[Editor’s note: Tyee education and youth reporter Katie Hyslop recently spent two weeks in British Columbia’s ruggedly beautiful, resource-rich and jobs-poor northwest, exploring both the promise of gas, oil and other mega-developments and their perils, with dozens of teenagers and young adults. Find her series of reports here.]
Mention Dungeons & Dragons and other table-top role playing games, and certain stereotypes come to mind. Dark basements. Tight-knit friends, mostly tween boys otherwise unpopular at school. Parents fretting over time “wasted” on games that could be spent outside, playing sports, doing homework — anything but playing that blasted game!
But there’s little that’s stereotypical about the role-playing games at Good Times Games & Electronics in downtown Prince Rupert.
True: a lot of kids spend hours at a time at the store’s game nights, summer camps and holiday weekend tournaments playing in imaginary adventures where your abilities are based on the character you play, the rules are set anew each time by the game “master,” all the action is spoken, and your fate is decided with the role of a die.
But they also go outside for live action roleplaying, where store owner Rob Gruber provides rubber weapons so kids can battle in character. Gruber, who previously worked for his dad’s plumbing company, also runs games that provide team building and co-operation skills, where teenage boys find themselves matching skills with primary school girls and losing — graciously.
Parents clamour to enrol their kids in Gruber’s summer camps, which fill up pretty fast — normally closed on Mondays in the fall and winter, Good Times Games & Electronics is open seven days a week during the summer to accommodate the camps and demand for gaming.
On my first day in Prince Rupert, I stopped by Good Times Games & Electronics to talk to Gruber about why he believes these games are time well spent for kids, and what he sees for their futures in Prince Rupert.
The Tyee: Are you from Prince Rupert?
Rob Gruber: I was born and raised here. My mother was also born and raised here, so [my son] Jacob’s third generation born-in-Prince-Rupert Gruber.
How long have you had the store?
I’ve owned this store for eight years. But we ran Game Club for Kids in the basement of this building for — well, 14 years ago is when I started doing that. I would bring in the stuff that we were running for Game Club just so there was an option for parents to buy stuff.
I was a lifelong gamer. So I started running Dungeons & Dragons, and there was a couple of card games [my son and his friends] liked, and I was the natural dad to be the guy to run it. I started doing that for those guys when they were about six years old, they were just little guys.
When the retail spot became available eight years ago, we decided to make the jump and make it official.
How did you get access to the basement?
My dad and a partner own the building. There was a messy little room down there where my dad said, ‘Boys, if you clean it up, you can use it for playing your games.’
As things grew, more parents would say, ‘Hey, how do I get my kid involved in what you guys are doing?’ It just spread naturally and we started taking over different areas [in the basement] and cleaning them up.
What is it about role-playing games that you like so much for kids?
It’s just fun. It’s real social, which is big.
And in this day and age when you’re [mostly] sitting across from a screen instead of another player, I think being able to talk to a stranger, introducing yourself, and winning with grace and losing with just as much grace against a real tangible person instead of just artificial intelligence, is a big thing.
Anybody that comes to Prince Rupert can’t believe how well-adjusted our kids are, even our young, down to six years old. How confident they are. [It’s] because they’re so used to playing in a giant social circle here and being part of something amazing, and they’re always cheering for the older kids when they’re going to nationals or something for a game. And the older kids are great.
What we’ve built here is amazing in the fact that you can have a 13-year-old playing with a six-year-old at the same table. Yesterday at Dungeons & Dragons, we had three girls in the six-to-eight age group, and three boys that were 17, all playing at the same Dungeons & Dragons table. And believe it or not, one of the eight-year-old girls was the strongest character at the table, and the boys respected her for it and knew she was going to be a big help on the mission. I don’t know that that happens anywhere else on the planet!
I do want them to exercise body and mind, not just one or the other. So a lot of our stuff I do in some ways outside. Like we do some of the live action role playing outside, and sword playing. There’s not many reasons in this day and age for a kid to sprint, but when their life’s on the line — or their pretend life is on the line — I’ve seen some kids that are just absolutely winded at our outdoor camps.
But Prince Rupert’s a natural setting for playing inside, because the weather in the fall and spring can be a little bad. I don’t want a kid skipping hockey practice to come play something, so we really try to work around when we know soccer night is, and things like that.
We’re a big anomaly when it comes to games stores in the fact that we’ve got a lot of athletic gamers here. So basketball players are happy to be Dungeons & Dragons players. My son and his friends were all part of the [Charles Hays Secondary] Rainmakers basketball team growing up, so they’re not the stereotypical game store nerd guys.
How many games do you run here?
There’s something going on here every day of the week at Good Times Games. During the fall and winter we are closed on Mondays, that’s the only day. Through the summer we’re open Mondays, because we run summer camps, and kids want to do stuff.
Our biggest [game] this year has been our Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Camp. So we have six weeks of adventures, and I announced them, and they were probably full within a 24-hour period.
We go 1 to 4:30 p.m., so it’s 3.5 hours. Eight or nine kids per session. I wrote a different adventure for every week, so some of [the kids] are playing multiple times. Each camp is a four-day, Monday to Thursday. We pick the nicest day and go out and do some of the sword fighting, and I write it into the story, so they’re playing their characters while they’re doing that. I try to tire them out for the parents a little bit.
How much does it cost?
Those camps we’re running for $99.95 for the week, and it includes healthy snacks, many of them home grown right in my dad’s garden. So fresh cucumber every day for everybody.
We have a discount if there’s more than one — if you play in any three [games] or you have three kids signed up, there’s a $50 saving on that.
Our Holiday Extravaganza, which we run at Christmas, is open to everybody and free, sponsored by Donovan Dias and CityWest, our local telephone company and cable provider. They’ll broadcast their adventures on their cable access channel.
So [last year] the whole community came out — we had 100 players last year try D&D over the course of two days. CityWest bought everybody a set of their own dice, it was a real amazing time. We’re trying to let everybody play: our youngest player that weekend was six, and our oldest was 76. So it’s pretty cool.
And kids that weren’t playing at the time, we had upstairs set up like a tavern, so they could socialize here and watch on the big screen what the other groups were doing. Every part of the adventure led into the next one: so if group one didn’t succeed, it was harder on group number two. Everybody was cheering for everybody the whole weekend long.
I saw a YouTube interview with you back in 2012, and it mentioned you were involved with the [school] basketball team, as well.
I coached [my son] and his friends all throughout elementary school, and then was asked to help out during their high school years, as well, because a big portion of the Rainmakers [basketball team] were kids that grew up under my coaching. I coached them through tournaments [when] they were the Saanich Knights — my dad’s Saanich Plumbing sponsored them.
We did a lot of stuff together. I’m a real lucky dad that I got to spend basically the whole time with all of them growing up.
So Jacob’s going off to university in the fall. Are you going to keep going now that your son is leaving?
Oh yeah, of course! I’ve got a whole community of sons and daughters I’ve got to watch out for now.
What’s your biggest concern for the future of the youth you work with here?
I’d like everybody to be able to find a good job and be able to stay here in Prince Rupert if they want to. And that’s probably the toughest thing — [that] they can pursue whatever interests them and still be able to do it here in Prince Rupert.
One of my biggest concerns is I hope Jacob can end up being back in Rupert, too.
It’s really neat seeing some of his friends are already on the path to good jobs here in town and happy to be there. For me, that’s really exciting — I didn’t really want any of them to go away, to be honest. I’d like to be part of their adult lives just as much as I was their childhood.
I think we’re lucky to have some pretty amazing young [people]. I don’t have any worries about anyone who comes through this program.
What’s your optimistic vision for the future here?
I’d like to see the town do well, hopefully, with the Port of Prince Rupert and the DP World [container port expansion], and a few other projects that are on the horizon. Some of Jacob’s friends are actually working out [at the container port] as well, so that’s great.
So there is lots of potential for Prince Rupert going forward.