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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Playing with a Future

The following was posted on the Fans of the National Mahjongg League Facebook page.  I thought it made a good springboard for discussion - so let's discuss.

"So why is the NMJL official website so poorly implemented? It's literally one of the most poorly developed websites I have ever used. And that online game they have (by Sigma) ... Really? I mean come on! So they "make the rules!" Does that make them think they are indispensable to the rest of the "mahjong" world and unaccountable for fostering a lackluster image to potential new players? I think not! Don't they know they bear a responsibility as stewards of the game in America? Don't get me wrong AMJA is not much better. (Please note, I am not referring to the visual design! I am talking about the features and ease of use/Information Architecture) At least they post occasional tournaments. I mean there's not even a contact form on NMJL website. Do they really expect everyone to call them with their issues? And who wants to answer THAT phone? Wow!   I'm gonna make a prediction, which may or may not come to pass: NMJL/AMJA will be a lost section of mahjong within 20-30 years if they don't move into new better use of new technology and stronger (dare I say) flare for marketing to new players. I mean, I'm a new player and I have a penchant for the more International forms of Mahjongg, but when I see the lackluster appeal the "American Flavors" hold for younger players it saddens me. I'd like to see a stronger eye towards real league-style sportsmanship and national tournaments that might reinvigorate some youthful interest in this marvelous game. Maybe I'm alone in this, but I hope not."

This post expresses many of the frustrations and desires of NMJL players, and it asks the question: What is the future of the League?  In order to answer we need to know what the League is and what it isn’t.  When I have spoken to Mrs. Unger she was adamant the mission of the League is twofold:  Create the card in such a way that will entice new players yet remain challenging for experienced players and distribute the proceeds from the sale of cards to deserving charities.  Most players don’t think about the charitable aspect of the League, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  But regardless of where you buy your card, your money goes to fulfill that mandate, and the League takes that most seriously. 

Expansion of the responsibilities of the League would take time and money, and that may diminish the charitable donations.  While I agree that there should be more tournaments and standardization of same, I do not think it would benefit the League to run them.  It is independent tournament operators who determine how best to run their event, using League rules and efforts are underway to standardize (see post on Master Points).  But this is a tough task and one the League may not be in a position to fulfill.  They do have a rule sheet that is available to all tournament operators; some follow it, some don't.  How would the League enforce this?

The online game, while sanctioned by the League, is the product of a third party.  I understand that the software is undergoing an overhaul that will include more features and will run on more platforms, but will not be playable on the iPad, tablets or phones, which is a complicated and expensive endeavor, but nothing is stopping someone from creating such an app if they thought they could profit from it.   There are other sites, such as Mah Jongg Time, which allow players to play NMJL mahjongg online.  These independent operators may not be comfortable with the League overseeing their operations.

While the League could have a more sophisticated online presence, with contact forms and Facebook pages, I do not believe they see it in their purview to manage a one-and-only official type of branding. There are many fan pages and retailers who provide this function.  I would be interested in hearing others’ opinions about whether the League name would attract new players in and of itself, or whether they think that the word is spread by all the members out there in one form or another.

I have heard, however, about rudeness on the phone, and there is no excuse for that.  It is a tiny office, and the people there work very hard and may be under stress at certain times, but perhaps an additional volunteer or two would solve this problem.  New players should be aware there are rule books available if want to play seriously and these are written by very experienced players, such as Elaine Sandberg and Tom Sloper, who also has an extensive FAQ list on his website and will answer questions, as will I.

So in my opinion, the future of the League will look much like today.  The League will depend on outside entities to attract new players, organize tournaments and sell tchotchkes.   Will the game die out?  I don’t think so.  Membership has grown enormously in the last few years and new players come on board every day.  Young people are catching on, and as baby boomers retire they are learning the cost of a card is a bargain for the hours of  pleasure the game brings. The League leaves it to us, the members, to spread the word, extol the virtues and teach new players this wonderful game.   
Again, this is my opinion.  I would like to hear from others about what they feel the future of the League is.  Do you think the game will die out?  Is the League going the way of the dinosaur?  Discuss!