Logo for Byte Magazine at Ball State University

Playing Through the Pandemic

Local game store owners and players reflect on the loss of in-person gaming due to COVID-19

Wizards of the Coast cited 2020 as the best year for Dungeons & Dragons after seeing an increase of sales during the pandemic. This has been attributed to an influx of online players, but even local game stores have been seeing changes. 

Photo by Emily Hunter

Local game stores sell board games and tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs). These stores have an “open table,” culture where customers can bring in games and play for free. Tables like these are popular places for Dungeons & Dragons campaigns and Magic: The Gathering tournaments.

However, in March 2020, quarantines were put in place around the world. Friends were not able to see each other in person, and many games were put on hold. Gamers and game stores had to adjust to remote play. 

Photo by Emily Hunter

David Barnette, owner of Wizard’s Keep: Game and Hobby, located on White River Boulevard in Muncie, said the store quickly adjusted to mask mandates and state guidelines to continue to serve customers.

“The rules have kinda changed [during COVID], mostly by the state guidelines. There was a time where the retail part of the store was open, but the game area was closed. When the state of Indiana had a mask mandate, then everyone in the store had to wear a mask,” Barnette said. 

He said that while there was a definite decrease in event attendance during the pandemic, there was an increase in sales. 

“The pandemic has actually been good for businesses that sell goods and bad for businesses that sell services,” Barnette said. “We’ve always kinda been a little bit of a hybrid.”

Barnette, who has owned the store since 2005, said merchandise falls into four categories: collectable card games, role-playing games, miniature war games, and board games. 

Barnette said that because people were not spending their money on public entertainment like vacations or movie theaters, that money was allocated to other forms of entertainment, like board games. 

 “There was a loss of in-store play, but I think people still crave some sort of social interaction,” Barnette said. “So they may limit their public play, but they still have a group of friends that they play with or their family that they’re already isolating with. They need to find things to do, so they’ll buy games and play at home. 

Photo by Emily Hunter

Thomas Moore, owner of Fiction Boulevard in The Village, said he had a similar experience. Fiction Boulevard, which specializes in TTRPGs and card games, was set to open in March 2020, but did not open until October of that year due to COVID-19 restrictions. 

“We actually opened up a couple of weeks before the state shut down all non-essential businesses,” Moore said. “We signed our lease and then we were shut down immediately.”

Moore said he has seen a steady increase in sales since opening the doors. Like Barnette, he attributes the increase in sales to boredom during quarantine. He believes that because families were home all day together, they tried looking for activities that could engage all ages for long periods of time. 

“They went from looking into ‘what can the kids do to entertain themselves?’ to ‘what can the family do to entertain themselves?’” Moore said.

Moore has also found that the people who played these games during quarantine continued to play them once the stay-at-home orders were lifted, which he has also attributed to the increase in sales. 

“A lot of people who had explored these brands during the pandemic pursued them after the pandemic,” he said. “It brought a lot of new faces into the industry, which in turn brought new business to the industry as well.” 

Fiction Boulevard also has open tables, which can seat over 40 people in the store. 

Photo by Emily Hunter

“We have a list of events that we do weekly, and of course those events would have priority for table space, but we don’t usually book up the entire space,” Moore said. “When we have events going on, any spare tables can be used for anything.”

With quarantines in place and local game stores closing their doors, players had to adjust as well. Tabletop games that rely on in-person interaction needed to shift to an online format. Many people took advantage of platforms such as Discord, Roll20, and D&D Beyond to continue their games virtually.

Ball State student, Madeline Rambissoon, had played TTRPGs in person for about five years before the pandemic hit. Her pre-pandemic D&D campaign fell apart shortly after the group tried to transfer the campaign online during quarantine. Everyone kept their cameras off, she said, and there was tension between players.

“Knowing players before going online is kinda harder because you’re used to being in the same room,” she added. 

After this, Rambissoon took advantage of the subreddit r/LookingForGamers. From there, she joined an online Pathfinder game with people all over the country. They keep their cameras off for privacy purposes, but she also joined an online D&D campaign with people she knows, and they keep cameras on. 

For people looking to start their own online game, Rambissoon warns that the process is trial and error: “D&D Beyond is really good if you’re playing Fifth Edition,” she said. “Having a session zero and discussing technology expectations would be good to include.” 

If it’s a choice between in-person or online gaming, Rambissoon said she prefers in-person. 

“There’s nothing like it. It’s so much fun, the energy in the room,” she said. “I really like being able to hang out with friends and give them food and have a good time.”

With the world opening back up, it’s unclear whether role-playing games’ popularity will continue to improve or remain steady. People no longer have an abundance of free time on their hands, but their love of gaming hasn’t disappeared overnight. All fans can do is continue to roll the dice, and watch where they fall. 

Featured image by Emily Hunter

Sources: Forbes, Wizards of the Coast, Wizards of the Coast, Facebook , Facebook, Discord, Roll20, D&D Beyond, Reddit, Paizo,

Contact Emily Hunter with comments at ekhunter@bsu.edu and on Twitter @emily_hunter_01