Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom - by Mike Fatum

One thing you'll hear me talking about a lot on this blog is how geek culture builds community. It's something that gets a lot of eye rolls from our readers (and some of our staff). Geek culture is a culture about stuff, they'll say. It's not about morality, or community, but just about people who like some of the same things. Mostly, they'll tell you, geek culture is about spending money. And yet, even a money grabbing scheme by the most "evil" of corporations can turn into an experience that brings people together.

Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom is a free - you heard me, free - collectible card game that you can access in the most popular of Disney World's theme parks, the Magic Kingdom. It's easy to miss - you have to take a sharp turn immediately upon entering the park and head into a brick firehouse, away from the beaten path. There, a helpful attendant will hand you a pack of random cards for everyone in your party, a key card, and a map of Disney World with strange symbols marked across it. You place the key card on a lock in the firehouse, and Merlin from the Sword and the Stone appears in a swirling portal.

He explains that some sort of magic crystal ball maguffin has been broken into many pieces, and that various Disney villains are out to get it back. Since you are a Sorcerer, would you mind battling the forces of evil and saving the Magic Kingdom?

You had me at Sorcerer.

My dreams realized at last.
Each of the cards has a different Disney character with a different special attack on it. You journey to different parts of the Magic Kingdom (only Tommorowland has no portals right now), hunt down the keys, and battle villains like Scar, Maleficent, Yzma, and the Shadowman. (And yes, Keith David does the voice.) Each villain has a "story" that follows you through three to four different locations in the park. Each location is hidden in some part of the backdrop - above, you can see how a fireplace used to hide one. Another is hidden in a wanted poster in Frontierland. Each one is revealed when you place the key card on the keyhole, and the battle begins. Each card you hold up, and there are at least 60 so far, creates a different animation depending on the character depicted. Lumiere lights the villain on fire with his candle. Prince Charming swings a sword around. Eve fires a directed laser blast. Your first round through, the nine villains you must face are easy to defeat, although it may take you more than one day to get through it all. On a second playthrough you can engage medium or hard mode, which will force you to use multiple spells at once. (You can play up to three at once, apparently that number used to be nine. Imagine all those animations flying at one time.)

Defeat of all nine villains rewards you with - wait for it - another pack of cards and the chance to go again on the harder difficulties. In other words, Disney has turned their entire park into one giant, Magic-the-Gathering-meets-Skylanders video game. But wait, there's more, and here's the part where you'll start rolling your eyes.

There are t-shirts you can buy that make your spells more powerful if you wear them. There's a tabletop card game (which is sadly way to easy) you can buy to play with your collected cards. And of course, there are super-rare, powerful cards you can only obtain by buying the full game. Not to mention the card folders, the holiday cards that are only available once and never again, and this starts to seem like less of a gift and more of a simple, corporate greed machine money grab.

So what made it different?

While you're wandering the park, battling evil, eventually you end up in a line. It's inevitable. There's a theme park, there's tons of people, you're just not going to be the only one to find a portal at any given time. So while you wait, hoping to not have your next battle spoiled by the kid in front of you, you start to chat with the newbies (those of us fumbling with our cards) and the veterans (the kids and grown adults with organized, color coded notebooks of cards). And what should be an arduous, boring line-wait turns into a gathering of like-minded individuals. The kind of people who would spend their time in a theme park pretending to be sorcerers rather than going on Space Mountain sixty times.

You know, geeks.

And as all of us newbies are pulling out our duplicate cards and trading, and all of the veterans are just giving their stacks of spare cards away, the most magical place on earth gets just a little bit better. You could look at this game as just a way to steal all of our money, and to some people in the Disney hierarchy, it probably is. But to us, it's a way to find other people just like us. And that truly is magical.

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