The Holy Basilica of Sore Thumb Retro Games


Sore Thumb Retro Games, York, United Kingdom.

Retrogaming does fall under the rubric of archaeogaming, more as an applied science of running original software on original hardware, replicating the original play experience. While some gaming equipment finds a home in museums such as Rochester, New York’s The Strong: National Museum of Play, other “vintage” games and hardware become commodities in retrogaming stores. One such store is York’s (UK) Sore Thumb Retro Games, about 400m away from the University of York’s archeology department.


Inside Sore Thumb Retro Games, York.

Sore Thumb immediately appeals to the nostalgic and to the collector/completionist/fetishist. It is both shrine and shop, a well lighted cave of organized chaos featuring nothing but console games and equipment. Shelves are packed to the rafters with loose cartridges, boxed games, original documentation, mint condition artifacts, and peripherals (controllers of all kinds), plus plush toys and action figures all related to games and gaming culture. It is the most complete retrogaming store I have ever been in, with an obsessive attention to PlayStation 1 and Sega Dreamcast games (although all retro consoles—including Atari 2600, Intellivision, Colecovision, and others—are well represented).


Sore Thumb Retro Games looking back to the holy of holies

I have seen something approaching the care of curating salable collections in various antique stores and malls both in the UK and the US, but these places lack a reverence to the items in their care. Retro Game shops are different: they feature nostalgia, even respect. When I enter a space such as Sore Thumb, I equate it to entering a basilica. One enters and the transition from the street to the interior is both immediate and pronounced. The doorway serves as propylaeum, and one transitions from outside to inside. The atrium comes next, featuring a selection of toys and games, an introduction to what is on offer in the store. You pass the narthex then, the counter at which you pay, transitioning into the nave, the heart of the store, a wide aisle flanked by relics and occasional side aisles leading back to the end of the basilica, the apse, in which one finds reliquaries.


Reliquary containing Zelda and Resident Evil relics.

Sore Thumb contains 5–6 of these locked glass cases behind which sit perfect examples of games from beloved series from days gone by. The collections are largely complete, like the collected bones of various saints presented to the pilgrim for contemplation and remembrance.


Game Boy reliquary, Sore Thumb.

There has been trade in holy relics (many of them fake), and there still thrives an active trade in antiquities, both legal and illegal. With retro games, the legality is straightforward (unless someone is selling stolen goods), and provenance (history of ownership) is not important. Archaeological context is largely absent, and collectors know the rarity of the games in which they are interested. Value has already been assigned by the market, both for nostalgic reasons, and for difficulty in acquisition.

When I entered Sore Thumb, the person at the counter greeted me, and immediately told me that the good, rare stuff was in the cases at the back of the shop. He checked in on me later, pointing out the new acquisitions, including a Dreamcast game now priced at 220 GBP. Had I been a collector, I could have purchased that or any other game in the shop. But I am not a collector. I am an archaeologist, and it troubles me ethically to purchase the things that I study. To some this might seem ridiculous. But for me, it is enough to know that places like this exist in the world, where I can walk in month-to-month and see something different, something I’ve never seen before, that helps me complete the archaeological record of video games which are, in this instance, treated as artifacts (for sale), providing an instant, visual typology, history of use, and a chronology of development of these digital built environments. Places like Sore Thumb are equal parts shop, holy place, and museum, fulfilling our various needs of exploration, material acquisition, curiosity, and a positive connection to a presumed better time.

—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming

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