Tuesday, June 1, 2010

An Ode to the Humble Arcade

By Annie Wright
Photograph by Maryellen May Greulich

Where were you when you first fell in love with a game? These days, there are many who would answer "My parents' basement," "A friend's house," or if you were that kid, "From the comfort of my race car bed, surrounded by Lego and bits of Fruit Stripe stuck to the back of my pants." But for those of us whose parents didn't go for consoles right away, there is another common answer - we fell in love at the arcade.

As many of us were, I was first drawn into Aladdin's Castle by the Bear Claw machine. I'd come to the Bloomington College Mall with a friend and her mom, who did not have the same supervisory standards as my own mother, happily turned us loose in the arcade with a few dollars in quarters each. I'd lost my first few to the elusive charms of plush dinosaurs when it occurred to me that it might be more worthwhile to try an actual game. Even if I didn't win, I reasoned, I'd at least have played. (I suppose this is also technically true of the Bear Claw machine, but it is much less fun, particularly if one is too short to see the mechanical arm properly.)

I am not actually sure which games I played that afternoon, to be honest. I'm fairly certain Ms. Pac Man was involved, as well as an evil clown-themed pinball machine and possibly Street Fighter. But I do know that I came away from that hour and fifteen minutes with new passion; I would skip the Bear Claw machine forever more.

It was perhaps 6 or 7 years later, after having forgone regular visits to Aladdin's Castle due to the convenience of my family's PC and my friend Molly's SNES, that my circle of friends and I discovered a more appealing alternative: Space Port. It was to become the living room of our cultural universe, contained neatly within the same two block radius as The Den (our kitchen), and People's Park, which served as everything from smoking lounge to art studio. (Holy crap dude, you are dredging up some serious memories for me right now. -Kirk)

Space Port was steadfastly manned by a fully shenanigans-tolerant SubGenius staff. They offered sanctuary when needed but happily turned a blind eye to our obviously suspicious Colosseum-sized styrofoam cups, which were only sometimes filled with legitimate beverages but were far more likely to contain something along the lines of Purple Passion. The staff also did not seem to mind that we spent at least as much time on the roof of their establishment as we did pumping quarters into the pinball machines.

Thus it was with great sadness that we witnessed Space Port's downward spiral and ultimate demise. Eventually the building was torn down in favor of a fancy new block containing an Urban Outfitters, some office suites, as well as another unremarkable shop specializing in licensed sportswear for visiting parents of Indiana University students.

To me, that event was a cold, hard realization about the nature of commerce in America. I reasoned that the only possible excuse for such a tragedy was that the owners of the building were upper-class sell-outs, twits who looked down on us as miscreants. Most of my friends reached the same conclusion. I'm sure it was actually much more complicated than that, particularly in light of the fact that we would later learn that Space Port is actually a chain, owned along with Aladdin's Castle and several other brands by Namco.

In spite of our local tragedy, however, arcades in the US continue to experience varying levels of success. In general, running a gaming space is not nearly as lucrative as developing the games that are played there, and it is a common observation that many independent arcades seem to be owned and operated by gamers themselves. These places tend to run more on enthusiasm than profit, and perhaps are not seen as a priority when it comes to corporate benefaction. However, when I look at this tribute to my hometown's Space Port and see that there are over 600 members sharing stories and photographs of our beloved hang-out, I can't help but think that we were not the only ones to find sanctuary in such a place.

And so, noble readers, I draw your attention to an effort aimed at preserving arcades in America, sponsored by none other than Stride® Gum. Succinctly titled, the "Save the Arcades" benefit functions in much the same way as a walk-a-thon but without having to solicit pledges from your friends and family. Simply play as many rounds of CowBots 2010 as you can handle (hint: the mute button will ensure a longer session, unless you are really into 8-bit banjo noises), and donate your points to one of the three finalist arcades. I am playing in support of Ground Kontrol in Portland, OR (PACIFIC NORTHWEST HOLLA!), but players can also choose to support Arcade Infinity of Rowland Heights, CA or Rocky's Replay of Winter Park, FL. On June 15th, whichever arcade has the most points wins $25,000.00 in sustenance.

Could you find a charity that benefits a more dire cause? Sure. Could you find another charity for which the only thing donors are required to do is play video games? Yes, actually; you can. But let us not debate the relative merit of the cause, or the mechanism by which people participate.

In the time I spent writing the paragraph, I accrued 1,000 points just by letting my farmer sit in his field and be hit by rampaging Cowbots. With that in mind, there's no excuse not to give it five minutes, or even twenty-five minutes. Do it for the children, do it for the sarcastic teenaged miscreants that those children will become. Or, do it simply to avoid talking to your cube-mate the next time you have lunch at your office desk.

All you have to do is play.


Anonymous said...

Ahhh, space port! Was the center of all things social--and I had my birthday party at Aladdin's Castle (near Lazarus...). Thanks for the nostalgia!