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What ever happened to the good old arcade?

Updated on February 9, 2012

It used to be a revered and holy place, like Valhalla to a 8 to 18 year old. A place where, for a mere 25 cents, a scrawny geek could become a buff hero and swagger his skills in front of a horde of his peers. Or, team up with three strangers to follow an epic journey as some bipedal mutant. Now it has degenerated to a grimy pit of tax collectors and money changers, I speak of course of the video game arcade.

Recently I caught a commercial for, let's say, life insurance that had a scene that made me sit up and take notice. In it a narrator describes your daughter hanging out with the "wrong crowd" if you're not around. Framing the scene of traditional non-traditional stereo types, like pierced, leather clad, unnaturally colored mohawk sporting teens, was the environment of the hard to find video arcade. Amidst the tug of nostalgia was an incensed sense of rage at the perpetuation of a negative stigmata that has already succeeded in pushing a form of business to the brink of extinction. Are the negative notions about video arcades rooted in any solid fact, or are they merely a self fulfilling prophecy? And are we any better now at providing a safer environment for our children to play in?

In 1986 arcade consoles stood enormous, like monoliths scraping the sky in honor of the gaming gods like Donkey Kong, Mr. and Mrs. Pac-Man and Q-bert. Of course I was 5 back then so everything looked a lot bigger. The wide bright screens with rich 16 bit 2-D animated figures opened up whole worlds of interactive fantasy. When the electronic themes were brought together into a single area it created a symphony of noises and lights that was nearly existential to the juvenile mind. Yet somewhere along the line the innocence of the experience was lost, to be replaced with negative perceptions that have been slowly strangling this pocket of the gaming industry.

Obviously the introduction of the home gaming console cut into the profitability of the arcades. But not enough to really hurt them when I was young. First off, not everyone could afford the system at first, but a few quarters here and there were easy enough to come by. As the systems became more affordable the games became more intricate, so testing it in the arcade first was a great way to determine if it was worth buying for the home. As games continued to advance in complexity the reverse happened. It became more beneficial to buy the game and play at home to refine the skills needed to impress your peers at the arcade. Regardless of the trends video arcades seemed set to make money no matter what.

So what happened to squash this once proud strip mall standard? Quite frankly, it was your mom. Or perhaps it was "Street Fighter", or better yet, both. Quick reminder, video arcades used to have 3 things, automated shooting ranges with pellet guns, pinball machines, and hand powered black and white burlesque viewers, now back to the 80's. When Street Fighter came out suddenly arcades where bad, when Mortal Kombat was released they became awful, with Killer Instinct they became a horrible place for children. Did the titles make arcades bad, or did the perceptions create lee-way for the social structure to degenerate? It didn't help that when fighting games were introduced designers jumped on the band wagon with such fervor that the rich variety of gaming experiences dropped off in favor of a cookie cutter pattern. Soon it became a place where, as my uncle put it once, "someone would stab you just for a quarter". When Tekken was released the standard crowd had dwindled to consist primarily of the degenerates everyone had so feared. As a result we all paid the price. Another 25 cents per game to be exact. Then to make matters worse the management at most places decided to speed up customer use by increasing the level of difficulty on the games. That killed the casual but consistent crowd down a bit. Soon with increased prices and the arrival of online games the sight of the video game arcade faded into obscurity for a while.

Have you ever been stabbed in an arcade for you quarters?

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A few years back a familiar rodent reappeared peddling the same bad pizza with a new brand of family entertainment. What once was a network of windows looking into digital worlds with a couple walls lined with ticket producing games of skill is now a casino training ground covered in the grime of a thousand dirty little hands. A couple pioneers of a new age of gaming have arisen, let's call them Finster and Bob, with an approach that is to appeal to children and adults equally. They even have a bar right on the game floor for convenience. This automatically gives it that "grown up" feel. However, when pressed for space they surrender realty to the ticket dispensing gambling machines. If they give way to a suspension of reality type experience it is typically to shoot something. What's worse, encouraging a child to gamble away money for something that costs less than the amount used to acquire the tickets, or saying, "here junior reload like this"?

Now the remnants of the true arcade experience are relegated to the edges of movie theaters and the better pizza places. Even the crane games have turned against us with weaker claws. The spoils of war against the arcades has yielded a new medium for a child's social gaming. It can now take place in the safety of their own living rooms while mom and dad are in the next room, or bedroom, or out with friends. But what's important is they are no longer under the supervision of a couple of minimum wage earning slackers, instead they are under the guidance of a world full of completely random adults plugged directly into their ears. At the arcade there was more a sense of etiquette than one would expect from someone relaxing in their living room. So please, bring back the arcades in all their former glory. for the kids.


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