improvisation, and random chance. It took elements of Gary’s fascination with medieval warfare and the stories he loved to read as a kid. Ten years later, a fictional Mike Wheeler and his Stranger Things squad would roll dice to fight the Demogorgon, a creature brought into modernity by Dragon Magazine, issue number 79. Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, teens and tweens across the country gathered around D&D like campers around a bonfire, reveling in the ways it taxed their imaginations and allowed them to play as characters they would never be in life. 

With my mere twenty-nine years, I certainly don’t remember, but self-identifying nerds who lived through this time will tell you it was difficult. Video games were just barely on the horizon and always involved being inside. Sports didn’t just make you popular, they came with a group of friends and a set of traditions that helped you mean something to the people around you. Games had none of that yet—only fans. Fans were people who believed games were worthwhile and who were willing to play even when it brought them little more than derision and confused looks.

D&D was just the start of the role-playing revolution, and in 1990, Peter Adkison and a few of his friends got together in his basement in Seattle to publish other game systems, using the company name Wizards of the Coast (“Wizards”). They had dreams, fans, and perseverance, and they thought that if they stayed small enough they could make some great products. But only two years into their grand experiment, they were sued for copyright infringement, and all of their paltry resources went into survival mode. 

Richard Garfield wanted to partner with Wizards to publish his quick and portable game, Mana Clash, but Wizards knew the continuing lawsuit would make that kind of endeavor impossible for them. Instead, Garfield started his own company and debuted Mana Clash in the summer of 1993. Almost exactly twenty years after Gary Gygax brought D&D to the nerd underground, Mana Clash, formally trademarked as Magic: The Gathering (MTG), sold out its entire first printing at Gary Gygax’s own gaming convention, Gen Con.

Once Wizards settled their lawsuit, Garfield was eager to return to his original goal of partnering with them. He dissolved his shell company and Wizards purchased the rights to MTG. Almost overnight, MTG exploded into popularity and fiscal solvency, turning the struggling Wizards from a 250-employee basement operation into a burgeoning publisher with headquarters in Renton, Washington. Between their continued publishing of Magic cards and their success in 1996 as the English-language publisher of the Pokemon Trading Card Game, Wizards forced printers to hold off on things like baseball cards while they rose to meet demand for these more fanciful equivalents.

The jocks had to wait in service of the nerds. 

In this way, we might look at 1997 as the turning point for games. A whole generation of children had made it to their preteen years without being bullied for pretending to cast magic spells at recess. Many adults who had sunk their lives into learning how to code computer programs were suddenly the ones making money. Wizards of the Coast bought the rights to Dungeons & Dragons. The snake was eating its own tail. 

The other night, I met a group of women at the Panera down the street. We all brought our Magic cards and played a few rounds, then showed off our collections to each other. One of the women is a friend of mine whom I find fascinating; I don’t know exactly how old she is, but she talks often about being in high school in the late ’80s. As we sat with our Magic cards and our mac and cheese, she turned to me and said, “You know, if you had told nineteen-year-old me that in thirty years I’d be sitting in a busy cafe playing Magic with only women, I would have told you to lay off the drugs. This would have been unimaginable to me then.” 

In her words is the dark and yet transformative story of Nerddom. In our Meetup group is the hope of its brighter future. And in our hands, seven cards in all unless we drew no land, was the strange thread that hold those two disparate-seeming worlds together through time in beautiful, frightening, complicated ways. Mana, spell slots, pocket monsters, and midnight showings are all these worlds ever need. All that, and of course, each other. 

4 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Best writer yet, needs to be signed to a major deal.

    Reply
  2. Geneva Langeland

    Five years ago, I thought Dungeons and Dragons was a creepy game for basement-dwellers from the 90s. Now, I’m in three active D&D campaigns, own way too many dice, listen to a Star Wars RPG podcast at the gym, and am looking forward to Gen Con 2020. I’m so glad to be part of this revolution!

    Reply
  3. Cotter Koopman

    What a great history, to remember how the pop culture dynamic has completely flipped in the last few decades. I especially liked how you pointed out that established sports “came with a group of friends and a set of traditions.” New dorky things need meaning to be built by dedicated few people who believe in them. I think games both require and support a community. And especially cool to read since I’ve starting playing Magic just last week!

    Reply
  4. Kyric Koning

    I remember a time many years ago when the question was asked, “Why weren’t we friends?” and as pretty much every post of yours that comes out I feel myself asking the question.

    This post is pretty much everything I love. It’s beautiful. I especially like the line “Fans were people who believed games were worthwhile and who were willing to play even when it brought them little more than derision and confused looks.” Yeah for fans!

    Reply

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