Life with Gracie: Bullies once made her suicidal; today she helps others through gaming

Lana Phifer, the owner of Pwn’d Elite Cyber Gaming, is having a reflective moment, pondering for the first time in a long while her addiction to gaming and more precisely the moment God told her to open a store in this strip along Stone Mountain Highway.

She knows what people think of gamers, geeks who’d just as soon hide out in a basement than interact with anyone. She also knows, despite research to the contrary, that not only do they often play alone, they are often the victims of bullies.

She knows because Lana Phifer was once one of them.

“It was bad enough being the only black child in my school, I was also the nerdy kid,” the 48-year-old mother of four said. “I just didn’t click with many, so I was pretty much by myself, growing up in Nottingham, England.”

And so when Phifer went off to Bilborough College in 1983, rather than study to become a doctor or lawyer — her parents’ dream for her — she dropped out two months later to follow her heart.

“I wanted to be a fashion designer, a singer,” she said.

Phifer would soon discover that what she really wanted was to be an artist who owned a gaming store.

After two years working in an employment office, Phifer migrated from her native England to here in 1988.

She was working at Graybar as a project specialist in 2011, when she started dabbling in art, painting portraits and landscapes and feeling like she wanted to melt into the work.

Those evolved eventually into 3-D fantasy pieces featuring Marvel superheroes, and in 2012 Phifer decided to apply for licensing to paint and sell the superheroes but was rejected.

It didn’t matter. By that time, people were buying her fantasy pieces and portraits faster than she could paint them.

“I was surprised at how fast it took off and how interested people were,” Phifer said. “I was selling at least one piece a month.”

Even so, she doubted herself. She also doubted she could ever make a go of opening a video game shop, a dream she’d been nursing for nearly five years.

Then in May 2012, one of Phifer’s aunts came calling. Could she paint the topiary in front of the city council building in Aldershot, near London, for use at a charitable auction?

The piece took the highest bid — 600 pounds — of everything on auction and that did it.

“It encouraged me,” Phifer said. “I said this is what I want to do.”

Phifer started then laying the groundwork to live her dream of opening a store and selling her artwork. She researched the market for both of them and began saving money. Last year, she opened a booth at Unique Treasures just down the road, where she displayed some of the artwork, miniatures and games she hoped to sell in a store.

The effort flopped.

One night after a dinner date with her fiance Ken Swanson, Phifer couldn’t sleep. God, she said, told her to open a store.

“The voice was so clear that I just knew it was time,” she said. “It was scary but I hadn’t felt that good in four years.”

Phifer quit her job at Graybar, and with her 401(k) savings, she opened Pwn’d in October in Snellville.

Pwn’d, pronounced powned, is gamer speak for, you guessed it, “I beat you so bad you might as well just walk away.”

The 1,600-square-foot store, believed to be the first owned by an African-American female in the South, is a collection of game tables for those interested in Warhammer miniature gaming, Dungeons and Dragons, Magic, YuGiOh and Pokemon racks stocked with the comics, action figures and Phifer’s original fantasy art to decorate your home’s game rooms.

David Brown, 32, of Lithonia stumbled upon the shop in January while searching the Internet for a place that hosts Friday Night Magic.

“I walked into Pwn’d Gaming with a little trepidation about what welcome I would receive,” he said. “Some gamers and gaming shops can be very hostile to a new or inexperienced player/collector, but my fears were completely unfounded.”

Brown, who enjoys both digital and tabletop gaming, wanted to play Magic, but he wasn’t even sure he remembered how. Swanson was busy painting miniatures so he told him he’d come back later, but Swanson wouldn’t have it.

“I knew right then I had found a special place,” Brown said.

So special, he and his wife have become regulars.

“Ken and Lana have created a very special place,” Brown said.

What Phifer really wanted was to create a fun place for those kids who might be experiencing the same isolation she felt as a kid.

“When I was going through my thing, at age 14, I tried to commit suicide,” she said. “The bullying got to the point where I didn’t want to live. I want kids to know that they don’t have to go that far. They don’t have to let their dreams go. They can live them.”

Phifer certainly is.

“I feel so good,” she said through a smile the size of the Grand Canyon. “I’m praying I can expand, bring in an even bigger crowd because sometimes it gets a little crowded.”