I’ve never been much of a video game player. Growing up in the late-70s and early-80s that statement seems nothing short of blasphemy, I know. But I could never really get lost in a video game, not like my friends could. My brother and I did have an NES and I got hooked on a couple of games, Castlevania being the big one for me. And nothing like some mindless mushroom eating in Super Mario Bros to pass the time. But when it came to the more high brow game playing, the quests and secret codes and talking to witches in huts for information on saving the princess, well I just went blank and couldn’t get into it.
For me, the video game experience was going to The Fun Center, the local arcade when I was a kid. We’d get dropped off at the Center Cinema by our parents so we could go see Top Gun, Child’s Play, or Nightmare on Elm Street, Part 4. After the movie let out we’d head down a couple storefronts from the cinema and make our way into The Fun Center. If you’ve ever seen Over The Edge, River’s Edge, or any other movie about dead end teens hanging out and trying not to get into trouble you have a pretty good idea of what The Fun Center was like. I wasn’t a huge video game fan like I said(partly because of my waning attention span and partly because my parents fears of the games “burning” into the tv screen), so for me The Fun Center was just as much a sociological study as it was a way to dump some quarters into an arcade game.
There were several archetypes that hung out at the FC. For example, you had the hardcore gamers that spent pockets of change on the newest games from Capcom, Atari, Midway, and Namco. These guys were transfixed on the glowing screens of the big wood boxes that sat stoic with nothing more than buttons and a joystick. It was their life’s purpose to play these games. Then you had the girls that were there with these lifers. They said little to nothing and just stood by their transfixed fella. You had the stoners that were usually outside in their cars in front of the arcade. They usually had Van Halen, Ratt, or Black Sabbath playing loudly in their car stereos and looked at you like you were trespassing as you walked past them to get into the FC. I had a couple weird experiences with these dope heads as I entered the arcade, but nothing that got violent(I tried to be invisible as much as possible.) My older brother played a couple of those roles over the years. The last role he played was the underage drinker that gets busted by the cops at The FC(I still remember my mom leaving at 9:30pm on a Friday night to go pick him up as the cop didn’t arrest him, but made him call home for a ride.)
I was what you’d call the passerby. I went in to waste time before I was picked up from the movies. I had no real interest in playing games, but there was something intriguing about being there. All the noises, the glowing faces, and the muffled conversations you’d hear as you walked the path of games. Sure, I’d drop a quarter here and there, but for the most part I was merely an observer. It always felt to me that at any moment a massive fight could break out. If it weren’t for those 8-bit distractions blood would have been shed for certain. Despite class differences and social circles, there was a commonality amongst everyone at the FC. Bullies and their victims left their roles at the door with the pie-eyed manager. For however long they were there, everyone was equals. Just don’t make eye contact. And as soon as you walk out that door into the cool night air, all bets are off.
The arcade has gone by the way side. They used to be everywhere. Every mall had one, and every town had one, too. Even pizza joints had a small room set aside for a Pac-Man, Asteroids, and a Star Trek pinball game. But thanks to Nintendo, Sega, Sony, and Microsoft we can just play those games in the comfort of our living room. And we no longer need to don a jean jacket covered in Metallica, Black Sabbath, and Slayer buttons whilst destroying worlds; we can just wear pajama pants and a stained Budweiser t-shirt. And when the oven timer goes off to tell us our Totino’s pizza rolls are done we can just pause the game. No quarters lost, no spot taken. Technology is great like that. It’s also kind of sad. It’s just one more experience future generations will never have. It may not seem like a very huge thing to lose, but they add up. Rotary phones, picking up an Encyclopedia to find things out(as opposed to checking Wikipedia), and television stations that actually went off the air at midnight. There isn’t a time you can’t be located thanks to your cell phone and Google. You could actually fall off the grid in the 80s just by getting in a car and driving to the grocery store. For that 15 minute drive, you were truly alone. Not lonely or lost; just alone. Can you imagine that, kiddos?
Seems pretty deep for a chat about an arcade, I know. But it’s just one more piece of my bygone days that has dwindled. I didn’t appreciate those post-cinema strolls to the FC back when I was 13, 14, and 15 years old. It was just a way to waste some time. But looking back on it they seem a hell of a lot more important than I could have understood back then. The mingling, the faces, the personalities, and yes, even the games.
The ritual. It’s always about the ritual.