Plaid, Art and Delinquency in the ’90s Arcade Scene:
How to Experience Bob's Arcade
I decided after much waffling that this will be the year my interminable arcade project comes to fruition, a venture twenty years in the making. It ignited around the time of my introduction to the arcade scene in the early ’90s and was cobbled together from letters, notes, and a story I began writing when I was fifteen. I was delusional back then and planned to write a novel over the summer. For two months I smoked the ‘black pack’ (John Player’s Special) on the back porch of our mobile home plopped on the edge of a hay field and wrote until the sun came up. Back in those olden days, the time just before the internet deluge, I was still writing by hand. It was my second attempt at a novel and it was abandoned at page fifty. Recently I realized that May, 2015, was the twentieth anniversary of the fictionalized episodes in my orphaned book. Twenty years is a buffer enough.
The electrified pulse of ’90s arcades molded me. In many ways I am still the sarcastic, nihilistic, shit-talking delinquent I was then, only in a grown-up's body with a mortgage and defined-benefit pension plan. The arcade in North America, not as a venue for gaming, but as a social scene, has intrigued me for decades. Intrigue is too weak a word. Obsession is more fitting. This obsession led to the impulse purchase of a working Street Fighter II arcade machine on the eve of Teacher’s College exams. While I should have been cramming to confirm that I was fit to shape young minds, the study habits of my arcade days recurred to haunt the present. I found myself cruising Kijiji, clicking on an ad that said QUICK SALE, and pulling the crew together to haul the three-hundred-pound behemoth out of a four-storey walk-up in London’s east end where it was being hocked without the owner’s knowledge to pay for outstanding rent. That’s such an arcade thing to do.
Although the arcade as a social scene has survived in countries such as Japan, arcades in North America heard their death knell in the early 2000s and fizzled out over the aughts. There is much speculation as to why this happened. Some argue that improvement in home console graphics made the cutting-edge displays of the arcade redundant. Some blame the delinquent culture it attracted. Whatever the reason, because of its demise the arcade as a social space has become frozen in time and is a unique feature of the ’80s and ’90s that has vanished in North America (except for the nostalgia boutiques that sprout up here and there). With its confirmed death comes the opportunity to do a post-mortem assessment of its influence on a generation of loiterers for whom delinquency and gaming were performance arts, plaid was an act of defiance and Kurt Cobain was a tragic messiah.
When we think of the North American arcade scene of the ’80s and ’90s a few images might come to mind. Arcades were places where aimless youth could kill a few hours in front of a screen at 25 cents a pop while being accosted by Regan- and Bush-era ‘Winners Don’t Use Drugs’ propaganda. As the interjection of the FBI seal indicates, arcades in the U.S. begat a nefarious reputation as the haunt of delinquents and juvenile provocateurs. The nonconformist spirit of the ’60s and ’70s was reincarnated as mutilated jeans, marijuana patches sewn into ripped crotches, and oceans of lumberjack attire situated in blipping and bleeping holes in the wall where parents dared not tread. There are cultural and political implications to flashing screens, 8/16-bit chip-tune music, pool balls cracking, the yellow haze that rubs its muzzle on the window panes and so on.
Arcades were the salons of the 1990s. They were spaces where patrons gathered to interact with digital art while absorbing the fuzzy wisdom of hash-inspired diatribes about music, culture, authority and defiance. They were the local gaming hubs that preceded the deluge that was the internet. They represented a time when gamers left their (sub)urban fattening pens to engage adversaries on a personal level. They were digital colosseums where young people could play with death. Arcades were places where new philosophies were born and a generation could live dangerously at war with our peers and ourselves. It was a place where we, seekers of knowledge, could be robbers and conquerors before we were rulers and possessors.
And so I humbly present to you my ARCADE Project, a fictionalized account of the ’90s arcade as I experienced it in small-town North America—with the sass-mouth and the drugs and the general delinquency because, hey, there was nothing else to do in the ’90s. Internet wasn’t even a thing until 1995 and it was slow as hell. All we had was dial-up back in my day. It was a simpler time.
In fact, Bob's Arcade begins very simply:
A vaulted place, open at one or both sides; an arched opening or recess in a wall.
—Oxford English Dictionary
Advanced Research for the Critical Analysis of Digital Expression