‘A community center for gamers’

Lake Street's Phoenix Games has become a gathering spot that fights youthful isolation

Of all the visual intrigue on display amid the kaleidoscope that is the Lyn-Lake area on a Saturday -- the skaters with metal-detector-triggering faces boarding down the street, the beautiful people sunning themselves over tapas on the sidewalk outside La Bodega -- perhaps nothing is more startling than the scene in the windows of the local hobby store.

Adjacent to Venus (clothier to Minneapolis' more discerning exotic dancers), 20-some boys sit around a battered table of Arthurian proportions. Elsewhere, kids are off watching the digitally created Hulk rampage across movie screens, or plugging in to the "Matrix: Reloaded" video game, but these youngsters appear to be doing nothing more exotic than playing cards.

Ignore the Mountain Dew empties and crumpled bags of Fritos, and the boys look like a group of seniors at a canasta tournament.

The Saturday crowd at Phoenix Games, 901 W. Lake St., is in fact not playing traditional cards, but the trading card game "Magic, The Gathering." The game, which celebrates its 10-year anniversary this year, mixes the fantasy appeal of "Dungeons and Dragons" with the tactical concerns of chess, plus the portability (and tradability) of cards.

Something at the store surely weaves a spell. How else to account for the quiet? That is the afternoon's most remarkable quality: kids sitting in near silence for hours, boys of 10, 11, 13 -- not traditionally the most subdued male years.

Instead of speech, brows are furrowed, lips chewed, tongues stuck out. They concentrate. Occasionally, the air of concentration is broken, as someone says something cryptic like, "Anything is better than tempting worm," and quiet laughter breaks out in the group.

The play also occurs with a lack of competitive ire that verges on surreal. At the end of the 45-minute rounds, players shake hands, exchange soft-voiced compliments of "good game," and it's nearly impossible to tell who won.

A player will say something like, "He had this amplifying beast he kept smacking me with, it was pretty rough" -- apparently indicating serious misfortune -- and yet be smiling like it's his birthday.

The only time there is any boyish sense of mischief is when an announcement goes out to adults in the store that cars need to be moved out of the Venus parking spots. One of the older boys calls out, "Yeah, it's a big day for buying stripper clothes" -- causing a brief giggling outbreak.

So much for hijinks. Hanging out with this Saturday crowd is like going to detention for good kids.

The center

As many a local former-kid could tell you, there has been a hobby store in the Bryant-Lake vicinity for years. Phoenix Games proprietor Neil Cauley opened the current incarnation 16 years ago.

Cauley is passionate about games, albeit in a subdued, disarmingly irony-free manner. He uses words like "wholesome" and "fun," and says with solemn gratitude, "I'm lucky enough to have made a career out of my hobby."

He is such an advocate that when speaking to a reporter, his interest in potential publicity for the store seems to run a distant second to his interest in creating a new gamer.

"It's good to have a hobby," he said.

Over the years, the store's offerings have increasingly shifted from traditional hobbies, such as toy trains or aircraft models, to gaming products. Gaming is a loosely defined segment of the hobby market that includes fantasy role-playing games (the top seller is something called "Warhammer"), as well as role-playing games such as "Dungeons and Dragons," and trading card games such as "Magic."

The store gradually became not only a games supplier, but a playing destination. While the move was not without financial incentive -- Cauley admits that gamers with a place to play and ready opponents make better customers -- it is doubtful that a store with over half its space set aside for play is justified by any currently accepted business model.

The result, Cauley said, is that the store has become "a community center for gamers."

Enthusiasts of the different games have set aside particular days of the week to converge on Phoenix. The majority of "Magic" players are kids from the area, mostly boys, from 7 to 16 years old. Every Saturday, 20 to 35 kids arrive by bike, by bus, by parental chauffeur. Most remain for over five hours. It is a ritual some of the kids have maintained for nearly three years.

The atmosphere is intentionally family-oriented, with parents encouraged to try playing themselves, or at least check out the store on first visits. A sign on the wall lists prohibited activities, including swearing.

And Cauley believes the game itself is a beneficial one for kids: "It helps them work on their reading, develop their math skills, learn to plan ahead, to devise a strategy and interpret the consequences."

The catch

To judge from the kids themselves, the biggest lure may be no more mysterious than the appeal of camaraderie. For all the stimulus of the times, the wide-open terrain of a Saturday can be a lonely prospect to a kid.

Were it not for Saturdays at Phoenix Hobby, 12-year-old Soren Danielson said he would likely be at home playing on the computer, by himself.

Eric Eng, 11, painted an equally isolated picture, as he considered the prospect of his life, post-"Magic."

"After this, I am going to go home and not do anything for five hours until I go to sleep," he said.

Kid after kid cited the interaction, the friends they'd made, as the reason they keep coming back. It is why they think their game is superior to things such as books or video games. Being the precocious lot they are, they say they are not simply making friends, but "developing social skills."

What seems like kids' Eden is not without its own reptile. This issue came up toward the end of the day, when a player pulled the reporter aside.

"Can you not use my name?" he asked, voice cracking. "Can you just call me a kid at the store?"

The problem, the kid explained, is that the store is nerdy.

"There's a stigma," the 15-year-old said, again with the I'll-be-your-boss-someday precociousness. "If you go to school and you play 'Magic,' you're going to get picked on. Some kids keep it out in the open. I don't. I don't lie about it, either. It just never comes up."

Video games may have gone mainstream, he continued, but at school, sports are still what it's all about.

"Sports, clothes and music," he said, "Those are the top three. I think they'll stay at the top for a long time."

Besides, the anonymous teen said, he's going to a new school next year, entering the 9th grade and will be part of an accelerated academic program.

"I have to see if I have time for this. I'm not sure I'll be able to come down here any more."