Two Quarters and a Coke
1985, January, cold. I'm hollow. I walk the salt-and-ice path from the computing lab to the student union. I shuffle towards the dining hall -- a long, train tunnel of a room, over-lit by overhead florescent and smelling of grease and salt and coffee. I drop my worn-out black Jansport backpack on a random table and check my pockets. I have exactly enough money to buy a cheeseburger. Exactly. I look longingly towards the darkened portal at the far end of the room. A white plastic rectangle names the room with black vinyl letters: Game Room.
Walt emerges from the door. He's a heavyset guy, perpetually dressed in a plaid shirt and down vest. My faux-lumberjack friend holds up a quarter in one hand, and a coke in the other. With birthday-party-magician slight of hand, The Amazing Walt twists his fingers to reveal a second quarter behind it. He's grinning like a madman.
Ludo ergo sum. I play, therefor I am.
In the earliest era -- Pong and Tailgunner -- I only saw the games in pool halls (where I was not allowed at such a tender age) and bowling alleys (where I was.) My prepubescence and the outrageous amount of money demanded by the big black boxes limited my access. The arcade, such as it was, was awkward, inaccessible, and ungainly. So was I.
By 1980, my small town sported its very own arcade. That same aging, forbidden pool hall grew new electrical circuits one night, sprouted a new coat of paint and a neon sign, and transformed. Birthday parties were dedicated to blowing a few bucks in the arcade. Those few dollars never bought more than half an hour's play, so I spent as much time watching spinning the wheel of my only true love: Tempest, the 1980 tube shooter built on an unstable vector graphics platform that nearly guaranteed self destruction and frequent service calls. The arcade full of confusion and contradiction -- aging carney games next to the state of the art. It was both brilliant and inane. It was loud and uncomfortable. So was I.
In the mid '80s -- those halcyon days where Walt and I threw-down over Time Pilot '84 and Xevious -- the arcade was a social center. Arcades were my tabernacles -- portable and interchangeable houses of worship. They were geek meeting halls where two quarters and a coke bought you admission to a community. The games were garish, complex, occasionally broken, and often frustrating as hell. They were full of gimmicks, had questionable tastes in music, and were trying very hard to differentiate themselves for all the "kid stuff" on the Nintendo boxes the rich kids were starting to buy. So was I.
In the '90s, arcade games became driven almost entirely by technology and experiences you couldn't get in front of your PC. The games were multi player, they were often more about control systems than gameplay -- the myriad buttons of fighting games, the guns of Area 51, the endless sit down/sit on driving games, the infamous Golden Tee trackball. These were games that were clearly not going to be played in your apartment. They were full of fondling, and ultimately, with the introduction of Dance Dance Revolution, all about getting off the couch and off your ass. So was I.
Sometime since then, my symbiosis with the arcade ended. Today, I walk through, or increasingly past an arcade and it is no longer me. I haven't outgrown games -- I play more games than I ever did when I was an arcade denizen. I measure gameplay in hours and credit card bills, not quarters and cokes. No, it's that my sense of self is no longer so tied to my sense of place. I am self defined by choices rather than chance -- by the people around me, by my virtual and physical home, and the woods I choose to dwell in.
When my kids are old enough to care, I hope that the local arcade is still around. Not the derelict pool hall, it turned into a KFC years ago, but the new one at the mall. Right now, I cringe when I see the playing DDR and driving-game-of-the-week. Not because I'm shocked by the bad hair, the baggy pants or the tattoos. And not because I have some nostalgia for how arcades used to be. No, I cringe because the arcade of the present is no longer the mirror of who-I-am that it once was.
But someday it will belong to my kids. And I hope they beg me for two dollars and a Red Bull.