Matt Loter looks like he belongs on the back of a Harley. I try not to stare at his tattooed hands as I sit across from him at Elm City Games, the board game café he opened on Feb. 20. The café shares space with a coffee shop called The Happiness Lab, located on Chapel just before State. Matt and I sit on a wooden bench playing a Japanese game whose object is to deploy its pink cards in order to become the most popular girl in high school. It’s not often that a six-foot-two man, clad in a jean jacket and with a thick beard longer than his hair, advises you to gather the most student council visits in order to win. The dissonance begins to fade, though, as the words inked across his knuckles come into focus: L-O-V-E and L-I-F-E. This lapidary mantra is the first indication that Matt himself epitomizes the space he has created in downtown New Haven.
A board game café is exactly what it sounds like: it’s a place where experts and novices alike grab a coffee and play in each others’ company. They have been trending since the original and most famous board game café, Toronto’s Snakes and Lattes, was established in 2010. But the burgeoning café business is just one small subset of the larger board game industry, which Matt says is dominated by a handful of media giants, who hoard the lion’s share of the nearly $1 billion in annual tabletop game sales (a figure you would not expect to see associated with board games unless assessing the actual worth of Monopoly properties). Participating in the industry in one capacity or another since high school, Matt has carved a considerable résumé for himself.
Matt began by volunteering at gaming conventions, lugging boxes and handing out flyers. He has since worked nine different jobs for small game studios as a publisher, designer, and promoter. He even created his own publishing company: Prettiest Princess Games, which he still operates even as he turns his attention towards building a new community at Elm City Games. “The crossover between hobby and professionalism is a murky line,” Matt explains. He’s been toeing it for a long time.
Gaming is a communal activity that transcends generations, as is evidenced by Matt’s own familial indoctrination: “You know Dungeons and Dragons?” he asks. “Well my uncle went to MIT in the ’70s, and when he wasn’t working on his doctorate, he was working on his dungeon.” Matt knew eight different kinds of poker by the age of five, and in the game room are the same chess and Stratego sets he learned to play on. Matt insists that the fee his café charges ($5 a pop, unless you pay the $20 monthly membership that covers unlimited visits) buys the “social lubrication” necessary for pleasant interactions with strangers as much as access to the nearly six hundred games in Elm City Games’ collection. Matt is working on a liquor license, but encourages patrons to bring their own booze in the meantime.
As Matt leads me to the cramped game room and unlocks the door, his face lights up with a youthful pride. He directs me to one of several bottom racks, which hold the largest games, dubbed “coffin boxes.” Matt points to his favorite game, Twilight Imperium, which is housed in a worn, dark red box that probably would work as a casket for a Great Dane. A game about forging a galactic empire at the expense of other players, Twilight Imperium is fun for Matt because he “get[s] to fuck with people.” Although he prefers games where lucky draws take a backseat to strategic savvy and manipulation of the opponent, Matt also has a soft spot for “silly shit.” For Matt, who is thirty-four, gaming is just “one of those things that didn’t go away.”
However central gaming has been in his life, Matt is not blind to the distasteful aspects that pervade gamer culture, namely demographic homogeneity and juvenile xenophobia. Historically an escape for upper-middle-class white men, Matt bemoans the fact that gamers are still predominantly straight and white, and that women are typically deprived of status in gaming settings: “So what if Halo has more buttons? Women are still gamers even if they’re playing Candy Crush!” Gaming, both online and off, also remains a haven for “sixteen-year-old assholes who don’t know any better,” Matt explains as he recalls the problematic individuals who disrupt the “positive vibes” Elm City Games tries to preserve. He is proud that “dudes from the neighborhood,” like his friend Christian, have made the café a second home. When I met Christian, a Puerto Rican bridge operator, he wore a broad smile (despite losing the Japanese card game) as he vouched for Matt’s significance in his life. “Matt makes me feel welcome,” Christian said, “he brings out my inner Thug-Geek!” Christian has promised to add a Puerto Rican domino set to the café’s collection—a small token to repay Matt’s work.
Of course, the issues Matt identifies are not unique to the board game circuit. His experiences in other parts of his life have informed his profound desire to improve his immediate sphere of influence. Wearing his nose stud but not his earrings, leaving the punctures bare, Matt speaks with the ease of someone comfortable with his appearance as he glibly labels himself a “good little liberal.” After ten minutes with Matt, his look can easily be interpreted as hipster rather than biker. His empathy for the outcast extends beyond left-wing politics, though: “I identify as queer,” Matt cheerfully says, “though I mainly make out with girls.” His clear blue eyes drop down as he more carefully reveals that he grew up “economically not-advantaged at times” in the corporate hub of Stamford, a place of unequal wealth distribution. Nonetheless, Matt maintains a macroscopic view of his place in the world, reflecting, “I’ve got a wiener and light skin, I’m sorry, that’s just how it is.”
His position of relative privilege comes with a responsibility that he has never shirked. His past work as a Krav Maga instructor, for example, prepared him for his role as an unexpected agent of social education: “I’d be grappling with these masculine dudes who were casually homophobic, calling stuff gay, and I’d be wearing a Hello Kitty tank top and pink short shorts while I was taking them down.” Matt’s response to such faux pas? A patient observation, and an acceptance of the transgressor’s hastened apology. “Changing behavior is hard, but it’s all about winning the little battles, like making small changes in colloquial language,” such as those he seeks to instill in ill-informed gamers who enter his den. “We want to do cool shit so everybody can do cool shit,” Matt concludes.
Matt’s extensive tattoos form another part of his identity. His first ink came at age 17. One of his favorites is the White Rabbit, a character fromAlice in Wonderland, on his wrist: the garish rabbit’s overlarge watch reads “party time.” Matt had this particular design inked when he finally rejected the monotony of a traditional job, promising himself that any future occupation would allow for tattooed hands. The tattoo serves as reminder that the meaningful things in life are derived through others rather than prescribed objectives. Another tattoo reminiscent of relationships is the elongated pyramidal Sorry board game piece behind his right ear, which matches the same tattoo on his ex-wife Trish, who remains his best friend and a partner at Elm City Games.
But don’t let the ink fool you. Behind the bright lines and colors on his skin is the litany of dichotomies that make up Matt Loter, enabling his impact on his community. Simultaneously a nerd and a martial artist, an outcast and an insider, an idealist and a pragmatist, Matt is, above all else, someone who yearns to improve the world in front of him. As he surveys the space he brought to life, sipping a beer from the bottle, Matt observes that marrying people actually links to “the game stuff.” The splash is small, but seeing the ripples his efforts have produced solidifies his resolve. As he turns to look out the café window onto the New Haven street, he promises that “gaming is never going to be just a hobby again.”