SWR: Playin’ Games

Shrink-Wrapped Recall – An occasional series about memories of old game shops. The rest of the series can be found here.

Beneath the expensive chess sets, yard after yard of unwanted D20 supplements.

I must admit that I am starting to develop a bit of an obsession with the way that sub-cultural alliances determine which products wind up in which shops. In my piece about the Swiss shop Mix-Image, I noted the way that high-street hippy shops will sell crystals, piercings, and then either dragons, vampires, angels, or witches (depending upon what happens to be the fashionable iconography of the moment). A similar process plays out across the shelves of every Friendly Local Game Shop as different styles of game get different amounts of shelf-space depending upon how popular the different games happen to be at that particular moment.

Also interesting is the way that there seem to be rules regarding which types of product turn up in which types of shop. For example, video game stuff started out in consumer electronic shops before creating its own spaces and now it seems to be in the process of collapsing into the kinds of spaces that sell the more obscure and expensive forms of geek merchandise. This is because you’re either a normie who plays videogames and buys their stuff from Amazon or you’re a weird obsessive who is willing to pay hundreds of pounds for a pristine Gamecube cartridge and that seems to put you in a similar social category to the people who import anatomically-correct K-On statuary.

One of the weirder vagaries of this process of sub-cultural alliance has been the facts that while popular RPGs will quite readily gain a foothold in toy and book shops, they seldom seem to turn up in the kinds of places that sell traditional gaming paraphernalia like chess sets and backgammon boards. My favourite exception to this rule was Playin’ Games, a two-level shop on London’s Museum Street within spitting distance of the British museum.

I first became aware of Playin’ Games in the mid-2000s around the time of the D20 boom. I’ve not been able to work out when the shop opened but it seems to have closed down later than 2010 after having received a write-up in Time Out. I’m not sure how I came across them but, given that I used to go to university nearby, I have a sneaking suspicion that I walked past it hundreds of times before realising that it actually sold RPGs.

Playin’ Games was very much a shop of two halves in that its ground floor retail space was all glittering cabinets, tasteful wooden flooring and mildly disdainful retail staff. The focus of the business was quite obvious high-end gaming paraphernalia for moneyed non-geeks meaning that the shop’s shelves were full of embossed leather backgammon cases and chess sets hand-carved out of semi-precious stones. I remember the window display would regularly feature stuff like then-new Star Wars monopoly sets but I think the shop was aimed at sophisticated people who happened to play games rather than either gamers or kids.

As you can see from this more recent street-view image, the front of the shop features a set of stairs down to the basement and it’s in the basement where the ‘real’ gaming stuff tended to be kept. Once you descended the stairs, you found yourself in a small, square windowless space with simple shelving. The shelves were full of European-style board games and I am pretty sure it’s where I got my copy of Settlers of Catan. At one corner of this space there was a weird narrow vestibule leading to a vault door. The vault, I think, tended to be used as office space but the vestibule was where Playin’ Games kept their RPGs.

It’s not entirely clear to me how or why Playin’ Games came to sell RPGs as nothing about the people working the tills suggested that they were themselves gamers. Furthermore, the game books were not so much ‘displayed’ as stacked on a series of long shelves with very little attention paid to either presentation or grouping. I have a vague memory that the game books might have been stacked in alphabetical order so if you wanted to browse, you literally had to start at A and work your way up and down the shelves to Z.

This style of product display was particularly interesting as the gaming industry was then going through a boom period in which everyone seemed to be falling over themselves to produce material that was D20 compatible. At the time, this type of thing really got my back up as publishers would often pull people and resources away from their own game lines to produce a watered-down D20 version of their own games that would invariably lose money resulting in fewer books for existing games. While I will happily admit to having absolutely no evidence to back this up, my suspicion is that the D20 era was a bit like the early days of collectable card games as the amount of money flowing through the industry made publishers take these wild risks resulting in their cratering their own companies and product lines. The way that Playin’ Games displayed their stock was a very tangible and physical demonstration of these kinds of business decisions as their shelves were absolutely groaning with weird, doomed D20 adaptations of games that were never going to appeal to the kind of people who played Dungeons and Dragons.

Looking back at that period, I’m reminded of contemporary politics and the way that centrist parties will try to do a bit of racism in the hope of sucking in a few right-wing voters. Except that people who are motivated to vote for racist policies will always vote for the historically racist and right-wing parties. In truth, all centrists do when they chase the votes of racist pensioners is annoy the kinds of liberals and leftists who might otherwise have voted for them to keep the racists out of office. To whit: If I want to play D&D then I’ll play D&D and if I want to play Fading Suns, I’ll play Fading Suns. Put out a version of Fading Suns using D&D rules and you’ll annoy the people who enjoy Fading Suns and the people who want to play D&D will still be playing D&D. What better representation of the failures of the D20 era than a series of beautiful, hardback game books that ends with a cheaply-produced softback D20 adaptation of a once beautiful game. I loved Playin’ Games and I would definitely visit it if it were still open but there really was something depressing about those piles of extruded RPG product.

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