The Death of Arcades

This article was originally published for Site of the Gaming Dead, a now-defunct video gaming blog, on April 19, 2010. I have attempted to recreate the article here, complete with images (when possible).

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, in a place not unlike the town you’re in now, there existed a magical place known as an arcade. Nowadays, these arcades are almost like a mythical creature: unbelievable and hard to find. Where once, arcades could be found scattered around any given town or city, now, they seem confined to movie theatres and tourist traps and are but a shadow of the greatness of what they once were.

The sad truth is, arcades are dying, if not already dead.

For me personally, arcades were the place I went to discover games as a child. Before I had an SNES, a PlayStation, or a PS2, I went to an arcade called Dodge City in the Northern California town of Petaluma. Dodge City was full of pinball machines and old-school arcade games ranging from Buster Brothers to Marble Madness. Back in those days, several hours of unlimited gameplay were only a few dollars, and often I was there with only a handful of other people, playing Tron one moment, and The Machine: Bride of Pin-Bot the next.

Years passed, and by the time I entered high school, most arcades I knew about were located strictly in movie theatre corners and tourist-filled areas. But the economy was shifting too, and that meant that arcades that were formerly strictly for the tourists had to think differently and attract locals to come in on a regular basis. That arcade was Riptide Arcade (RTA) at Pier 39, and their idea was to have a weekly Bemani Night, where all of the rhythm-and-music games in the Beatmania (Bemani for short) collection, including Dance Dance RevolutionDance ManiaX, and Drum Mania, were half off, while many other games were discounted too. During the summer, Bemani Night fell on a Wednesday, while during the school year, it fell on a Friday.

After playing games for hours, my huge mass of friends would often split: some heading back to their homes all over the Bay Area, others going to San Francisco’s lone In-N-Out burger location at Fisherman’s Wharf, others heading to keep playing games at the Metreon entertainment center, which stayed open late on its top-level movie theatre floor with a smattering of video games like Dance Dance Revolution and various first-person shooter arcade games. The Metreon had a full-size arcade too, one that changes its name almost as often as Lady Gaga changes her hair, but to my friends, it would always be ATG, or the “Airtight Garage,” one of its earlier monikers. But unlike Riptide, ATG didn’t create that blind loyalty to keep coming back week after week. They weren’t open late, the games were consistently expensive, and even if they did have a variety of games that RTA didn’t, they were often in poorer condition than Riptide’s games. You could stomp all you wanted on that left arrow, but it wouldn’t register your steps if you were playing at the Metreon…but it would if you were at RTA, and I think that’s part of the reason why we kept coming back. It was just better.

I visited the old Riptide the other day. It’s now called “Player’s Arcade,” and has been through a bit of remodeling, taking over what used to be a Hollywood-like gift shop and expanding into the formerly-private back area. It’s now half-restaurant, half-arcade, but the arcade games are more spaced out, lending a dizzying feeling to this arcade with shiny hardwood floors.

The shooting gallery is often quiet and dark, and while there are always a handful of people present, it’s never packed to the point where you have to shove tokens, bus passes, and school IDs onto the rim of game monitors while waiting for your turn to come up.

Where a multitude of Bemani games used to be, now there are more ticket-spewing machines, capable of luring children and tourists into playing for an extended period of time, letting their dollars, Euros, or what-have-you turn into lava lamps and RC cars (I’ll gladly admit that I played equal amounts DDR and ticket-spewing machines back in my days at RTA; I’m now the proud owner of a blue-and-yellow lava lamp as the result).

There are only two Bemani games left now: Dance Dance Revolution X and Drum Mania. There’s no more Dance ManiaX, no more Beatmania IIDX. Many of the games that my friends would pour their change into are gone now. What used to be a gathering place for crowds of disparate gamers to come together and hang is now a Southwest Rapid Rewards Dining venue, but I’ve got no desire to trade my tokens for fractions of an airfare credit. For some reason, it made more sense to while away my hours trying to get tickets for a lava lamp than it does to eat some overpriced barbecue wings in an effort to fly away from a place I used to love.

This is heartbreaking enough, but RTA isn’t alone in its supposed need to change to accommodate the times. The Metreon arcade and others like it are also changing: changing their names, changing the games, changing the things that used to bring crowds but, for whatever reason, no longer do. A lot of the games at TILT, the arcade formerly known as ATG, are up for sale, their dusty monitors plastered with yellow and pink price tags with hastily-scribbled quadruple-digit numbers. “Everything must go!” these tags seem to say, because nothing is the way it used to be, and trying to recapture a successful, happy past is a futile exercise.

We live in a world of so-called “social media,” where everyone is tethered to some device or another, be it a smartphone or a laptop, a gaming console or an iPad. People don’t gather at arcades anymore: they smack-talk one another on XBox Live, calling one another names for using the wrong card in Uno. You don’t have to worry about remembering faces or names because everyone’s got an avatar and an alias. This is the new arcade: the digital one, the one where “socializing” involves little more than a controller and an Internet connection, and the connection you make with people is severed–at least for the night–until you log in again.

Arcades are dead, and the autopsy says C.O.D. includes laziness, greed, and dissatisfaction. But just longing for “the good ol’ days” won’t change anything. If The Next Big Thing fails to register that all humans, from the casual gamer to the nerdcore who can’t let go of his controller, need to socialize–truly socialize, in person, with other humans–then it won’t be The Next Big Thing for very long. If anything, maybe it’s time for the world of gaming to apply a defib to its heart: take a line from Hollywood and think about remaking itself in the image of the past, when gamers got out and played.