Chapter 11-I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide


I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide  

WHILE MAGIC HAD launched very much to a traditional, hardcore gaming public, haunting the hallways of convention centres in faded black T-shirts with their long-suffering elf maidens in tow, the game also fell into unexpected hands. Like many genre- busting products before it, it seemed to combine numerous elements in a synthesis that perfectly captured the zeitgeist and attracted a legion of disparate fans. The same startling newness that hooked me propelled the game initially to overground craze status. Its various facets appealed to the curious-minded from different backgrounds: traditional gamers were attracted to Magic’s mechanics, certainly, but there were also those attracted to the game’s art, like comic book fans, or those attracted to its collectability like trading card devotees or the increasingly visible post-modern collectors for whom pop-cultural ephemera were just as valuable as Penny Blacks. Like Dungeons & Dragons had done a generation before, Magic hit a nerve in the public consciousness that catapulted it – at least in its first flush of success – from dingy-game-store staple to legitimate mass phenomenon. By 1997, Wizards were even running television adverts for the game with the (admittedly less-than-sexy) catchphrase, “All you need is a deck, a brain and a friend.”  

It was the kind of pep talk I was giving myself, as I prepared for another move around the world. After two years of struggling to adapt to New Zealand, my family decided to return to Europe. Magic was the one souvenir I would take with me from my time in the Antipodes. My cards crossed the ocean, shipped in a metal container with all the remaining possessions we had, including cardboard-clad furniture that had been left unwrapped and lurking under our tiny wooden house in New Zealand. There had been too much of it to fit inside; an absurd sign of how life had shrunk from better times, receding rapidly into the past.  

France would be our new adventure. My parents had always imagined they would one day join the British exodus to rural Normandy in search of the good life. While the circumstances were now very different, the move held at least a latent appeal. It would not be easy financially, emotionally or linguistically. But it was something that appealed to some of us. I admit, more so to me, who had been learning French in school for years, than to my two little sisters. I, at 15, could at least harbour vague fantasies of louche Left-Bank loitering in some smug Parisian future. My sisters on the other hand found themselves in the situation I had been in when we left England – ripped out of schools they were settling into; leaving behind friendships that were becoming meaningful; heading to a country they had no affinity for. To say it was difficult for them would be an understatement.  

After a bleak winter in 1996, shuttling from rented house to rented house, our funds, hope and familial ties were all strained to breaking point. After trawling every notaire’s office in north-west France though, we eventually found a big old Norman farmhouse to call home. It was reassuringly solid after our New Zealand rabbit hutch and the furniture fit inside it at least. There was space enough for all us to have our own bedrooms, space enough for the cats (Tigger and Mrs Miggins, the other Kiwi souvenir we brought with us) and space enough for us to recover slowly as a family, gathered round a pulsating stove in the one room we could heat.  

It was located less in a place and more in a time. Some-when pseudo-medieval. An alternative 1996, shaped by a careening, off- course DeLorean. The hamlet we landed in was 50 per cent mud, 50 per cent peasants. It stank of slurry and mystery carcinogens from burning black plastic. The entire community was held together with bailing twine and the weather was rain. It did not seem. like fertile ground for a craze I imagined had entranced the world.  

At school, none of the kids I pushed my broken French upon had heard of Magic. A country so strangled by the conservatism of its republican dogmas has no room for genuine youth culture. Instead, the utilitarian blob of concrete I attended when I first arrived was full of wannabe adults into crap facial hair, leather jackets, tacky identity bracelets, snogging, cigarettes and mopeds; a pastiche of the provincial French lives they would grow into if they didn’t get the hell out of town – the life I might live if I didn’t get the hell out of there, too. I shuddered. And told myself it would all be very different when I was rapping philosophy with the other cats at the Sorbonne. In the meantime, I could only feel an odd twang of nostalgia for playing the game, day in, day out in New Zealand. Or imagine the game’s surging popularity in America, the epicentre of the card-quake that had rocked me and whose distant tremors were being felt in communities up and down the land.  

FIFTY MILES NORTH of New York City lies the wealthy Westchester town of Bedford. It is a place where affluent professionals, often from the media and entertainment industries, set up family homes at a comfortable distance from the five boroughs’ madding crowds. The prevailing political winds in Bedford and the cluster of villages that surround it are liberal, the inhabitants are well- educated and, for the most part, suburban serenity rules OK.  

In 1995 though, that tranquillity faced a mighty challenge as Magic arrived from the city like an urban pigeon blown off course. It landed in local playgrounds and quickly caught the attention of Bruce Dennis, the superintendent of schools in the Bedford district at the time. Dennis was in charge of operations at seven schools, spread out over 57 square miles and sat as chief executive on the citizen-elected board of education. On his beat were five elementary schools, including kids from kindergarten age through to 11-year-old fifth-graders; one middle school for children in grades six to eight and finally a high school catering to pupils up to the 12th and final grade. Magic was the latest craze, as popular in those playgrounds as it had been in mine in New Zealand, and in particular, it had captivated Pound Ridge Elementary School and Fox Lane Middle School. There, siblings of different ages who played together at home, showed off the awesome new game to their friends during the day.  

A knock at Dennis’ door from one of the parents of the Magic-playing children soon followed. The parent in question wanted Dennis’ permission to set up a Magic club on school premises, which would be supervised on a voluntary basis by parents of the kids involved. The idea was to make sure the Magic kids had a safe environment to play in, at no burden (hiring someone to oversee the club, for example) to the school district itself. Dennis’ own 11-year-old son had recently picked up the game so, being no stranger to it himself, he gave the club the go-ahead. Kids could take part with parental permission, and their Magic-playing would have to be kept separate from anything curricular. Dennis acknowledged the game might not to be to everyone’s taste and that some of the artwork might be labelled disturbing by certain parents, but he felt that overall, it was harmless fun. “It was a game with a lot of mathematical properties in it,” he says. “And the kids who tended to be drawn to it seemed to be the very bright kids who engaged in those kinds of things.” As long as kids had to opt into the club, he saw no harm in allowing Magic to have a home on school grounds.  

It was not too long before another knock – rapid, percussive and persistent — followed on his office door. This was the rapping of one Mary Ann DiBari, a local attorney and former nun, who was raising two grandchildren she had taken over custody of from her daughter. Her grandchildren attended Dennis’ schools and she had heard from them about the Magic craze sweeping the land. Now, she had urgent concerns she wanted to address to the local schools boss.  

A placatory Dennis convened a meeting to give DiBari’s concerns a fair hearing. The parent who had helped set up the Magic club attended, as did an education board member who was a psychologist. DiBari came, too, flanked by a psychologist of her own. “This game,” she told the meeting, “is dangerous, harmful to children and misogynistic. Bedford’s schools should not be associated with it in any way.” Unsurprisingly, her psychologist backed her play.  

A shrewd and experienced educator, Dennis asked for a day or two to mull over DiBari’s concerns. He returned with a decision that stunned all involved. “Bedford was a somewhat liberal community which abhorred censorship of any kind and would not take kindly to someone trying to restrict children’s access to a particular pattern of thought,” says Dennis. Nonetheless, in a move that took DiBari by surprise and startled Dennis’ friends and colleagues, he declared a 30-day moratorium on the playing of Magic on school grounds. He was, said upset parents on the pro-Magic side, “caving into a whacko.” But the Bedford schools boss thinks it was the best decision he ever made. It was up to him to take any concerns about safety at his schools – in this case backed up by a professional opinion — seriously. His analogy was simple: if someone told him the drinking water was unsafe, he would not just glug it and say, “Well it tastes fine to me.” No. He would switch it off at the mains and have it rigorously tested. And that is exactly what he proposed to do with Magic.  

Dennis contacted Wizards of the Coast and explained the situation Bedford Schools District found itself in. The game’s makers were sympathetic to his plight and supplied him with three complete sets of their product (much to the delight of his son who had. never seen some of the cards before). Dennis then distributed the sets to three different child psychologists with a list of questions. Dennis wanted to know if there was anything about the game’s images or content which would render it dangerous to school-age children, despite its playing on school grounds having been limited to kids with explicit parental permission.  

In the meantime, he had to deal with significant disquiet among local parents. Those with Magic-playing children were deeply unhappy at Dennis’ actions. Others, although not invested in the game itself, had seen little in Dennis’ three-year tenure to suggest he would capitulate to what they saw as a conservative, religious agenda. As pressure grew, Dennis remained calm: his decision had been strategic. And it was vital that he could put forward a solid case to assert the school’s right to allow the playing of the game to continue.  

One by one, the three psychologists reported their findings to Dennis. And one by one, they gave the game a clean bill of health. Armed with the results, a relieved and vindicated Dennis reported back to his bosses —- the seven-man, elected board of education. At a public meeting, he announced he could now safely recommend the continued playing of Magic on school grounds, under supervision and only by children given parental permission to do so. It was not the decision that DiBari had been expecting. Having been delighted at the initial ban, she now turned furiously on Dennis and let slip her real agenda. Clutching a bible in one hand while poking Dennis in the chest with the other, she issued an ominous threat: “I am going to bring you down,” she said, “as the superintendent who promoted Satanism in Bedford schools!” Not quite realising what he was getting himself into, Dennis replied with a cocksure quip. “Well,” he said, “give it your best shot!” War was declared. And Magic was on the frontline.  

FRANK ZAPPA’S RIPOSTE to would-be censors was concise and to the point: “I wrote a song about dental floss,” the irreverent guitarist once said. “But did anyone’s teeth get cleaner?” Nonetheless, Mary Ann DiBari was convinced that Magic wielded a real and menacing influence over its players. “In the game there was [the] Demonic Tutor with a pentagram on him and black leather and many other cards with an upside-down sword and a swastika,” she told media supportive of her cause. “The card game was an initiation into Satanism.”  

Determined to make good on her promise to oust Dennis, she then formed a group called the Association Against the Seduction of Children, along with her friend Ceil DiNozzi. Together, they managed to rally a small number of followers to their cause. Dennis estimates that a dozen or so (extremely vociferous) locals banded to the Association out of 45,000 people in the school district. But DiBari could count on the support of a wider conservative religious movement. That included The 700 Club (a prominent evangelical TV show), the Catholic Lawyers Association (an ambiguous group with no connection to the arch diocese), plus an array of pastors, pundits and partisan online outlets. All in all, it was an almighty stink – and, in September 1995, the crusading association hit national media headlines with a public meeting in Pound Ridge, where they denounced Magic.  

Around 300 people attended and police were called in to control the crowds. Actress Glenn Close, whose daughter was a pupil in Bedford District, even came out to show her support for the embattled educators and lent the event an A-list edge. The game’s supporters and detractors took to the microphone to air their concerns, while reporters from media including the New York Times scribbled frantic notes. Nothing sells papers like a good ‘Posh schools promote Satanism’ scoop. DiBari kicked things off accordingly: “Magic: The Gathering is steeped in the hidden language, imagery, signs and rites of at least 30 satanic cults in this country,” she said. “Moreover, it is a codification of the beliefs, practices and perceptions of the new Satanists of today. There are inducements in Magic: The Gathering to engage in destructive, cruel cult practices.” Outsiders to the district piped up in her support, including characters such as the pastor Steven Kossor, publisher of a newsletter for all those, ‘concerned about public education in America.’ As he would later write, the scenes he discovered in Pound Ridge disturbed him greatly: Upon arriving in Pound Ridge, I immediately noticed the street signs. A white arm, with a finger pointing, names each street. The only problem is that there are TWO fingers pointing on every street sign in Pound Ridge. The index finger and the pinky are both sticking out. For those of you who don’t know occult symbolism, that’s how you make the sign for the HORNED BEAST or SATAN… (Emphasis his own).  

In the face of such zeal, it took brave school kids to defend their hobby. One fifth-grader battled his nerves to announce ina quivering voice, “I play Magic, and I don’t want to sacrifice anybody or anything.” Unfortunately, that testimony fell on deaf ears. Mary Ann DiBari continued what Dennis described as, “a full-frontal assault against all aspects of our school district curriculum.” She had co-opted Magic as the thin end of a wedge. Her attacks on Magic became the launch pad for an attempted hijacking of Bedford schools’ curricula. Soon, DiBari was calling for prize-winning children’s books to be banned, attacking the schools’ drug and alcohol education programmes and slamming poetry-writing exercises given to children. Dennis resorted to inviting a Roman Catholic priest, who had previously performed exorcisms, to Bedford’s schools, to vet the libraries and make sure they were free of malicious demons.  

After a lull in hostilities during some of the 1995-1996 school year, Dennis was served with a court summons in October 1996. It alleged that he had violated 113 of the plaintiffs’ (DiBari was lead plaintiff) first and fourteenth amendment rights. The litany of complaints included Magic, but also featured bizarre and extreme objections to a variety of practices at Bedford schools. The ensuing legal battle took its toll on staff morale, cost the school district $500,000 to fight and made unlikely Court TV stars of Dennis and the district’s attorney. At acommunity meeting organised in the wake of the summons, 1,000 people came out to show solidarity for the under-siege superintendent and protest against the would-be censors riding rough-shod over the community’s values. “It’s interesting to note,” says Dennis, “that during a considerable time that this lawsuit was in place, the president of our board of education was himself a Presbyterian minister. I happen to be Jewish. And the area was itself a largely Christian, Roman Catholic community. The notion that a community such as that would be able to get away with anything of the sort that she alleged was kind of preposterous.” Thankfully, after a traumatic five-year trawl through the US legal system, even a very conservative judge could only find for the plaintiff on three of the 113 allegations. An appeals court overturned even these points. And, says Dennis, that was when DiBari “crawled back under her rock.” She had failed in her spurious quest to bring down the Magic-supporting superintendent.  

Despite his clash with the Association for the Seduction of Children, Dennis never cursed Magic, although the temptation when he was fielding 30 or 40 phone calls a day for much of 1995 and 1996, must have been hard to resist. Instead, Dennis says that Wizards of the Coast were extremely cooperative at every turn, despite Bedford never seeking financial or legal assistance from the company. That said, although healthily detached from the case, Wizards did look on with heightened interest at the scenes that played out on the other side of the country.  

While it was clear Magic had reached new and uncharted territories, the artistic freedom its aesthetic had been founded upon could clearly become a hindrance to wider success. With national chains on the brink of stocking the product, allegations of spreading Satanism were the last thing Wizards needed. As the game’s Fourth Edition came out, all cards referencing demons were dropped and an offending pentagram was clumsily removed from the card Unholy Strength. For a seven-year stretch from 1995, DiBari and co, while not successful in sterilising Bedford’s schools, put the willies up Wizards. No more cards referencing demons were released in that time, just in case we all turned out to be little card-playing Damiens. To Magic players’ credit, they proved they had better things to do than sacrifice goats: like contribute to a community that was springing up around their favourite game and, in some unwitting way, play a part in the wider cultural shifts that would, as of 2002’s Onslaught expansion, make demons an acceptable part of Magic again.