Death of the Arcade Part 2: Family Fun

I'm all for family fun as much as the next person, but the Arcade as I fondly recall it was no place for children. They were dark, noisy places full of sullen teenagers, and I liked it that way, being a sullen teenager and all myself at the time. Places like Chuck E. Cheese's and amusement park arcades were avoided by "real" arcade gamers, who much preferred the hole-in the wall spots. In the smaller arcade, you were more likely to find real Street Fighter 2 competition, games which catered more to one's taste, no huge space-wasting skee-ball machines, and, best of all, no parents and no children.

Children scream for no reason. Children run around underfoot, unsupervised by their harried parents who drop them off at an arcade while they go shopping. Children sit in front of the fucking Ghouls and Ghosts machine and pound on the buttons even though "Game Over. Please insert coin." is CLEARLY flashing in bright red letters on the screen. What could you do? You couldn't just push the kid out of the way, it's a kid for crying out loud. Simple, you went to an arcade, which is clearly no place for children, but it was a place for us. Teenagers do not typically enjoy the company of small children, and arcades were a place where they could hang and be among their own kind. Not so much any more.

It is not only for my own benefit that I want arcades and family fun centers to be distinct entities. I am also thinking of the children. I think it's important for a little kid to get electronic entertainment as part of their media diet, and there are plenty of games which are appropriate for younger kids, but too often, arcades fail to make distinctions between the different appropriate age levels of their games, choosing instead to sort them by genre, or worse yet, not at all. This means that a child can be exposed to violent imagery in an arcade. Attract loops (and coin-slots for that matter) do not ask for ID's, and neither do arcade owners.

All of these arcade I've visited employ what appears to be a standard voluntary ratings system (The ESRB, oddly enough, only rates commercial software, not arcade machines) which applies Mild or Strong ratings to a variety of categories including Animated Violence, Life-Like Violence, Language and Sexuality. The Violence ones are the most prevalent, naturally, but there is no legal regulation surrounding this practice, and parents tend to ignore them. Just a few weekends ago I was with Ami at the Boardwalk arcade to play some Hydro Thunder, and I witnessed a kid who couldn't have been more than 6 playing House of the Dead 3, which, if you're not familiar, is a game which involved usign a shotgun to shred the body parts off of hordes of bloodthirsty zombies. Standing right behind this kid were both his parents (at least, I think they were), who were monitoring the child holding a model of a firearm which was way too big for him and firing haphazardly at the screen. Not only is this a frustratingly blatant example of irresponsible parenting, but I wanted to play, and they had apparently pre-loaded the damn machine with $20 in tokens, because their kindergarten warrior couldn't handle a shotgun to save his life.

Not only the content of the games is dangerous for children, but the content of the atmosphere. Though Billiards is a completely non-violent game, you wouldn't think to take a 6-year-old to a pool hall, because it's for grown-ups. Grown ups who like to drink, bet money, and call each other monkey-fucking chair-sniffing cock-mongers when they lose. Teenagers, believe it or not, have also been known to do this. Teenagers like to compete at video games, and sometimes bet money, and certainly swear at each other. I'm not defending placing stakes on video gaming, but it happens, and even I, believe it or not, wll sometimes find myself reduced to profanity even playing a single-player game.

The only place that someone my age can go to enjoy arcade gaming free from little ones running around underfoot or having their little minds filled with inappropriate imagery is Dave and Busters, which has an over-21 only policy late at night on weekends. However, in addition to being typically more expensive, it's simply not an arcade. It's another family fun center, only the kids have been replaced by drunk people.

Even the few small arcades that survive today seem to almost want to alienate their adolescent clientele. Arcades in the day were a place where you could hang out after school, grab a Slurpee and go a few rounds of Mortal Kombat, then sit around and argue about whether the Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis sucks. Now they play classical music outside so that the teens don't hang around. "Thanks for spending your money, now get the fuck out of here!" is the message I get from this move. An attempt a few years ago to put an arcade in downtown Santa Cruz was rejected because it would have "attracted the wrong kind of people". Ouch! So gamers are the "wrong kind" of people, but all the beggars, lunatics and reckless skateboarders were okay. Even corner stores and 7-11's no longer have stand-up machines, which has got to be costing them business. In one afternoon my friends and I could go through Slurpees, Hostess CupCakes, candy bars and dozens of games of Samurai Showdown. Now I only go in to 7-11 for, well... Slurpees (The sad state of today's Slurpees will be duly addressed in the future, rest assured).

Family Fun Centers are fine as a concept. Their execution, however, leaves much to be desired. It is nearly impossible to appeal to a wide range of age groups with a single arcade. If a center is really dedicated to family entertainment, their choice of games should reflect it. Better yet, what arcades can do to improve this situation and bring back some of the arcade culture from the 80's and early 90's is to separate their games according to content. Perhaps a back room which checks IDs where teenagers and older kids can go to get real competition from fighting games, play violent games, swear freely, and generally be themselves in an age-appropriate environment. Modern-day arcades are losing their clientele to home gaming through their disrespectful behavior towards teenagers. If they wish to remain relevant as a fun place to hang out, they need to make high-school kids feel comfortable and welcome there, or else the teens will all just head home after school and play online games and hang out in chat rooms.

Won't somebody think of the teenagers?


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