In 1985, Nintendo launched its Nintendo Entertainment System gaming console in North America in what’s remembered as a watershed moment for video games. That same year, San Francisco resident Robert Hamilton invested in hobby games, which are largely analog, when he opened Gamescape in the Western Addition.
It was a bit of a gamble. Gamers were getting more into video games like Super Mario Bros. and Excitebike, and he already had a game store, Gambit — which he opened in the 1970s — close on him.
But Hamilton, who was into hobby gaming himself, was determined to open a store where people who shared his interest could get the latest board games, card games, puzzles, and equipment for their tabletop role playing games.
In addition to that he wanted to create a community around hobby gaming that shared values like “inclusiveness, openness and being forthright and truthful … and being genuine,” said his son Tom, who was born the same year the store was opened.
Hamilton’s investment ended up paying off. The store is going on its 35th year in the same location on Divisadero and Oak, in an increasingly digital world. The video game industry has grown to a $43 billion industry and mobile gaming is projected to grow to $106.4 billion by 2021, according to industry analyst Newzoo.
And there are stores like Razer, a video game store in Westfield Mall, and arcade bar Emporium, that’s right down the street on Divisadero, creating spaces for gathering and community around digital games.
So how does a store like Gamescape manage to stay open in one of the world’s most digital-friendly regions, especially one that’s been drastically transformed by the wealth brought in by companies profiting off of digital technology?
It turns out the store has been one of the beneficiaries of the tech boom, according to Tom, who took over the business from his father in 2009.
“When you have a person who has more discretionary income, they’re able to invest in their interests a little bit more,” he said. “And it just so happens that a lot of people who have come into the region and have made some money are into hobby gaming … We were sort of in the right place at the right time for this.”
He said he thinks many of his older customers who make a living in tech are drawn to hobby games because they grew up with them, and because they offer a change of pace from their 9-t0-5.
“I also think that the face-to-face aspect of board games and tabletop gaming has an appeal with a lot of the tech customers because you know a lot of people want to get away from the screens and want to sort of unplug,” he said. “So analog gaming does that and you’re able to meet people while tabletop gaming.”
Gamescape and lots of businesses like it in the region — Games of Berkeley and It’s Your Move in the East Bay, Gamescape North in the North Bay, and Gator Games in the South Bay — offer lots of opportunities for people to build community through gaming.
Each night of the week at Gamescape is dedicated to a different type of hobby game: Mondays are for playing more traditional board games like Monopoly or Settlers of Catan; Pokémon cards is on Tuesdays; Dungeons & Dragons is on Wednesdays; Magic the Gathering is on Fridays.
The front of the store has bookshelves filled with games and puzzles organized by genre of game. Cooperative games are in one section, two-player games in another and classic board games in another. Beyond those sections, in the back of the store, there are several long tables where people congregate for the different game nights.
On the Friday before San Francisco’s Pride Parade, the store’s gaming tables were nearly full of players competing in a Magic the Gathering tournament. The people playing in the tournament range in age from their preteens to middle age. The crowd is mostly male and mostly white, but it’s more diverse than a lot of other social spaces in the Bay Area, especially in this part of San Francisco.
Players diligently passed out cards from a new set released by Wizards of the Coast, a popular game publisher that sanctions the tournaments at Gamescape and sponsors the game nights, but they were also catching up on each others’ lives, sharing plans for weekend and cracking jokes.
The store makes a bit of money off of the sponsored game nights, which are free for players, but Tom said the sponsorships aren’t the bread and butter of the store. “It sounds pretty simple but … selling games straight to the customer is our main source of revenue,” he said. “I think why a lot of customers come to us is because we have a vast selection and we have the games people are interested in.”
Just as video games have developed in complexity over time and expanded into different genres, so have hobby games, which has been key in the growth in popularity of those types of games, according to Tom. The mainstreaming of these types of games due to different pop culture phenomena, like Dungeons & Dragons being played in the Netflix show “Stranger Things” or the popularity of the mobile game Pokémon Go, has contributed to a bump in popularity for hobby games, too.
“Games and gaming were typically associated with people who weren’t in the mainstream,” Tom said, but as the acceptance of gaming has grown, the popularity of certain games has grown.
He struggled to find another word for “people who weren’t in the mainstream,” because they’re his people, his customers and community.
He didn’t want to call them nerds, as many might.
“I don’t have that perception about it,” he said. “We just like games and we enjoy playing them and having a place to host them.”
That’s what keeps Gamescape in business — Bay Area residents’ love of hobby gaming, the community that’s grown over the decades through gaming, and the store’s attentiveness to industry trends and customer needs. And though hobby gaming was a $1.5 billion industry in 2018, gaming stores aren’t exactly cash cows for the people who own them, especially in an era dominated by e-commerce sites like Amazon.
“Retail now is as tough as it’s ever been,” Tom said.
“You make enough to survive and live in the neighborhood,” Tom said. “But people who open game shops or people who run game shops aren’t necessarily in it for making a ton of money. It’s more so for the appreciation of the hobby and for the love of the hobby. That you’re able to provide a space like this for people in the community is more the driving force of why a person runs a business like this.”