Physical Games in a Digital World: The Fall of GameStop?

Trey Guillotine

A popular meme features a picture of dozens of video game cases and various gaming consoles with the text “GameStop be like ‘We can give you $1.99’” But, just as in sarcasm, there is a kernel of truth to this joke. The nationwide video game retailer GameStop is infamous for offering low trade-in value for games and consoles when gamers feel like they should be offered more, either in-store credit or cold hard cash. Despite these practices, GameStop has managed to keep its throne as the world’s largest video game retail store. However, due to the evolution of the video game industry, GameStop’s place at the top might not be as stable as it once was. 

From the earliest game of Pong developed in 1958 to the newest games of 2020, the video game industry has gone through plenty of changes from the ways games are made to how they are sold. Where once video game characters were created as 16-bit squares, now they have popular actors in motion capture suits bringing those characters to life. Gamers used to frequent GameStop’s numerous locations to buy physical copies of their games, but now with digital stores offered on nearly all gaming consoles and devices, gamers appear to be buying more digital copies of games than physical.

Over the past year, GameStop has closed nearly 200 stores nationwide, including their Canal St. location in New Orleans, LA, right across the street from the French Quarter. These closings are due to a number of stores underperforming in sales. These poor sales seem to be the cause of a number of reasons, as some gamers refuse to shop there due to its culture of pushing pre-order sales, unsatisfactory trade-in offers, and the shift to more digital sales. 

“I think there should always be a physical retail outlet for games,” says UNO graduate student Allyson Langhoff. “Consoles are becoming more accommodating. I can see why this is happening.” Though GameStop’s closures are for a number of reasons, the easy access to digital stores via consoles or services like Steam on PCs is giving gamers easy access to their favorite games without worrying about the trip to GameStop or care and storage for a physical copy of their game. However, when looking deeper into the issue of physical copies vs. digital copies, a more balanced divide becomes clear.

Fifty gamers were asked whether they preferred physical copies or digital copies when purchasing their games and why and the answers came to a complete tie with twenty-five preferring physical and twenty-five preferring digital. The twenty-five gamers who preferred buying digital cited reasons such as having less physical clutter, ease of access from switching from one game to another without having to change the disc, and efforts to “go green” and not produce as much plastic waste. Gamers who continue to buy physical copies enjoyed owning collector’s editions, displaying the games on their shelves, and fear of not being able to play a digital title due to poor wifi or the network being down completely. “Personally, I like having the physical copy best because it feels more secure. With digital copies, I’m always afraid something will go wrong and I’ll lose my game progress,” says Langhoff, throwing her support to the physical games side of the argument.

Fortunately for GameStop, physical copies of games and trade-ins are only one part of what the store has to offer. It still serves as the best place to shop for gaming accessories, carrying cases, controls, memory cards, and even gaming apparel and collectibles like the phenomenally popular Pop! Funko figures. GameStop hopes to end its store closings by March of 2020. By focusing on sales in their most successful stores and changing some aspects of its sales culture, GameStop has a strong chance of holding on to its throne as the world’s largest and most successful video game retailer.