Saturday, February 28, 2009

Sunrise, Sunset

Boing Boing has a piece up that is just another reminder of my mortality: A young gamer asks what these 'video game arcades' he's heard of were like because of course he's too young to have ever been in one and Cory Doctorow obliges with a little memoir that creates a tactile flashback for me at least.
"I was reading about arcades and how you'd have to queue to play popular games as well as follow rules like no throwing in fighting game or the others wouldn't let you play. This seems rather strange. The money cost must have gotten expensive pretty quickly as well. I'm not old enough to have been to them when they were around so I'm curious about what they were like."

Well, let me tell you Billy, when I was a boy, there was an arcade at the Sheppard Centre, and we would sneak off there at lunch and after school and during spare periods and when we should have been in class. There were older teenagers, 18 or 19, who more or less lived there. One of them sold hash on the side, but mostly they just seemed to be bums. Really, really cool bums. One of them was amazingly good at Gauntlet. He'd play it all day long, spending an hour carefully honing a character to an incredibly buff state, and then he'd sell you his game for a couple bucks (the proto-goldfarmer of suburban Toronto!). We'd all crowd around and shout encouragement. The guy behind the counter, George, in his 20s, treated us like lovable scum, like you see bartenders treating the barflys in a sitcom from the era. We all knew whose initials were on the leaderboards. We were allowed to smoke in the arcade and we smoked like chimneys. All the games had volcano-crater burns from our butts. The worst offense in our universe was to pull the plug during someone's game. That always meant fights.

Geezuz, there are sentient near-adult gamers now who don't remember this stuff. Here in Calgary the last stand alone arcade just closed a few months ago, a dusty little hole in the wall on one of our sleazier downtown strips. For years we wondered how it stayed open as it was usually almost completely empty. Lots of speculation about money laundering. It seems to be a discount Hindi scarfs/fashion outlet now.

Arcade culture rose up and then just as quickly fell in just a few decades. Gaming has gone from a marginally social lifestyle to an almost completely insular one. We didn't even realize it was a subculture until it was over. I guess the only approximation now are those dark little semi-internet cafes almost exclusively patronized by Asian teenagers with game posters covering all the windows.

OK, now I'm sad. I'm going to go find a Joust emulator to download....

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