I stand up and shake his hand. "You're one of my idols," he continues, "I love everything you do. Please keep up the good work."
The fan starts to walk away but stops a few feet later. He turns around. "Could I possibly get a picture with you? My friends will go ballistic."
"Sure," I say, "No problem."
I ask the man seated next to me if he could take the picture. He does, handing the phone back after he's done. The fan thanks me again and happily heads off. I then sit back down and return my attention to my iPad. I realize that the man next to me who took the picture is still staring at me. After about thirty seconds he blurts out—"Who the hell are you?"
My job has many aspects to it, but here's one I've never talked about before: I'm kind of famous. I need to quickly add the caveat that my fame is a very limited one. I'm a big fish in a little pond. I joke that I'm part-time famous. In the right circumstances, I shake hands and sign autographs and pose for pictures, but I don't have problems going out in public. I can shop for my groceries in peace. (This has somehow become the standard for the sign that I'm not too famous.) To most of the world I'm nobody, but to a small sliver I get to be somebody.
I bring this up today because I have an interesting vantage point that few people do. Not only do I have a little fame but I also used to work in an industry where I had a lot of opportunities to interact with what I'll call full-time celebrities. Today's column is me musing what celebrity means by comparing my interaction with celebrity from both sides of the fence. I hope it helps give you an insight in what it means to be famous.
In college, I started an improvisation troupe called Uncontrolled Substance. (Improvisation, or improv, is about making up scenes on the spot based upon audience suggestions.) One of the guys in the troupe was a man named Stewart Winter. While this was the first time Stewart had done improvisation, he had plenty experience with comedy. He wrote comedic bits, he had a comic strip in the college newspaper, and he did stand-up at the local comedy clubs in Boston (for those who don't remember, I went to school at Boston University). Stewart was very excited about stand-up and encouraged a number of the troupe members to try out our hand at it.
I went to an open mic night in the comedy club closest to the school. It went pretty well. I had always been a comedy writer and I'd done enough acting that I had a general sense of stage presence. I decided I needed a shtick to stand out, so my thing was lists: "The Other Forty-Five Ways to Leave Your Lover" (the song only told five), "The Top Ten Peeves of the Average Crew Member on the Starship Enterprise," "The Fifteen Pieces of Evidence from Christmas Specials That Santa Claus is A Jerk," etc.
With a little success under my belt, I was advised by Stewart to head out to Catch a Rising Star in Cambridge (that's where Harvard is). Stewart explained to me that this was the Mecca in Boston. If I could prove myself in the open mic night at Catch a Rising Star, that would be my on-ramp to doing stand-up comedy in Boston. It sounded like an exciting challenge, so the next Monday night I went and gave it, appropriately enough, an old college try.
I was second from the last to perform but it went well enough that I got asked back. For weeks, I would go up early in the morning, fine-tuning my act. Eventually, I worked my way into some good time slots. Now, understand that open mic nights are not just for new comics to try out but also for established comics to experiment with new material. So while us newbies were performing, we were being watched by the established Boston pros.
After my set one night, I got approached by one of the regulars. I'm not sure how big a name he was at the time. I just knew he was a professional who had the respect of the Boston comic community. His name was Louis C.K.
Louis was great. He liked what I was doing and gave me very instructive feedback. He pointed out what was working and what needed help. He didn't try to solve my problems as much as make them clear so I could solve them. This feedback went back and forth over many weeks.
Louis was someone who lived and breathed comedy. He spent time studying not just his own act but the act of everyone else. His insight into what I was doing right and wrong was fascinating in how precise it was. He knew things about my act that I hadn't begun to understand. Through all his coaching, Louis was very positive and helpful. I remember the time I had a great set and walked off to have Louis tell me I had done great. That is my personal highlight moment of my short stand-up comedy career.
The lesson I learned from Louis C.K. is basically the lesson Stan Lee had Spider-Man learn in the very first issue: "With great power there must also come great responsibility." Part of being a celebrity is giving back to the thing that brought you celebrity. A big reason I write this column is because I want to share my lessons with all the aspiring game designers out there. Just as Louis helped me start to build my stand-up chops, so too do I want to give all of you out there the beginning tools to become game designers. Celebrity is not just a perk, it's a responsibility.
I have one sibling, a younger sister named Alysse. Alysse has two children, the younger of whom is a nine-year-old boy named Josh. Recently, Josh got into Magic. He did what he always does when he first gets interested in a topic, he gets on the Internet and reads everything about it he can. Magic's a pretty deep rabbit hole, especially on the Internet, but that first day Josh read a significant amount. After spending hours reading, he walked into the family room where my sister was reading. "So," he said to her, "some people seem to like Uncle Mark and some don't."
This same scene happens time and again. I have friends or family members who are bored at work, Google my name, and dive in. Eventually, and usually it's not that long, they run across someone who's very aggressive in his or her dislike for me. The next time they see me, they go, "Did you see..." and fill me in on whatever tirade they read. As they repeat what they've read they start to get very defensive of me. How can I put up with that? How can they say the things they're saying? Do they even know me?
I then have to explain what it's taken me years to come to understand. There are good and bad sides to celebrity. Yes, there's the adoration, but there's also the venom. One of the side effects of celebrity is that you become fair game for whatever people want to say. Much of what will be said will be untrue, but some will be completely true. Some will be unfounded, some will be exaggerated, some will be brutally honest. Being a celebrity means you have become a target for all sorts of things; things you can neither control nor stop.
To heighten matters, I make an effort to read what people have to say, for good or for bad. I'm not ashamed to say I'll Google my own name to see what people are saying (and for some reason people still think of the Internet as being something private as opposed to something public—if you write about me, there's a decent chance I've read it). The lesson I've learned is that you have to have a thick skin. I've learned to take in stride the things that infuriate my friends and family. On top of that, I've come to realize that all the information is important, even that which attacks me. Every post is trying to say something and I try to look behind the language for the message.
Five years ago, I wrote a column about my time as a runner. A runner, also known as a production assistant, is the low person on the Hollywood totem pole. Basically, it's the job where you run around doing every task that's asked of you. One night, when I was a runner on the show Empty Nest, the task was to drive to the airport and pick up a guest star on that week's show—a comedian named Phil Hartman.
To understand the story I'm about to tell, let me fill you in on a few things about life as a runner. A runner's life is one of doing whatever is asked of you while keeping your head down. I got yelled at once (in a different runner job) for being "too visible." I was told that "people were noticing me doing my job." Yes, I was chewed out because I wasn't invisible enough. In general, runners aren't treated all that well. While the actors tended to not be outright mean (well, most of them—that's a whole different set of stories), they didn't pay much attention to you. There were actors whose lunch I delivered every day for months, whose scripts I would hand-deliver every night for months, who never even learned my name.
I bring this all up because what happened with Phil Hartman can only be appreciated in the context that I was living at the time. I interacted with a lot of actors during my Hollywood days. Phil Hartman was hands down the nicest actor I ever dealt with. For starters, he treated me like a person as opposed to some minion whose job it was to do his bidding. On the ride to the hotel, he asked me my opinion about the show and wanted my advice about the environment he was about to get involved in. For those of you who have never been a runner, I can only stress that all those things never happen.
Phil Hartman not only didn't ignore me but made an honest connection. When he would see me later in the week, he would stop and say hi and even have a short conversation with me. None of the actors on the show ever did that and I worked with them daily. For those who might not know the history of Phil Hartman, years later he was shot and killed by his wife. Phil Hartman's death was probably the second hardest I was ever affected by the death of a celebrity (number one is coming up). You wouldn't wish that kind of end on anyone, but especially not the nicest celebrity you ever met.
The lesson I took away from Phil Hartman was that celebrities had a choice to make. They could use that celebrity as a way to set themselves apart from other people, putting themselves above others, or they could use it as a means to connect with people. Inspired by Phil Hartman, I have definitely chosen the latter.
I am honored every time someone comes up to talk with me or asks for an autograph or asks for a picture. I get to do something I love day in and day out because of all the fans who spend their time and money on the game. I am always happy to talk to fans. I will always sign an autograph. I will always take a picture with someone. Please don't be intimidated. I try my hardest to live up to the bar set by Phil Hartman. I want every fan walking away thinking, "He's very nice." So please, I welcome interaction. I only ask that you be polite.
Many years ago, my wife Lora, my baby daughter Rachel (Rachel's now twelve, to give you some time frame for this story), and I were flying home on a plane from a trip. Lora and Rachel were across the aisle while I was sitting next to a young couple named Seth and Marisol. We started talking and I found out that the couple were newlyweds and they were coming to Seattle for their honeymoon. We talked a bit about weddings and I shared some stories about my wedding. (I talked about it in this column if you've never heard about my wedding.)
My wedding had a game theme, so eventually it came up that I worked for a game company. When they asked what game I designed, I told them Magic and they said, "No way. We play Magic!" I then explained that I was one of the designers of the game (this was years before I became head designer) and the groom realized that he knew who I was. He had read many of my articles. (At the time, I was the editor-in-chief of The Duelist and wrote several columns each issue.)
So what does one do when one meets newlywed Magic lovers on a plane going to their honeymoon? You make sure their honeymoon is as memorable as you can. From the airport, I drove them straight to Wizards and Lora, Rachel, and I gave them a tour. (Remember that Lora at the time worked for Wizards and, yeah, Rachel mostly looked cute.) We took some pictures and the newlyweds went on their way. I got a letter several weeks later from the groom (back then people would write letters on actual paper) who told me that the tour was one of the highlights of their honeymoon.
The lesson here is that part of being a celebrity is stepping it up from time to time. While I can't make every encounter the highlight of someone's vacation, I always remember to try and seize moments when I can. One of the perks of having my job is that I'm able to do things like this and make magic moments that don't always have to do with designing cards.
One of my responsibilities as a runner was to deliver packages. All the movie studios have their own lot around town and I spent a lot of time walking around lots delivering these packages. But there are many studio lots and most of them are pretty big, so I didn't know my way around many of them.
One day, I was sent to the Warner Brothers lot to deliver an envelope; I assume it was a script. The slip given to me by my supervisor said I had to find Building 33. Unfortunately, I had no idea where Building 33 was. Usually in a situation like this, I tended to think of it like a puzzle and try to see if I could figure it out with the information available.
The logic of the building numbers wasn't as obvious as I needed, so I turned to a map I had of the lot. The map wasn't particularly user friendly, so I found myself walking around shifting my gaze between the map and the lot around me. Eventually, I came up to a man standing in a courtyard. "Excuse me," I said, "I think I'm terribly lost. Do you have any idea where Building 33 is?"
It was then that I realized that my head was still buried in my map, so, trying to use my manners, I let the map drop to my side and I looked up at the man I had just asked to help me. It was Clint Eastwood.
In my head I was simply saying, "Oh my god, it's Clint Eastwood" over and over. It was then I realized that he was talking to me. Clint Eastwood was talking to me—and he was telling me how to get to Building 33. I held up my map and asked if he could show me.
Mr. Eastwood then repeated his instructions walking me through them on my map. When he was done, I said, "Thank you very much." He said, "You're welcome." He gave me the classic Clint Eastwood smile and walked away.
The lesson here was an important one for me. I believe people like to idolize celebrities, so we tend to think of them as being people outside the norm, but that misses the point that celebrities are just people. I kind of enjoy my encounter with Clint Eastwood because I feel like I caught a moment of the real Clint Eastwood and not the star.
I believe this is why I've spent so much time trying very hard through my articles and social media to be relatable. I don't want to set myself apart from the players, I want everyone to see that I am like them. I too came to Magic because it was a game I loved. I too value the community of the game and understand that it has brought relationships to my life. I see Magic as something much more than just a bunch of cards.
As I grapple with my own celebrity, I want to stand up for the values I hold dear. I want to be someone adding positive value to the community. I don't want to distance myself from all of you, but rather make myself accessible. That's a big reason I do so much social media. It's one of the reasons I read everything sent to me. So please, don't be afraid to connect with me through whatever means you are most comfortable with. I do want a dialogue with as many of you as I can.
My friends and family find my celebrity very entertaining. For example, many of them have learned that if they meet a diehard Magic player and let that player know that they know me, they tend to get a big reaction out of the person. My mother, for example, will never grow tired of telling Magic players that she's my mother, and hey, one of the perks of being a parent is being proud of your children, so good for her. If, by the way, you ever meet my mom, tell her thank you for being so supportive of all my game playing as a kid.
Can you guess the thing that impresses strangers the most? I often get into conversations with strangers about what I do. Assuming they've never heard of Magic before (which a lot of people still haven't), what is the one thing that always seems to excite people when it comes up? The fact that I have a Wikipedia page. (Here, if you've never seen it.) Somehow, in this day and age, that has become the litmus for baseline celebrity. For example, I'm listed on the Wikipedia page for famous Jewish Americans because I have the lovely combination of having a Wikipedia page and being both Jewish and American.
I bring this stuff up because I want to touch upon the fun sides of celebrity. It's neat to get recognized every once in a while. It's thrilling to have people be very excited to meet you. It is, in fact, awesome to have a Wikipedia page. I don't want to portray celebrity as being some great burden. There are plenty of perks and I just want to be upfront that I do enjoy them.
No setup I can do can top the picture I'm about to show you. So, just
Yes, that is Jim Henson. During my runner days, I worked on a TV special called Forty-Five Years of Television. The special showed clips from throughout television's history. The clips were introduced by a series of stars. Two of those stars were Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy.
Because Kermit was going to be there, the producers of the special had a cameraman come to the set. Everyone brought their children to get a picture with Kermit. My instruction to the cameraman was that I didn't mind if Kermit was in the shot but I wanted to be photographed with Jim Henson.
You see, Jim Henson was one of my idols. (And yes, his death was the celebrity death that hit me the hardest; I was in actual denial for about an hour.) I was so excited to meet him. We ended up talking for about a few minutes. During that time, I asked the one question I had always wanted to ask. What was that question? In the movie It's a Wonderful Life, there are two comedic characters, a taxi driver and a cop. Their names were Ernie and Bert. Were the Muppets named after them? Mr. Henson said that he'd been asked that a lot and that no one did it consciously but he agreed that there probably was a subconscious connection.
My talk with Jim Henson was one of the most exciting times of my life. I will go to the grave remembering and cherishing that one moment in time. The lesson here is that not only is celebrity exciting for me but it is also exciting for the person I'm meeting. I'm no Jim Henson, but I've come to realize that many people who meet me are generally very excited. I want to make sure never to diminish or disrespect that excitement.
I'm going to end today with my most humbling moment of celebrity. I know when you think of humility, I'm not exactly the first name that comes to mind. Or the second. Okay, I'm not on the top half of the list, but if you look down a bit, I am on the list. Near the end. Anyway, this last story took place a couple of years ago.
From time to time, we will have a visitor through a program like Make-a-Wish. For those unaware of these programs, they help fulfill the wish of a terminally ill child. I have made it not only my policy to help out on every visit but to actually play the host. From greeting to farewell, I'm there. Part of doing this task is helping plan the event so we are maximizing the visit. One of the things I always ask the liaison is to find out if the visiting child has anything he or she really wants to do. Our goal is to make this as memorable as possible and, as I've learned in my job, the best way to know what someone wants is to ask the person directly.
I'm talking with the fellow employee working with the family and I ask if she's enquired what the boy wants to do. "Yes," she says, "He has only one request. He wants to meet you."
I've talked before about the illness my daughter Rachel had when she was younger. (Here, if you've never read about it.) Rachel's all better now, having outgrown her kidney condition, but for a while we had to live with a sick daughter who had an illness with a mortality rate. I have faced no fear greater in my life than the fear of losing my daughter. This means I'm extra sensitive to sick children.
This child got a chance to make one wish. He could have wished for anything. I know Make-a-Wish has set up meetings with presidents and movie stars; they've created giant events and involved cities of people. The entire idea behind this is to let the child dream big. So when that wish boiled down to "I'd like to go to Wizards of the Coast and meet Mark Rosewater," it hit me pretty hard.
I had no idea when I set down the path to become a game designer that one of the elements of it would be celebrity. I enjoy writing and I enjoy interacting with the audience, but celebrity was never an end goal. I'll be honest. Part time-fame is pretty fun. I get a taste of real celebrity without most of the drawbacks, but it came along with something that it took me a while to understand.
When I talked about how we set up magicthegathering.com, I explained that communication classes had taught me that people connect not to ideas but to people. To help humans connect with a thing, you have to give that thing a human face for the person to connect with. Along the way, I've become one of the faces of Magic, which means that when people want to have an interaction with the game, I'm one of the things they turn to because they want the interaction with a person.
I've essentially become Magic personified, which is a huge responsibility. Luckily, if there was one thing in the world that I had to be associated with, Magic would be it. Nothing has brought more happiness to my own life. It's provided me with a dream job, it introduced me to my wife and most of my friends, it feeds my children, and I honestly believe it does great good for the world. I am honored to be one of the faces of Magic and I will step up whenever Magic needs to have a human form.
It's a huge responsibility but one I've embraced wholeheartedly.
I talk a lot in this column about game design, but not as much about being a game designer. People are focused on their interests and as such have a desire to understand how the things they love are made. This shines a spotlight on the people making games. Some companies shun the spotlight and some embrace it. At Wizards of the Coast, we've decided that part of the game (or metagame, if you will) is being involved in how the game is made.
We don't want to be a mysterious black box that spits out expansions. We want you informed and involved because we believe strongly that this information enhances your experience with the game. A side effect of this is celebrity, which is what got me to write this topic in the first place (that and I got to write some cool stories about meeting celebrities). You want to know what designing Magic is like? This celebrity is part of it.
I know this column was a little off the beaten path, but I hope you enjoyed it. Feel free to respond by email, this column's thread, Twitter, Tumblr, or Google+ to give me your thoughts on today's column and continue having this dialogue.
Join me next week when the talk will be standard issue.
Until then, please don't be afraid to say hi if you see me.