Going Public with our Joysticks

Mister Bonnie solders together an Arcadian's dream.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.

Mister Bonnie solders together an Arcadian's dream.
IRQ: I ran across, 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!

7 replies »

  1. I wish i could say i know what you mean.
    Unfortunately I’m part of an age flux, at only 17 [and the fact that I’m Australian] means i didn’t really get included in the “old school” era of public gaming, my favorite “vintage” game [which i played just today] is ascendancy for the pc from 1995.
    with the advent of widespread online gaming though the next generation of gamers are being taught in just as social an atmosphere. But since its totally online there is no accountability, as i assume there was when actually watching someone tank or succeed at any given game back in the arcade days.


  2. It was pretty much the only social space that I frequented. From ages 8 through 12 my best friend and I would detour through the arcade on the way home from school every day. It was called Time Machine. We never had much money, but we would accept our outcast nerd fates and go for the games that the other kids didn’t play. I especially liked Jungle Hunt. And Pengo. And this game called Ladybug where you had to collect letters spelling the words “extra” and “special”.
    The day that Dragon’s Lair came to the arcade was very special. Magically, there were people that could already play it perfectly and we didn’t care that we seemed even dorkier for hanging around the machine and memorizing the order of directional taps on the joysitck. It cost 50c for a game, so we really didn’t get to play much ourselves.
    When I set up MAME on a machine a few years ago I played most of those games again. I did play in groups. I played with my math nerd friends. Dragon’s Lair wasn’t available though. I guess it was just too advanced.


  3. I like the seedy atmosphere at the Korea town internet joints as well and have been frequently with some other adults suffering from FMS (Failure to Mature Syndrome) to play LAN games. I recently got a PS2 and here’ s the weird thing … it makes me feel more lonely than playing by myself on my G3. I guess there’s simply some company in the knowledge that the G3 is online, eventhough I’m only killling Zerglings on my own little hard drive. Am I cracked? Are these the first stages of a deadly cyborg-ist dependency on my computer?


  4. Y’know, if you unplug Burger Time and then plug it back in, it gives you 99 free credits. It’s a lousy game, of course, but you’re less likely to get kicked out of the arcade for loitering if they see you playing something every now and then. This is a good trick if you’re cheap like me and can have a good time just hanging out and watching other people play.


  5. ever been spanked in a quake 3 one vs. one match, while 8 spectators waiting to play mock your pathetic performance? that kind of humiliation feels VERY public. sure you can change your gametag but at that moment the shame is almost existential.


  6. Ahhhh yes, this certainly brings back memories. The
    first video game I ever played was Donkey Kong (in
    the local K-Mart). I held the door open for some guy
    coming out of the store, so he gave me a quarter as
    a reward. I was about six years old and I wasn’t
    sure if I was supposed to be controlling Mario, the
    big ape in the top corner, or one of the barrels.
    From Mr. Do to Bubble Bobble to Double Dragon, those
    games were one of the great things about being a kid
    in the 80’s. I agree with the premise of this article:
    I enjoy console games but for different reasons. The
    gritty atmosphere of arcades and the tactile feel of
    an arcade machine is not present in an Xbox or GameCube.
    And there was a certain excitement about beating the
    the older kids (although it could lead to getting
    beaten-up the minute you walked out the door). 😉


  7. Ahhhh, I still visit the remaining arcade just north of Yonge and Dundas…
    RPGs and FPS don’t appeal to me, give me the 5 minutes for 25 cent machines anytime.
    The MAME stuff is cool, but not the same, but as Matt Johnson says “All the money in the world couldn’t bring back those days”.


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