I'm With Stupid

Video games, like pornography, are addictive. On some level, everyone knows that. That’s why we spend so much money on them. It’s why dried-up Congressmen take time off from seducing their new pages to hold hearings on ratings systems. It’s why tearful wives pour their hearts out to strangers, telling them how their husbands spend all their time online, waving “swords” at “worms” in Everquest. It’s why videogame magazines are sealed in plastic, so that the mark doesn’t get a peek at the goods without paying.

Videogames are like porn, and porn is a dirty, smelly, wet business. If you have to touch anything to do with videogames, you’d better have some alcohol nearby to wash and disinfect afterwards. I’ve seen a lot of sordid things. I know how cheap and tawdry the retail gaming business is. It’s a tease machine, all hype and silicone designed to activate a compulsion in the poor john not just to go buy the lousy game, but to go to the store, right now and buy it today, at full price. And like porn, when you get it home from the store and look at it in the cold light of day, the main thought in your head is often “What the hell was I thinking?”

And also like porn, if you’re not willing to mail order, you’ve got to go to a filthly little shack frequented by shady characters. Today, I was going to my local Electronics Boutique. The manager of that store is a rat bastard, a filthy little troglodyte with grasping, sweaty hands and murine face. Some people end up in retail because they love it, and spend their time in the company of customers and friends, placidly watching the days go by. But there is another type of man, a man who represents the dark side of retail. He is in it because he loves the money. Not the salary, no, that’s not it. The physical contact. He’d have been a banker, but the banks are too sharp to let this type of man near the holiest of holies. In their job interview he’ll take a blood test, or a urine sample, and then they’ve got his number. A security guard comes in and beats him away from the branch manager like a rotten cur. Hair dishheveled, tie loose, he stumbles away, like a vampire that’s just been kicked out of the blood bank. Eventually, the smell of cash brings him to a videogame store, and he becomes the manager.

Oh, you know he’s here after hours. He has to count the money, and recount it. He touches and caresses it. There’s not a dollar bill sent back to Corporate that he hasn’t physically rubbed. If he could, he’d run his tongue down every picture of George Washington that he could find.

I knew the man was in there went I went into the store, but when you’re buying pornography you can’t be too choosy about the vendor. “How bad can it be?” you ask yourself. As long as the man keeps his hands out of his pants while you’re in the store, you’ll make it through this. But I’d forgotten about this store. I’d forgotten that in a world full of evil, demented videogame store managers, this store’s manager was something special.

This atavistic, evil dwarf is the perfect embodiment of EB Games and all that it stands for. It’s not just that they’re greedy, and are after your money. That’s just America. But if you look at how videogames are sold in this country, the margin goes to the big publishers. This means that a place like EB Games makes just as little as a small electronics store, but with higher overhead and more inventory. The way they compensate for this is by exploiting the consumer’s desire for convenience by buying their games back cheap and selling them high. It’s built in to their business model that the way for them to make money is to sell you games that you don’t want, specifically so that you’ll sell the games back to EB at a huge loss, which will then sell them to someone else at $5 under retail. The only way they can stay in business is to squeeze every last cent from the games they sell, and re-sell, and sell again, like water from a dishtowel.

And that money is pure profit.

He was talking when I came in. That’s one of the things that makes him particularly bad – he’s always talking. I go to the demo kiosk running Gran Turismo 4, trying to ignore him, but it doesn’t work. It never works.

He’s talking about World of Warcraft, talking to some poor dumb bastard, a brute in black leather and white sneakers. This guy was a football player in high school, but a busted rotator cuff queered his chance for a scholarship, and now he works part time for the car wash. The manager wheedles at him, talking about how much fun they’ll have playing the game together. “Oh, sure, we all play on the same server. Isn’t that right, Ray?” Ray is a ferret-in- training behind the counter, 18 years old, who nods vigorously whenever his rat-bastard of a manager says anything particularly hateful or odious. He’s nodding now, his head flopping on his neck like it’s broken.

“Well, I’m not too sure,” says the dope. “I don’t have no credit card.” The manager’s hands twitch, twice, like fish about to be gutted. “Well, that’s not such a big deal. After all, the first month’s free. Do you have a friend with a credit card?” Big Dumb lets on as it might be the case that his woman has a card, and that’s all this hideous, deformed rodent needs to hear: “Well, problem solved then. You’re going to love it! I should remind you that there’s no return on this game.” He gently shoves the poor bastard towards the cash register, where Ray is waiting to complete the molestation. I want to leap over the monitor and grab the guy and bring him to his senses. “Get ahold of yourself, man. Can’t you see what they’re doing to you? You’ve got to flee! These bastards are going to drug you, roll you, sodomize you, and dump your body in Panther Hollow. It’s not safe!”

But I’m paralyzed by shock at the audacity of this grinning little homunculous, and they complete their fleecing of the rube. This is beyond even the banality of EB’s workaday evil. He can’t re-buy and re-sell this game at a profit. He’s just selling this guy a game he can’t actually afford out of sheer cruelty. He’s the sort of man that electrocutes dogs, just to see what will happen. Jesus Christ! I’ve got to get out of this place, or they’ll come for me next. I cut and run.

In The Exchange, down the street, bored teenagers lethargically sell videogames and music to customers. They keep the games near the door, to make sure the trenchcoats can get in and out fast, and not make the normal, healthy music customers feel uneasy. They are not efficient, but neither do they speak much, which counts for a lot.

I picked up my copy of GT4 there, and headed home. The night air was cold. Up the block, at the Electronics Boutique, the stars seemed a little dimmer. A hungry darkness crouched there, and was waiting.

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