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Where the wild things are

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Arguments about the appropriateness of Byzantine rule changes for popular table-top games are frequent among gamers. Lance Wallace-Franklin, left, Ian Ringgenberg, second from left, Scott Fouss, third from left, and Trevin Verduzco go over rules for the game Descent on Wednesday evening at Game Space, 736 Main Ave., Suite 100.

By Chase Olivarius-Mcallister Herald staff writer

Within the sociology of Durango, sun-tanned athletes, community-minded vegetarians and gregarious guzzlers can seem like the flag-bearers of local normalcy.

Above ground, in the sunlight, most “normal” Durangoans would call men who mutter about “Orks,” goblins and magical armies “crazy.”

But just as subversive expatriates found respite from the Third Reich at Rick’s Café in the movie “Casablanca,“ there is a place, beneath us, where our own culturally dispossessed congregate: Game Space. Here, the patients are in charge of the asylum.

Down the rabbit hole

Walk through Game Space’s entrance, located in the parking lot behind Durango Coffee Co., and enter 2,400 square feet dedicated to gaming: role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons and War Games, and, in the last few decades, video games.

Its walls are threadbare except for posters and a large yellow smiley-face flag behind the cash register. There is no natural light.

Merchandise – collectible cards, board games, materials for building figurine armies – sprawls on shelves. There are battered fold-out tables and chairs in two rooms, computers against many walls (for X-Box enthusiasts) and, in the main room, a large-screen TV that dwells on nature programs.

Those with a passing knowledge of the zeitgeist will recognize some series names such as “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings” but stare blankly at others like “SPANC,” “Dreadball” and “Rivals Catan.”

Gaming isn’t the usual business model, said Steve Ives, Game Space’s owner, a former gas and oil lawyer. The shop sees 150 unique faces a week – but of these, an uncannily large subgroup returns almost daily, sometimes multiple times before closing.

“Hard-core gamers tend to be highly intelligent but not socially skilled,” Ives said.

Fort Lewis College student Scott Fouss says he’s in the shop “four hours a week.”

“I don’t even want to know how much money I’ve spent here,” Fouss said. He estimated it was about $1,000, including $300 on Magic cards, “but the really bad one is War Hammer – it takes $500 just to get in the game.”

The magic of Magic

The world of Game Space – like the alternate worlds its customers curate – is complicated, loosely hierarchical, deeply competitive and full of idiosyncratic wonder.

It’s also totally impenetrable. Watching Ives banter with customers about D&D’s different rule sets is like watching people communicate algebraic equations in heavily accented sign language.

“Oh, the jargon is incomprehensible,” Ives said. “It’s part of the hobby, actually. The Magic rule book is 198 pages long.

“Most games change their rule sets frequently so that people can argue about whether it’s an improvement,” he said, citing the hubbub surrounding the release of new Apple products.

Indeed, a recent debate between two hotheads about the virtues of D&D’s second and third rule sets rivaled the spiritual ardor of Talmudic scholars and the pedantic peacocking of second-rate academics.

Paradise in search of Eve

At 7 p.m. Tuesday, seven men between the ages of 15 and 50 were engrossed in different games, with a Magic contest taking first billing. Their mood was like that of harried fathers on a night out with the guys, except there wasn’t a drop of liquor in sight, and they weren’t momentarily liberated from baby-sitting, but baby-faced.

Still, it was a model of male camaraderie: The comfort they took from talking knowledgeably about concrete, seemingly impersonal things was a pleasure to behold. (Of course, Magic strategies took the usual place of football scores and plumbing problems.)

The only fantasy gamers can’t seem to access through Game Space is women.

“They’re like the unicorn of the gaming world,” said Ives, attributing women’s disinterest in gaming to cultural expectations.

Possibly, the lack of women also reflects the elusive appeal of gaming.

Unlike Latin or Urdu, learning Dothraki – a language created by the author of the Game of Thrones series – is not an accomplishment society flatters as academically laudable, financially rewarding or even abstractly useful.

And it’s risky to emotionally invest in gaming: Cost aside, a D&D campaign can go on for days uninterrupted by sleep.

Fouss recalled that while playing Dark Heresy two years ago, a fellow player “faced a really dark dilemma: save himself or his comrades. He cracked, started mumbling, covered his head – even his girlfriend couldn’t get to him. It really was a psychotic break.”

But Bayfield High School student Erick Kins, who is poised to spend $3,000 to travel to a major out-of-state gaming competition (in hopes of winning its $40,000 prize), said the lure of gaming was simple.

“A group of my friends didn’t have the most pleasant childhoods. But I can go be a dwarf somewhere else. It’s a nice way to get away,” Kins said.

Said Ives: “There’s a heavy dose of catharsis, too. You can have triumphs and failures in a relatively safe place. And if the whole party gets wiped out, drop the dice and do something new.”

cmcallister@durangoherald.com

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