|Playing cards from "Magic: The Gathering." The artwork enlivened the |
PowerPoint I made for a presentation about Magic for my Cultures and
Worldviews class. "Best in show!" said the professor.
My final class for grad school was a course they call "Understanding Cultures and Worldviews." It's a grand mash-up of cultural anthropology, philosophy, apologetics, biblical contextualization, and personal evangelism—all applied to a project in which students are asked to design and conduct an ethnographic survey in a non-Christian (or at least largely non-Christian) context.
Often students in this class have conducted studies among ethnic communities, e.g., African exchange students, Burmese refugees, or transplanted Sikhs. But the prof encouraged us to consider creative alternatives that would not fit anyone's traditional idea of a "culture" and gave us access to sample papers on groups like surfers, restaurant workers, African-American middle school girls, and Target employees. With research proposals due by the second class meeting, there wasn't much time to make a plan... my group took advantage of the latitude to propose a project focused on members of the community, some 20 million strong, who play a collectible card game called "Magic: The Gathering."
I'd never heard of it, but from what one of my teammates, who had the idea, told me, it sounded pretty interesting. Initial research suggested the Magic community showed signs of being a fairly vibrant subculture. I'd had some interaction with comic book geeks and video gamers, but that interaction was both positive and negative... I wasn't sure which aspects would be best reflected by the Magic players. By the end of the project I realized I'd already rubbed shoulders with Magic player not only at one of the coffee shops I frequented back in Colorado ("Enchanted Grounds Coffee Shop and Gameporium") but also on campus, as a group of students meets in the student center weekly to play the game.
The problem with choosing "Magic players" as a group to study became apparent as we explored the parameters of the assignment. While it included some room for studying the scope and social culture of the group and speculation about what it would look like to identify with the members or reach out to them in a contextualized way--the kind of thing I've done in ethnography projects in the past--what the prof really wanted was quite different. He expected us to focus on worldview. We would need to put most of our energy into finding out what the people we interviewed believed about the origins and meaning of life, the source of power, man's ultimate destiny, the root of the world's problems and source of any solution, and basis for determining truth and ethics. The seven questions, he called them, though it was more like seven topics.
Yes, these were tricky topics to ease into with a stranger on your first meeting, but at least we could point out it was a school assignment as we wildly scribbling notes or ducked behind a laptop typing (we were working solo, not in pairs, unfortunately). At least they were fluent English speakers. Some of these things would have been tough to explore if they weren't. The whole approach contrasted considerably with the team-and-partner based, discovery-oriented approach I'd used for ethnography overseas in the past, which also usually also focused on questions more sociological than philosophical. So I was a bit grumpy about all this. I love doing ethnography and wanted to do it the way I like to do it! All the more reason, this being a learning experience, to try something different.
|Magic: The Gathering is a card game, sometimes played at home|
but often at gatherings held in game and comic shops
or conventions like this.
It's true that Magic players don't have a common worldview. If I'd realized how much that would be the focus, I would have tried to find a group actually formed around a common worldview or values... like my dad's Sierra Club. That would have been fun, and the results would have had more validity.
As we worked on our paper and watched presentations from other classmates, I saw what I think is the biggest downfall of this assignment, given the way it's designed: students are encouraged to do interviews with groups that lack sufficient commonality and then interpret and present data about what the group is like, focusing on prescribed topics rather than actual patterns they might discover. On the other hand, it gives students the chance to learn how to research these specific topics (and the professor evidence that they have done so).
If I could change one thing, it would be to do a class session or two--or at least an article or two to read--about interpreting findings. That was on the syllabus but didn't end up getting covered. You know, maybe I could contribute an article the prof might consider assigning, or write a chapter to add to his unpublished manuscript used as a text for the class? May take a look at that over the summer. One of the challenges is that this is a required class, and not just for those coming from or heading into cross-cultural work; the audience are current and future pastors, counselors, teachers, and more, and he's trying to give them skills he hopes they will use in a wide variety of roles and contexts.
Anyway, Magic players seemed happy to talk to us, often at length, so things went pretty well one on one. As fans both of fantasy and intellectual inquiry, they often had good answers (or at least interesting ones). I may try using questions like these again.
The prof had us work out the questions in advance and asked everyone the same ones, though when there was time and interest, we could ask follow-up questions of course. It took more prep up-front but also took some of the scare out of the work and of course gave us more consistent answers. This was particularly helpful since we were doing interviews separately, pooling notes at the end, rather than interviewing together and reading each other's interviews along the way.
Trying to interest missionaries in doing ethnography has often been kind of a tough sell. Most don't see enough value in it or feel comfortable enough doing it to put in the time and effort necessary to make it really work for them. But this was a really carefully defined approach, put together by someone who not only has a lot of field experience in places like where we're sending missionaries these days, but also has a real slant toward evangelism. So something more like his approach might be a lot more palatable for some of our field workers, than the more ambiguous, sociological and developmental approaches that are all I really knew to give them.
So I have some new tools for my toolbox!
Below is the survey we used. The questions are classified under the academic-ese categories we used in class but written somewhat playfully in ways we hoped would connect with this specific audience. What would you think if a grad student said they wanted to buy you coffee and hear your philosophy of life? While some said no, we were pleased that so many took us off on our offer. We did some of the interviews over email or the phone, but face-to-face seemed to work best with this group.
CONTEXT / SOCIAL STRUCTURE
1. Personal History: How did you get into Magic: The Gathering? Can you tell us your story?
2. Investment: In an ordinary month how much time and money to do you invest in Magic?
3. Networks and Relationships: How well do you know the other people who come? How many of them would you consider good friends? If you needed a favor, like someone to help you move, who would ask? How many of the people you play Magic with would help you?
4. Entertainment and Recreation: What other interests or activities would people who like Magic be “into”? What about you? What are some of the other things you like or ways you spend your time?
5. Influence: What are some ways you think being part of Magic: The Gathering and the Magic community has influenced you or affected your life?
6. Origin: Different people and cultures have lots of different ideas about how everything began. For instance, there’s the “Big Bang” theory, there’s the argument for intelligent design. It’s even been suggested that life began here when aliens came with a crystal containing all the essential components to generate life on earth. What do you believe is the most likely explanation regarding creation or how life began on earth?
7. Power: Is anybody in charge? Do you believe there is any ultimate force in control of the universe? How would you describe it? If there’s no ultimate force, what would consider the source or sources of power?
8. Destiny: Most of the world’s epic stories include some emphasis on destiny—the idea that our existence may have a purpose beyond what we can see. Other people just say you’re here today and gone tomorrow, and when you’re life is over, that’s all there is to it. Which perspective would best represent how you think? Or maybe you have another perspective all together that you’d be willing to share.
9. Problem/Solution: Every great story seems to have characters, tension, and conflict—some kind of problem that needs to be solved. Do you think there’s an ultimate problem in life that needs to be solved? What is it? What do you think is at the root of that problem or the cause of it? What does or would it look like to solve that problem? Is there any solution?
10. Truth: Many of the world’s most intellectually gifted, professionally accomplished, and artistically creative people have openly shared their perspectives about what they believe is true; not surprisingly, many of these perspectives conflict with one another entirely. How do you decide what you choose to believe? What factors are important in proving something? If someone told you something and presented it as a fact or a proven principle, what would you need before you could accept it as true?
11. Values: Do you think there’s only one standard for right and wrong, or is it just a matter or what’s right and wrong for me and what’s right and wrong for you? Or something in between? Imagine you’re at your favorite place to eat when suddenly, some guy you’ve never met before comes up and punches you in the face. Would you suggest that what just happened to you was wrong? Why or why not?
12. Is there anything else you’d like to share which we haven’t asked about?
a. Name, b. Age, c. Gender, d. City you live in