I was recently shown a video produced by an online-only store. In it, the owner argued that games shops were dead and there’ll be very few physical shops left soon. His argument was: online is cheaper, the internet provides advice, and you don’t need to play games in a shop because you could hire a hall.

We think he’s wrong… Of course we would, we’re busting a gut trying to reopen a shop.

But here’s the number one reason we’re sure he’s wrong: gaming is full of fanatics like us; there’s a long line of people who want to try their hand at turning their hobby into a job. Whenever a games shop closes down in a town, a new one opens within months.

However, even if people trying to peddle boxes of happiness to local communities were in short supply I’d suggest that the demand for games shops is high, and we need them more than ever. Here’s a few reasons:

Game shops* invest in their local communities.

Of course, some online places also have shops that invest in their local communities too, but they’re probably not investing in your community. For example, we have been busy with holiday clubs for children receiving free school meals and giving out literacy boxes during lockdown, Beanie Games run children’s activities in schools and with local authorities, Board in the City specifically aim to cater for marginalised groups, The Ludoquist have raised over £3500 for the NHS and local families during lockdown, The Mug and Meeple run book libraries to fund community work; Critical Hit Games Café (and others in Liverpool) supported local foodbanks during lockdown…. (add in the comments any I’ve missed!).

25 families joined us for our free Virtual Easter Club, and 115 Literacy Boxes have gone to local families

Games shops provide spaces to meet.

Space is expensive; games shops use other parts of their business to subsidise play spaces. For us, it was selling coffee at near-coffee-shop prices that meant we could offer space very cheap. All game shop owners I know are not in retail to sell games, retail is a means to an end – and that end is building and supporting communities of gamers.

Our perspective isn’t “play spaces reduce our profit”, it’s “profit from selling games allow us to do what we love”.

Game shops reduce isolation.

Reported loneliness, February 2021. Source: https://www.ons.gov.uk/

Now, more than ever, we need to reinvest in the social fabric of our communities –as we’re in the middle of an epidemic of loneliness and isolation. A decade of under investment in local communities mean there are very few spaces for people to meet that aren’t businesses.

And space to meet provides opportunities for long lasting friendships and more! We’ve have quite a few long term relationships, and a handful of marriages, of people who met in our shop (we’ve even hosted two weddings!).

Games shops tend to be an easier place for newbies to introduce themselves and ask for help in finding new clubs – some places, like The Gamersguild, even advertise this and actively facilitate matching people to groups. In fact, gaming places often become home to those people who struggle to fit in to other social situations: there’s something about the nature of gaming that means people can quickly relax and be themselves. No matter how welcoming the club, crossing that threshold for the first time can be really difficult – with a public space like a shop, it’s just that little bit easier.

Games shops support clubs.

Most people don’t set up clubs to compete with or close down shops. In fact, many clubs, or regular groups of people who meet to play, use shops – either to get resources or to utilise their space. There’s a positive, symbiotic relationship in most places.

Games shops improve mental health.

Taking Hartlepool as an example, there’s fantastic opportunities for people to engage in arts and crafts to meet others in non-threatening, non-judgemental environments. But there isn’t much else. Games shops offer a welcoming place to meet others especially when anxiety is an issue – what’s even better is there’s no need for awkward small talk – the game in front of you becomes the conversation. There are stories of profoundly life-changing interactions by many shops and cafes – even stories of lives saved, as shared by Taylored Games.

Games shops provide safe spaces. 

Shops have a vested interest (and legal requirement) to be as inclusive as possible. Staff often have sensitivity training – our staff, for example, were all trained in autism awareness, and the directors have backgrounds in anti-oppressive practice. But more than that, shops often actively amplify the voices of marginalised people in their community, for example Meeple Perk have taken a public stand against transphobia because of the impact it has on their community.  And shops work with particular groups, like Patriot Game’s work with people on the autistic spectrum. Games shops will also make sure children and vulnerable groups are kept safe, and the majority will have some kind of safeguarding policy.

Game shops provide organised play.

Shops provide prize support, a draw for players from outside your immediate friendship group which provides greater variation in the ‘meta’, and following of established rules and procedures ready for higher-level play.

Games shops sell games that don’t get much online attention

Sure, some games get all the ‘hotness’ with large online marketing campaigns and glowing reviews from a small number of influencers. But there’s nothing like walking into a shop, seeing a little known game you like the look of, taking it home, and discovering something new that you think is awesome. Browsing websites is awesome for getting what you know you want, terrible for discovering something new.

Games shops (perhaps mainly cafes) are curators of museum pieces:

Some places, like The Ludoquist, have huge libraries including rare games that you’re unlikely to ever be able to play again if these places cease to be.

Games shops support the growth of large online retailers.

Bit of a weird one this – but stick with me. The idea that an online retailer is celebrating (hoping for?) the demise of high street shops is ultimately self-defeating. How many times have you gone into a shop, looked at something you like, then googled it and bought it online?

If you’re into card games, were you taught to play in a local shop? And then go on to buy some of your cards online?

Local shops are advertising games and creating new customers for online retailers. In fact, rather than approaching the relationship as one of conflict, it would be interesting to hear how large online retailers and local shops can work better together.

If we closed all the shops tomorrow, who loses out?

The sociologist in us questions ‘who is disadvantaged if all board game shops closed?’

Those people with the time, organisational skills, sufficient connections, or large houses will find it easy to set up a club. Those with good management and literacy skills may even be able to find a little money to help start it off. Those people with sufficient IT skills will find it easy to get reviews for games they like. Those people with well-established social circles won’t really miss the interactions in game shops – in fact, there’s already a well document participation gap in social clubs between the more and less affluent in society.

So what about those 16 year olds who are too young to hire a hall, who don’t have houses large enough to host D&D? What about the people who have barely seen anyone for the last 15 months? What happens to those people who can’t afford room deposits or up-front rental fees? What about those areas with precious few community resources?

Those people without access to a car will miss out, if clubs move to affordable room hire in obscure locations. The kids who want to spend their pocket money will miss out on their weekly trip to their favourite shop. Where will the kids go who want to learn to play Pokemon? What age groups are less likely to buy online? What age groups are less likely to find a club to join? The people with anxiety that want to begin as an anonymous onlooker? The people with access requirements? What about the people who currently don’t know anything about gaming, but would have found a shop by accident and been introduced to a hobby that gently improved their lives?

As with many things, the closure of games shops would serve to disproportionately disadvantage those already disadvantaged.

But FLGS do have unique challenges.

Lower footfall in town centres does mean fewer sales; anxiety about meeting up as the pandemic ends is lowering attendance at events; and there’s significantly higher overheads as a proportion of turnover compared to stores operating mainly online.

What have I missed?

Are you an owner or a customer of an FLGS or games café? Share your stories in the comments!

*By games shops I also mean cafes… businesses where you can meet, play, and possibly buy games.