The old video arcades were dark and dirty. They were high-ceilinged warehouses pulsing with a pastiche of chiptunes and electronic sound. For some, they were an obsession. To others they were a space to interact.
Video games are one of the few entertainment industries that defines itself by its interactability. But in the case of video arcades, it was also interacting with other people. Some games were competitive, others cooperative, but even the single player games were played in a social space.
Then after enough time, like unplugging a machine, the light was gone. The image was dead. Arcades just weren’t viable anymore.
Some small businesses have been trying to keep the old idea alive. There are several old warehouses that restore old machines. There are some brick-and-mortar stores which try to bring the old-feel back, and there are now Barcades, half bar, half arcade, in both Manhattan and Brooklyn that bridge the gap between the drinking age population’s nostalgia and their desire for booze.
Gaming moved away from a social space and into the living room and then eventually into solitary. While arcades were environments, which sometimes necessitated interaction, modern games are finding it hard to include features like the split screen that allows gamers to even play together on the same couch. Now two of the biggest franchises in the industry, Halo and Call of Duty, have announced their upcoming games will ship without split-screen features.
To recapture the spirit of the arcade is to reignite that wayward sense of gaming community into a singular place.
The Revolution, a video game store in Stony Brook, New York, does not stick out. Unlike the arcades of old, the only free floating neon is in the store window, and its exterior relays nothing more than a mom-and-pop shop that just happens to hold a sign to the street yelling, “Video Games.”
Inside, there are young men sitting on desk chairs, hovering around an LCD screen and a copy of Super Smash Bros. There are four stations with similar set ups, which are only separated by low walls of green plexiglass. Along the walls are a hodgepodge of console gaming’s history from the Nintendo N.E.S to the latest Playstation. In this place, which its owner calls a modern arcade, there are only two old arcade machines, a machine for Marvel vs. Capcom and another for Ms. Pacman.
His main fixture is the game room. The owner knows it, and his customers know it. For a little under $10 per hour, he advertises that you can play almost any game in the stations, and they are also where he hosts his local weekend tournaments.
“With the game room, man, you know it was all just pot luck.”
Mike Auricchio sits back in one of his game room chairs with his hands behind his head. He talks rapid fire with the sort of confidence of a man who loves what he does and dares others to criticize him.
He is not exactly the first person to come up with this idea. All over the country the idea of creating a social space for gaming has taken off. There have been small examples cropping up in places from small stores like Press Play in Annapolis, Maryland to small franchises like Yestercades in New Jersey.
“When I was young, everyone played video games. You know, I was a 90s kid, and when [James Bond 007 Goldfinger for the Nintendo 64] came out, that was like, the most insane shooter. We had pagers, you know, actual pagers, that we would use to say ‘it’s bond time,’” Auricchio said.
A social space for gaming, the idea is general and allows for interpretation. Auricchio’s place is a store as well as an arcade. Other shops focus solely on the play.
“When I was 15 or 16, I loved going to Game Crazy just down the road,” Albert Verdi Jr. said. Verdi opened up his own shop, Crazy Gamer Dome, in Selden, Long Island in November, 2014. Instead of including a store to sell video games, Verdi focuses solely on the modern arcade.
Verdi wants to bring back the experience he had as a child when he would socialize with other people at arcades and video game stores. “I loved meeting up there and socializing with other gamers, and ever since [Game Crazy] closed, there really hasn’t been anything like it.”
The front door opens up to an empty floor, with a long wood paneling that leads to the front desk. Junior’s dad, Albert Verdi Sr. had just finished mopping the floor. While Verdi Jr. worked for four years at the Best Yet supermarket in Coram to build up capital for the store, his father helps out with the menial tasks. All four walls are lined with LCD TVs and individual lounge chairs. Instead of the young market that The Revolution tends to, Verdi said his store appeals more towards older people, 20-year-olds or above. He has plans for games like Halo 5 that lack the ability to play with multiple people on one screen. With all his consoles hooked up over a Local Area Network, players can have local matches over multiple televisions.
Verdi Jr. wants his store to expand. He’s still building his business, but his ambitions grow way beyond that. The 23-year-old wants to turn Crazy Gamer into a franchise and build stores all across the island.
In three years, Auricchio has built a steady community of teenagers, many of whom attend his weekend tournaments. On his wall, he displays a large board decorated with pictures of the winners of past tournaments. He has hosted over 300 tournaments in three years, the average number of attendees rounding to about 30 people.
The manager at The Revolution, John McCarthy, hangs with his chin on his hands on top of the green plexiglass. Aurrichio and McCarthy are more friends than co-workers. They often talk about the social impact of their games on the kids who play in their tournaments. They swapped stories of kids growing emotionally because of their game center.
“They’re more emotionally impacted by games then we’ll ever be,” he said of the impact that a social experience for insulated kids has on their emotional development.
A Game of Pwns: Why Arcades Went Away
At their peak in 1982, there were 24,000 full arcades as part of a booming industry in the U.S. The current number has dropped to almost 2,800, according to Steven L. Kent’s book “The Ultimate History of Arcades.” While there has been a few new arcades cropping up in New York City, the last remnants of arcades on Long Island exist in the form of family fun centers, of which there are only a few left.
The 90s held aloft the old video arcade, yet the home video game console soon rivaled the graphics of what was displayed on an arcade machine. Jeremy Saucier, the Assistant Director of International Center for the History of Electronic Games at The Strong National Museum of Play, said that the model of manufacturers and sellers, along with the more expensive technology of more modern arcade machines, eventually made the entire normal video arcade model unsustainable.
While Auricchio saw the original Atari 2600 game console as the beginning of the end for video arcades, he also saw the arcades’ reputation on Long Island deteriorate. One of Long Island’s fixtures from the 90s, the Time Out arcades planted in various malls and storefronts on Long Island had grown old with time. Worse, they had become havens for petty crime.
Auricchio leaned forward in his chair when the topic got onto the Time Out in the Smith Haven Mall.
One of the more popular arcades on Long Island in the early 90s was Spaceplex in St. James, an indoor amusement park and arcade. It was also the site of the abduction of 9-year-old Katie Beers in 1992, who was then held in an underground bunker for 17 days, as reported by The New York Times. The location would later close under Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1996.
The history of arcades is invariably connected with nefarious businesses. “Places that had coin operated amusement games were always found in bars, you would have penny arcades in New York City with mutoscopes and peep shows. For decades, coin operated amusements have been associated with certain environments,” Saucier said.
This judgement followed the video arcade throughout its career.
“There were lots of critics, politicians, parents and activists who attacked arcades because they were painted as places where bad things happened,” Saucier said. “And not even that bad things were happening themselves but places where children were stealing for their parents to pay for their arcade addiction, and [that message] was spread really throughout the country.”
Gaming the Future
While the owners of these stores have seen a moderate amount of success, and have enough optimism for the future of their businesses, these young store owners see potential problems for these small businesses in the future as their clientele ages.
While Auricchio sees himself in a boom of the retro craze, he also sees a time when those older people in their late 20s will lose interest, and then the next generation will want to play the games of their childhood.
“So my demographic has money, jobs, family, and what do we want? We want to play the games we played as kids. So what happens next? The guys who are 21 will want to play the games of their childhood.” Auricchio said.
The fear is that eventually, the people looking to play games of their childhood won’t even have the ability to play in local multiplayer.
“Everybody likes to go back to that nostalgia feel of the original Halo, or Super Smash Bros.,” said Verdi Jr. “You’ll have half the category of gamers who want to relive their classics, because there’s nothing like the original. But then there’s also the end to it where people look forward to this new technology coming out.”
“So what’s next for consoles?” he asked. “I’m not sure if there is a ‘next’ for consoles. For modern arcades, I hope they don’t go anywhere. I hope we see more of them, different ones.”