how arcades have become archaic

Yesterday, a group of us went to Dave and Busters to celebrate Julian and Laura’s birthdays.  For me, arcades such as Dave and Busters have this dated, nostalgic feeling to them – I remember the outings I had as a kid where my sister and I would play to collect tickets and redeem them for bouncy balls and erasers.  This particular trip made me think about what (if any) is the enduring power of the arcade as an entertainment location and what can be done to help modernise this space for the players of today.

First, I think arcade games are, for the most part, rather boring.  Ask anyone and they can probably name one or two games guaranteed to be in an arcade.  There are the typical shooters, basketball hoops, and the one where you drop tokens into the machine in the hope of pushing out more tokens…  Each type of game is like a set of slot machines in a casino: all virtually variations on the same game.

Despite my negative opinion on the engagement of these games, I had a lot of fun.  I thought about why this might be, considered our favourite games of the night, and came up with some ideas.

Primarily, the arcade is an outing to do with friends.  The lousy games did not matter so much as playing against friends or cheering someone on.  A prime example was multiplayer Pac-Man and MarioKart, where four people compete.  While both these games could simply be played at home with your friends, I think the physical space of the arcade made them more engaging.  In Pac-Man, you stand at a Pac-Man shaped controller that lights up in your colour, in front of a huge screen.  In MarioKart, you are in a driver’s seat with the pedals at your feet.  What’s more, you could walk from Pac-Man to MarioKart, and back again.

Look at these people having such a good time playing multiplayer Pac-Man.

Look at these people having such a good time playing multiplayer Pac-Man.

A game that encompassed both social and physical aspects was Speed of Light, which became a highlight of the evening.  In versus mode, two players squared off against each other and had to hit buttons as they lit up, for the highest score.  These buttons were physically located in front of the players, from shoulder to knee height, and this physicality was a strong point for sure, in addition to the competition that quickly got intense.  I soon realised that the best arcade games were not only fun to play, but fun to watch, as the whole group of us stood cheering on the two best players at Speed of Light.

Speed of Light face-off between champions Eric and Tim.

Speed of Light face-off between champions Eric and Tim.

The most popular game of the night was, surprisingly, the toy machine with the claw that you control to try and pick up stuffed animals to win them.  Now, I remember my mum loving this game, and it being very difficult.  However, at Dave and Busters, picking up toys with the claw was ridiculously easy, and I even managed to get one (a pear shaped stuffed toy) on my first try, which for me, is unheard of.  The best part was the excited reactions everyone had to winning, and I think the arcade did a fine job with making these cheap toys easily won instead of frustrating to get, because it spurred more people on to play on the machine for toys that cost less than the amount paid to play.

Melody caught a shark.

Melody caught a shark.

Claw machine winners circle shows its level of pwnage.

Claw machine winners circle shows its level of pwnage.

In summary, the best parts of the arcade experience with a large group of friends were games that were:

  1. Social – multiplayer, competitive, cooperative…
  2. Physical – having to hit buttons in a space or use a real car set up is something you (usually) can’t do at home
  3. Fun to watch – we don’t have to be the ones playing to be having a good time
  4. Easy with tangible prizes – gets everyone excited and makes us feel a sense of accomplishment

With these in mind, I’ve thought about whether the traditional game arcade is relevant today and how it might evolve or cease to exist altogether in the near future.  With the rise of mobile gaming and cheaper game consoles, arcades certainly seem to have declined in popularity.  In fact, one of the recent updates are these mobile games, such as Fruit Ninja, just on larger touch screens.  Personally, I think this is lazy and not all that worthwhile to have in an arcade.  In my opinion, arcades need to invest in more original games that hit the four criteria above if they are to be viable in the future.  And even then, there is a new generation of gamers that would need to be taught to go to the arcade in the first place.

Another update in recent years (that Dave and Busters on the Waterfront doesn’t do, thank goodness) is the shift from paper tickets to electronic ones that you save on a card and bring to the prize desk to exchange for prizes.  This is how it is at Castle Fun Park in British Columbia, Canada, the last arcade I had been to before Dave and Busters, and I felt robbed of a part of the experience.  There’s just something about holding a stack of tickets and counting them meticulously to find out what prize you are eligible to get.

Other than these changes, arcades overall remain very much stuck in the 20th century.  They are quickly going out of style and only exist for those of us old enough to remember and be nostalgic about how playing games was more of a social event than an everyday individual experience.  Visiting the arcade is still a special outing for me and my friends, but this might not hold true for kids and teens nowadays.  Even so, as arcades decline in popularity, I feel there’s plenty to learn from what makes a visit fun, and there is real value in putting those elements into new games.  As games become more accessible, it grows more difficult to come up with ways to enhance the physical arcade for the next generation of players, the ones who are constantly tuned in and have an entire library of games at their fingertips.  It’s a shame, really, but maybe it just means I’m growing old.  Kids these days…


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