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Gamestop and the End of Video Game Retail’s Golden Age

The WallStreetBets play was fueled by nostalgia—but modern, digital-only gaming leaves fewer opportunities to plant those seeds.

'North Atlantic Videogame Aficionados' meeting at the Digital Press retro video game store in Clifton, NJ. Saturday, March 26, 2016. Rob DiCaterino/Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Try being a typewriter store in 1991. It’s tough—doable, maybe, if you move into computers. Try being a video game store in 2021. It might be a little tougher.

That’s the story of Not For Resale, a recent documentary on video game stores and the decline of physical media, and it’s also part of the story of the recent Gamestop saga.

Gamestop’s long decline, and its struggles at the hands of financialization, in part sparked the WallStreetBets trading war over the company’s stock. Many traders, aside from taking part in an exhilarating (and totally legal) heist of sorts, were reportedly motivated by an affection for the actual company, which they understood to be damaged by the hedge funds’ stock shorting. The potential fate of Gamestop could be not too dissimilar to that of Sears or Toys ‘R’ Us.

There are any number of possible takes here, one of which is the pleasant idiosyncrasy of attempting to use the digital no-mans-land of modern trading to actually shore up a brick-and-mortar company. But if nostalgia was truly as much a motivation as profit, then there’s another story here, which goes all the way back to the golden age of video gaming.

Gamestop, it must be said, was even in its own golden age a diminished specimen of video game retailing. The result of a series of late-90s and early-aughts mergers involving chiefly Babbage’s, Software Etc, FuncoLand, and EB Games, Gamestop by the mid-2000s was to video games what Walmart had become in the same period to discount department stores. The concentration of video game retail had slightly lagged a concentration of video games themselves, with once-powerhouse Sega exciting the console market and a number of smaller but established game development studios closing down as more difficult and expensive 3D games became the norm.

Not For Resale depicts a gaming industry more dynamic and alive than ever, with more room and lower barriers to entry for very small developers. The broader culture around gaming, while perhaps a bit odd—nerdy conventions, cosplaying, and for-profit Twitch streaming—is unquestionably mainstream.

Yet at the same time, there’s also no question that everything surrounding video games, from the stores to the product to the playing experience, has become less physical and less social.

There were countless real-life, tangible aspects and rituals of gaming in the ’80s and ’90s—leaving the console on all night to wrap up a game before school (you had to leave it running because there were no saves); bringing games or memory cards to a friend’s house (because nothing was in the cloud); perusing the rental store for a new game and momentously betting your allowance on one; gathering at the arcade and cheering on the whiz kid setting the high score. The experience was more textured and probably more nostalgia-inducing, with more opportunities to “seed an invisible crop of memories,” as writer Rebecca Solnit puts it, and with more opportunities to spark friendships and social interactions that could evolve beyond gaming.

And nostalgia and memories are the currency of video game retailing, whether for Gamestop or for the independent stores buying, selling, and trading yesterday’s classics.

As with so many other tactile artifacts, like records, tapes, and Polaroids, the decrease in physical video game releases—and the diminution of what physical releases remain, with flimsy cases and perfunctory single-sheet manuals that mainly tell you to go read the full manual online—has sparked a rediscovery of the early days. Many small developers are making download-only homages to the 2D, 16-bit days (even if the results are sometimes imbued with a dark, creepy bit of internetty modernity: take the digital-download Super Meat Boy, a 2D platformer in which you pilot a skinless anthropomorphic ball of flesh, who must rescue his kidnapped girlfriend, presumably also a skinless ball of flesh underneath her copious bandages.)

And paralleling the rise of retro homages is a spike in the popularity of the old physical classics. Your Nintendo NES, Sega Genesis, Gameboy cartridges—which I once, as a kid, scooped up by the armful for a buck or two a piece—are rising in price, lifting the tide of the independent game stores. However, their situation is bittersweet. One owner interviewed in Not For Resale fears that as the amount of vintage physical product dwindles and as the current young gaming cohort grows up with no memories of physical games to go back to, there simply won’t be much left to sell.

Likewise, Gamestop’s cornering of the video game trade looks more and more like a pyrrhic victory. The decline of physical media and the rise of streaming and downloading has inexorably eaten away at their fundamental business, and the company has always struggled to break into adjacent ones. They briefly ran buy-sell-trade outlets for movies. They sell a small number of used electronics. They operate a small publishing arm, founded in 2016, that allows them to actually publish a very small percentage of the stuff they sell (basically, a much less successful analogue to Amazon’s television production arm). They dipped their toes into the retro game craze themselves a few years ago, and still quietly buy and sell retro titles, mostly online. But overall, Gamestop has pretty much been content to remain the preeminent retailer for a product that increasingly does not exist. 

You can’t exactly blame the likely scrambling executives, and while the slick, minimalist Gamestop interiors of today are a far cry from the packed and varied stores of the ’90s, a physical store is still a cultural asset. Given the divergence between the independent stores, which mostly focus on older used games, and Gamestop, which carries mostly new and recent releases, there’s no need either to choose between the chain or the mom-and-pops. All of them deserve to survive.

Yet those bitten with the nostalgia bug often take a pessimistic view of their hobby’s long-term future. They contemplate death—whether it’s cassette tape enthusiasts who understand that a $500 deck is only as good as its playback head which can no longer be manufactured, or the Nintendo collector who knows that bit rot will eventually turn even the most exquisitely collectible cartridges into, at best, decorative conversation pieces.

The fact that the stock trading craze was sparked by an affection for what is very likely a doomed company is instructive. The Gamestop enthusiast, like every collector and enthusiast, is fighting entropy, and he knows it. It is a possibly futile, but definitely worthy cause. Eat, drink, and play video games, for tomorrow—perhaps—they die.

about the author

Addison Del Mastro is assistant editor and social media manager of The American Conservative.  He is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy and writes on urbanism, place, and popular and cultural history. Follow him on Twitter at @ad_mastro.

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