Video games have been big business for decades, with the top titles vastly out-grossing the most popular cinema releases. Were there any remaining doubts over whether the medium now represents one of the cultural megaliths of our time, lockdown answered those. Almost two third of UK adults played video games over 2020, with every age category ticking upwards as people strove to fill all of those lockdown hours. The British games industry is now worth in excess of £7bn, which is a lot of Pokemon by anyone’s estimation.
Despite all this, the games industry is often overlooked and underestimated by our cultural and retail institutions – but even that appears to be changing. This week is the grand opening of Playhouse, an emporium of gaming devices and content located in the basement of Selfridges. Located in a flashy white retail installation more often associated with designer clothes retailers, the space makes operator Smartech – the brand also behind the gadgets and ebikes sections – the biggest concession in the department store.
Playhouse borrows from the Apple handbook, with products displayed like objet d’art on glowing plinths, with everything from futuristic Rubix cubes to high-end gaming PCs treated with the same fetishistic reverence.
There’s an emphasis on tangibility and interaction, which feels genuinely refreshing – if a little odd – in the post-Covid landscape. You’re encouraged to pick up and prod the products, and when you’re not browsing the merch, there are rows of old-school arcade machines (Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Pac-Man etcetera) where you can while away the afternoon without having to spend a fortune in spare change. If there’s one you particularly enjoy, you can then have it boxed up and shipped home.
Perhaps the biggest draw, however, are the gaming installations: an Aston Martin car pod with a wrap-around screen to practice your racing skills; a VR headset; and, most spectacularly, a virtual reality gaming chair in which you can spin around and upside down taking on the Decepticons in a Transformers shoot-em-up. Expect a queue for the latter.
Smartech, who spent two years developing the “retailtainment” concept, says the products will be constantly updated to include the latest hot gadgets.
“Playhouse is designed to reinvent gaming retail and make it more playful, interactive and exciting,” says Smartech co-founder and CEO Nathalie Bernce. “With over 2.5bn gamers globally – alongside tremendous growth fuelled by the pandemic – gaming is at the heart of the Gen-Z/ Millennial world and that of future generations.
“We see a tremendous opportunity to create an exciting offline experience to connect the community. Selfridges is always at the forefront of innovation and having been in partnership with them for over five years, for us there’s no better partner to launch Playhousewith.
“We’re introducing new exclusives on a twice-monthly basis, to keep the range exciting and fresh. We want people to walk into our store and discover, play or try something that they wouldn’t be able to elsewhere.”