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Shelter Bowl: Gaming in a Homeless Shelter

David_Owen | 6 Jul 2013 14:00
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As the afternoon drains away, a FIFA tournament is organised. For the first time since my arrival the ping pong table is abandoned. The blackboard used for scoring is dragged over, and tournament brackets drawn. Eight people enter what is quickly dubbed "Shelter Bowl."

The quarter finals are a placid affair. Most entrants are still figuring out the buttons, which results in a startling number of red cards and players somehow tackling their own teammates. The only exciting game is when Malcolm overturns a 2-1 deficit with a pair of injury time strikes. He shoves his jumper over his head and runs a victory lap around the grumbling poles.

The swearing from all quarters is deafening.

The semis are a little more open. One of the Poles takes on Baseball Cap, and finds himself on the wrong end of a 3-0 hammering. Baseball Cap accepts his victory with a quiet smile, ignoring the enormous fists that shake in his direction.

The next game plays out to a draw. Malcolm, who isn't as adept as I'd expected, survives a second half onslaught from the comb-over Pole who practically falls out of his seat with every miss. In extra time, Malcolm scores a wonder strike in the dying minutes, his only shot of the game. The swearing from all quarters is deafening.

Names are scrubbed from the blackboard. The assembled crowd swells in size, people jostling for a better view, placing bets on the outcome. From the conspiratorial muttering that I can decipher, Baseball Cap is a heavy favourite. Malcolm sets up his team, and waits quietly for kick off.

He quickly upsets the odds. By half time he's up 4-0. His players run rings around the opposition. At half time the Poles form a scrum around Baseball Cap, their previous animosity forgotten. They whisper advice, pound their fists on the chairs, and glare daggers at Malcolm. He just smiles and pretends to ignore them.

The second half is the same story. Malcolm scores three more, cruising to a definitive 7-0 victory. The Scotsman is champion of Shelter Bowl. He takes it quietly, grinning as a handful of coins is shoved into his fist. The TV area empties out, dinner time approaching, everyone grumbling off to find less costly entertainment.

"I'll let you in on a secret," says Malcolm, once everyone is gone. "A couple of years ago I played FIFA for 18 hours a day while I was kicking heroin."

He flashes me a wink, jingles the change in his hand, and saunters away to dinner.

While I'm packing everything away, the team leader visits to return the banned games.

"I'm still not convinced this was a good idea," she says, taking in the mess of chairs around the television.

I didn't say anything at the time. It's only later that I realized how much I disagreed. There was no conclusion worthy of grandstanding, but I did witness the power that gaming has to stir fond memories, form unlikely alliances, and bring a few hours of enjoyment to lives blighted by misfortune. There's no way that can be a bad thing.

As I'm making my way out past the bustling canteen, Peter taps me on the shoulder. He wears a broad smile, and shows me his day's work on Super Hexagon.

"I beat your best score. It only took me five hours. What next?"

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