What led you to select Get Your Game On as the location featured in your paper?

I had gone there a couple of times before and had always just seen it as an independent video game store, which was interesting to me because I had heard for years that digital distribution was killing off brick-and-mortar video game retailers. Even behemoths like GameStop are slowly shuffling toward irrelevance, so I wondered what made this little store so special that it had survived for so many years.

What was your favorite thing about this space?

My favorite thing about the store was that it served as the central gathering place of a specific culture and community, not just a place where people came to buy things. Get Your Game On was the place where Magic players from all over the area came together to talk, trade, and play, which enabled exchange between otherwise unrelated groups of players.

Did you attend any of the Magic events?

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make it to the store during any gameplay sessions.

Did anything about your observations surprise you?

I was most surprised by what happened after my observations were complete. I came back from winter break and the whole store was cleared out, with a sign posted on the door saying the store was closed for good due to unexpected events. A manager I talked to during my observations just a few weeks earlier seemed confident that the store was doing well, and I didn’t see anything to suggest that the store was struggling. I was and still am very curious to find out what happened but - to the best of my knowledge - there hasn’t been any communication since from the proprietors about what led to the store’s demise.

 

Gathering for Magic at Get Your Game On

Paper by Sam Greenburg 

Instructor: Krisztina Fehervary, Associate Professor of Anthropology


I visited Get Your Game On, a store which sells video games, board games, and Dungeons and Dragons, Warhammer, and Magic: The Gathering products. I observed for about three hours on two Saturday evenings, a Friday afternoon, a Wednesday afternoon, and a Monday evening. I interviewed a manager about various aspects of the store, including interior design and product layout, the demographics and behaviors of the clientele, and the business model and product decisions. Get Your Game On caters primarily to a community of dedicated Magic: The Gathering Players, who occupy a vital position within the physical space, culture, and economy of the store.


ETHNOGRAPHIC DESCRIPTION

Get Your Game On is located on State Street next to Roasting Plant. This location places Get Your Game On well within the larger community space of the University of Michigan, as it is right across from the diag and near other stores such as Espresso Royale, Walgreens, and Starbucks which receive traffic mainly from University of Michigan students. Get Your Game On clearly has its own symbolic identity, with the name of the store out front in its signature lettering, but there is little to brand the store as a place of or for the Get Your Game On brand. The façade of the building looks like some sort of Romanesque pagoda and was clearly designed for some other purpose for a previous tenant. The walls are made of exposed brick and wood painted dull yellow and bright blue. The floor is made of wood, which looks well-worn. The walls and floor do not stand out and do not seem to convey any meanings specific to Get Your Game On. Rather, the physical bounds of the shop store are unintrusive and fade into the background so customers can focus on what is inside.


The products are arranged on racks and shelves along the walls of the store. In the front of the store on the left (when facing toward the back of the store) are most of the video games, arranged by system on shelves. These are all used games purchased from customers who come into the store to pawn their games. Most of the games on this wall are for PlayStation and Xbox systems, with PS3 and Xbox 360 games predominating. Each section is labeled with a title card with the system’s logo on it. These title cards appear to have been created by the store itself, rather than provided by the console manufacturers. Most games are placed with the spine of the box facing out, but some have the front of the box facing out, taking up much more space on the shelf. The manager explained that these games are “staples” which are popular for their respective consoles. Above these games, closer to the ceiling, are an assortment of games and accessories for PlayStation and Xbox consoles. On smaller racks, aligned next to the front windows, are games for Wii systems, and on another rack, facing the large rack on the wall, are games for older consoles from the 70s-80s. In the front of the store on the right are the board games, arranged on shelves affixed to a large rack along the wall. The board game selection is diverse, with some “regular” games and some “nerd” games. I define “regular” games as classic or family-focused games, like Clue or Monopoly, which are played and recognized by a large variety of people and do not take inspiration from tabletop role-playing games or collectible card games or signal involvement in a “community” of board-gamers. “Nerd” games, on the other hand, are often newer games with specific “authors” and which involve complex historical or fantasy worlds, take inspiration from tabletop role-playing games, video games, collectible card games, and geek culture in general in their settings, mechanics, marketing, or purchase and distribution models, and are played specifically by “gamers”. Examples of “nerd” games include Settlers of Catan, Pandemic, and Scythe. The manager explained that the video games and board games are in the front of the store because the “public” – meaning the majority of people who visit the store, and who do so infrequently and are not involved with the larger community that gathers in the store - mainly come to the store for video games and board games, so it is prudent to have the products they are looking for visible as soon as they walk in. The manager contrasted the “public” with the “regulars”, who, according to him, make up the minority of the customers but account for the majority of the store’s revenue. The “regulars” are mostly Magic: The Gathering enthusiasts who visit the store frequently to buy, trade, or sell cards, discuss the game with employees and other customers, and play Magic at events which the store hosts multiple times a week. According to the manager, the products that the “regulars” come to buy are in the back of the store to encourage the “regulars” to gather there so that the “public” will not be intimidated by the “regulars” when they walk into the store. This intentional segregation strategy appears to be effective; in my time in the store, the “public” customers never ventured past the front of the store, and the “regular” customers all gathered in the back. The language the manager used to refer to these two groups of customers is also notable; “the public” suggests an indivisible mass of outsiders, while “regulars” suggests individuals who are part of the fabric of the store.


In the middle of the store, on the left, is one edge of the glass counter separating the customer area from the employee area. Within this section of the counter are rare, highly prized, and new video games. Behind the counter is a TV displaying album art from whatever music is being played. The employees always play music from video games, usually from Nintendo games like the Legend of Zelda and Smash Bros Series. Across from this part of the counter, on the right side of the store, is a Coca-Cola refrigerator with a few bottles of soda and an “Out of Order” sign taped on the front and a small shelf with a few bags of Fritos and Lays and an open box of Rice Krispies Treats.


In the back the store, there are four sections. On the right (moving towards the back of the store), there is an enclave holding old video game cartridges for a variety of systems, guidebooks for various games, and accessories for retro consoles, then an enclave with Dungeons and Dragons dice, figures, expansion packs, and game sets, and star wars action figures, then an enclave with Warhammer products, including expansion packs, starter packs, and paints. On the left is the main stretch of the counter and the employee area behind it. Behind the counter are about a dozen Magic: The Gathering posters hung up on the wall, shelves with boxes of Magic cards, some in the retail boxes from the manufacturer but most in open cartons organized by the employees according to what expansion the cards are from, and various computer monitors and other computer gear waiting to be repaired or picked up from repair. Within the counter are dozens, probably hundreds, of Magic cards and Magic card-sized slips of paper with the words, “NOW BUYING [insert card name here]” arranged in no discernible pattern.


There was a great degree of homogeneity to the people I observed in the store, both employees and customers. Out of about 90 people, I observed 5 females and 85 males, and about 5 South Asians (all male), 2 black people, and 83 white people. The vast majority of customers and employees appeared to be in their 20s-30s. Counting only those identified as “regulars” through their interactions with other customers (talking about Magic) there were only two females (one was an employee) and 0 black people. The manager told me that the store’s Magic community was “multiracial” and about 90% male, though from my observation both of these assertions seem a bit optimistic from a diversity perspective. The “regulars”/Magic players I observed were about 98% male and about 94% white (with only one other race represented, not multiple). The race and sex demographics of the store clearly influenced the behavior of the customers. I observed one white “regular” say to another that the live-action Lion King movie only got made because black people will buy anything with Beyonce and Donald Glover in it. This comment was clearly meant as an insult to both the new Lion King movie and black people. The two black people who visited the store during my observations stayed for no more than 30 seconds before walking out, the shortest stay of any of the dozens of customers I saw in the store. Most amusing was the reaction of a group of (male) “regulars” when two female “regulars” walked into the store. They all immediately stopped talking to each other to look up at and greet the girls, something they had never done when male “regulars” walked into the store. It was clear that the arrival of these girls was a momentous occasion. Everyone started talking much more quietly and one guy seemingly tried to hit on one of the girls, asking what classes she was taking (school was never a topic of discussion among the regular during my time at the store; only Magic) and trying to make conversation for a couple more minutes before giving up. Not only was the store homogenous in terms of sex and race, but also in dress and speech. Most of the people in the store, both employees and customers, wore a variation of a specific outfit: a grey beanie, a scruffy beard, a faded cotton sweatshirt with no logo or graphics, loose, light-blue jeans, and hiking boots or $40 Nikes. Many customers had what I can only describe as a “geek voice”. They just spoke in a way which immediately identified them as geeks, although I do not have the linguistic expertise to define what qualities of their voices made them sound that way.


The manager explained to me that the employees at Get Your Game On are enthusiasts who are deeply knowledgeable about and interested in the products they sell, mainly Magic cards and video games, and that this enthusiasm is the main quality they look for in employees. Other qualities, particularly the assertively friendly behaviors known as “customer service”, were notably absent. In one of my visits to the store, none of the employees talked to me even once as I wandered around the store for an hour. I have learned from my own experience in retail, both as an employee and a customer, that customers should always be greeted and asked if they need assistance when they walk in the store. From my perspective, it is nothing short of miraculous that I walked back and forth in front of multiple employees for an hour and none of them said a word to me. I have also been taught that I should under no circumstances pass the time by looking at my phone when on the shop floor, as it is “rude” and shows that my attention is not entirely devoted to the customer. However, at Get Your Game On, when they were not assisting customers or processing inventory, the employees spent all of their time watching videos or reading things on their phones or on the store computer while customers were right in front of them. I did not feel neglected when the employees did not pay attention to me, though I did not feel actively invited. Rather, I felt that this made the employees seem more authentic and relatable, because they were doing what every sales clerk would do if they were not instructed to perform “customer service”.


The most interesting part of my time at Get Your Game On was observing the social interactions between the “regulars” at the back of the store. For them, Get Your Game On is not a place to buy things, but a place to meet up and socialize with their friends. It was clear from both my own observation and the testimony of the manager I talked to that most if not all of the “regulars” know each other, or at least some of the others. The vibe at the back of the store is reminiscent of a bar or coffee shop. Sometimes it literally looked like the interior of a bar, with customers leaning on the store counter looking at and holding Magic cards as they talked, as one would lean on the counter of a bar and look at and hold beer. For the “regulars”, Magic The Gathering is their beer; it is the substance that brings them together in their own social space and “lubricates” their social interactions. Unlike beer at a bar however, or coffee at a coffee shop, Magic The: Gathering at Get Your Game On is usually the topic of conversation. “Regulars” discuss everything there is to discuss about Magic; cards, decks, expansions, match formats, rules and mechanics, results of past tournaments and locations and times of upcoming matches and tournaments, and other players within the community. The “regulars” clearly have a deep and extensive knowledge of all aspects of the game.


POLITICAL/ECONOMIC HISTORY


Get Your Game On was established in 2007 in a building on Packard Road in Ann Arbor where the Grillcheezerie now is. According to its website, the store moved to the current location in 2011. There used to be a second store, in Canton I believe, but any mention of this store has since been removed from the store’s website and the manager did not offer any information about it. I assume that this second store was shut down recently, as the website listed the second store under the “locations” tab until a few months ago. None of the products in the store are made by employees of Get Your Game On. New games are bought from outside distributors, while used games/accessories are purchased directly from customers. Pricing of used games is determined using price-tracking websites. The employees check the market value of a used game or Magic card on the website and set the price accordingly. While Get Your Game On does not manufacture any of their products, the employees do perform the labor of curating their product selection, choosing which new products to stock and how to display products.


ANALYSIS


Get Your Game On helps consumers appropriate the commodities it sells by providing consumers with a space to form social interactions and relationships based on those commodities. As James Carrier (1993, p. 63) explains in “The Rituals of Christmas Giving”, Christmas shopping transforms commodities into gifts because the act of choosing a specific item reflects (and reproduces) the personal relationship between the giver and the receiver. Christmas shopping “demonstrates that we can celebrate and recreate personal relationships with the anonymous objects available to us” (Carrier, 1993, p. 63). Similarly, for the “regulars” at Get Your Game On, whose social interactions in the store revolve around the discussion of Magic: The Gathering, Magic cards as “anonymous objects” are a device through which social relationships are formed and reproduced. Get Your Game On facilitates this process of appropriation by providing “regulars” with a space in which to discuss Magic.


For the “public”, who come to Get Your Game On infrequently, usually to buy a low-priced used video game, very little must be “sacrificed”. Choosing a game does not require a large outlay of time or money, nor does playing such games. For the “regulars”, however, who come to the store frequently to buy, sell, trade, and discuss Magic cards and participate in frequent Magic competitions at the store with paid entry fees, a large amount of time and money is sacrificed (the manager told me that the Magic players are only about 20% of the customer base but account for 80% of the store’s sales). For the “regulars”, Magic cards, Magic competition entry fees, and time spent in the store discussing Magic become mandatory purchases not because of aggressive marketing, but because these costs are necessary for continued participation in their social community and the reproduction of their status among and relationships with other players. As Michael Schudson (1986, p. 133) explains in chapter 4 of Advertising, The Uneasy Persuasion, people’s perceptions of what they need are influenced by their social standing and membership in certain social groups. Just as “An upper-middle-class professional may feel that her or she requires fresh ground coffee daily because, in that person’s social circle, it would be discreditable no to have it” (Schudson, 1986, p. 133), the “regulars” at Get Your Game On “need” to continuously visit the store to learn about Magic, buy cards, and play in competitions because it would be discreditable to have poor knowledge of the game, a weak deck, or poor competitive skills and it would alienate them from their social circle if they did not regularly gather with the Magic community in the store.


Get Your Game On intentionally and effectively delineates certain types of people and segregates them from each other with the arrangement of the products on the shelves. The “regulars” are kept to the back of the store by the presence of the Magic cards there, and the “public” are kept to the front of the store by the presence of the video games and board games there, as well as the groups of “regulars” talking loudly about Magic in the back of the store. It is the “regulars” themselves, and their interactions with each other and the employees that are most effective in excluding the “public” in general and other groups more specifically from the store. Firstly, it is intimidating to walk into a place you are not familiar with and see a bunch of people talking with each other about something you know nothing about. This communicates that these people are part of a social group, and you, as the person unfamiliar with Magic: The Gathering, are part of the outgroup and do not belong. The employees participate in and validate this ingroup/outgroup dynamic by speaking the same “language” as the Magic players as they discuss cards, deck builds, and controversies involving the game with each other and the customers, and by not approaching and speaking to “public” customers to welcome them to the store. The dress, speech, and grooming of the “regulars” and employees also clearly separate them from the “public”. I could, with great accuracy, determine immediately if a customer was a Magic player or not by how he dressed and groomed his beard. It is clear that the dress of the “regulars” is of great importance. Their “uniform” of beanie, scruffy beard, old cotton sweatshirt, light baggy jeans, and cheap Nikes reads as anti-fashion; the message conveyed by their dress is that it does not matter. The dress of the “regulars” is reminiscent of the white robes of the WeChishanu apostolic Christians described by Matthew Engelke (2005, p. 126) in “Sticky Subjects and Sticky Objects: The Substance of African Christian Healing” whose simple clothing is meant to symbolize a dedication to the immateriality of their Faith; “The robes are a clear statement that they should not matter”. Engelke (2005, p. 127) notes, however, that the material simplicity of the robes, in their cut, color, and fabric, is paradoxically what symbolizes this immateriality. Similarly, it is the anti-fashion boringness of the Magic players’ clothes and beards which loudly identifies them as members of a hardcore geek community. Just as the simple, identical garb of the WeChishanu are meant to make it difficult to distinguish rich from poor (Engelke, 2005, p. 126), the uniform dress, grooming, and speech of the “regulars” made it essentially impossible for me to infer differences in social class between individuals. However, given the large amount of money the “regulars” have to spend on Magic cards, the status of many of them as University of Michigan students, and their frequent use of “nerd” phrases such as “non-zero percent chance”, I assumed that the “regulars” were, as a group, of a higher socioeconomic class, likely the children of the “Professional-Managerial Class” of “doctors, lawyers, professors, engineers, teachers, nurses, social workers, and middle-level managers” (Rosenblatt, 2013, p. 596). The “regulars’” membership in this class (along with their race and gender) has significant implications for how they are “allowed” to dress. As Tressie McMillan Cottom (2013, p. 3) explains in “Why Do Poor People ‘Waste’ Money On Luxury Goods?”, poor people, particularly poor black women, need to dress in nice clothes and groom themselves well because they are assumed to be “unacceptable” for employment otherwise, whereas white men (like the “regulars” at Get Your Game On are presumed to be “acceptable” no matter how they dress. The speech and voices of the “regulars” are particularly notable as a reliable means of signifying membership in a specific group, as ways of speaking are an accumulated form of cultural capital (Holt, 1998, p. 216) which, unlike clothing or Magic cards, cannot be bought and must instead be learned through long-term immersion in a particular social or status group. The store was clearly unwelcoming to women and black people, though this did not seem to be intentional and was primarily a product of the appearance and behavior of the “regulars” and employees. The two black people who walked out within 30 seconds appeared clearly uncomfortable, and the two female “regulars” were ironically “othered” by how enthusiastically they were welcomed into the store.


The branding in Get Your Game On is not heavily regimented. Unlike at Gamestop, which has a very noticeable Gamestop brand and sections of the store dedicated to branded displays of products from different console manufacturers, the video games at Get Your Game On are more “labeled” than they are “branded”. There are signs signifying where the Xbox, Playstation, and Wii games are on the shelves, but these signs are made by Get Your Game On using a regular home printer and games and consoles from different manufacturers are shelved right next to each other. At Gamestop, on the other hand, each console manufacturer has its own corner of the store, and at Best Buy, each console manufacturer has its own aisle, and products sections are denoted by official-looking placards and signs from Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo. Most of the games for older consoles at Get Your Game On, while arranged by system, are not even labeled with a sign indicating what the system is. The most prominent manufacturer branding at Get Your Game On comes from Magic: The Gathering, which is fitting as this game is the most important for the store’s community and bottom line. There a five large Magic banners behind the counter and numerous prints of art from the game hanging on the walls, but the cards themselves are arranged almost solely in open containers provided by Get Your Game On, not in branded boxes from the manufacturer. The effect of this light brand regimentation is that the store does not seem like a “Magic: The Gathering store” to those unfamiliar with the Magic community that gathers there, but the presence of the posters and Magic cards laid out in the counter provide enough visual information to those familiar with the game to know that Get Your Game On is a welcoming place for them.


Get Your Game On is clearly producing and nourishing geek culture, specifically the geek culture of Magic: The Gathering players. Get Your Game On unifies the Ann Arbor area Magic community by providing smaller groups of Magic players a place to play with other groups. Groups of players who otherwise be isolated from each other and possibly develop their own customs, beliefs and opinions about the game, strategies, and valuations of different cards and deck compositions are brought together within the store to share with other smaller groups of Magic players, thus increasing the homogeneity and mutual understandings and values between the different groups of Magic players within the area. Get Your Game On informs the Ann Arbor area Magic community because it provides a space for Magic players to inform each other by sharing and debating their knowledge about different cards, decks, and strategies. Get Your Game On implicitly (and explicitly) directs the Ann Arbor area Magic community to buy, sell, and trade Magic cards and frequently participate in large competitions by hosting competitions and buying, selling, and providing space to trade cards.


Get Your Game On is two different stores to two different groups of people. To the “public” it is just another store that sells board games and used video games, like Vault of Midnight and Gamestop. To the “regulars”, however it is the center of a community of Magic: The Gathering players in the Ann Arbor Area, with no other stores to compete. The layout of the store, the employees, and the “regulars” themselves, through their social interactions about Magic and their dress, grooming, and speech, all contribute to making Get Your Game On a welcoming place to the “regulars”, and in doing so, carve out their own niche near the University of Michigan campus. The presence of the “regulars”, however, and in particular their racial and sex homogeneity and the membership of the store’s employees within their ranks, likely contributes to making certain groups of people, particularly black people and women, feel unwelcome in the store. I would be interested to visit Get Your Game On again and see if the presence of black people and women within the store, and more specifically within the ranks of the “regulars”, is really as rare and fleeting as it seemed during my observations.

References

Carrier, J. (1993). The Rituals of Christmas Giving. In D. Miller (Ed.), Unwrapping Christmas (55-74).


Cottom, T. M. (2013, November 1). Why Do Poor People ‘Waste’ Money On Luxury Goods? TalkingPointsMemo. Retrieved from https://talkingpointsmemo.com/cafe/why-do-poor-people-waste-money-on-luxury-goods


Engelke, M. (2005). Sticky Subjects and Sticky Objects: The Substance of African Christian Healing. In D. Miller (Ed.), Materiality (118-138).


Holt, D. (1998). Does Cultural Capital Structure American Consumption? (212-248).
Rosenblatt, D. (2013). Stuff The Professional-Managerial Class Likes. Anthropological Quarterly, 86(2), 589-624.


Schudson, M. (1986). An Anthropology of Goods. In, Advertising, The Uneasy Persuasion (129-146).