I was ten years old when I walked into a GameStop in Houston with my mom and brother to become one of the 8.5 million customers to buy 2010’s Red Dead Redemption that year. The Western-themed video game—about a former outlaw who is forced by the FBI to hunt down members of his old gang and bring them to justice—follows the antihero tradition of Clint Eastwood’s characters and features the expansive scene-setting of Lonesome Dove and a script on par with that of The Searchers. Unfortunately, the guy at the register didn’t quite put it like that.
After my brother and I picked up the plastic case, with its M for “mature” rating, and took it to the register, we braced for the clerk’s response. Such a clerk, never much older than ourselves and, in my mind, always sporting glasses and an untidy ponytail, could make or break our leisure plans with his decision. Would he help us pull the wool over our mother’s eyes and undersell the violence in the game? Or would he responsibly describe it?
In this case, he did neither. Instead, he explained the game’s honor system, in which players can choose to do good or bad and will reap the consequences of their actions. Generous, (mostly) law-abiding players of the game are paid better and are respected by strangers; evil players instill fear and spit out insulting lines of dialogue. Our clerk said he liked to play bad.
Somehow, we walked out of the store with that game. I turned out fine (I think), and without that clerk, that game, and GameStop, I never would’ve learned how much narrative could be packed into the eight-bit’s great-great-grandkid.
I didn’t know until recently that GameStop, the largest video game retailer in the world, was born in Dallas in the eighties as Babbage’s, which attracted an investment early on from eccentric billionaire Ross Perot; got its present name in 2000; and is now headquartered in Grapevine. It’s the fourth-largest employer in the town, just thirty minutes northwest of Dallas. But from its dingy shops, you could walk out with a CD that would let you explore an engaging story or a whole new world for dozens, or even hundreds, of hours.
Video games have rapidly evolved from the particle that was Atari’s 1972 classic, Pong, to today’s galaxy of console, computer, and mobile games, which encompass everything from racing and flight simulators to games requiring virtual-reality headsets. Today, most games are purchased digitally rather than in brick-and-mortar stores like the GameStop of my childhood. Now 52 percent of Americans across every age cohort play games on consoles such as Nintendo, PlayStation, and Xbox, fueling an industry with a market value of nearly $52 billion.
Despite the ubiquity of video games, their storytelling power has long been underappreciated. For years, studios of artists, coders, and writers have worked to produce content of the same caliber as our best films and television series. And Hollywood is finally putting massive creative energy behind the adaptations of popular video games into streaming series. No piece of art better exemplifies this dynamic than HBO Max’s postapocalyptic The Last of Us. The show is breaking viewership records. And while HBO Max makes clear that the series originated as a video game, many fans may not realize the just how similar it is, down to the exact same blocking of certain scenes, the dialogue, and the near-perfect faith to the plot.
Where does this leave GameStop? For members of Gen Z like myself, 96 percent of whom are gamers, the chain’s stores were temples. But today, in the digital marketplace for buying games, the religion is fading. With cash on hand and minimal debt, GameStop is still trying to figure out how to address digital sales and turn a profit. After four years of losses, some analysts predict it will go the way of Blockbuster. But for now, those grungy temples still stand, and they deserve a prayer—or at least a “Thank you for your service.”