Does the arcade suck, or have I just outgrown it?

About one million years ago, some friends and I went to an arcade in Indianapolis just to see what it was all about. It was part of a larger idea I had to pursue the idea of The Arcade as some kind of cultural watermark.

It wasn’t my first arcade, obviously. But it was my first trip to an arcade as someone who could be reasonably called an adult. I’m not sure what I took away from the experience, if anything. Just a lot of disconnected observations.

The music playing over the sound system was pitch-perfect. Our Dear Sweaty B summed it up: “It was as if the arcade had gone into full-on Mrs. Havisham mode – it forever ran the soundtrack of the time immediately prior to its irrelevance.”

The bloated corpse of the 90s loomed large not only in the choice of music, but also the game selection. The “classic games” of the earlier arcade era were limited to one of those terrible multi-game cabinets stuck in a corner. Somehow that wasn’t very much fun to play. Recent titles present were limited to the most recent iterations of the well established thoroughbred brand name fighting and shooting kinds of games.

And of course, being the awesome people that we are, my friends and I made a good stab at having fun with it. And it was fun. Ish.

But the thing is… I couldn’t help but think about how I could be playing better games on a bigger screen with better graphics at home. With the same people. In fact, every one of the friends that I brought with me are people I’ve spent at least some time playing games with in various living rooms starting with my college years up until today.

It’s difficult to blame that lousy mall arcade for the poor selection, broken machines, and general air of boredom that hung around the place. All just more evidence that the audience has moved on.

The arcade at the Circle Center Mall is well aware of its own recent mortality.

It may seem weird to think of games in such grandiose terms – but the ability to play at home really was revolutionary in a basic sense. No more could arcades hold you hostage for 5, 10 or 15 minutes a quarter. You didn’t have to wait in line for the most popular game. You didn’t have to bike across town to a dark, smelly bowling alley.

Is there a trade-off? Sure there is. But it’s an uneven trade the scale of which even a white trader stealing land from a Native American might well appreciate. The winner in this exchange is so obvious that it hardly bares repeating.

There are kids who are already almost grown up who can’t imagine scrounging quarters from couch cushions to play a game that charges them each time they play.

I still carry nostalgia for those old times. And I hear that some prisoners have fond memories of their various prisons. But it’s as hard to imagine an ex-con locking himself back up, and it’s hard to imagine video game culture moving back into the arcade.

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14 Responses to “Does the arcade suck, or have I just outgrown it?”

  1. When I was a kid going to the arcade, I think it’s safe to say that people didn’t go entirely — or even largely — for the games. So there’s something more going on than home systems outcompeting arcade games in terms of sophistication and price. Kids went to my town’s local arcade for several other reasons, but those reasons are now just as obsolete as the novelty of Pac Man.

    Don’t get me wrong — there were always a few obsessed Asteroids experts or pinball wizards in the house. But those guys sometimes had home game systems, so they didn’t have to go to the arcade to play. They went to show off their expertise. They strutted around the place; kids gathered around and watched when they gained an extra 100,000 over their previous high score. They were famous.

    This aspect of arcade doesn’t seem to be available anymore either. Now that everyone has home systems, it’s much harder to have the highest score anyone’s ever heard of. And now that arcades are at Circle Center Mall instead of in the back room of a seedy bowling alley, the kids don’t know each other well enough to learn who’s good. And as Kit pointed out, those with a desire to show off their high scores can stay at home and play online tournaments.

    When I was a kid, games changed more often. One day, Pengo would be gone without warning and Joust would be sitting there. It was an exciting surprise, especially since no one had ever seen or heard of Joust. It was a weird game where you fight while riding giant birds and no one could wait to try it. Nowadays, the games in arcades don’t change often. Even if they did, the mystique would be gone, because everyone would have read the game review, seen the blog editorial, looked at the leaked screen shots, watched the commercial, and seen the homemade YouTube video made with the soundtrack.

    Another reason kids went to the arcade in my time was to curse, chew tobacco, and sneak around back to smoke weed. Obviously, this doesn’t happen at Circle Center either. I don’t know if that’s because I’m old and Kids These Days Don’t Know How To Have Fun, because parents and establishments and lawmakers have become more cautious, or because I grew up in a shitty redneck town where the arcade had a dozen patrons and the hickey-covered 27 year-old owner probably provided the weed.

    Also, my childhood arcades always had pool tables.

    In any case, the arcade of my childhood was a social experience far before it was a technological experience, and now it’s definitely the opposite.

  2. I was a little anti-social and/or shy growing up so I mostly went for the games. I wasn’t much of a strutter and I wasn’t good enough to have a top score at anything until the Double Dragon/Pit Fighter/Street Fighter era and of course that was during The Decline.

  3. My one moment of real arcade glory was Double Dragon (which I was obsessed with). And in general, I think my experience was more like JimPanzees. By the time we were old enough to go to arcade by ourselves, home consoles were already really popular. Hell, the NES (the system that defined videogames for my generation) released the year before my mom gave me the OK to ride my bike to the bowling alley by myself. I didn’t own a home game console, so I had to get my fix somehow. For me it was all about playing games. There certainly was a pretty strong culture of going to arcades when I was that age, but the end was already well in sight.

    But to your larger point – yeah I think the fact that the social component of the arcade is no longer as necessary is huge. It may not have kept me going to arcades, but its true that the idea of going to the arcade as “something to do” in and of itself (as a cultural phenom) requires that it be more than just about playing games. It seems like at one point, arcades filled the same niche for teenagers as bars do for adults. The kids moved on to other things, and that certainly didn’t help the industry.

  4. There was certainly a social component to the arcade – my sister and I used to enjoy pizza and game night (buncha tokens and all you could eat pizza) at Aladdin’s Castle. But part of it was also the exclusivity of it – in Marion, that was the ONLY PLACE for those video games. Very few stores or restaurants had their own machines, and home system really had yet to catch up. You just had to avoid the skinhead attendant and the creepy guy, and you were good.

    I don’t think you can overemphasize your point about the comforts of home too much. If it’s easier to obtain at home, people will do so. The thing pulling people out of their houses for video games was (at least for me) the better technology (like a movie theater to movie). Better looking games with additional functions make going outside superfluous.

  5. I initially had a lot more to say about this topic of arcade as plays to hang out versus arcade as place to find alien technologies but I couldn’t (and can’t) find a way to bring it up without at least implying that I’m directly critiquing other comments made, other than to say that I’m not. So with that in mind, bear with me here.

    Teenagers used to hang out in specific places outside the realm of their authority figures before there were arcades. They still do this today — although they no longer tell me where that is. It seems to me I see a lot of them in malls still and in parking lots of various establishments and on the steps of public monuments. And at movie theaters. Other than the absence of the arcade itself, teenager hanging out patterns don’t seem to have changed all that much in 30, indeed sixty years or so.

    One of the things that makes the arcade unique is that it offered something to do while hanging out (that was also slightly rebellious or at least “counter-adulteral”). But the reason that such places were offered is because adults could make money off of this distraction they offered.

    But two things happened that killed the arcade: on the one hand, it stopped being profitable with the advent of the home game system. But it also stopped being counter-adulteral. Adults now produce games and act as a primary market. I bet somebody could find statistics of the average age of Tetris Competition circa 1989 versus the average age at a Call of Duty or Halo competition. I would bet it would be significantly different.

    With adults co-opting the game culture (which is part of the games as art debate in the other new post) the arcade we grew up in would have just become the arcade we would have grown old in were it still around.

    So, it’s true I think, that it was more than technology that made arcades what they were, but its also true that all the teenager loitering spots: malls, parking lots, etc were around while arcades were around but they were empty–technology played a part in the arcades attractiveness as a loitering spot. But its also true that all the technology in the world isn’t bringing the arcade back to the form it once had.

  6. That’s a good point about the aging of the gaming crowd, and that video gaming as a whole has certainly become more acceptable to a family crowd (Hot Coffee outrage and M ratings notwithstanding). But the kids of today still have technology and communication that stand outside the realm of adults – one concerned parent sent me a string of code found on her son’s MySpace site that seemed common to his peer group, but that I could find no other reference to. It’s the portability and immediacy of that technology that allowed communication and standard teen rebellion (and games, for that matter) leave the immediate public sphere and retreat to the solitary examples we know today.

  7. Of course numbers for this sort of thing are going to be hard to come by, but I just don’t think that teenagers are hanging out physically less than they used to. You just can’t have sex and smoke pot with your friends online…you can’t even do it in groups around a computer if the parents are home. It may be that they are moving into homes where parents aren’t around…but hanging out is not a zero sum game. I don’t think that more online hanging out naturally indicates less real world hanging out. Myspace doesn’t necessarily take away from your drag racing time and your sock hops (or whatever.) And, part of the myspace crowd are those kids that wouldn’t be hanging out behind the Quick E Mart dumpster for a rough hand job anyway. You know who I’m talking about (me).

  8. I’m not sure where the idea that anybody was saying that kids hang out less came from. It seems like a side track from the main point, which is that wherever they go they obviously don’t much go to arcades. Kids obviously still get together somewhere to do things like break things and smoke pot. And I think we can all agree that’s a positive thing.

  9. It came from sweaty’s claim that “It’s the portability and immediacy of that technology that allowed communication and standard teen rebellion (and games, for that matter) leave the immediate public sphere and retreat to the solitary examples we know today.

    I don’t think it’s tangential at all, since it directly relates to my longer post and some extent to Shae’s on why kids ever hung out at arcades but don’t anymore.

    And yes–kids smoking pot and breaking things are both positive things: agreed.

  10. But the folks that want to be around technology and games have both better stuff at home and better and more constant contact without having to assemble at a central location.

    I never smoked the pot, but there were certainly broken things.

  11. jimpanzee – i see what you mean better now that you point it out. personally i would be leery of saying that kids hang out less than before. i highly doubt it.

    if technology has changed the “grouping” patterns of kids – i would almost argue that it’s done the opposite by streamlining the different ways in which people can schedule their time together and making it easier to meet up with people.

  12. I’m not questioning whether kids are hanging out, but that the kids that would do so at an arcade have shifted and decentralized the process through the use of new technologies.

  13. SO here’s the real question.

    What DO kids these days do for fun?

  14. Pop caps in motherfuckers, and engage in lots of dangerous, disgusting, dirty sex. The media told me so.

    I came here to say something new: maybe somebody should try to fill a niche desire that I bet we all share (all of us 30-somethings in this thread, I mean) – that being the desire to get back to the arcades of our youth. No more of this giant brightly-lit Funporium style of gaming, which is dominated by the thrill-free likes of Block Party (but they’re gone now, right?) and Dave & Buster’s. Honestly I only give a shit about giant racing games and “House of the Dead XII” for about twelve minutes. Then I just want to go back home and play GTA4 again. If they want to really hook me, they need a dingy, dark, and most importantly SMALL room full of classic cabinets: Dragon’s Lair. Pac-Man. Galaga. Street Fighter. Mortal Combat. That football game where you can kill the other team and blow up the field. Tron. Joust. And so forth. They need tokens (no fuckin’ fancy-pants swipe cards), giant fountain drinks, sticky carpet, and even stickier joysticks. I want to walk into that place and immediately, IMMEDIATELY, feel like I’m ten years old again.

    Build it, and I will come. But Dave & Buster can both swing from my hairy man-fruit.

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