It's All in the Game

April 25, 2012 Amanda Gray

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Role-playing games still attract face-to-face players

Whenever I walk into the Griffon in downtown South Bend, I can't help but notice the smell.

It smells full -- full of cards, cardboard boxes, books, dice and all the other items used in playing games of all types.

And always behind the counter is either Ken Peczkowski or Sarah Bird, depending on which day of the week you open the door to the shop, which has been a downtown fixture since the couple opened it in 1976.

Gaming, or the gaming that you'll find at The Griffon, is called "role-playing game," or RPG.

The most famous of all RPGs is "Dungeons & Dragons" (D&D), created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in 1974 in Lake Geneva, Wis.

D&D is easy to play: A group of players sit around a table. Everyone creates a character based on dice rolls and charts from the books, and one player acts as "dungeon master," or storyteller, for the game.

The group then begins to adventure, playing through an imagined scenario by rolling dice and imagining together.

It sounds simple, but it's also extremely fun and absorbing -- you'll find you've spent hours playing when it feels like only minutes.

Peczkowski says he started playing D&D when it came out in its first edition, known commonly as "White Box Edition" by players and collectors because of the white cardboard box that the game booklets came in.

"I started playing RPGs in the 1960s, but I've been a gamer since third grade," he says.

Peczkowski, who originally wanted to teach Russian, says the game, for him, is two parts -- both instruction and recreation.

"As a teacher, I see it as a method of instruction to learn things you didn't expect about yourself and others," he says. "You sit down expecting to play a game and you end up learning something about yourself or someone else that you would only know through deep analysis or psychological exploration.

"As a player, it's the ultimate recreation. It's as enjoyable as getting lost in a good book," he says. "After I play, I feel 'recreated.' "

He wanted to open a game shop because he saw a need in the community for a place that welcomed players in a secure environment.

"When I was growing up, I always wished, as the 'egghead' I was, for a place to go without the pressures of alcohol and locker room mentality," he says. "Sarah wanted the same things, too. When we opened this, we decided we're going to make this a place where people can feel safe."

Conventions and convictions

Gaming culture is not complete without conventions, where gamers from all over the country and world gather to play together for a long weekend.

The most famous gaming convention is GenCon, held in Indianapolis every year but founded in Lake Geneva by Gygax himself.

Peczkowski says he started attending GenCon with the second convention, and has regularly attended since.

"It felt like you were going to a sock-hop, with everyone dressed up with briefcases," he says. "Everyone was refined but shy. The convention was like coming out of the closet -- everyone knew you were a gamer."

The convention atmosphere even hit locally, when Peczkowski and Bird started GriffCon in 1978, he says. The convention was held at the Century Center, and then at the University of Notre Dame and Indiana University South Bend, for eight years.

The 1980s was the best decade for gaming, according to Peczkowski and many other gamers. It was the time with the most players, the most sales and the most fame for gaming -- but that fame wasn't always a good thing.

The 1980s brought many critics to the forefront of the campaign against gaming, specifically D&D, Peczkowski says.

"We had concerned parents asking if the game was OK for their children," he says. "I said, 'As long as your child understands the difference between imagination and reality, they will be fine.' "

Not all players had the easiest time making this distinction. In 1979, 16-year-old prodigy and Michigan State University student James Dallas Egbert III disappeared from his campus. He was a D&D player, and his disappearance was thought to be related to his addiction to the game. He was ultimately found a few states away.

The story filled the nation's papers, and, eventually, it was made into a book by the chief investigator, William Dear. "The Dungeon Master: The Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III" ultimately shows that it wasn't gaming that made Egbert run away, but the damage was done.

Even pop culture got into the fray, with the made-for-TV movie "Mazes and Monsters" (starring a young Tom Hanks), about a young man who loses himself to the game.

Many groups protested the game, and it still has a contested presence to this day, though not as much, nor as volatile, as it was in the 1980s.

Girls in gamerland

Being a woman and a gamer is something unique, Bird says.

"I find gamers to be interesting," she says. "I never find them boring, and they have broad interests outside of gaming."

Bird says the environment for women in the game world wasn't always friendly -- in fact, it was (and still is) sexist and unwelcoming at times.

"For many years, we weren't allowed in gaming, or, if we were, it was (with a character) with little clothing and no spirit," she says. "We'd go into battle in a bikini."

Peczkowski says Bird was quick to break the stereotype of the weak female player that couldn't play as well as men could.

"I was sad that a woman either has to break the stereotype on purpose or accept it -- she can't just be a gamer," he says.

Bird refers to the earliest illustrations and figurines, called miniatures, in gaming as evidence of this sexist culture.

"I was at GenCon when I saw a miniature artist that we carried in the store," she says. "The females are always scantily clad, and I went up to him to ask him about it. He said, 'We know our market: It's young men.' "

The love of the game, Bird says, brings her back to the table.

"A fantasy game needs to have a story, and you have to have fun," she says.

It also seems as if the "dark days" of the sexist attitudes in gaming may be approaching an end, she says.

"Now we have women purchasing more board games and RPGs in the last five years," she says. "Now, it's not so rare to see a woman in my store. It's good -- they bring such a different perspective to gaming."

The gamer community

If you're in the store for more than five minutes, you realize there's something special about Peczkowski's relationship with the local community.

He's a friend to everyone that walks in the store, and he has tried so many games that he can talk to almost anyone about their interests.

"We're just old timers that want to play retro games," he says, though he also says a younger crowd does come to the shop to play and purchase games.

Knowing my peers, I see that technology has impacted gaming. Many people turn to video games and online activities as opposed to such face-to-face gaming as D&D.

But Peczkowski says the younger generations still come into his shop, with high schoolers and middle schoolers, along with the college crowd, making up a healthy portion of his business.

"Now it's the original gamers teaching their kids and grandkids," he says.

Peczkowski says he's dedicated to improving the local community, even if it's just through those people that come into his shop.

"These are the guys for whom 'geek' is a badge of honor," he says.

The shop no longer holds gaming tournaments with prizes because they had a problem of people being too competitive.

"We would get 'sharks' " he says, referring to competitive individuals that play tournaments all over the area to win as much free merchandise as possible. "They would collect the prizes every time, and we would get no new blood in the shop. Now, we will do non-aggressive tournaments because we want to keep fees low."

Peczkowski says the game shop, as well as the game room, provides a great opportunity and place for imagination for local youths.

"We're on a goodwill mission," he says. "We see the kids around downtown -- a lot of them come from broken homes or have hard times at school. We want kids to come in and have a place to get away."

One of the easiest ways to use the community of the game shop is the local game nights that happen from 7 p.m. to midnight Fridays and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays in the game room on the second floor of The Griffon.

"It can get pretty crowded," Peczkowski says. "The game room has never made money, but we're OK with that."

Gaming today -- and in the future

Technology has changed gaming -- there's no arguing with that, Peczkowski says.

"When computer games came out in the late '80s and early '90s, I would see people in my store saying, 'I would rather play that on the computer,' " he says.

The store tried to keep up with the times with a software rental program that lasted four years.

"The disks were coming back damaged, so we decided not to continue," Peczkowski says.

Now, The Griffon exists in the niche market, with a small but steady and loyal crowd of customers that purchase board games, card games, RPGs and miniatures, among other gaming paraphernalia.

"We are going to be a niche market," Peczkowski says. "As long as we do right by them, that's OK."

Gaming today is no longer one cohesive unit centered around RPGs, Peczkowski says.

"Gaming is fractured," he says. "Compare it to politics, or literature. I don't know if a traditionalist store could make it. Because of the way it's fractured, we find ourselves in a more precarious position than ever before."

However, the shop is holding steady. The regular stream of customers coming in and out of the shop happens daily, and Peczkowski sits behind the counter, welcoming them all.

He cites a study released by gaming company Avalon Hill 20 years ago as evidence for the success in the niche market.

The company stated that it had a regular customer base of 400,000 gamers across the United States, and that if this group regularly purchased from it, even though it's a relatively small number, Avalon would be able to stay in business.

Peczkowski says that he sees a similar correlation with his game shop. As long as he has a regular base of customers, even if it's small, he'll be open for business.

"Consider it missionary work," he says with a laugh. "We're here for everyone."

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Originally published by Amanda Gray (American Studies, '12) in The South Bend Tribune on April 22, 2012