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Karen Datangel is a writer, blogger, social media addict, entertainment enthusiast, baseball/football fan (Go SF Giants and 49ers!), animal lover, nerdy and nostalgic fangirl, city wanderer, and a dreamer. Born, bred, and based in the Bay Area, Karen graduated with a degree in Journalism from San Francisco State University. Her resume includes contributions to and internships with Hollywood Life, CAAMFest (Formerly the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival), Audrey Magazine, Bustle, Fandom, SheKnows, and POPSUGAR. She currently works on the Developer Marketing team at Salesforce. Follow her on Twitter @DatKaren.

The State of Arcades: A Writer’s Memories and Perspectives from Gamers

Growing up with hardcore video game players in my family and a Super Nintendo and original PlayStation in our household (PS2 and 3—which are still active in my lair—arrived during my high school and college years), I mostly stuck to feeding my fighting, puzzle, and adventure game addictions within the confines of homes. Was I ever familiar with arcades though: When I was a child, my dad lived for going to the race track and took me, my mom, and my siblings along whenever possible, and one of the things I remember clearly from each outing was the crowds of people waiting to play Street Fighter II. I was 4-7 for the time I had gone regularly and actually found this phenomenon to be really intimidating. Hoards of older boys controlling characters to beat each other up until one of them was bloodied and bruised in the face? Eh, no thank you.

I got over the notion eventually and even grew to love it. I never got to play any incarnation of Street Fighter at the race track, but I took every chance I could to get my hands on cabinets of the different titles well as similar games at other places: Street Fighter Alpha 2 at arcades and fun centers in Nevada, X-Men vs. Street Fighter at the bowling alley, Marvel vs. Capcom at Round Table Pizza, Darkstalkers, King of Fighters, Tekken. Then sometime in 2002 or 2003, I was enthralled by a new phenomenon taking over arcades: Dance Dance Revolution. It was always difficult to step foot onto those machines because they were so popular, but it was easy to be entranced by the person stomping on the arrows to the beat of the music. I wasn’t good at any of these games and I didn’t care—I just enjoyed playing them.

Flashbacks Arcade in Seaside Heights, NJ houses vintage cabinets for a trip down memory lane (photo credit: Rob DiCaterino / goodrob13 on Flickr).

Although I was usually the sole player in all my arcade outings, it was hard not to notice how being the player and the watcher could bring so many cheery and enthusiastic people together. One day a few years ago when I had a break in between classes at San Francisco State University, I laid a hand on a joystick for the first time at the arcade in our student center. I think it was one of the Capcom titles I loved so much, but maybe it was one of the Tekken games. I felt like somewhat of an outcast, being the only girl in there minding my own business as groups of guys gathered around and loudly cheered each other on as they waited for their turns at the other machines to come around. I wasn’t offended though—again, it was that sense of community that brought me more warmth than any negativity. These silly little video games were bringing people together and they were proof that arcades were hubs for social interactions, much like bars, lounges, and the like.

That was my last real arcade memory. As time went by, I developed new hobbies and obsessions and had very little care for my already casual enjoyment of video games. But a few months ago, for seriously unexplainable reasons, my Street Fighter obsession came back and Shoryuken’d me back into its universe. Paired with the recent release of the lovable video game-centric Disney film Wreck-It Ralph, I began to wonder: Where have all the arcades gone?

The video game arcade in America became an establishment in the early 1970s, branching off from the popularity of pinball machines. Cabinets from Atari and titles like Galaxian and Pac-Man rose to power in pop culture, and America’s youth and families flocked to arcades to play these games. However, such as back when the pinball machine was a sought-after entertainment device, video games and arcades were marred by controversy. Violence in the game Death Race—which involved running down pedestrians—was cause for heated debate about its connection to violence in the real world, and arcades were seen more as “magnets for loitering youth and gateways to bad behavior.” A New York Times article quoted a Long Island mother saying “that arcades were run by the ‘scum of the earth,’ that they ‘teach gambling to children,’ and ‘encourage aggressive behavior’ which could lead to criminal activity.” There were studies that countered these claims, but at around the time these arguments were released, the video game industry crash of 1983 had already inflicted damage to arcades and marked the beginning of their decline. The late 80s and early 90s did see a bit of an arcade renaissance as Street Fighter and other fighting game franchises became immensely popular, but since then, home consoles and the innovation of online play—the convenience and ability of playing against an opponent near or far through services like Xbox LIVE and PlayStation Network (PSN)—has taken over as a primary means of gaming, diminishing the prominence of arcades.

That’s not to say that the arcade scene is completely fizzling out—it’s simply changing. One arcade that is still very much alive and revitalizing the social environment for gamers is Gamecenter, located in downtown San Mateo (About 25 minutes south of San Francisco).

Gamecenter was unlike any arcade I ever set foot in. While most I remember were bold and snazzy, Gamecenter had a very down-to-earth and simplistic look, yet the place was way ahead of everyone else in terms of their offerings. They not only housed Japanese arcade cabinets—quite a few with HD screens—but also had tables with TVs and consoles like the Nintendo GameCube, so you’d get that more homely feeling. The day I visited Gamecenter was not just another Saturday—it was Super NCI (Norcal Install) Saturday. Regular events and tournaments like Super NCI have injected life into the arcade scene these days, uniting gamers of all levels looking to compete against each other in an energetic experience that also encourages interaction in the public space.

“All the great entertainment and media inventions of the past have been social experiences by virtue of their scarcity,” said Gamecenter founder and owner Myung Kim, citing orchestras and movies being presented to masses and families once owning single radios and television sets. “[You’ll] remember a time when there was only one kid on the block who had a Nintendo or a Genesis, and you had to go over to his place to play anything. This movement is an experiment to see if gaming can be a form of entertainment that is social again. We can already see that the human desire for it is there.”

Gamecenter in San Mateo, CA is proof that arcades are still popular, active, and loved amongst the video gaming community (photo credit: Karen Datangel / karendatangel on Instagram).

Gamecenter in San Mateo, CA is proof that arcades are still popular, active, and loved amongst the video gaming community (photo credit: Karen Datangel / karendatangel on Instagram).

That desire is evident in the crowds that flock to Gamecenter to enjoy their favorite games and discover new ones outside the digital sphere, as well as participate in competitions. For many of these gamers, it’s an art and craft, not just a hobby, to practice, strategize, fight, and win. Whether a beginner or a seasoned pro, gamers of all skill levels muse that there is no other way to play than at an arcade.

“Arcades are the best possible place to face people better than you—which is a necessity in order to improve—as practice while still maintaining a welcoming atmosphere,” said Shannon Brooks, a sales clerk from Los Altos. Brooks recently started participating in monthly NCI events at Gamecenter and said veteran players have described her skill level as promising. “The crowd is really friendly and enthusiastic, and the only criticisms you will be faced with are in good fun and considered a bonding experience.”

This is also true for competitive player Michael Murphy, an engineer from Hillsborough. “People like to think of gamers as introverted and shy, but everyone here, they want to help everyone get better, build a community, and be able to succeed at any game they want to play,” Murphy elaborated.

Despite the convenience of playing matches online, that in-person experience is the obvious omission, one that arcades can only offer not just for in-depth practice sessions and meaningful competition, but for potential friendships and networking. “Even though gaming does tend to migrate more towards the home—because it’s an inconvenience to travel in America with places being so far apart—it moves away from a social event to a self event,” said Anthony De Grandis, a freelance digital designer and graphic artist. De Grandis, a top 32 participant in the BlazBlue Continuum Shift portion of EVO (The Evolution Championship Series), traveled quite a bit to participate in Super NCI—he and some other friends make a 13-hour drive from Seattle, WA to come to Gamecenter about twice a year for NCI events. “It doesn’t feel like you’re playing against another person. When you’re there in an arcade, you can shake another person’s hand, take them out for a drink, congratulate them, talk to them, and become friends with them. But at home, they’re another faceless name and it’s not as fun.”

Kim, who founded Gamecenter a few years ago after a trip to Japan (Where arcades are always thriving—cabinets everywhere, accessible, open late, targeted towards specific demographics, according to a few gamers I spoke to), agrees that arcades nowadays have become more of a social gathering spot. When he was growing up, however, the role of a video game arcade was to showcase first-run titles. “Having a home console meant that you could only hope for a scaled-down, really late port of these really awesome games,” said Kim. “These days, that model has been turned on its head. Arcade games are a secondary consideration. Games that are released in arcades first are done so only customarily now due to the demographics of the players of those games still preferring arcades.” He cited the release of Persona 4 Arena—a popular favorite amongst the Gamecenter crowd—as an example. The day the game became available in Japanese arcades, Amazon started taking pre-orders for home console versions.

Gamers shared their own memories of arcades, shedding light on the different types there used to be and are. Murphy recalls going to one of the major arcades in San Francisco in recent years, the “big and flashy” TILT in the Metreon complex. TILT is a popular chain of arcades inside shopping malls, with the first location opening in 1972—however, the Metreon location closed in 2011. “There were a whole lot of coin and money-eaters. You were supposed to lose the game, pay more money, play more,” said Murphy. “It was fun for the kids because they didn’t realize the money they were spending but the parents were like ‘Oh, it’s such a huge drain on my wallet!’ Arcades like [Gamecenter] where there’s fairly mature people, from teenagers to 30+ [year-olds] coming to have a good time and hang out, I’d say this is the new style of arcade that’s making a showing in America.”

Still, arcades that exclusively offer a wide variety of video games like Gamecenter does are becoming diamonds in the rough. Ground Kontrol in Portland, OR maintains a selection of classic and contemporary titles (Along with pinball machines) and regularly holds events. Eight on the Break in Dunellen, NJ is highly active on the East Coast side of the scene and is profiled in a short Web documentary. Japan Arcade in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo district continues to attract Street Fighter fans. But those places have other amenities—pool and air hockey tables, claw machines, food and drink—that can give off a Dave and Buster’s feel. Even the famed Chinatown Fair in New York City, once known for its vast collection of fighting games, reopened recently with more family-friendly fare like skee-ball and hoops basketball.

The inclusion of a bar at Ground Kontrol in Portland, OR exemplifies a new hybrid of arcade—classic and modern video game cabinets mixed with a different form of fun (photo credit: Russell Bernice / i eated a cookie on Flickr).

“People can’t make money at an arcade without having another element,” said Rodrigo De La Reza, a San Francisco food cart manager who comes to Gamecenter about three times a month. “It’s gotta be an arcade with mini golf, or an arcade with a bar. Arcades don’t have the same monetary value they used to, that’s the hard part about running an arcade today.” That reality is painfully reflected in the closings of two “pure” arcades last year: Southtown Arcade, which was another main hub for fighting game aficionados in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Family Fun Arcade in Granada Hills, CA, which actually didn’t include any family fun center mainstays—just video games.

Through the shutdowns and major changes, it’s easy to point out that the video game arcade landscape is drastically transforming. You may have to go even farther and wider to find one, but supporting the ones that are still around is necessary to keep them going.

“Most places in America don’t have [an arcade] and the places that do, their arcade scenes still aren’t exactly thriving, so I feel like gamers that do like fighting games should actively seek out being a part of the community for their local arcades,” said Gamecenter regular David Broweleit, a technical sound/music student from Hayward. “It’s a piece of gamer culture that would be lost. If arcades die out, you can’t really mimic it. There’s no imitation that comes close to the same kind of feeling you get at arcades.”

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  1. The State of Arcades: A Writer’s Memories and Perspectives from Gamers | The Hudsucker | Karen Datangel - April 22, 2013

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