Game Haven: A place to play

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When Scott Turner was a little kid in the 1980s, his mom worked at the Orpheum Theater, where he would hang out during her shifts. One day, her boss handed four-year-old Scott a fistful of quarters.

He ran to the lobby and approached an arcade machine that towered over him. He dropped a coin in the slot, and from the moment the screen lit up and the sound effects bleeped and blooped, he was hooked. Thirty-six years later, he has his own haven for gamers, a place his childhood self would never want to leave.

Turner opened his passion-turned-business on Nov. 1 in Suite 2370 at the Marshalltown Mall. Appropriately, it’s called Game Haven, and it’s the new late night spot for people to gather and either play the games they’ve been engulfed in for decades or try some new ones out for the first time.

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As a full time nuclear assembler at Emerson/Fisher, Turner works his shift, squeezes in a 30-minute nap and heads to Game Haven to open the doors for the steadily growing clientele that has quickly embraced his business.

Those who enter Game Haven are met with bright “Bobcat Blue” walls. Turner says a lot of people seem to have some lingering emotional trauma from the days when the space was a Department of Transportation station, but he’s been able to rebrand it into a welcoming and vibrant space that doesn’t require taking a number after walking through the door.

There are three tables along the windows and a larger gaming table in the center of the room. Two couches facing coinciding TVs are situated behind the tables with multiple consoles ready to go. In the corner to the south are tall shelves stacked full with free games as part of the members only area.

Neatly organized tabletop games for sale are displayed in open cabinets with trolls, Jedi, zombies, aliens and warriors inviting those browsing the aisles to take them home. There are dozens of different styles and colors of dice, thick hardcover gaming guides, fidgets, stickers, miniature figures and paint. Pierce Sharkthorn, the store’s robot vacuum, keeps Game Haven clean as he navigates his way around a chair or backs himself out of a corner.

Extensive glass casing at the register houses more valuable items. The most expensive is a rare Yu-Gi-Oh card, the Majestic Star Dragon, listed at a price of $106.99. Turner said the most valuable card that’s been purchased was a Gaea’s Cradle from Magic: The Gathering, which sold for $1,100.

Game Haven is more than just the products it sells. It’s dedicated to providing a place to play all kinds of games: Pokemon, Dragon Ball Super, Magic: The Gathering, Warhammer, Yu-Gi-Oh, Dungeons and Dragons, Mortal Kombat and Super Smash Bros, to name just a few. It’s even just a space for kids to hang out and do their homework.

“Fine I’ll Do It Myself”

Turner, who is now 40, grew up in Marshalltown and has lived here for most of his life, and he felt like there used to be plenty of things to do.

“These days there aren’t a lot of options for kids. Wayward Social is a great place to hang out, but the skatepark and Aquatic Center are really only viable in the summer months,” Turner said.

He wanted to design a place for people to congregate, regardless of the weather, and share their mutual passion for gaming.

“So, in the words of the great philosopher Thanos, (I thought) ‘Fine, I’ll do it myself,’” Turner said.

He hasn’t been completely alone, though. Max Pietrzak is Turner’s only employee and has been at Game Haven since “before day one.”

Turner and Pietrzak hatched the idea when they worked together at Pizza Hut.

“Hey, we should open a card shop,” Pietrzak said to Turner.

And eventually, they did.

They have constant fun while they’re working at Game Haven. In reference to the popular television show “The Office,” Turner calls Pietrzak the “Assistant to the Regional Manager.” Even though he’s the only staff member, Pietrzak said he was the employee of the month until he was supplanted by Pierce Sharkthorn, the aforementioned robot vacuum cleaner.

As a tribute to former Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch and his famous repetitive one-liner at the 2015 Super Bowl media day, Pietrzak first responded to all questions, “I’m just here so I won’t get fined.” Joking aside, he had more to say about his reasons for being at Game Haven, and they made him emotional.

“The smile on a kid’s face when they get a new Pokemon card is the best feeling in the world,” he said as tears formed in his eyes.

Max Pietrzak smiles as he poses in front of Game Haven. Pietrzak helped develop the concept for Game Haven and is the store’s only employee aside from owner Scott Turner.

After their first video game tournament, a mother posted on Facebook about how much fun her son had at Game Haven and how happy she was. This came less than two weeks after they had been open, and it solidified Pietrzaks’s passion and desire to help young gamers find joy.

It’s not just kids turning out to fill the space, though. Adults are there too, and they’re playing side by side with the younger gamers. Turner said different generations enjoy different things about gaming, but not in an exclusionary manner. A recent introductory seminar on Dungeons and Dragons drew everyone from teenagers to retirees, and during a recent Magic tournament, a group of three or four adults spent time teaching a youngster how to play in a competitive setting.

“It’s surprising,” he said.

He’s also been surprised by the vast amount of people who have wanted to learn new games but were too nervous, or just didn’t have the exposure to get into it before coming to Game Haven. The store has fostered a kind and considerate community ready and willing to teach whoever walks through the door.

Meeting local needs

Turner hears that Marshalltown has needed something like Game Haven at least once a day. He feels like the response has been outstanding. People are excited to have a place to hang out and learn new games, as he puts it, “because Monopoly can get boring the 50th time you play it.”

“There have only been a couple of game stores in Marshalltown in the 40 years I’ve been around, and they didn’t last very long,” he said. “The closest game store to us is in Ames, but people don’t generally want to drive 40 minutes just to grab a pack of cards or a board game, especially in the winter.”

In opening Game Haven, Turner sought to strike a balance between offering a place closer to home than Ames, holding events and having the game room open for people to play whatever they want. There are usually three to four events a week with a casual video game tournament on Thursdays, and Friday night is set aside for different formats of Magic: The Gathering. A couple of times a month, he holds competitive tournaments for cash prizes in addition to running events for popular games like Pokemon, D&D and Warhammer.

A love for games is one trait Turner has tried to instill in his three sons. His younger sons aren’t in Iowa anymore and have lives of their own, but they still find time to play games with their dad when possible.

He knows that the world has changed since he was young. Turner still wanted to see his kids play outside, but he knew there were intellectual and social benefits in gaming, too. Most of all, it’s just a lot of fun.

“It has helped them learn to read, taught them surprising things like geography and helped with their creativity,” he said. “Video games help with hand eye coordination. They help with problem solving skills, and because of the advent of the internet, it also helps develop social connections.”

Turner incorporates his experience as a father to help young people strike a healthy balance. He offers students a 10 percent discount on memberships for every A, or equivalent, they receive in school. If they get straight A’s, it’s free. Memberships provide access to the game room, discounts on event and tournament entries, the ability to order and pre-order special products and a weekly newsletter. They also remove any buying limitations that might be encountered at other stores like Wal-Mart.

Memberships start at $30 a month for individuals and $65 a month for families. They are discounted up to $180 if purchased for a year. Day passes are $5 and not necessary to browse or shop in the store. Veterans and service workers (police, fire and EMT) get 20 percent off, and seniors get a 10 percent discount.

If kids want to do homework, they can hang out for free. Turner asks that kids under 12 be chaperoned by an adult who doesn’t have to pay if they’re just supervising.

“Unaccompanied children will be given energy drinks and candy,” he said.

Game Haven is open Monday through Thursday from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m., Friday from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m., Saturday from 12 p.m. to 1 a.m. and Sunday from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Arcade dreams and the changing faces of geek culture

Turner’s passion for games started young, too. Of course he found them fun, but it was also a way to escape the reality of growing up poor and facing hardships. The games allowed him to forget about what he wasn’t able to afford and focus on mastering any given game — and he got pretty good in the process.

“People in the arcade would ask me for advice on how to beat a level or strategies in fighting games,” he said. “That made me feel like I wasn’t a poor kid from the north side, and I could help people have fun.”

His mom worked at both the Orpheum and Plaza theaters for 40 years. When he was at the Orpheum with his mom and got quarters from Mr. Reynolds, her boss, he’d play the three games in the lobby: Mappy, Dig Dug and Pole Position 2.

When his mom worked at the Plaza Theatre, which was located at the front of the mall just yards away from where his store is now, he would pop over to Aladdin’s Castle, spending hours making friends and honing his craft. That laid the foundation for the community he’d build decades later.

“Games are what you want them to be. If you use them to relax after a stressful day of work or school, they can do that. If you want to immerse yourself in a compelling story where you can affect the outcome, they are there for you. If you want to change into someone else that can do things or make decisions that you can’t in real life, they can do that too,” he said. “Whatever you put into a game, it will give back.”

Turner said there were stigmas to being a gamer in the early days. When he was growing up, he was bullied and picked on, and it wasn’t fun.

“I would say most people think ‘gamer’ and picture an antisocial person huddled in their mom’s basement drinking Mountain Dew and eating Cheetos, who has no direction in life,” he said. “While that may be true in some cases, gamers don’t all fit that mold.”

Turner sees people in Game Haven who are successful in business, accomplished actors and regular functioning members of society who have families and kids. They use games as a way to connect and spend time together.

Through the benefits of the internet and technology, the negative stigmas surrounding gaming have shifted and become part of popular culture. Turner said shows like “The Big Bang Theory” or “Critical Role” have helped remove some of the stigma. Not only have previously niche games become broadly accessible, but they’ve also become extremely lucrative.

“Critical Role” is a weekly show live streamed on YouTube that brings in nearly $165,000 a month, and Turner said it’s helped make Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) more popular than it’s ever been.

“I’ve never been ashamed of my love for gaming or geek culture, and I got picked on a lot in the 80s and 90s, and that was not cool. So the fact that I don’t have to hide it anymore and worry about being judged because I like something is great,” he said.

Turner said that everyone geeks out about something, and it’s not always what is normally considered ‘geek related.’

“Look at Fantasy Football. Fantasy Football is a nerd sport, because it’s Dungeons and Dragons except it’s football,” Turner said.

Games that used to be played unseen in basements and at kitchen tables have become so mainstream that they’re not just acceptable — they’re cool. Turner thinks nearly every person, whether an athlete, mathlete, cheerleader, introvert or extrovert is into some kind of game, from Dungeons and Dragons and Magic: The Gathering to Call of Duty, Fortnite or even Madden.

The hugely popular Netflix series “Stranger Things” opens with four of the main characters playing a game of Dungeons and Dragons. Turner jumped off his couch when he first watched the show because D&D has been his favorite since he played his first game as an 8-year-old.

Scott Turner looks over a battle mat with a 3D terrain and minis that represent the play space in Dungeons and Dragons, or D&D. Turner first played the game when he was 8-years-old and it remains his favorite to this day. D&D was created in 1974 and has been steadily increasing in popularity and revenue over the last several years.

“In Dungeons and Dragons, you can do anything, be anyone, and craft a story that you can tell people as if you actually experienced those things in real life,” he said.

He recounts a game of D&D he played in high school that carries the nostalgia of a “Stranger Things” episode or one of Stephen King’s best selling epic novels.

In the 1990s, Turner created a character named Devlin who saves a small community from a horde of zombies and warlocks, and the town was renamed Devlin’s Stand in his honor. He says the story of Devlin’s deeds have been passed down through generations.

Just Roll the Dice

These are the types of memories that Turner wants to help others create with Game Haven — their own epic journeys they’ll never forget. Turner is often the Dungeon Master when he plays D&D to this day, and he’s used to rolling the dice to advance the game. Opening the store was a bit of a dice roll in its own right.

“It was kind of a spur of the moment decision, to be honest. I was home sick, lying in bed, browsing the internet on my laptop, and I thought to myself ‘Hmm, I wonder how much it costs to register a business,’” he said. “Only 50 bucks? Sure, why not?”

With Game Haven up and running and gaining traction, he has more dreams for the future. Turner hopes to reopen an Aladdin’s Castle arcade in Marshalltown after it closed in the early 2000s, and he also has his ear to the ground on bringing back an old staple for people who grew up here — Skatetown.

Turner has a vast knowledge and understanding of gaming culture and its history. He also has an awareness, acute perception and sense of humor about its stereotypes. Above all, he understands kindness. Being non-judgmental and inclusive are the driving values of what Game Haven offers, and that just might be the sticking point that makes his business last.

“There are just as many types of gamers as there are types of people,” Turner said.

There’s also a never ending supply of possibilities and games to explore, and the demand for that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Scenes from a Wednesday Night

Jimmy Clark was in the store carrying a blue backpack full of some 800 Pokemon cards. It was so stuffed to the brim it barely zipped closed. Clark was there to buy a couple decks in search of a specific card called Galarian Articuno, which is missing from his continually growing collection.

For Christmas in 1997, Clark got his first booster box of Pokemon cards as a gift from his stepdad. He started out playing the Pokemon video game on the original Gameboy and wanted to get into playing, trading and collecting cards. Now, at 32 years old, he says he has 87 cards with an individual value of $500.

Dustin Van Kirk was also in the game room playing Magic: The Gathering with Turner. They took a break to watch Clark excitedly open the packs, but he didn’t find the Galarian Articuno. Clark still left smiling and said he’d see Turner tomorrow night for Mortal Kombat.

“I forgot whose turn was…” Turner said when they returned to their game after talking cards with Clark for 10 or 15 minutes. Van Kirk remembered it was Turner’s go, and the game moved forward.

Five minutes after Clark made his way out the door after nearly forgetting his soda like he had the day before, two guys in their late teens or early twenties burst through the west door with booming laughter that filled the room.

“You guys just got off work, didn’t you?” Turner asked.

“Actually, we’re on break right now,” one responded.

Turner said they work at TLC next door and swing by often. They had a running battle of Mortal Kombat that day and were talking back and forth competitively as they tried to settle the score. After a game or two, they went back to work and the game room dropped a few decibels.

Shortly after, a man walked over from Planet Fitness, and he said he’d noticed the new storefront the past couple weeks and had to come check it out. He told Turner he has kids that are seven and nine who would love it there because there’s nothing like it in town. He thanked Turner for what he was doing and left saying he’d be back with his kids.

Turner and Van Kirk took their seats and picked up where they left off. They got into a discussion on how the popularity, accessibility and perceptions on gaming have changed over the years due to pop culture, advancing technology and the internet.

“Dungeons and Dragons and other board playing games can help you address pressure situations. When you’re doing something imaginative, you’ve got to do that with problem solving. You have to do that at work, so why can’t that be involved with a game?” Van Kirk asked.

He even thinks it could make one perform better at work. This thought fits alongside Turner’s reward system he offers to students with good grades. They talked about D&D’s popularity today, and Van Kirk said it was a much different experience when he was coming up.

“When I first started playing D&D, it was taboo. It was considered a cult by the church when it first came out in the 70s. As a result, it was like you were going against the church because you were playing a “Satan game” of D&D. You were going against the gods and the demons and the devil even though you were just using your imagination out of a book.”

People today might shy away from some of the more complex games, not because they’re evil, but because they’re incredibly complex. The rules are multilayered, and the destination and goal is a moving target without a set finish line that’s off in an opaque distance.

“Not everything is about going against each other. There’s a lot of cooperative games too,” Turner said. “I’ve found that those get more people into the hobby because you’re not competing, so there’s a lot less pressure. You’re all working together to accomplish a goal, and that’s what gets people hooked. There’s a lot of depth to it.”

Like anything that accesses the brain’s rewards systems (seeking and finding), gaming can be addictive. Turner has heard of people who have been so immersed that they’ve given up on reality and quit their jobs.

Van Kirk jumped in, “Nowadays, there’s places out there that are paying people to play games.”

Thursday Night Mortal Kombat Tournament

On Thursday night, Game Haven hosted a Mortal Kombat 11 tournament, where seven players paid to play. The competition was friendly, full of laughter and pats on the back–quite a contrast to what their characters were doing on the screen.

Steven Smith, a fellow MHS alum, ultimately won the tournament. He and Turner were only a grade apart but didn’t become close until they both ended up working at Emerson/Fisher, where they discovered their shared love of games.

Steven Smith beats Game Haven owner Scott Turner and shakes his hand after winning Thursday night’s Mortal Kombat tournament. Turner always plays the tournament champion in a match after it’s over before giving out the winnings which is in store credit.

Smith won $30 in store credit, which could get him a month of game room access or 15 sodas–which he said might be useful–but ended up getting some dice for him and his wife Megan, who also played in the tournament.

Megan didn’t place in the tournament but said she “wouldn’t have missed it.” She first got into gaming on an Atari 2600, which was released in Sept. 1977. She has come to the last few tournaments and went to a recent Dungeons and Dragons seminar–a game she had never played before.

Turner’s mom was in the game room that night as well. She probably didn’t know her career at movie theaters would lead to her son’s blooming business, and she looked happy and excited to be there. Someone asked if she was playing in the tournament to which she responded, “If it was Street Fighter, I’d be in.”

Jimmy Clark was back for the tournament as he promised the night before when he was hunting for a specific Pokemon card. Not only did he take second place in the Mortal Kombat tournament–he also found the elusive Galarian Articuno card he was searching for in one of the eight packs he purchased from Game Haven that day.

Cody Peterson got third place in the tournament. He works security at the mall, so he’s around the game room often. He said he’s been busy with Santa who has kept the mall busier than he’s seen it in a long time. Peterson said he doesn’t even know his name beyond Santa. He even signs his checks “Santa,” so maybe it’s really him.

Mortal Kombat is Dee Vajgrt’s favorite game, so she drove in from Ames just to be at the tournament. She said while there are a couple of arcade bars in Ames, there’s nothing quite like Game Haven.

tournament.

There were a few others not playing in the tournament that were shopping and chatting with Pietrzak and Turner. Kelvin Izer was sitting nearby the tournament action playing the game Raid: Shadow Legends on his phone.

Izer came into Game Haven a week after it opened. He bought daily passes for a while but recently stepped up to a month pass. He’s trying to get a D&D game going on Sundays, a game he said he learned from a friend of Gary Gygax–the creator of Dungeons and Dragons.

Izer is ex-military and says he uses strategies he learned that help him in gaming, often asking himself, “How are you gonna come out living and not a pile of ash?”

He said he has an IQ of 165 and has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. He works in a factory where he doesn’t have to use his intellect, but games are a way that he can use his mind in a focused and constructive way.

Izer said that people need to remember it’s a game. They may use it to escape, and that’s fine for the duration of the game, but when they get up from the table, they need to go back to the real world.

Kevin Minard was also in the Mortal Kombat tournament. Minard lives in Conrad and has been a regular at Game Haven since it opened. His favorite game is D&D along with Hearts of Iron IV on PC.