"I am Super Mario!" bellows a towering Polish man, beating my Nintendo 3DS against his chest. It seems that his name is, indeed, Mario. "I am plumber too! But when I go down pipes, all I find is shit!"
When I took the 3DS, along with my PlayStation 2 and 3, to a temporary homeless shelter in central London, my intention was to write a sickeningly worthy article, a treatise on the plight of the disadvantaged, packed with heartwarming anecdotes about rekindled childhood passions and the positive impact of gaming on the lives of the homeless. It would be a good thing.
Instead I experienced one of the more hilarious, terrifying days of my life. And an unfathomably filthy 3DS.
The shelter entrance backs onto the river, the former reception area of a sprawling office complex. My fingers stiffen in the cold that penetrates the glass doors. I spill my game selection across the front desk. The building has no heating.
"We don't have much trouble with violence here," she says. "And we'd like to keep it that way."
To gain permission for this piece, I had to agree that the shelter organizers could approve my choice of games. The team leader glares at me with a head teacher's disapproval.
"We don't have much trouble with violence here," she says, plucking out a copy of Mortal Kombat and throwing it into a cardboard box underneath her desk. "And we'd like to keep it that way."
Copies of Call of Duty, God of War, and Grand Theft Auto IV promptly suffer the same fate.
"What is this, Australia?" I quip.
She doesn't get the joke. When every title has been vetted, she leans forward on the desk and lets out a weary sigh. Her skin is pale, eyes ringed with dark shadows. She may not have slept for several days.
"I'm not sure this is a good idea," she says, waving over a volunteer to show me up to the entertainment area.
A reciprocal sliver of doubt cuts through my own mind as I make my way through the shelter. A canteen is lined with folding tables, heavily bundled men clinging to Styrofoam cups as their breath comes off them in clouds. Vacant-looking residents shuffle bare-footed back and forth to the toilets. A narrow flight of stairs takes us up to a junction of corridors. Scaffolding blocks one direction, and opposite that is a long room with the windows covered. Rows of cot beds punctuate the gloom, arranged like a military field hospital. It isn't exactly the core gaming audience.
A third doorway leads into a busier room, bustling with the hum of voices. This is the entertainment area, cobbled together from miscellaneous junk. Fluorescent strip-lights cast a sickly glow over stacks of board games and puzzles; a giant chess set with pieces that seem to have been whittled with a teaspoon; somewhat incongruously, an abandoned barber's station. At the far end of the room a group of residents is crowded around a ping pong table, cheering on a game being played at such pace that I can't even make out the ball.
The television marks out the center of the room. It's perched on a wheeled stand, the old stalwart of classrooms. Mismatched plastic chairs are arranged in front of it, empty but for a young guy in a baseball cap staring glassy eyed at the blank screen. I start unpacking my apparatus, wrestling with the wires that have taken it upon themselves to form indecipherable knots. I don't notice Baseball Cap arrive at my shoulder.
"What you got there?" he says, almost in a whisper.
I step aside to reveal the dusty, grizzled brothers that are my Playstations. He nods in appreciation and gestures at the TV.
"That thing HD?"
I look at the television, a solid black cube that could have been hewn from a quarry, then back at him. "I don't think so."
A look of distaste passes across his face, like a baby sampling a lemon, and he shuffles off to join the commotion of the ping pong table.
This is the first sign that I might need to reconsider my preconceptions of homeless people. It's easy to think of them exclusively as malnourished vagrants with only a shopping trolley to call their own. So it can be a surprise to realize that technology hasn't left them behind; many of the residents are young and hold down jobs, arriving at the shelter in work uniforms. Almost all of them own a decent mobile phone. Charger cables trail out of every electrical outlet like creeping vines. Grey carpet tiles have been pulled up all over to access the sockets hidden in sunken floor ports. Throughout the day, residents talk to me about their favorite mobile games. In a life often defined by loneliness and boredom, free-to-play mobile games can offer a real lifeline.
"I'm sick of Angry Birds!" a young guy called Peter insists, stabbing dejectedly at the cracked screen of his iPhone. "It's too easy!"
I suggest that, if it's difficulty he wants, he spring for Super Hexagon. Within minutes he's swearing spectacularly at the screen. I show off my best times, and dare him to beat them before I leave.
The exchange leaves me a little more confident about why I'm here.