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Justine Knight speaks to Tim Henton about Play!, a gaming cafe making its way to York

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Image: Tim Henton and Kirsty Dodge

The world of gaming, if left to its own devices, can become insular and isolated. I have spent hours in my room in the dark only to realise days later that the world's still turning without me and my stomach's been rumbling for a long time. And while some games need alone time for an immersive experience, consoles and gaming have the potential to foster social engagements.

When my attention was drawn to the Kickstarter campaign for Play!, an upcoming gaming cafe in York, I threw down my old Nintendo and sat up. The people behind the project, Tim Henton and Kirsty Dodge, believe that there is potential for a more social gaming scene in York. Speaking to Tim about their aspirations for the cafe, he tells me that "online gaming has meant that people don't socialise in person round the television anymore. The main objective for Play! is to provide a venue where people can connect over some of the best local multiplayer games from every console generation".

When asked about what challenges they might face he says that the biggest one will be finding the right venue: "Being such a picturesque tourist spot, York obviously has a lot of businesses vying for space in the city centre. We are working to make sure that we are as ready as possible to pounce on the right property as soon as it becomes available!" It's been around one year since they first made their plans to open a gaming cafe public knowledge, so they are eager to move forward as soon as possible. From their website it is clear they have exceeded their Kickstarter goal.

Funding can be one of the greatest pitfalls for any new idea, but Kickstarter has assisted with many creative dreams, from indie games to high street establishments. What better way to prove to investors that the gaming community is keen about the idea then to show their investment? It beats buying another limp DLC for a game you rarely play anyway. "From the very beginning, Kickstarter seemed like the perfect fit for us. We want our cafe to have a strong community feel to it so we knew we wanted to connect with locals as soon as possible before even opening. By allowing people to pay for their membership upfront, we are in an amazing situation where we can say that we know 267 local people who can't wait for us to open our doors to them, and we are so grateful to them."
The objective for Play! is to provide a venue where people can connect over the best games

The conversation moves towards first and favourite games. Tim confesses, "We've been massive fans of video games since childhood. Three friends and I would meet religiously every weekend to play whatever new multiplayer game we could get our hands on for their Playstations or my N64. Kirsty and I really think this type of gaming is dying out to a degree. In terms of board games, Kirsty and I both come from families that love nothing better than to sit around the kitchen table playing. My mum and dad are really into Ticket To Ride at the minute so we keep buying them the expansions for birthdays and Christmas!" This made me feel giddy, as I have grown up with the PlayStation 2 since it was my brother who first made me pick up a controller.

Meeting players through gaming is an easy task. Today I can log onto my console, click multiplayer and wait for the system to link me with someone anywhere in the world. It's easy, we play a game and then go our separate ways. Sometimes we will add each other as friends - if they are a decent person - but I don't find it memorable for the company. In fact, my greatest enjoyment has been playing with people I know well. This project means you don't have to let go of your controller to have a social interaction. That's what the gaming community should be about; simply one player turning to someone else, either a newcomer or a seasoned player, and saying, 'hey this is pretty cool, check this out.'

I raise a common stereotype: some view the gaming scene as gender biased. Whether it's a group of guys crowding around a game of cards or your brother shouting at you over a player vs player match. Tim shoots this assumption down quickly: "Last year Gametrak estimated that 20 million people living in the UK aged 11-64 play video games regularly (42 per cent) and since 2014 women have accounted for over 50 per cent of all gamers in the UK so the stigma of gaming being a male-centric 'hardcore' pasttime is getting very tired". I agree. And when this upstart cafe takes off, I will be happy to see many people emerge from their caves and see the different genders, ages and ethnicities exhibiting a uniting passion for a game, genre or platform which is an amazingly powerful bonding tool. You like the Krogan war hammer? So do I.
You don't have to let go of your controller to have a social interaction, that's what gaming should be about

From our talk it is clear that Kirsty and Tim know their games, and both have adept culinary experience to support both sides of their business: "It wasn't until Kirsty and I began working at a local cafe that the final pieces of the puzzle fell into place for us. I've personally worked in the food industry in York but not directly in this environment so it was working together in this set up that made it very clear that we would be the right people for the job!" Thinking about my own personal experience of spilling food on gaming equipment, I asked him whether there was a risk of damaging the games, Tim reassured me that they "have been toying with the idea of clear Perspex sheets to protect gaming boards etc. but we have been to other similar establishments that just trust their customers and let them get on with it."

York is a place of high culture, independent movies, musicians, and theatre. But with the expansion of Travelling Man, OG gaming and other venues, I wanted to know whether he thought video games and fantasy aspects are within that sphere of culture too. "Most definitely," he said. "I think York is becoming the North's premier destination for this. Once open we want to work closely with other local businesses in the sector." He continues: "York is the ideal place for anything! We are very lucky to live in such a beautiful city where the locals are so friendly and open to new ideas. We were ecstatic when the Arts Barge was granted planning permission earlier this year and with the recent announcement of Spark: York as well, there are some fantastic independent, quirky venues popping up all over the city. The time is now!"

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