I Am Not Insane
On one sweltering, summer afternoon in Baton Rouge, perhaps three years ago, I visited a hobby store. I call it a "hobby" store because I don't know what better appellation might befit a store that sells games of all types, except for the electronic variety. You may know its kind: the store stays open well into the evening, so that the core customer group of high-school-aged boys will visit on days other than the weekends. Tall glass cases house row upon row of hand-painted miniatures for display, many of which have somehow gathered a layer of dust, in spite of their transparent trappings. And the selection of merchandise ranges from old, out-of-print Avalon Hill games, to esoteric tabletop RPGs imported from continental Europe, as well as Magic: The Gathering, Warhammer, chess, Go, and everything in-between. Such stores as these are guilty pleasures--shameful even, for some people--but the guilt fades quickly before the sheer onslaught of enthusiasm, which permeates the place to its very core. You can tell, simply by examining the variegated wares, and also the faces of other customers, that there is an unbroken chain of pure, juvenile delight that stretches from the games' designers, to the store's proprietor, right to the customers themselves. Hobby stores are among the happiest of places in which money is expected to change hands.
In other words, they're a far cry from EB or Gamestop.
On that particular day, in that particular store, I myself was being awfully particular about what I should buy. I noticed an old Shadowrun sourcebook that I had once fervently desired as a kid, and my heart leapt at the opportunity to fulfill that longstanding want. Then my eye strayed to the historical wargames section, where I must have loitered in awe for at least ten minutes before dejectedly returning the Shadowrun book to its shelf. But before I could decide between the battles of Zama and Alesia (tough choice, that!), a crazy 3-D geometry game involving plastic pyramids stole my attention away; and, in very much this same manner, I eventually covered the entirety of the store at least three times over, to the point that I decided I should amend the common simile that usually refers to children and confectionaries, for fear that it had fallen fatally out of style.
Finally, while browsing through the discount section, I settled upon one (and only one) game, of tactical combat involving medieval knights and squires, which was remarkable for several reasons. Rather than coming in a lavish or descriptive box, the game was packaged in a gallon-sized, plastic, zip-top bag. In place of a neatly bound and illustrated manual printed on glossy paper, it came with thirty or so pages torn from a dot-matrix printer. And instead of colorful plastic pieces, the bag contained dozens of humble, cardboard rectangles, each of which was marked with words and numbers, which, to my considerable surprise, were not handwritten, but actually printed out by machine. Perhaps most significant of all to my process of deliberation, the game had no price tag, and when I offered the storeowner one dollar for it, he promptly agreed.
Of course, I never once actually played my medieval combat game; this is the sad fate of at least fifty percent of all tabletop games, as any aficionado will confirm. (I wish I could tell you the game's name and designer, but I don't even remember that much; and after the chaos hurricane Katrina inflicted upon my household, I doubt that I'll ever even see that worn, plastic bag again.) But I didn't need to play it to get my slight money's worth. It was quite enough for me simply to read the manual's historical synopses, to study the arcane rules and dense statistical tables, and generally to bask in someone else's labor of love. One man had designed the entire game from scratch, and it was presumably he who made the cardboard pieces, printed out the manual, and shoved the whole thing in a bag for sale.
Thinking back on these hobby-store and hobby-game experiences, I can count, oh, approximately seven thousand ways that they leave me satisfied, ways that video gaming seldom does anymore. Consider the quality and diversity of the games on the market; the fantastic retail experience (that is, to my knowledge, the norm for the industry); the openness to small, independent developers; and those developers' unflagging ability to design fresh, interesting games that do not assume mass-market idiocy of their target audience.
(As far as the "openness to small developers" goes: I am well aware of the fact that my nifty game-in-a-bag experience is not even remotely normal; nor should we ever expect it to be. After all, I doubt that my forgotten game designer turned much more of a profit than the measly buck I paid for his labor. But it is indicative of a broader pattern of receptiveness that exists in the retail tabletop and hobby games industries, in which storeowners pride themselves on having a wide and eclectic selection, and customers expect nothing less.)
It seems that I am always harkening back to the video-gaming industry that was, and forever lamenting the industry that now exists. This sort of activity--the harkening back, that is--is liable to knock eyeballs loose within their sockets, and I am by this point accustomed to people dismissing my complaints with less concern than Prometheus showed to Io at the sting of her gadfly. I think that from now on, though, whenever people suggest that I'm engaging in some wildly exaggerative nostalgia, imagining idealized states that could never pertain to the real world, rather than stamp my feet and insist that I was there, man, I'll just point to the hobbyist games industry and say, That's how it's done. If they can get it right, so can we.