They are everywhere. They walk among us in the daytime and appear no different from you or I — they are neighbors, friends and co-workers. But come dusk they undergo a startling transformation. They occupy the back rooms and clandestine chambers of your cities, passing ghostlike through the streets and alleyways. In their shadowy wake they leave a trail of crumbs and crumpled energy drink cans.
They are gamers.
Gamers are not, by definition, any particular sort of person. They might enjoy board games, video games or role-playing games, and they might be tall, short, black or white. Varying levels of dedication also exist among gamers — some spend days on end with their eyes locked to glowing screens while others play a casual game of Settlers of Catan after work every so often.
What truly separates a gamer from someone who simply plays games is dedication. A gamer will stop at nothing to achieve perfection and dominance on the tabletop and constantly seeks ways to improve their game. This dedication can also manifest itself as a commitment to enjoy activities condemned as “nerdy” or anti-social with people they like, damn the consequences.
This distinction is not unlike that between people who exercise by playing sports and athletes. Surely Cindy from accounting isn’t running to learn how to drop her 40-yard dash time below 4.6 seconds — she jogs because she wants to shed her love handles. On the other hand, a mixed-martial-arts fighter doesn’t allow a sparring partner to triangle choke him repeatedly because it gives him the jollies. He does this to learn, inside and out, what he is capable of and how to become the best competitor he can be. He does it for the love and sake of the game.
Gamers are often stigmatized because of this dedication, which is misconstrued as obsession or perfectionism. There are those gamers for whom the addictive allure of massively multiplayer online games or the poker table proves too strong, but for the most part gamers are either mental athletes whose goals and interests coincide or thrill seekers looking to have fun. The same can be said of Wall Street businessmen, professional baseball players or celebrity chefs, yet there are few social groups that receive so much abject disapproval as gamers.
This is why gamers form communities. Within a close circle of friends whose love for games mirrors their own, gamers can flourish and sharpen their skills against like-minded individuals whose only concern is fun and intellectual stimulation.
In Berkeley — a college town bursting at the seams with geekery and quirky passions — a veritable opium den for gamers exists as a hub for all things recreational.
It’s impossible to miss Games of Berkeley from Shattuck. Window displays and racks stuffed with board games litter the store, threatening an epileptic episode as the eye spins dizzyingly from intrigue to intrigue. Many would find this place unnervingly dorky, but for gamers the colors and stuffed dinosaurs mark the passage into a different social realm.
Inside the store — affectionately known as “Gob” by patrons — there are rules. Lots of rules. Commonly heard phrases that drift through the store’s two gaming rooms (one subterranean, the other in the back of the ground level) include seldom-heard gems such as:
“During your draw step I cast Vendilion Clique, targeting you. Pitch Cruel Ultimatum.”
“Critical hit! Don’t forget to subtract the elemental’s fire resistance this time.”
“Brazil attacks Argentina. How can the Argentinians roll so many 1s? They should be too busy cultivating new strains of potatoes to form an effective militia force.”
It is a kind of gamer’s utopia. Here the mightiest and most beloved competitors are those who piloted an inventive Magic: the Gathering deck to victory or who bring their own Crown Royal dice bag to Dungeons & Dragons sessions. Distinctions of class, race and social status melt away when one focuses on an opponent’s playing style or a mutual respect for a game.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be this way. While Games of Berkeley is a local landmark and a haven for gamers, passion and good times should not remain confined to its basements. Games are a fantastic way to forge new friendships and rekindle old ones. Win, lose or draw, when we play we learn something not only about ourselves but also about the person sitting across from us.
Take, for example, myself. If you look for me in front of Dwinelle Hall most Wednesdays you’ll see me hunched over a folding chess board.
Yes, that’s right — I’m a gamer too.
And if you’re still skeptical about gamers, just sit across the chessboard from me sometime. I promise you will learn plenty.