Shrink-Wrapped Recall – An occasional series about memories of old game shops.
The history of roleplaying games is inescapably post-apocalyptic. Anyone who knows anything about the origins of the hobby will have heard about early editions of D&D breaking through to the mainstream, becoming a fad, finding their way into every American shop, and eventually turning up in the opening scene to ET. We all know this history, we carry it within us.
The strange thing is that (despite dealing with different people, different places, different times, and different economic conditions) every subsequent popular history of RPGs seems to have maintained that post-apocalyptic vibe. We are always surveying the ruins of a collapsed empire or an imploded boom.
That post-apocalyptic vibe was also present the first time I went to a shop to buy an actual RPG. The shop in question was a local chain bookstore and while they did carry a load of gaming materials, they were all stacked on top of a shelving unit and you had to borrow a stool to get anywhere near them. I remember my friend scratching his head and muttering that the last time he had been there, the D&D books had had an entire section to themselves.
Having exhausted the possibilities of the local high street, my friend suggested hopping on a bus to Oxford street where apparently the streets were paved with modules. I remember getting the bus up to the Virgin megastore at Marble Arch only to discover that they too had just finished removing their AD&D display. Not to worry, my friend assured me, we could just get another bus further down Oxford street. Turns out that Virgin had another shop entirely devoted to games and they would definitely have RPGs.
The post-apocalyptic vibes continued when we arrived at the Virgin Games Centre, a small retail unit at the less fashionable end of Oxford Street. While that particular bit of London retains a proud ugliness in the face of decades of concerted gentrification, the arse end of Oxford Street in the early-to-mid 90s was like something out of a crime novel: Every public toilet was an open cottage, every window held a red light, and any retail unit that wasn’t selling either porn or Princess Diana memorabilia was occupied by gangs of muscular con artists who would lure you in with promises of rock bottom prices only to immediately lock the doors and force you to stay for the crooked auction.
The Virgin Games Centre was somewhat ahead of its time in that it sold mostly console and computer games. This pre-dated Playstation and the mainstreaming of video games, high street shops selling games at all were still something of a novelty and the idea of a high street shop selling nothing but games was faintly surreal. My friend assured me that the Virgin Games Centre sold nothing but RPGs and I’m not sure I believed him even at the time… Given that RPGs would continue to pop up in Virgin megastores until after the turn of the Millennium, I can almost believe that someone in the organisation would be foolish enough to open an analogue game shop at the absolute nadir of tabletop RPGs’ mainstream visibility but I still think it’s more likely that they had the idea of a games shop and then concluded that they should probably carry some non-digital stuff as well.
The RPG section of the Virgin Games Centre was awful; it occupied a tiny mezzanine with no direct sunlight, the games were all shrink-wrapped, and they stored them in these vertical bins similar to the ones that used to hold vinyl records. There were really expensive minis for sale down one side of the space and the aisles between the bins were cramped so you were forever waiting for people to move out of the way before you could actually browse.
In hindsight, I think the Virgin Games Centre really nailed the aesthetic of gaming in the 90s: It was small, it was cramped, it was smelly, and the lighting made everything look as ugly as possible. I remember passing the shop with a female friend and she took one look at the nearby porn caves, one look at the hideous mole-men who would emerge blinking into the daylight, and pointedly refused to go up the stairs.
A lot has been written about how sexist and inaccessible gaming culture was back then, and it definitely was both of those things, but the question I keep asking myself is why did we put up with such wretched spaces? Imagine having to spend eight hours a day shrink-wrapping Palladium supplements on an unventilated and barely-lit mezzanine while a constant stream of mole people fish around in their trousers for sweaty £20 notes. Even the nearby sex shops were less sordid.