To be perfectly honest, I was not expecting much from this trip. I got my first PC at the age of 3 and grew up a PC-exclusive gamer. I hadn’t had a console until last month, and I’d never been to an arcade before last night, so obviously, I had convinced myself that “I didn’t see the appeal” like the true human Grumpy Cat that I am. Top it off with me not remembering the last time I slept, and having to wear a beanie regardless of the outside temperature in order not to scare kids with the chemical burns on my forehead, and you get the eeeeehhhhhh to rule all eeeeehhhhhhs. I’m glad to say I was proven wrong in every sense of the word.
Fueled by several times the GDA for taurine and caffeine in my system, I walked into the arcade, grabbed my wristband, my tokens and whipped out my phone to take some half-assed footage of the area. As I was panning around, watching the screen intently, the first big realization of the night hit me – I’ve always focused so hard on watching the games, that I never really paid attention to the players, nor the interface. Now, however, that most cabinets’ screens were obscured by the bodies standing in front of them, I began to find entertainment in dissecting their body language and analyzing their movements.
There’s something about playing a game while standing up. When you’re sitting down, you’re bound to find yourself turning around, stretching your arms, shaking your head, leaning towards and away from the screen, crossing your legs or whatever. In the arcade, however, all these people looked frozen in place except for their hands tapping away at the buttons or driving the joystick in the desired direction.
Some of them held the joysticks firmly in their hands, moving them in a rough, but precise manner, while others just gently nudged theirs, pausing to scratch their heads or sip their beer every now and then. From behind, everyone looked the same, everyone’s faces looked alike, but you could tell by the hands who was “casual” and who was “hardcore”, or perhaps who was paying for their trip and who was leeching off Amherst’s comfy endowment.
Then my goldfish attention span kicked in and it was time to play. I ran for the Ms. Pac-Man machine, nostalgia giving me that extra boost of speed I needed to beat some dude to it. “Oh wait, this doesn’t have arrow keys… yeah duh.” Still, I figured it should be simple enough, and it was, and I loved every minute of it. I decided to record some of my gameplay too, and it made me realize how that extra layer of separation makes a world of difference. For the next 5 minutes or so, it was like somebody else was playing the game with my hand. I was watching myself play the game, and now, as I’m rewatching the footage – it shows! Pac-Man is likely the ideal game for this sort of little experiment – you can always see a trend in how a player cleans out the maze, with everyone having their own little quirks, such as saving the top for last. The gameplay I recorded looks nothing like mine. It looks impersonal, almost OCDishly symmetric, as if a bot were playing, perfectly in line with “playing on autopilot”.
Given wings by my new discoveries, I walked around and made small talk with some of my classmates before burning the rest of my first batch of tokens on Space Invaders, a game I liked so much I wrote a clone of it in C# back in high school. The buggy hitboxes, the shields that help the enemies more than they help the player, the stupid muscle memory deaths were frustrating, but made me want to keep playing over and over and over, at least until I went on full on tilt and fed the very first wave a few times in a row, which suggested it was time for a beer (more on this in a separate post).
A Graham Cracker Porter later, I was sitting at a table, fully intending to record some footage of myself staring blankly into the distance, emulating a MySpace-poetry-writing emo teen crossed with an old Bohemian poet, but I couldn’t help but smile and laugh as I was chatting to the people walking by, knowing that I was converted to an arcade guy. I’m definitely planning another trip soon 🙂