I’m a little saddened these days. In fact, I guess you could say that I’m in mourning. You see, I’ve recently suffered a loss, or rather, a string of losses, and I’ve yet to fully recover. No, it’s not a parent, or sibling, or anything like that. Actually, you may even know them yourself, or a relative of theirs. I’m referring to my local video rental stores.

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It might seem silly to you, feeling sad for the loss of a Blockbuster, Hollywood Video, or other such store, and there was a time when it would have seemed silly to me. After all, having recently switched to Netflix myself, it became kind of hard to see these stores as anything other than ancient relics.

Then, one day, the strangest thing happened. The company I worked for called my department in for a special meeting where upper management thanked us all for our years of service, but it was a service they no longer needed. It was then, when I could no longer afford monthly subscriptions, let alone the $60 to purchase the occasional new game, that I rediscovered these relics and learned just how much they had to offer.

Having given up cable TV, Netflix, and my World of Warcraft account, I’d become increasingly desperate for some entertainment. I was driving home from the store when I saw the big blue sign with yellow writing: Blockbuster. I went in, determined to rent just one movie.

Instead I became hooked by the familiar green font of an Xbox 360 logo. I scanned the rows of games, checking out cover art, reading descriptions and selling points, and admiring screenshots. As I pored over these titles, taking in the different features of a myriad of genres, I suddenly realized I had been missing out.

My first system (and I’m dating myself here) was a crappy little thing called the Action Max. Then I got an Atari, then a Nintendo, and so on. But then, as I was playing Sierra adventure games on my PC, I was seduced by a little game they produced called The Realm Online. Since then, through EverQuest and then World of Warcraft, I had invested so much time in online games that I’d begun to neglect everything else. Sure, I still bought an Xbox 360, and I justified that purchase by getting the biggest games to come out each year. But my time, money, and attention were already so gobbled up by that one thing that I didn’t allow myself to experiment. Even before being laid off, $60.00 was a lot to spend on just trying something different. $7.99, however? Not so much.

I began renting games as often as I could afford them. When I found out I could get free rentals through the Coke Rewards program, I enrolled. Friends and family kept bottle caps for me and for every 60 caps I collected, I was able to rent a free game. I burned through titles in a way that I had not done in years: fighters, shooters, hack and slash, action adventure. I was playing anything and everything, and I was having a blast. In one of the toughest periods of my life, videogame rentals didn’t just supplement my passion for games, they redefined it.

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Which is why, for me, the past year has been a sad one. Today, Hollywood Video is a distant memory. My little town use to have three Blockbusters. The only lingering presence of the once mighty chain is a few tombstone kiosks that stand outside select grocery and convenience stores, and the one thing those kiosks don’t rent is videogames. The nearest remaining store is in a city 45 minutes away.

I know that change is inevitable. Progress is good, and as a person who once abandoned rental stores for Netflix, I’m well aware of the former’s flaws. But, in the passing of these rental stores, I’m afraid we’re seeing more than the end of a few corporations doomed by poor business decisions. I fear that we are seeing the end of an entire way of experiencing games.

Rental stores offer an experience that is unique to them. They are the pay-by-the-pound buffet of games. A lot of games are published every year, and most of us, even in good times, can’t afford to buy them all. In a purchase-only environment, that means every game must count. With renting, on the other hand, that choice need never be made. For the price of owning a single game, you can instead rent eight. And let’s face it, for any dedicated gamer, the five days most rentals allot is more than enough time to play through a typical release.

The loss of this unique way to experience games is creating a kind of gaming vacuum, one that has yet to be satisfactorily filled by the market. That’s not to say there aren’t alternatives; Gamefly offers videogame rentals by mail, as does Blockbuster, and cloud gaming sites like OnLive have a potentially promising future. But their future is not certain.

In the end, even if I’m worrying for nothing and the future for these new alternatives is bright, for me at least, something will still be missing. Part of it is physical presence. There’s something inherently fun and engaging about perusing a slew of titles that are in your face. And then there’s that other way that the online models fall short: payment method. Like just about every corporation out there, it seems, online rental companies are intent on latching onto subscription based models (and by extension, customers’ wallets). Which is not to say their prices are unreasonable. In fact, it can be quite the opposite. Frequent videogame renters will almost undoubtedly save money by going to subscription, but gamers strapped for cash might not be able to justify the steady expense, no matter how much value it represents.

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So what are we really missing by losing rental stores? In a word, spontaneity. Everything about the rental store lends itself to impulse shopping. When I stood there, studying the titles on the shelves, I was entirely at the mercy of my own whim. Five minutes away from my house was a place where, for a few days, for a few dollars, I could play any game that grabbed my interest. I didn’t have to plan out my gaming priorities or create queues, nor did I have to heavily research coming titles, afraid of wasting valuable money. If a game was bad, or short, or just plain broken, it was only a matter of minutes until I could have a new one. If I was with a friend and wanted something to do, I didn’t have to put it on a list and wait for it to be shipped.

There is a freedom that comes with that kind of impulse shopping – a freedom to rise up out of the ruts we’ve dug for ourselves, to indulge in trial and error without the worry of excessive loss, to open ourselves to new experiences and expand our known horizons. It’s the freedom to experiment. For me at least, the loss of something, anything, that provided that kind of freedom, is something worthy of a moment’s reflection.

So here’s to Blockbuster and Hollywood Video, to mom and pop rental stores, to unclear due dates, exorbitant late fees and scratched discs … and to spontaneity, freedom, joy, and an avenue for gaming that was, for a time, my only one.

[byline]Victor Kretzer resides in Maryland where he has recently completed his degree in Simulation and Digital Entertainment. He spends his time writing as well as working on game design.[/byline]

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