Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Gaming Spaces

I’ve spent more than 30 years “around the gaming table,” a place that has ranged from the dining room table at home and friends’ houses to game stores, public and school libraries, and vast convention halls. Sometimes “gaming tables” seemed cozy and focused, other times they got cramped, crowded, and loud. I’ve experienced more gaming locations than I can recall, yet both the good and the bad still stand out in my memory and serve as fodder for some disparate – and hopefully amusing – recollections.

A small, regional convention with
gaming tables surrounded by vendor booths.
I started gaming around our modest dining room table, a space normally reserved for holiday meals and guests which I slowly took over for hosting players of various kinds of games. As my circle of gaming friends grew we migrated from one player’s home to the next, usually around the kitchen table but occasionally gathered on den couches or around a coffee table. Weekend afternoons seemed best, but if we strayed into the after-dinner hours the host’s parents often made a cameo appearance at some point to ask us to “keep it down, we’re trying to sleep.” The most hospitable home – the place where everyone went to hang out, whether they were gaming, watching videos, or just spending time together – possessed a seemingly endless supply of chips and soda, had parents who didn’t intrude if we made some noise, and always had a cushy sofa on which we were welcome to crash after game sessions that ran into the wee hours of the morning. (This particular household hosted the memorable New Year’s Eve gaming event about which I’ve reminisced before.) On several occasions friends tried having extended gaming weekends, what some might consider mini-conventions, at their house (or at several homes over the weekend), and these varied based on the general hospitable nature of the family. Understanding parents, comfortable gaming spaces, and plenty of food seemed key factors in successful home gaming environments, at least in my younger days.

I’ve played games in library spaces, both public and academic. I was kicked out of my high school library for nothing more than playing a game I designed that involved dice; the British-born librarian felt that dice were inappropriate (a cultural view I learned about later, from R. Talsorian’s Castle Falkenstein game no less) and hence banished us. I later ran sessions of my Creatures & Caverns game for friends in the cafeteria during free periods. I spent a summer running weekly Dungeons & Dragons games at my hometown public library, butting heads with the two hard-core gamemasters who organized the program because they didn’t feel I was playing the game the way they felt was right. I had a horde of 10 kids all around 10 years old in a meeting room alcove off the main children’s section, hardly ideal for getting very far in the adventures I designed for the program. More recently I spent about a year volunteering at the local public library’s monthly teen board gaming sessions in a large programming room separate from the rest of the library lest we disturb the sacred silence of those hallowed halls; I taught and hosted Pirateer and Forbidden Island. Keeping the potentially loud and boisterous gaming insulated from the rest of the quiet library enables participants to enjoy themselves without worrying that they’re distracting other patrons.

A good game store maintains some space, permanent or temporary, for in-store gaming. Throughout my gaming days I’ve seen a vast range of gaming spaces within stores, from dingy back-rooms near the bathroom and corners hidden behind retail shelves to large portions of the store devoted to tables for board, card, and wargames. I’m grateful both my current Friendly Local Game Stores (FLGS) have ample space for in-store gaming; the closest has eight long, folding tables in four rows occupying the middle of the retail space (with shelves of comics and games lining the walls), and the farther one has half the store space dedicated to game tables, including shelves for storing wargaming terrain and a back room for select games (and a table suitable for roleplaying games tucked away at the back of the retail space). I’ve participated in games at the former – a few X-wing Miniatures Game tournaments, the occasional Saturday night casual X-wing game, some board game demos at International Tabletop Day – and while things can get a little crowded and noisy, the environment remains welcoming to gamers thanks to friendly players and hospitable staff. Both stores have the adventure gaming business savvy to offer sodas and snack foods for sale to cater to gamer’s appetites and give them an opportunity to make at least a small purchase in gratitude for providing a good gaming location.

Gaming in hotel suites sometimes adds
an element of exclusivity...especially
with special guests.
Gaming conventions offer occasional opportunities for exposure to new games and players as well as reliable favorites with old friends. The convention size often dictates the nature of the gaming space. Major conventions like GenCon and Origins host games in a variety of spaces ranging from hotel meeting rooms to vast exhibition halls. Smaller regional conventions often rely on the event space – typically a hotel with conference facilities – scheduling gaming in everything from ballrooms and meeting rooms to hotel rooms with beds removed and banquet tables and chairs crammed into the space. I’ve run games at many conventions, including one in a cavernous and noisy hall at GenCon back in Milwaukee, many in medium-sized meeting rooms and ballrooms with 5-10 tables, and a few stuffed into the aforementioned hotel rooms crammed with one or two banquet tables. I don’t always like the latter; while they often afford privacy and quiet (as long as there isn’t a second table jammed into the room), they remain so well-removed from the main gaming halls the non-existent foot traffic discourages both casual spectators and last-minute participants. I appreciate the quiet, but it seems detached from the general community feeling of smaller conventions. They remain perhaps the best spaces – when not so crammed – for private games, such as any of the Star Wars Roleplaying Game sessions I’ve run where players bid in a charity auction for seats at the table with a famous author guest like Timothy Zahn. At cons I generally prefer gaming spaces closer to other programming activities, whether a large ballroom with many tables or smaller meeting rooms with a handful of tables. Perhaps the most unexpectedly pleasant convention game experience came from player generosity; the game was originally scheduled for a meeting room with several other active tables (with groups that promised to get loud and rowdy), but two of the participants had booked a hotel suite and – with the consent of the rest of the players and a note left at the table – we gladly adjourned to the suite’s dining room table for an intense game fueled by the hosts’ stash of snack foods and beverages.

Where do we play games? The answer often depends on one’s particular type of game, personal resources, and general opportunities. Most broad location categories themselves can range between ideal and intolerable, though lucky gamers find or create gaming situations that work best for them. What makes ideal location conditions for games? Do certain spaces lend themselves better to different games? What kinds of compromises in environment do we make to engage with others in gaming? Despite noise, crowds, and other distractions, gamers can make the best of their situations to focus on their hobby and ensure their own play experience remains positive. The times when I felt the game location seemed disruptive were the times when I allowed those issues to impact my own experience. A positive attitude combined with others helping to improve problematic gaming spaces goes a long way to providing everyone with a better play experience.


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