imageIt’s five degrees below Daniel Fahrenheit’s arbitrary zero, cold in the way that one imagines places like Siberia must be, and at 11:30, under skies of black on this bitter winter night, the world seems fit for neither man nor beast. It occurs to me how odd, then, that I am in my car, bundled tight in materials with names like Goretex and Thinsulate as the heater struggles miserably, all for the love of a videogame. We men have a long and proud history of spending these witching hours staring wide-eyed at the ceiling where gloomy shadows cavort and leer, sharing our bed with softly slumbering spouses as the twins of doubt and stress whisper in our mind’s ear, just as our fathers did and their fathers before. Instead, I am driving to my local Gamestop to bind my evening, and many evenings to come, to fresh real-estate in a virtual world.

I find it hard to imagine that my grandfather ever stood in line outside his local hardware store in the midnight cold as new farm implement upgrades waited in boxes marked do not sell until January 15. The idea that anyone might suffer even a mildly chilly late spring evening, much less a full blown winter midnight, for anything less than a box of rations during a famine must seem, to reasonable people, like the kind of folly from which one should be strongly discouraged, if not openly censured.

But the power to buy compels me like the power of the Lord compels a revival into song. Once upon a time, in a world painted only in the hues of black and white, younger generations suffered pleasantly by on small, reasonably budgeted houses decorated in hand-me-down furniture. Now, we’re disappointed if we can only get a 36-inch standard definition television to marry with six-hundred channels of broadcast entertainment. It’s a bad day when we decide the credit card only has room for last generation’s video iPod. The latest and greatest is not something to which one aspires, it is something to which we’ve become accustomed.

The need to own is as ingrained in my DNA now as whatever biological process suggested that on my way out of the womb I might be well served to inhale oxygen. A new gadget, new video card, new cell phone technology or, worst of all, new game shuffles onto retail shelves and my desire metastasizes into need. But I am not alone. I doubt I’m even in the minority.

imageInside the store, the fluorescents are dimmed for what I can only assume is mood lighting, which convinces me that the manager likes it when things get stolen. I am grateful that we aren’t lined up like cattle for the slaughter in the bitter cold, but can’t help wondering how many PS2 controllers will make daring escapes in deep parka pockets. Some 50 people are milling about, fingering products absently as time stubbornly slouches along. The staff busies itself by taking eagerly delivered money and promising that once midnight hits, they’ll deliver the goods. That’s some 20 minutes away yet, and the mood, despite the gloomy lighting, is less one of organized excitement as random anxiety.

I have, as a recovering retailer, run my own midnight opening several times, and I assure you, it’s better to control the retail gods than be at their mercy. The sense of vague superiority one might sense from clerks holding the keys to something so desirable is not imaginary, and like guests at Disney World, we are their voluntary captives, subject to ridiculous, overpriced product offers with high profit margins. And, because the power of consumerism compels us, many of us feel we must buy something besides what we’ve come for, be it a hint book, T-shirt, decal, action figure or set of collectible cards. We can’t seem to help ourselves, as though the money infused in our bank accounts is some toxicity we must expel.

The store is crowded with demanding gamers. A few have become vocal about their desire to just go ahead and get the damn game, the kind of temperament as infectious in a crowd as a yawn, a cough or ebola. The mood threatens to shift in troubling ways, as the final few minutes tick away before the game is pulled from locked cabinets and put in our meaty hands. Desire has become need, and need become entitlement. I wonder why I am here, but never think to leave. Not without the product I’ve come to buy.

How many people? A hundred maybe, at 40 bucks a pop, plus whatever tchotskes impulse-demanded at the point of sale, means this relatively insignificant location in a strip mall on the outskirts of a moderate Midwestern town put five large in the company coffers. How many other stores in how many other chains in how many other cities? As the first game is given to the first gamer, the numbers spin out of control fiercely annexing zeros.

The night air is a slap in the face. It will take me several days to realize why, on my chilly ride home from the midnight launch of The Burning Crusade, I felt so little enthusiasm for my purchase. Maybe it’s because I’ve been on both sides of the looking glass and saw in myself something which seemed before so ridiculous. Either way, it is the last launch I plan to attend.

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