Sport for the Mind: The inclusive and social "sport" of tabletop gaming.

Anyone walking down Penrith's High Street might easily miss it; a low-key store frontage displaying a few puzzles and board games. There's no visual fanfare; only a sunny greeting should you set foot inside. I wandered in recently, drawn by the items in the window.

I was searching for a marble ramp. The official story is that I was purchasing the marble ramp "for my four year-old", but you and I both know the truth.

The front of the Mega Games store is an old-fashioned retail delight of hands-on entertainment; puzzles, card games, sciencey thingies, novelties and mindbenders. The rear of the store, however, is what instantly intrigues. In the cavernous sky-blue belly of Mega Games, nerdery in a thousand forms is celebrated by visitors multiple times a week, under the grandparently supervision of proprietors Manuel and Christine Stamatakis.

Today, it's an Easter special; the Easter Bunny (who suspiciously resembles Christine) spontaneously makes the rounds to distribute chocolate and laughs. There is a happy hum from tables full of chatty people of all ages and abilities. Parents of the youngest attendees sit patiently by to supervise their gameplay. Games like Pokemon require rapidfire matching, sending players to different tables to ask one another for a game many times in one day. This creates the necessity of saying hello to someone they don't know, teaching them how to initiate a conversation and make new friends.

Multiple games of different types are happening on tables that are filled with players aged anywhere between five and forty-five, some laughing and socialising... others with furrowed brows and folded arms, concentrating on their next move. Cards cascading down tables are adorned with fantasy creatures. Thick artful volumes filled with aliens and warriors tell of complex worlds whose storytelling possibilities are mathematically almost infinite. Everyone in the room looks like someone I was good friends with in highschool.

If you're not familiar with this whole dealio, friends, welcome to the world of tabletop gaming. The term refers to any game that can be played on a table, from your more familiar boardgames, dice games and card games to more involved roleplay games (remember D&D?). Miniature war games (such as Warhammer 40K or Starfinder) involve battles and banter. All of these games employ strategy, complex knowledge of key figures and their assigned values or abilities, and even the hands-on creativity of painting and styling miniature figurines.

The beauty in the eye of the psychology major, however, is the sight of many people transcending multiple levels of difference to bond over a common interest.

Josh Kopp, 21 (pictured below with his "Magic: The Gathering" cards) says he has attended the Stamatakis' social events since he was 12 years old, and it's not an unusual occurrence for gamers to have matured from children into adults with their hobby as customers of the store. In the same thread lies the potential of specific functions of gaming to teach the basic tenets of coding. The constructs and complexities of games can grow with the individual.

Josh says, "We could just play online, and that's obviously a lot easier. I drive about 45 minutes to get here. You could play at home online and it's the same game, but you really don't get the interaction that comes with sitting to play the game with people. Even if you have a terrible day and a big losing streak, you still got to be here, and hang out with cool people, and go grab lunch or whatnot."

Josh says that there are small nuances about different games and the cultures surrounding them that are known to the community, such as "Magic" players, who are known to be "really annoying with their cards". He demonstrates with a deft flick of a stack of Magic cards, which are smaller than a standard deck. I'm more impressed than annoyed, really.

The crew at the quieter end of the L-shaped room are an all-adult posse who are assembling to play Starfinder, which they describe as an alien or outer-spacey manifestation of Dungeons & Dragons. They range in age from 19 to 43, and are quick to get me laughing. They tell me that the banter in their private group messages add to the fun through the week, which then culminates in the Saturday game. Yes, they're all blokes, but they assure us that women are most welcome to join in.

Four men sit at a table of Starfinder books, dice, a gridded board and figurines. The man at the rear of the table brandishes his hand in the air while saying something funny, while the other three men laugh.
Laughs aplenty with the Starfinder guys (L-R) Luke Blaker, Jacob T Moriarty, Stephen Armstrong and Michael Scotton.

Globally, these hobbies can be expensive, with cards selling as sets in varying price ranges, and individual cards fluctuating in value daily, like shares on the stock market. Other pastimes like Warhammer 40K attract some criticism for creating all-consuming involvement and then attaching suspiciously-expensive price tags to items required for continued play.

Christine and Manuel, however, maintain that their social events are a component of their business that prioritises inclusion over profit, with the retail section of the store serving as the moneymaker. Their price-savvy customers - whose research no doubt is rigorous - voice their appreciation for the Stamatakis' refusal to take full advantage of spikes in card values. They choose instead to build community. They have even run tournaments specifically as fundraisers, choosing a different charity each time. Their most recent fundraiser donated profits to a cancer research charity.

Christine, who will go back into chemotherapy for bowel cancer next month, casts a motherly glance over the young attendees before she steals a moment to sit and chat.

She and Manuel have been running their business in Penrith for 13 years, but from their earliest days in Eastwood and Top Ryde, the Mega Games story is a 25-year odyssey. Christine says that it wasn't always such a social hub, with its first beginnings as a computer store.

"When we opened up, there was a store nearby that was doing what we're doing here now. They were closing down, and said that we should sell some Pokemon cards. In the first couple of weeks - my god - we were inundated with kids! We thought, 'Hmm. Okay. What have we done?' [laughs]

"Pokemon has been going about twenty-five years, but back then, we didn't know what it was. To us, it was just cards! Still, we thought to ourselves, 'Let's just keep a little room for them on the shelf.' We still sold software, but we kept a space out the back for them. And it just grew, and grew, and grew! It was just amazing. People were coming from everywhere. Then we expanded to boardgames, and that opened it up to another group of people."

Christine and Manuel soon began to host tournaments for "Magic: The Gathering", and were one of only two venues for the game in Sydney. Christine says that through these tournaments, she began to see the value of bringing kids together.

They then moved the store to Top Ryde, where they had a two-level store. The upper level was retail, and downstairs was entirely dedicated to social gaming events. Christine agrees that their decision to dedicate entire rooms to this niche clientele had the effect of creating the cohesive community who frequent the store.

She says, "Now, what we've got in the Penrith store is a very safe area. The only way to get into the space is if you are playing, or if you're a parent. For a lot of kids - and we have a few special needs kids - that's really important. From the gate onwards, I'm responsible for everybody. We've had all our police checks done, and stuff like that. We also have to be accredited to run certain things. Right now, we're going through the Pokemon checks. They have special rules in America to run the Pokemon games and we need to follow those rules. I have to do a test every year, for Pokemon!"

In what Christine calls "a sport for the mind", kids who have no wish to play sports or have autistic special interests find comparable benefits in tabletop gaming. Other kids play a sport for the winter or the summer, and visit Mega Games each weekend of the off-season.

"If you can give people a safe place to take part in their special interest, where they're not treated any differently, they're just another person. We give them guidelines and they're good to go. The parents like the fact that they can leave them. I make sure I have their phone number in case anything happens, but they like to be able to walk out to a cafe and get a cup of coffee."

A mother wearing a grey t-shirt is seated at a table with her son, who wears blue framed glasses and a white spotted button-up shirt over a black tee. They are both smiling, and showing off the colourful Pokemon cards and playing mat.
Erin and Callum Moulds with Callum's Pokemon setup.

This mini-respite opportunity is an unexpected side benefit for regular customers of the store who have children on the autism spectrum, but many parents can be seen attending tables with their kids.

Local mum Erin Mould has regularly brought her son Callum to play Pokemon since February. She says her eldest son used to play Yu-Gi-Oh! at Mega Games, and it inspired Callum to take a similar interest. Before that, their father played games at the Eastwood store. The family tradition is not likely to stop anytime soon, with Callum's enthusiasm for the pursuit leading to enjoyable social opportunities that cannot be found in quite the same way anywhere else.

Erin says, "Callum is building his resilience for problemsolving. When something's not quite going his way, he is learning to look at the other person's perspective on the problem. The rules of the game mean that he needs to do that. He also needs to question whether he's thinking things through, and whether he's doing his maths right."

I asked Erin if she has needed to supervise the games quite closely, or "referee" the situation often. She says that she has assisted with problemsolving in the past, but Callum is increasingly taking charge of problemsolving himself.

"It was the same with Callum's older brother playing Yu-Gi-Oh!... me stepping away and letting them figure it out on their own. Callum is developing social skills. He's on the spectrum, and so is my older son. A lot of the kids are. It's really good interaction for them; understanding the rules of play, and so on."

Erin says that the gaming environment at Mega Games provides deeper social learning opportunities that are absent in schools.

She explains, "The school just pander to him. They have like, thirty kids in the room. If Callum gets upset about something, he gets put in the corner and told to calm down and come back to it, whereas, here, he has to sort it out. He has to think, 'No, that's not quite right... how will I solve this situation so that I can continue with the game?' This is instead of being put in the corner and being told to breathe it out. Life's not like that. You need to problemsolve it. You need to figure it out."

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