Meet Mark Rein-Hagen, Tbilisi’s Resident Game Master

We live in troubled times. Technological changes are drastically altering the global economic landscape, and not in ways that obviously benefit working people. Gone are the post-war fixtures of large industries, generous benefits, and healthy annual wage hikes. As innovations in telecoms and robotics make more professions obsolete, the phrase “job security” sounds more like sentimentality than reality. Young people around the world are struggling to find their place in an economy that seemingly doesn’t want them.

But there is a silver lining amidst all the gloom and doom. The new, post-industrial economy creates as much as it destroys, and the internet has opened limitless doors for creative, enterprising, tech-savvy individuals. Fortunately for Tbilisi-based role playing game creator Mark Rein-Hagen, he came to understand the creative economy long before it became a cliche.

“Any job worth doing requires creativity. If you’re creative, you’ll be able to do anything,” Mark tells me as we chat in the office that doubles as his apartment. Two employees type away on computers. Role playing games, cards, children’s toys and books in several languages – both fantasy and non – give the room an air of comfortable clutter.

Mark learned early in life that he wanted to spend his life creating role playing games and fantasy content. The beginning of this story, in fact, is a cliche itself. One weekend, the then-adolescent’s father (a small-town Minnesota Lutheran minister and theologian) invited a colleague over for Sunday dinner. After the meal the guest asked if father and son would like to play Dungeons and Dragons. Father approved, and son never looked back: “I knew at that exact moment what I wanted to do with my life. I immediately started designing my own adventures. I started what is now my career.”

Mark Rein-Hagen had a dream, and that was to go to Hollywood, work as a writer, and see his boundless imagination come to life on screen. Most people struggle well into their 30s before finding professional success, if ever. Success came fairly early for Mark Rein-Hagen. His first release, a role-playing game called Ars Magica, came during his undergraduate studies at Saint Olaf College in Minnesota. It took him nine months to create.

In 1991, four years after his debut release, he dropped a bomb on the gaming industry. His second game, Vampire: The Masquerade, became an instant fixture in the RPG canon and left a lasting mark on the entertainment industry. When asked about this seminal work in the vampire lit genre, Mark gushed. “This was a huge breakthrough,” he said. “It had a major effect on what came after. Twilight takes a lot from it. Stephanie Meyer was a player.”

Still in his early 20s, Mark had made a name for himself while getting closer to his dream of working in Hollywood. Then finally his big break came. He landed a job writing for Kindred: The Embraced, a FOX TV series that ran for eight episodes in 1996. The show was loosely based on Vampire: The Masquerade, but Mark wasn’t happy with the finished product. FOX’s producers had their own vision for the series. A vision that Mark didn’t agree with: “The show wasn’t as good as it could have been, if they only had listened to me more.” He worked in Hollywood for four years total, but eventually became disillusioned. Fed up with the production process and tough slog of making it as a writer, he decided to leave it behind. “It was the goal of my life, but finally I just left,” he says.

Mark shows me some of the things he and his various companies (now the CEO of Make-Believe Games, he was previously co-owner of White Wolf Gaming Studio) have created over the years. There are graphic books, endless piles of game cards, even videos. Curious as to how someone goes from rural Minnesota to Hollywood, then to Tbilisi, I probe him about his personal life. Mark and his wife, who is Georgian, met in New York. After marrying, the couple planned to settle in San Francisco, but ultimately ended up in Tbilisi. “I thought we would move here for a year. That was eight years ago.”

As someone with an innate understanding of creativity and dynamism, Mark was a perfect fit for his new home. The new, post-Rose Revolution Georgia was in the middle of a rapid social transformation, and Mikheil Saakashvili’s government was bringing in foreigners to spur along the process. Mark found himself working as a consultant for Saakashvili’s United National Movement. The experience gave him an inside look at the political process. It also had a major impact on his creative career, inspiring him to create Democracy: Majority Rules, a board game released in 2014.

Touted by reviewers as a game of “debate, diplomacy and deal-making,” Democracy is the manifestation of Mark’s views on politics. “I was working for Misha [Saakashvili]. Almost everyone I knew was in the opposition. Everyone seemed to think that democracy means that one party gets into office and then does whatever it wants. Then another party gets into office and does whatever it wants. I wrote the game to articulate my vision of democracy.”

What is that vision? “An ongoing, never-ending series of deals.” Mark and Make-Believe Games intended for the game to be equal parts education and entertainment, seeing it as a potential teaching tool for school civics courses. While Democracy is his only game with an overtly political theme, he remarked that “all my games, in the end, are about politics.”

Speaking of politics, Mark’s background as a business owner and former political consultant makes him uniquely qualified to comment on Georgia’s current situation. When I pressed him on the issue, his perspective as a foreigner and international businessman came through bright and clear: “The economy is stagnating. Developing countries need continuous growth. It’s not entirely the current government’s fault, but the new visa regime is a huge problem.”

I asked if the visa issue, which has made life difficult for thousands of would-be investors and students over the past year, had created problems for his business. His answer was surprising not for its content, but for its urgency: “Now we’re totally thinking about [leaving].” Make Believe Games has been based in Georgia for eight years, but the new regulations are creating unprecedented problems. “One employee had to return to Denmark.”

Mark Rein-Hagen always has politics on his mind, but the next creation by Make-Believe Games is more personal than political. I AM ZOMBIE, scheduled for release later this year, presents the origin story of a race of zombies called the Amirani. According to the game’s accompanying literature, the Amirani hail from right here in Georgia.

Mark created characters modeled after his creative team members and friends in Georgia. When the game is released, don’t be surprised to see some zombified versions of familiar faces. But I Am Zombie is much more than a celebration of Mark’s adventures in Georgia. It has an agenda: “I want to bring tourists to Georgia.”

In the nearly three decades since his debut release, Mark Rein-Hagen’s career has taken him to Hollywood, Tbilisi, and everywhere in between. On a final note, I asked this experienced creative guru to assess his current abilities. He didn’t hold back: “I’ve never been more creative and dedicated. I’m at the top of my game!”

Joseph Larsen

04 June 2015 20:17