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A Game of Fantasy in Cards

01 May

For this project, I participated in a fantasy card game instead of the usual 52 card standard. I was able to play Cardfight!! Vanguard, which is not only a game but a whole franchise. It started out as an animated series which aired in January 8, 2011, followed by the card game in February 26, 2011, and ending with the manga series which began publishing in March 26, 2011 in Japan. The series continue to expand and ran until October 2, 2016, producing at least eight seasons and one live-action movie (Wikipedia).

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(One of the posters of the anime series. Source: cf-vanguard.com)

            I haven’t seen or heard of the franchise yet, so playing the game was a whole new experience. My key informant friend brought me to The Dragonforge. It is a quiet little area where card game and board game players alike go to play and challenge their friends or sometimes even strangers. The place was nice and cozy, at least to me, and it smelled nice, too. The place smelled really clean, it’s as if you can smell the detergent that was used but only mildly. The scent weirdly reminded me of a sterile hospital, but cozier and friendlier. The concrete walls were lined with so many different board games that one could possibly imagine. I saw the Star Wars variants, Warhammer, and which ever board game you can think of (including a few other games that I recognized fromchildhood) I believe would be found there. They vary from science fiction, to fantasy, to history and war. There were also glass cases filled with tiny game character figurines, to which my key informant pointed out that some of them were board game characters while some were for sale just like the cards and card decks found on the main glass-cased counters of the place. For the players’ convenience, the Dragonforge sells food and drinks as well as card decks and other game materials that one might need to complete a collection, in lack of a better word. It was relatively quiet in there save for the quiet chatter of the people and the humming of the air conditioner and refrigerator. The people there didn’t really mind me when we entered, but I got a few curious looks from my key informant’s friends. After explaining that we were there and that he was going to teach me his favorite card game, they all smiled and received me warmly, telling me that I was welcome to go to the Forge anytime and play whatever game I felt like playing.

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(Source: https://en.yelp.com.ph/biz/the-dragon-forge-quezon-city)

            Unfortunately, there were not too many people at the place when we arrived and not all of them played Vanguard so my friend decided to teach me the game by himself instead. He was able to teach me the basics of the game and the deck: how it is played, how to move and attack, support units, deck history (clans), how to spot attack power and defense, how to support your current unit, and more. I then found out that Vanguard is a game for two players only when a friend of his walked through the door and spotted us on one of the tables. My friend then proposed that I watch their game so I would better understand all of what he told me earlier.

The only evidence of my presence was during the first game was when they would address my concerns. The game does not really have a timer before a player’s turn ends, so it can be played in a relaxed pace. They would turn to me every now and then to explain what happened to the card or why the specific action was taken. They even expanded on their explanation on support units because it was really tricky to follow at first. When they played their second game, however, I became a friend who tagged along and quietly watched rather than someone who was learning the game and needed guidance. The second round gave me a better opportunity to observe the game mechanics and not as a participant. I was partially able to mentally apply what they told me about the game’s mechanics and understand how it works. I tried mentally justifying the actions that they made in-game despite the occasional confusion.

After a few matches played and a few questions answered by my key informant, I came to the conclusion that these games are not that common in Philippine culture due to certain circumstances, which leads me to the idea that only people of the upper middle class (particularly students) get to participate in these activities. I cannot say that these games are very common amongst the masses. If anything, the people who play these games are capable of knowing and hearing about them and have easy access to them as well. In addition to their easy access to these games, these people have also done extensive research about them just to ensure that they really are interested in the games. They read almost everything about these activities so that when they do get the chance to play, they do so ease. Most people do it for entertainment – they see or hear about it somewhere and try it for themselves. They found it enjoyable and have decided to continue playing. Some people do it because they find it cool and have decided to buy these materials as collections and proceed to save them for their own. Collecting these materials aid in satiating their desire for game memorabilia. Players make time to participate in games and matches not only because they want to but because they can afford to make time for these activities.

As much as I would hate to stay away from the topic of privilege for this study, I could not help but notice that the game that I was able to take part in is still tied to privilege. I may not know the demographic of the Philippine players of this game, but from the small scene that I have witnessed in The Dragonforge, I can already tell that the majority of players would come from the upper middle class. If building a deck already costs so much, why would someone who is already financially struggling continue to play a deck? Why would someone go through lengths just to continue playing a fantasy card game? I think the general rule here would be: if you can’t afford it, don’t. This does not apply to money alone, but time as well. In terms of time, too, I’m guessing that the majority of the Philippine population that play these games would be students. Not all adults have the time to play anymore. Should they have, however, they aren’t really interested in these kinds of games anymore. Whereas students actually make time because they want to play and enjoy their free time after a long period of hard work and studying, adults would have already preferred another hobby for themselves.


  1. What insights were gained from participation compared to just observing?

From this experience, I can say that participation provides an avenue for a deeper understanding of an event. Observing allows one to follow the event and make theories about how and why an incident happened while watching. One can get a good look at the players as well and try to decipher what they’re thinking about while in-game. Participating allows for the person to experience what it is like to be the player and test the theories that were made while observing. An observer is able to make out how a player feels; a participant will be able to feel the very same emotions that overcome a player while in the event – these emotions are one of the things that observers cannot personally grasp in real time. Participating gives you the chance to look into the mind of a player by being the player despite the individual differences. The commonest emotions that will be felt by every player will not be an exclusive thing.

  1. What did having a key informant add to your understanding?

Other than being a participant/observer, having a key informant to an unfamiliar event is a big help. The key informant was able to answer my questions and even point out things that I might have missed had I not paid any proper attention to the environment. His role was not exclusive to only the place, but also to the game. He really did teach me how to play and I took part in a few matches against him after his friend. As a first time player, I struggled remembering the rules and mechanics of the game, but I was also self-conscious because his friend was watching us play. We had one mock game before we played for real just to make sure that I know enough to continue. My key informant was kind enough to guide me through even while we were playing as well as his friend to make sure that my key informant was teaching me the right thing. We then proceeded to play three more matches before we decided to call it a day. He even told me about what kind of people frequent the place. I did not really point things out and ask him what they were about. For the most part, he answered all of my questions before I was able to even word them out.

  1. What was learned from participant observation at this event that a questionnaire or interview about it might miss?

What I really appreciated as a participant is the experience itself. A participant is able to delve into the experience first-hand and make better judgments about whether he enjoyed the event or not. All pre-conceived thoughts about an event are thrown out the window because these ideas don’t give enough justice to the event. For example, if someone else saw these people playing the card games, he would not understand nor know why they do so and will proceed to mock the game without knowing why these people play the card game, especially if he does not know anyone who plays the game nor does he see these games on a regular basis. Whereas if this same person walks up to them and engages the players in conversation regarding the game, he might have an idea as to why they enjoy playing card games. By observing them play, his earlier thoughts may have changed to a more logical one. If he wants to try playing the card game to feel the experience, test out some strategic theories for the game or just out of curiosity, his whole perception of the game may turn around completely. He might find that he did enjoy the card game and may try learning the basic mechanics on his own to play against someone soon. These thoughts and revelations are difficult to capture in questionnaires and interviews. The scale of emotions and ideas that run through someone’s head while reading or hearing the questions to the interview will be tricky to appreciate.

  1. For what purposes might a questionnaire or interview be better than participant observation?

While participant observation is a good medium for when one prefers a closer look and feel for the event, it is not the go-to method when one is looking for general information. A questionnaire or interview is best for demographic purposes: to which group of people do these games sell more and why? We can also use the questionnaire to ask for population: how many people play these games? How many people prefer this game/s? The questionnaire can deal with numbers and statistics that are difficult to acquire with participant observation. Interviews, aside from the statistic side of it, can be used to answer questions of personal preferences but have longer responses: why do they prefer this game? What makes it easier for them? Which was the easiest to learn? What made them interested in the first place? Which game do they find easier to play? Which game mechanics do they prefer? These methods are better suited for objective reasoning without much regard for the experience, concerned only about the results. These methods are best utilized when one requires results in a short period of time. A questionnaire or interview is able to produce quick results which are, for the most part, shortened answers from the participants that one has chosen, especially when one is dealing with a large number of people. Most of all, these methods can produce the answer to the question “Why?” better than any other method. While participant observation can make you feel why people partake in this activity, hearing and reading the answers from the players themselves make the reasons feel a lot more individual and unique.

  1. Using out cafeteria observation exercise as reference, what insights did you gain about Philippine society and culture from the event that you observed and participated in?

With regards to Philippine society, I find that the people who generally participate in these kinds of games are students from the upper middle class household. When I managed to quickly scan the Dragonforge, I saw an array of Ateneo students sitting with their own friends and having fun. I saw both high school and college students in the place: some high school students were still wearing their uniforms, while the college students still had their ID’s on. With regards to the fact that most of these students come from the upper middle class, my key informant told me about how players have to build their decks according to their playing style and strategies, and even build their clans (at least in the context of Cardfight!! Vanguard). He showed me both his deck and his friend’s where I then saw the differences between both decks. As simple as “building a deck” seems to sound, it is nowhere near simple. From your very first standard deck, you then go through a series of trading cards with other players and buying new cards to complete your collection. Building your ideal, personal deck takes so much time and is very costly. This gave me the idea that most (if not all) fantasy card players come from the upper middle class. The second reason is that these games are of foreign nature. For instance, Cardfight!! Vanguard is a franchise from Japan, Warhammer is an old board game hailing from the United States, and many others. These games are not the kind that you see in every store, so it may not come as a surprise if not everyone has heard of these games. Also considering that some of these games are untimely, the prices of these games might also be too much for those who have trouble affording the games. I, for example, have yet to see these board games on every game store that I have come across which already says a lot about the games’ accessibility. Even the card games seem so far from my reach because I don’t always see them on store windows. One might say that they are the “card games of the rich”, because they are not games that one can see in every household.

References:

“Cardfight!! Vanguard.” Wikipedia.com. Wikipedia. 25 Apr. 2017.

Renacia, Zeina Denise R.

SA21 – J

1 May 2017

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