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Shelter Bowl: Gaming in a Homeless Shelter

David_Owen | 6 Jul 2013 10:00
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I sit in the middle of the chairs, self-consciously playing Sonic & Sega All-stars Racing. After around half an hour, a young Scottish guy called Malcolm drops down beside me.

"Give you a game?"

"Nah, mate. It's just like Mario Kart, in't it?"

I set up the multiplayer, wandering if the honourable thing would be to throw the race. I start slowly, and immediately realise that it won't be necessary. In what I can only assume is a deliberate act of humiliation, he selects Amy and beats me by the better part of a lap.

"Have you played this before?" I ask.

"Nah, mate. It's just like Mario Kart, in't it?"

Over the next few races he lets me in on his gaming history. Like most kids, he grew up with a NES and SNES. As he cruises into first place in the next pair of races, he cheerfully informs me that his childhood friends refused to play him because he always won.

Both his parents died when he was eleven. He landed in a care home. He doesn't know what happened to his consoles. As he grew older and burned through a succession of foster homes, he ended up in a young offenders institution, and, eventually, on the streets. Understandably, his hobby of choice fell by the wayside.

"Good to know I've not lost it," he grins, claiming another first place finish.

Admitting defeat, I follow him down to the canteen for a drink. At a table in the corner Peter is hunched over his phone, jabbing at the screen and mumbling a stream of profanity. He ignores me when I call his name.

By the time I get back upstairs, the seats around the TV have filled up with Polish men who resemble a troupe of bedraggled weightlifters. A man with a bad comb-over has loaded up an old Final Fantasy X save file. The pad is comically small in his oversized mitts. He guides Tidus along a sun-dappled path amid lush tropical greenery. His friends shout support in impenetrable Polish during every random encounter. The noise attracts other volunteer team members, who stand around shifting their feet nervously.
It's during this time that I meet Mario, who adjusts the 3D intensity up and down on the 3DS, rocking his head back and forth to check it from different angles.

"This is nice. Can I have it?"

Mario is twice my size, his t-shirt reduced to a crop top by the breadth of his shoulders. I reach for the handheld apologetically, muttering something about someone else wanting a go. Mario relinquishes it begrudgingly, puffing himself up to his full size like a spooked cat. Turning on his heel, he spits a word which, when I look it up later, is hardly a term of endearment.

The man in control of Tidus stays on a single screen for quite some time, circling around the same tumbledown statue in a palm tree clearing. I ask him if he's stuck.

"No. It reminds me of home." I realize that his eyes are welling up. "It is just like Poland, but without shit everywhere."

For the rest of the day the area in front of the television is packed. The windows fog up with body heat. I watch the record being broken for time taken to grow bored with Heavy Rain (two and a half minutes). Shadow of the Colossus is quickly dismissed as "art bollocks."

The only trouble comes when I have to diffuse a fist fight after Malcolm persists in earning the ire of his fellow players by knocking them off ledges in LittleBigPlanet, cackling delightedly each and every time. The game becomes an unlikely addition to the banned pile. I silently curse myself for showing him how to do it.

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