Shrink-Wrapped Recall – An occasional series about memories of old game shops. The rest of the series can be found here.
It is fascinating how some memories rise effortlessly to the surface while others lay buried.
One of the reasons why I decided to start writing about old game shops was that I have a very clear memory of the first time I visited the Virgin Game Centre on New Oxford Street. I can remember getting the bus all the way along Oxford Street, I can remember wondering why all the interesting games were hidden on a mezzanine, and I can remember the face of the friend who took me there as I headed back home. I would say that I was probably around 14 when this happened.
Having written about all of the game shops I visited most frequently, I started casting my mind around for other places I happen to have bought games. I can remember visiting a horrible shop in Paris, a lovely shop in a shopping centre in Brussels, and a shop in Lausanne by a set of steps that seemed to appear just as I thought ‘wow… this would be a great place for a game shop’. I would love to write about these places as I do have some memories of them but I can’t quite remember their names. Then I was struck by another memory, a memory of being taken to a game shop in Notting Hill years before I had ever encountered even the concept of an RPG. I pulled on the thread and yanked free a number of images but I couldn’t remember when or why I had been to this place.
Then it started to fall back into place.
Around the age of 12, I made friends with a kid who was significantly richer than me. Not just a little bit richer but chauffeur-driven Mercedes richer, parents handing him a handful of cash and telling him to go and amuse himself richer. This kid was as much of a feckless little weirdo as I was but his parents were a good deal more on the ball and one of their hobbyhorses was that he was old enough that he shouldn’t be playing with toys. In a bid to move him onto more ‘grown-up’ pursuits, his parents had nudged him in the direction of models and tin soldiers. As a kid, I was always radically opposed to the idea of building models and I never had much of an interest in tin soldiers. However, the fantasy and SF miniatures did grab my attention as they seemed to embody the kinds of stories that tended to interest me. Show me a model biplane or a Napoleonic regiment and I’d fall asleep, show me one of some sort of axe-wielding chaos demon and I woke right up despite the fact that I had no interest in Warhammer or learning to paint. Though fleeing, that interest in fantasy and SF did lead me to buy some minis and that is how I found my way to Games People Play.
Nowadays, Notting Hill is one of the most viciously and overtly gentrified areas of central London. While the film Notting Hill may account for its somewhat bohemian reputation, that vision of the area was inspired by the fact that 1950s Notting Hill was essentially a giant slum run by a man who was sterilised by the Nazis and then sent to a Soviet Gulag where he reportedly saw people eating human flesh in order to stay alive. While the ethics of this man are best described as nihilistic, one of the upsides to his nihilism was that he was willing to rent to the people who were flocking to post-War London from former British colonies. Obviously, these people would be violently mistreated by the landlord’s hired goons but his willingness to rent to black families meant that Notting Hill started to become a working-class black neighbourhood. A neighbourhood that grew and thrived to the point where they started having an annual carnival that continues to this day despite the fact that the area has swung quite heavily back towards wealth and whiteness.
While I suspect that gentrification was already well underway by the mid-to-late 1980s, the area was still cheap enough to support a game shop. Particularly one named for Eric Berne’s foundational work of transactional psychoanalysis.
I remember Games People Play as a two-chambered shop. You walked in and were confronted by floor-to-ceiling shelves containing nothing but those enormous boxes that contain American board-games. I can remember being particularly thrown by a wall of games with names that seemed to refer to real-world sports: How could the world series of baseball or the Kentucky derby fit in a box? What type of things would those boxes contain? Why were they so much bigger than Monopoly or Connect 4? Then as now, I was not a huge fan of board games so I don’t remember spending much time in that front room though it is interesting to note that contemporary game shops look a lot more like my memories of Games People Play than they do my memories of Orcs Nest as complex US-style board games have come to dominate gaming retail in a way they simply did not back in the 90s and 00s.
Most of my time was spent in the rear chamber of the shop where they sold blister-packs of figurines as well as painted minis which sat in a locked glass cabinet. I can remember buying a painted space marine for the princely sum of 99p only to realise that it was not exactly what you would call well painted.
I can also remember that rear chamber featuring loads of old paperback novels with lurid covers. I remember buying a copy of a Harry Harrison Stainless Steel Rat novel only to be horrifically disappointed that it was a proper novel rather than a Fighting Fantasy-style choose-your-own-adventure story. The more I look back at my life, the more I realise the role of wilful perversity in the development of my preferences: Novels were the things you were forced to read at school and were therefore shit. Fighting Fantasy-style choose-your-own-adventure-stories were not recognised as literature by parents or teachers meaning that they were by definition brilliant and ‘Not School’.
I don’t remember much else about Games People Play. I can’t even remember the shop selling RPGs though I assume they must have. I find it fascinating that while memories of my first visit to the Virgin Game Centre remain pretty clear, my memories of Games People Play are a brown haze despite the fact that there probably wasn’t much more than a two or three-year gap between them.
Memories are not static things. The shift from short-term to long-term storage involves a process of integration whereby different sets of memories are linked and bound together by a process of re-visitation and re-iteration. I can remember my early visits to the Virgin Game Centre as they were part of my initial forays into gaming and gaming has always been quite central to how I think about myself and other people. Those memories are part of the psychological vocabulary with which I talk and think about myself and so the memories are revisited on a fairly frequent basis. Each time I summon that memory, it links to something new. Each new linkage makes that memory stronger.
I don’t remember Games People Play because while I went there a handful of times, none of those visits went on to form part of who I would become. I went there as a child buying toy soldiers and buying toy soldiers simply does not feature in the stories I tell about myself as an adult.
I can remember my trip to the Virgin Game Centre because the person I was when I went up to Oxford street became a part of who I am today while the kid who went to Notting Hill did not. Most of the details of his life have been discarded to make room for other more pertinent events. People don’t so much change as fillet and devour themselves through memory.
It’s terrifying how little we remember of our lives and how readily we scrape out the texture of our existence. I guess that’s why people go into therapy… except maybe not over their inability to remember much about a weird toy shop filled with sport-related games.