It doesn’t matter how many coins you insert now: arcade gaming is dead. Peripherals and flat screen TVs have brought the IMAX gaming experience directly into our front room. There’s no need to go scouting for games; Steam, Xbox Live and PSN beam all the latest releases straight to our hard drives. Entertainment comes to us now; in the world of fibre optic broadband and internet shopping, the coin-operated nickelodeons of yesteryear struggle to survive on sentimental value.
And even that is diminishing. Hipsters, fanatics and Edge magazine’s “Arcade Watch” column notwithstanding, coin-op gaming is all but done for. And why not? Lightgun shooters and dance simulations have nothing in common with gaming’s renaissance, where narrative is the creative byword. The quick-fix novelty of pay-per gaming cannot stand up to the commercial and cultural standards expected of videogames today. Players want stories, add-ons and XP points; investors want millions of dollars and franchise rights. What can Time Crisis, House of the Dead and Dance Dance Revolution hope to add to our developing palettes, and deepening pockets? Why should we mourn videogame arcades?
The gaming industry is notoriously incestuous. Hollywood blockbusters are the only traceable outside influence and like your stereotypical gamer, the culture is widely perceived as shut-in. But arcades are for everyone. Without the stipulations of console ownership, control pad experience and spare time, arcade games have universal appeal to new consumers and new contributors. As gaming’s closest equivalent to the theatre and the gallery, arcades represent debate.
And they deconstruct that image of the stereotypical gamer, locked in his room because no-one understands. Where film buffs and art fanatics are encouraged to appreciate their interest among friends, the devoted gamer can only keep up by staying indoors. Current games demand isolation; big adventures like Skyrim and Mass Effect can take dozens of hours. Without this density, arcade games create an environment where aficionados can meet to swap opinions.
Of course, it’s not as if we don’t talk about games already; mobile phones and social networks connect us to a global watercooler, and there’s more chat now than ever. But these forums, convenient though they may be, only damage our image. To a lot of people, impassioned gamers resemble South Park’s World of Warcraft hacker; slumped in his chair, food crumbs on his shirt, blocking out real-life with his curtains. Online discussion platforms, like GameFAQS and IGN, serve the existing community just fine, but in order to edify non-players, videogames need public exhibition. Like Alex Garland’s Enslaved, or Call of Duty’s revenue, arcades can work to legitimise videogames as a culture; the more we keep games behind closed doors, the more it looks like the industry has something to hide.
Handheld and mobile games have done a lot of this work for us. Everybody is a gamer now; from the busy exec catapulting Angry Birds on the subway, to the bored housewife killing time on Farmville, videogames are the go-to distraction. But that’s all. For most “casual” gamers (even those “casual” gamers who play videogames every day) videogames are essentially novelties – frivolous, disposable concepts for 69p each. Arcades never did anything to change this perception; like a fairground parlour game, you toss your coin and spin the wheel. But an arcade is tangible, and self-important. Where mobile games are naturally quick and disposable, the arcade represents a confidence and self-assuredness rarely found in an industry that endlessly panders. By disallowing us to play on our own terms, arcades take control over an industry long overrun by customer satisfaction. We’re proud to visit the composer, the actor and the artist; arcades provide a similar space for the game maker.
Or at least, they did. We’ve given up on the arcade now, and become content to play dial-a-games that don’t even have the dignity of a box. In recent years, sporadic museum exhibitions and emergent textbooks have given videogames an unprecedented cultural weight. Now more than ever, there’s opportunity to read and chinstroke about videogames; their technology, their ideas and their creators. But for all this hard-earned respectability, we can only play games from the bottom-up. We choose what we play and where: it seems like progress, but with the arcades abandoned to disrepair, we’ve stopped flying our flag on public soil.