One of the biggest contributors to videogaming’s nerd factor is that it’s most often a solitary act. The bepimpled teenager channelling his angst through a controller in the darkness of his parent’s basement is a cliché with more than a few grains of truth. But it hasn’t always been so.
Before the home entertainment system’s 8-bit siren’s song that promised endless, quarterless fun fully took hold, there was the arcade.
I fondly remember the Yonge Street arcades, full of kids skipping school like us; slapping a quarter down on the ledge of the game as the universal sign for “I’m next”; taking on whatever stranger was the day’s reigning Street Fighter champ. One of my best videogame moments was playing Ms. Pac-Man at a truck stop somewhere and being aware that a crowd was gathering — some girls, even! — to watch the spectacle of my maze mastery. I don’t remember what else happened that summer, but I distinctly remember the pressure and excitement mounting as the people around me caught Pac-Man Fever.
While I’ve had many great moments with home computers and consoles, indeed played the same games on them in some cases, these memories are qualitatively different because they happened in public space. Not literally, of course: but even with the arcade being privately owned, it felt more public than, say, Dundas Square. The doors were always slid open, making it feel part of the flow of the street, and this meant that your moves were open to scrutiny: your pixelated deaths had dozens of witnesses.
In the move from the arcade to the basement, we’ve lost more than bragging rights. The seedy-cool image of hanging out at the arcade — which perhaps jump-started the gaming industry — was traded in for a bland suburban model. Like a lot of shifts from the public to the private, the convenience and control we’ve gained is at the expense of certain intangibles. While hardly as ominous or significant a trend as bottled water undermining our public water system, these social shifts are both largely instigated by marketing pushes.
But I’m happy to report that people are pushing back. Like the synthesizer and a lot of ’80s cultural treasures, the arcade is being re-sampled. I’m not talking about places like Playdium or any of the other overpriced and overproduced theme parks where parents feel good bringing their children. There are more and more interesting places to play in public. Here’s a few I’ve noticed.
Koreatown: A couple of years ago, I was in South Korea and wanted to check my email. I was directed to one of the many PC rooms in the neighbourhood, and expected a kind of Kinko’s office atmosphere. I was pleasantly surprised to discover a clamorous, dim room filled with networked computers available dirt-cheap. I was directed to a terminal by a guy just as indifferent and bored as the quarter-dolers of old, and sat down beside a belligerent teenager who cursed and muttered between pulls on his cigarette and furious bouts of mouse-clicking. This kid was not printing out his homework.
The badass spirit of this PC room lives on in any of the innumerable internet cafés on Bloor Street west of Bathurst. Go with a pal and play head-to-head Diablo, StarCraft, or Counter-Strike, or just go by yourself and join a LAN game already in progress — be prepared to relearn how mouthy adolescents are, however. A lot of cafés also have all-night deals for the hardcore, and they’re cheap by the hour, too.
IRQ: I ran across www.asciipr0n.com, a site with a large collection of ASCII porn — the old-school way of rendering naked people using normal keyboard letters, numbers and symbols. On the site was posted a notice for a party called IRQ at a bar called Funhaus (526 Queen West). What sealed the deal for me was that they were bringing an arcade cabinet with a PC running MAME (multiple arcade machine emulator) — which amounted to being able to play about a couple hundred classics on the stand-up machine. When I made it down to the event, I asked Mister Bonnie (who’s pictured here soldering the unit’s joystick to the PC’s inputs) where they got the cabinet. Apparently, they found it in an alley. In addition the draw of the free games, they also had live video mixing and online chatting between the attendees projected on the walls. Although I’d personally rather chat with my voice, I admire IRQ’s loyalty to geek culture in bringing these conventions out of cyberspace and into a party space.
Ideal Coffee: My favourite café and roastery (111 Nassau St. in Kensington Market) got favouriter with the addition of a table-top Galaga machine. It’s the kind that has the game built-in under the glass, that flips upside down for player two’s turn. Balance out the good you’re doing by drinking fair-trade coffee by ruthlessly annihilating the endless waves of alien scum who dare to approach your planet. Imagine the roasting smell is caused by your laser blasts. Take up the debate of the game’s relationship to Space Invaders: total rip, or wicked riff?
Go public, Arcadians! Out of the basements and into the streets!