I'm from Orange County and now live in the San Francisco Bay Area where I run my game store. Game store owners often talk about how the Bay Area is a Mecca for stores while Orange County is a gamer wasteland. I talk about it a lot, because friends and family wonder if it's possible for me to one day return here, possibly to start a similar business in Orange County. So I thought, why not start by looking at the numbers?
I went to the Wizards of the Coast retail locater site. I will be the first one to say that this site has a lot of inaccurate information. For example, I haven't been able to get my store's information fixed for six months now. I'm using the WOTC site because all game stores carry WOTC products. Unless you're a Games Workshop corporate store, all game stores carry Dungeons & Dragons and/or Magic cards. This site is also nice because it allows me to do some interesting searches. For example, I can search for game stores by zip code within a certain radius and I can search for just stores with organized play (OP). It's now pretty clear that organized play is what keeps the hobby alive, so my thoughts are that areas with strong OP are areas of strong gamer culture.
I looked at the city of Orange first. It's somewhat central to Orange County and it's where I'm sitting right now. Within 20 miles of Orange, there are 3 stores with Wizards of the Coast organized play. Expand that out to 30 miles, and you get 7 stores. That's not bad. However, when you look at how many stores sell Wizards of the Coast products, you get 87 and 134, respectively. So within the OC/LA area, you have about 4% of the stores supporting the hobby with in-store gaming, while the remaining 96% are comprised of chain stores and small retailers who merely sell the products. I'm comparing ratios because it allows me to ignore other factors, like population.
Next I looked at Oakland. Oakland/Berkeley is probably the center of gaming culture in the SF Bay Area, probably the entire West Coast. It has history and tradition. My store isn't there because there are already too many stores in that area, competing and specializing just to make a go of it. Within 20 miles of Oakland there are 7 stores with Wizards of the Coast organized play (including mine). Within 30 miles, it expands to only 9, which I think is telling. Looking at stores that sell WOTC product but don't have organized play, we get 71 and 97 respectively. Doing the division, we have 10% of the stores supporting the hobby with in-store gaming, with 90% being those small retailers and chains without "OP". However, within that 90% are many more small retailers, comic book shops and similar stores than in Orange County, which is dominated by chain stores.
So we have 4% of stores in OC being game centers, compared to 10% in the Bay Area. With the Bay Area being more diversified in the remaining 90% of non game center stores (two thirds instead of three fourths). We also don't see a lot of stores in the Bay Area beyond the urban center. So what do I draw from these results?
My thoughts are that suburban culture doesn't support hobby gaming, while a more urban culture is amenable to it. You still have similar demographics, but the people who would play hobby games in a suburban area are doing other activities. I think they're more interested in popular culture and what's hot now. It's self selecting, as far as I can tell. If you move to the suburbs, you're saying you don't value the urban. You're trading diversity for a more static setting. You're experience of culture is now via the media; popular culture.
Urban culture values tradition and sub-cultures. You stay in an urban culture because you value things like older homes, small businesses, unique restaurants, but also cultural activities, including sub-cultures like music and similar "non-normative" forms of expression. You value it enough to brave higher crime, questionable schools and other negatives of urban life. This isn't an absolute; I've got a large customer base that visits my suburban store that values hobby gaming, obviously. However, if my store was in Oakland, for example, I might have six additional competitors close by, rather than one anemic one about to close.
I think this analysis works well for these two locations, but there are many exceptions if you try to extend it. For example, I think the hobby game sub-culture is more integrated into Midwest culture. For example, I've seen strong competition with organized play stores in Wisconsin suburbs. Other reasons for the strength in the Midwest are racial and economic. Hobby gamers are predominantly Caucasian, with a small percentage of Asian gamers. There are very few Hispanics or blacks compared to the overall population. Although the Midwest is changing, it's still predominantly white. The Midwest is also cheaper to run a business, especially one that requires a lot of square footage. Creating a hobby center with organized play is much less expensive, and with a strong gamer sub-culture, you have a stronger customer base than the smaller population would normally provide (any military base will do the same thing).
This is like the blind men and the elephant, trying to describe this strange thing by only grabbing the tail or trunk. Those with the real information are the national game distributors and big companies like Wizards of the Coast. Nobody really understands how many game stores there are are what constitutes a game store. All we can do is grasp at that elephant.
Within 20 Miles
3 (OP)/87 (No OP) 3.44%
Within 30 miles
7 (OP) /134 (No OP) 5.22%
Within 20 miles
7/ (OP) 71 (No OP) 9.8%
Within 30 miles
9 (OP) /97 (No OP) 9.28%