I stuffed a small handful of quarters and a few $1 bills — almost everything I had at 12 years old — into my front pocket. My mom and I were leaving for the mall to go Christmas shopping, and I wanted to be prepared if something caught my eye. When we got there, I yanked her by the sleeve to my new favorite shop: GameStop.
I perused the used games aisle, counting change, when I stumbled upon Midtown Madness 2, the sequel to a rudimentary racing game that my best friend and I had bonded over a few years earlier. I felt compelled to buy it for him, and for one of the first times in my life, I had the money — pre-owned and a couple years old, the game was marked down to a measly six bucks. Funnily enough, he got me a GameStop gift card that year.
That was December 2004, when GameStop was approaching its Golden Years, surfing on a tidal wave of used-game revenue. Thanks to their cheap games, it was the first year I was able to give someone a gift I paid for myself, and I’ve long appreciated them for allowing me that opportunity.
Now, GameStop is spiraling toward obsolescence, closing hundreds of stores as a result of the coronavirus and sustained declining sales. On the latter point, the coronavirus is only another nail in the coffin for GameStop, as a July article from Seeking Alpha underscores: “In the last five years, GameStop has lost more than 90 percent of its value and the company is currently in the middle of reorganizing itself. While the upcoming release of the next generation of consoles later this year might boost GameStop’s sales, it’s unlikely that the company’s stock will be able to pick up momentum and appreciate from the current lows.”
GameStop may have been a wonderland for budding gamers like myself in the early 2000s, but their public image has been in steady decline for a while now. They took the small, friendly game store and made it increasingly corporate. In the process, employees who joined the company for their love of gaming were forced to push dubious loyalty programs and game exchanges by corporate leaders who they felt were naive to the reality of gaming. Customers, many of whom felt used by GameStop, picked up on that dread.
Likewise, the insane amount of profit GameStop made by essentially lowballing customers who stopped by to trade in their old games plagued their public image since the beginning. I, for one, once brought in an entire console and a box full of games, only to be offered enough to purchase a single game in return. I was just a kid back then, but I still remember the disappointment. (Although, I also know that those low trade-in offers were what allowed GameStop to sell cheap used games, like the one I bought for my friend on that faraway Christmas, in the first place.)
But aside from internal problems, the final demise of GameStop may end up being a gaming industry that has evolved beyond the need for game stores altogether. For a while now, PC gamers have used cloud gaming systems like Steam to purchase and play games, and entirely digital consoles are finally having their moment. Game streaming services are another new addition to the gaming industry, allowing gamers with a stable internet connection to access hundreds of games without buying physical copies or even downloading much of anything. These services usually cost $10 a month or less, negating the need for buying used games. And overall, so far, digital games and consoles appear to be increasingly cheaper than physical ones. (The downside is that digital games are much harder to share with friends, but the upside is that they never get scratched to the point of being unplayable, like discs often would.)
Despite all of this, some have argued that physical video games will persevere to at least some degree, perhaps as collectors’ items. Out of necessity, physical games will also need to stick around for anyone without access to consistent internet, and that currently includes millions of Americans. Indeed, in some places, sales of physical video games have been way up this year (although, it should be noted that this has been a great year for the gaming industry all around).
As for GameStop, it was hardly ever your friendly neighborhood game store, where an employee would randomly whip out their Yu-Gi-Oh! collection while passionately recommending new releases, loyalty programs be damned. Nonetheless, it saddens me to know that a new generation of 12-year-olds may never experience the anticipation of digging through piles of ridiculously cheap used games. They may never feel the community that comes with standing outside your local GameStop for a midnight release. And they may never learn the lessons taught by attempting to resell your once-beloved games to a massive corporation and then being offered, like, $3 in store credit.
For allowing me those moments, thanks, GameStop. You weren’t perfect, but you were good enough for 12-year-old me.