Piece of War
The Game Habitat provides a community within imaginary wars.
Thursday, July 21, 2005
Nestled between Monterey’s El Palomar restaurant and a beauty salon is a small, family-owned store called The Game Habitat. The first point of interest are long tall rows of shelves containing literally hundreds of different types of strategy games. The second point of interest are the friendly “hellos” received whenever entering this place of business.
Jonathan Jackson and Diana Outwater opened up shop seven years ago, and although they’ve seen their fair share of economic ups and downs (in addition to becoming the proud parents of an adorable redheaded baby boy named Robin last November), as Jackson puts it, “We’re still open.” The two previously managed other stores, but saw an economic opening on the Peninsula when they considered that most local gamers were commuting to Santa Cruz.
Jackson, a very conservatively dressed and extremely articulate man, says, “Originally [the appeal of the store] was the fact that we were responsive to the people that were here.” Both he and Outwater wanted to “answer questions, as opposed to being people that don’t care.” When asked about how the arrival of their son has affected this business strategy, he replies that he is “hoping to arrange it so we can have [Robin] and [still] be responsible.”
On any given weekend, there are literally dozens of customers, ranging in age from junior high school students to the over-60 crowd and representing a variety of genders and ethnicities. One of the largest client bases for these games is military personnel. When asked about this cultural pattern, Outwater, who is much quieter than Jackson but equally articulate, explains that the original role playing games were designed by institutions like West Point to train officers in the tactics of war.
“When you think about it, medieval knights weren’t considered cultured unless they could play chess well,” she says. “Military people have a disposable income, and gaming is a nice outlet that they can take with them.”
One such military person, Justin Bingham, says that a major reason for his attachment to the game is its widespread appeal. He says he can be assigned to any base within 20 miles of a major city throughout most of the United States and find a game store close enough to escape to on the weekends. This affords him the opportunity to commune with non-military people in a socially fostering environment. It’s a shake and bake recipe for community, something that a lot of military people have some difficulty finding.
One of the more popular games at the moment is Flames of War, a World War II re-enactment game. The rules are complicated but the premise is simple: each player represents a historic army from the World War II era, and they fight. The rule book, which is an intimidating 170 pages, leaves no stone unturned. Jackson explains that the necessity for such a large rule book stems from the game’s accuracy. Each weapon, platoon, and tank is statistically a near-perfect replica of the historical item that it represents.
In a board game like this, each piece is purchased and painted by the individual player, allowing that player to creatively construct a unique army. As one gamer remarks, “It’s something to do on the weekends and not get in trouble.” Therein lies the real appeal for most players, who all seem to share the characteristic of being extremely intelligent. This is a safe haven where thoughtful individuals can commune away from keg parties, sports and television.
The only real drawback to a game like this is the start-up cost. An army for Flames of War costs about $200. Other games cost three or four times that much. Of course, these start-up costs make the Habitat that much more inviting for gamers.
When asked to reveal his favorite game, Jackson adopts a peculiar expression, as if he is half-offended by the very asking of this question, and half-intrigued by the challenge it presents.
“I have no favorite,” he retorts, but he continues deliberating. “I don’t have a favorite game,” he repeats, and then adds, “I like a lot of games, that’s the reason I opened the store.”
After about 10 or so minutes, he produces a book titled DeBellis Antiquitatis, about a historical war game where players choose from any army throughout the recorded history of mankind and find out what would have happened if they met. “We like games that have a good background,” Jackson says, adding that this one is “quick, fast, and fairly tactful.”
But when asked how he enjoys the game called “Child Raising,” he quickly says, “Oh, it’s insane.”