“I am Super Mario!” bellows a towering Polish man, beating my Nintendo 3DS against his chest. It seems that his name is, indeed, Mario. “I am plumber too! But when I go down pipes, all I find is shit!”
When I took the 3DS, along with my PlayStation 2 and 3, to a temporary homeless shelter in central London, my intention was to write a sickeningly worthy article, a treatise on the plight of the disadvantaged, packed with heartwarming anecdotes about rekindled childhood passions and the positive impact of gaming on the lives of the homeless. It would be a good thing.
Instead I experienced one of the more hilarious, terrifying days of my life. And an unfathomably filthy 3DS.
The shelter entrance backs onto the river, the former reception area of a sprawling office complex. My fingers stiffen in the cold that penetrates the glass doors. I spill my game selection across the front desk. The building has no heating.
“We don’t have much trouble with violence here,” she says. “And we’d like to keep it that way.”
To gain permission for this piece, I had to agree that the shelter organizers could approve my choice of games. The team leader glares at me with a head teacher’s disapproval.
“We don’t have much trouble with violence here,” she says, plucking out a copy of Mortal Kombat and throwing it into a cardboard box underneath her desk. “And we’d like to keep it that way.”
Copies of Call of Duty, God of War, and Grand Theft Auto IV promptly suffer the same fate.
“What is this, Australia?” I quip.
She doesn’t get the joke. When every title has been vetted, she leans forward on the desk and lets out a weary sigh. Her skin is pale, eyes ringed with dark shadows. She may not have slept for several days.
“I’m not sure this is a good idea,” she says, waving over a volunteer to show me up to the entertainment area.
A reciprocal sliver of doubt cuts through my own mind as I make my way through the shelter. A canteen is lined with folding tables, heavily bundled men clinging to Styrofoam cups as their breath comes off them in clouds. Vacant-looking residents shuffle bare-footed back and forth to the toilets. A narrow flight of stairs takes us up to a junction of corridors. Scaffolding blocks one direction, and opposite that is a long room with the windows covered. Rows of cot beds punctuate the gloom, arranged like a military field hospital. It isn’t exactly the core gaming audience.
A third doorway leads into a busier room, bustling with the hum of voices. This is the entertainment area, cobbled together from miscellaneous junk. Fluorescent strip-lights cast a sickly glow over stacks of board games and puzzles; a giant chess set with pieces that seem to have been whittled with a teaspoon; somewhat incongruously, an abandoned barber’s station. At the far end of the room a group of residents is crowded around a ping pong table, cheering on a game being played at such pace that I can’t even make out the ball.
The television marks out the center of the room. It’s perched on a wheeled stand, the old stalwart of classrooms. Mismatched plastic chairs are arranged in front of it, empty but for a young guy in a baseball cap staring glassy eyed at the blank screen. I start unpacking my apparatus, wrestling with the wires that have taken it upon themselves to form indecipherable knots. I don’t notice Baseball Cap arrive at my shoulder.
“What you got there?” he says, almost in a whisper.
I step aside to reveal the dusty, grizzled brothers that are my Playstations. He nods in appreciation and gestures at the TV.
“That thing HD?”
I look at the television, a solid black cube that could have been hewn from a quarry, then back at him. “I don’t think so.”
A look of distaste passes across his face, like a baby sampling a lemon, and he shuffles off to join the commotion of the ping pong table.
This is the first sign that I might need to reconsider my preconceptions of homeless people. It’s easy to think of them exclusively as malnourished vagrants with only a shopping trolley to call their own. So it can be a surprise to realize that technology hasn’t left them behind; many of the residents are young and hold down jobs, arriving at the shelter in work uniforms. Almost all of them own a decent mobile phone. Charger cables trail out of every electrical outlet like creeping vines. Grey carpet tiles have been pulled up all over to access the sockets hidden in sunken floor ports. Throughout the day, residents talk to me about their favorite mobile games. In a life often defined by loneliness and boredom, free-to-play mobile games can offer a real lifeline.
“I’m sick of Angry Birds!” a young guy called Peter insists, stabbing dejectedly at the cracked screen of his iPhone. “It’s too easy!”
I suggest that, if it’s difficulty he wants, he spring for Super Hexagon. Within minutes he’s swearing spectacularly at the screen. I show off my best times, and dare him to beat them before I leave.
The exchange leaves me a little more confident about why I’m here.
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.
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?”