Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Chauncey DeVega's World of Ghetto Nerds: Where Have all the Arcades Gone? Reflections of a Negro Pinball Wizard

If Chris were not otherwise occupied, he could tell you that he is, by several objective measures, the most talented Guitar Hero player in existence: not only good enough to have attained numerous high-score records, but so skilled that he has parlayed his peculiar blend of athleticism and showmanship into online celebrity and a fledgling career designing and endorsing his own line of video game hardware. But at the moment, another barrage of notes was about to descend on him. “The chaos,” he said, “begins right now.”

Despite his preternatural dexterity, Chris, who turns 17 on Sunday, would seem to be just one more avid gamer who has helped make the Guitar Hero franchise a towering success. It has sold more than 20.7 million copies worldwide since its debut just three years ago.

Yet to the video game business Chris represents just the kind of player — the freakishly talented one-man spectacle — who could bring more revenue and legitimacy to the industry, and prove once and for all that video gaming is as much a mainstream American pastime as going to the movies or watching television.

From, the piece "Rec-Room Wizard" printed in the New York Times.

Youth is indeed wasted on the young. Sounds embittered doesn't it? I am just hurting, a little sad that the world has seemingly changed around me, but not necessarily with me. It is also a little nostalgia, a longing for the not so recent past and a realization that one of the favorite pastimes of my childhood has changed, pushed forward by "progress" and morphed into something I know, but don't particularly like or feel comfortable with--sort of like the hot ex-girlfriend from college you meet a few years later, who is still gorgeous, just a little older, and is now with a beau who is the exact opposite of who you would have pictured her with. This is one of those moments when you wake up and realize that you are a little older than you were yesterday:

Yes, I still play video games. Yes, my tastes have gravitated to PC games over consoles because I primarily play RTS's (although I will be getting an X-Box 360...primarily to download the "old school" classics and to play GTA 4). And yes, I play a pretty mean game of Call of Duty 4 and other first person shooters. But, something has changed. With the rise of the internet, with consoles and home PC's which are more powerful than anything we could have imagined ten years ago, the social space for gaming has inexorably changed. The communal space, those hives of scum and villainy which many of us ghetto nerds were drawn to in our New York City Time Squares, our South Sides, our West Sides and corner bodegas, our Milford Rec's, is gone, never to be replaced. Those hideouts from parents and adults where we could seek out a brother from another planet, an old school sage to teach us the latest tricks and exploits:

Reading about the rise of this Guitar Hero phenom encouraged me to take a trip to one of the few remaining arcades in the city. For the young and uninitiated, arcades were physical spaces where you would play video games and pinball with others, face to face, in a personal contest for supremacy. I was so excited, I would get on the Red Line, read a book, get some Chipotle on the way home, and pop some quarters into a favored machine. Would it be Killer Instinct? Street Fighter 2 Turbo or CE, Mortal Combat? Marvel vs. Capcom? What would it be? Guess what? It would be nothing as our video game oasis was closed, shutdown, its dirty floors still uncleaned. It seems this last arcade would be a victim of hipster gentrification.

This isn't to disparage the rise of the internet and how we finally have a truly global stage for contest and where video games are approaching a "sport" of sorts with tournaments, leagues, and big money purses. In my childhood I would have never dreamed that there would be lucrative prizes at stake in tournaments for games like StarCraft, Quake or Ultimate Tournament. I wouldn't have imagined that video game pros would have real groupies and fans...not the cast off, sallow faced, semi-teen runaway degenerates who hung out at the local spot. No, attention from real people whose approval you would seek, and if they were an attractive woman, to likely try to enjoy in a biblical, Song of Solomon kind of way.

You children of the 1970s and 1980s, did you also hear the same rumors that I did? That you could go to Japan and face off against the best, Asian kids who were in our imaginations just as good at martial arts as they were at video games, a mythical Blood Sport for video game heads where you could compete against the best of the best:

Random thought: am I the only ghetto nerd who was jealous of his Asian friends and their video game collections? Bootlegged titles purchased in China or Korea town, or mailed to them from friends and family overseas?

My use of the phrase "blood sport" is not accidental. Playing video games competitively was physical. In its most benign, it either involved travel and searching around town for the newest machine or the best competition, running to the neighborhood arcade, the bakery next to the high school where everyone congregated after school and during lunch, or the duck pin bowling alley that we would dip into after school for a few rounds of Street Fighter or Karate Champ. Sometimes it involved hours of travel to and fro just to find that best, most favorite, machine, or nagging a parent to sit in the car for a few hours while they read a book and you played video games all day long on your birthday. In its least benign, it involved a physical exchange, a stare down, especially if you were a newbie, to just put the quarter on the machine to get a play. In the worst case scenario playing in the arcade could escalate into a fist fight, real blood drawn between players if one felt that they were either treated unfairly or humiliated by a rival. With the ascendancy of video games into the mainstream and the rise of the internet as a means to compete, the world, as is the ultimate goal of technical innovation, has been made just a little too sterile for this ghetto nerd's taste.

By analogy, in the same way that we can find any number of "Emcees" "battling" on Youtube, MySpace or in chat rooms, how many would have lasted second in a real cipher, a real battle in the South Bronx, Queens, or Brooklyn?

Object Lesson 1:

Object Lesson 2

Hell, how many of these "crappers" would even be allowed into the cipher? Now, it is so clean and impersonal. You don't have to have clout to get into the circle, there is no physical risk if you under-perform or step out of bounds. The worst that can happen is that you move onto another chat room, another message board, or another Youtube video.

We no longer have to put quarters up on the machine to get a play, we don't have to be accepted into the local tribe (real people not a virtual clan), and we certainly don't have to face down rivals eye to eye in what could easily end in a post-game melee. I am not discounting the visceral rush of online play, of an hours long match, or how great it feels to beat a rival--I don't know how many of you have had this experience, but I sincerely love playing skinheads and Nazi wannabe's online (and summarily dispensing with them in the most humiliating fashion possible), ignorant folks who take competition very seriously and make their video game playing prowess some type of proof for the superiority of their imagined Aryan bloodline.

I am not a Luddite. I love technical change and innovation, but I am worried about how our social interactions with strangers, meeting people and becoming friends in the real as opposed to virtual world, what was once the core of playing video games, has been changed for the worst. I admire the art and artistry of video games. I am wonderfully pleased that a hobby has grown into a culture. And I do indeed smile when I think about how we are now in a position where we can hear the symphonies of our childhood elevated to the level of high art:

Nevertheless, I do offer a warning, a fear about the rise of glamor and glitz, of the prominence of bells and whistles over substance and form. Sure, we have gorgeous games like Metal Gear, God of War, and the like; and immersive titles like World of Warcraft (and on MMORG's isn't the Star Trek title destined to be horrible?) and the Grand Theft Auto series; and great fighting games such as Soul Caliber, Virtua Fighter and the new Street Fighter--which by the way I am holding my breath for in anticipation of its release:

But, will they stand the test of time? Will they be downloaded and played twenty or thirty years from now? Will they be the objects of fond reminiscing of battles both epic, bloody, and personal? I suspect they likely will, but will the memory be the same? Will it have the same texture as a kid recalling the first time he played Ghosts and Goblins, Elevator Action, Double Dragon, Street Fighter 2, Tron, Karate Champ, Ikari Warriors, Cruis'n USA, Star Wars, Donkey Kong, Ms. Pacman, or Killer Instinct in a dingy arcade or bowling alley and where he or she defeated the local arcade king, if even for a day? And then had to hustle home before dark to ensure that the local tough wouldn't get some revenge? This ghetto nerd doesn't know, and in truth probably wouldn't like the answer.

Random thoughts and confessions:

1. I was never so happy as when I found my Christmas gift, an NES hidden in my parent's bedroom. I was never so exhilarated as when I would take it out and play it when they were at work and I was home "sick."

2. I never beat Super Mario Brothers--I still to this day cannot beat the last level.

3. I never beat Zelda--I couldn't find the silver arrows.

4. I loved M. Bison. No, I owned with M. Bison. I owned even more with Guile...but then again, who didn't?

5. Anyone else remember The Adams Family pinball game? or Fun House? Were they not perfect?

6. Is it not sad that pinball is a dying, if not dead, game? Thank goodness, some are keeping the hobby alive.

7. Didn't Chuck E. Cheese have horrible pizza and even worse video games? I take that back, the one on the Post Road in Milford did have the Star Trek video game. It was unplayable, but the vector graphics were really futuristic and cool.

8. Spy Hunter! Galaga! and 50 cent slices of pizza in the Acme Mall on Dixwell Avenue were my heaven. Where was your favorite video game spot, one with not too much competition, where you could play for hours on a quarter or two, and get a snack?

9. Am I the only one who charmed a pretty would-be girlfriend at the local arcade with my video game playing prowess?

10. The General Custard video game. The holy grail of Atari games, need I say more? A naked man with an erect penis raping a tied up Native American "squaw"--yes I know what the word really means--really needs no embellishment.

11. How many of you went on quests in New York or Los Angeles to find games you couldn't find at home? This is something I really miss, in hip hop and dj culture we used to have to "dig" to find the obscure, the exciting record, a new white label, which rewarded our efforts at the next party. Now, folks just buy music online or download it to a laptop pc-dj-turntable interface. Yes, lighter on the back. No, in my opinion too far apart from what the culture should be. And sad when folks don't graduate to this technology from analog, but begin there: you do need to learn how to use a knife before graduating to a food processor if you want to be a real master chef. Likewise, in the past one would have to "dig" to find certain video games. They were usually overpriced and a letdown, but often they were real gems. Do you have any war stories, great games found following an epic search?

11. Colecovision, Intellivision, Turbo Graphix, the Amiga, or Neo-Geo? Which is the greatest missed opportunity?


Anonymous said...

Being an early 80s baby and a fellow ghetto nerd (I fought many fights to defend the honor), I most certainly can identify with your maudlin view of the video game. True, one would be hard pressed to find a console machine that would still let you face off against another stranger in the physical. On the flip side, I have met many people who I may have never come in contact with by playing games online.

Online gaming has brought many people from all walks of life together and in ways that I never imagined when I was a young, Mortal Kombatant. I recently saw a news piece on a couple who met and eventually married because of an online game they were both playing. Fittingly, she was the damsel in distress and he was the knight in shining armor who came to her rescue. I also think that online gaming has managed to draw many people who may not have been ardent gamers in their youth to the table, er console or PC, in much the same way that the Wii has awakened the gamer in senior citizens and females alike.

With this increased connectivity, so comes greater responsibility. I also think that too much time online erodes our interpersonal skills and must be guarded against by the parents/guardians of this new connected generation. The youth of today are like mindless zombies, perpetually in search of the next dosage of entertainment because of the plethora of options afforded to them online. I don't see any touch football games on the neighborhood streets nor pick-up basketball games in someone's driveway because many of the kids are now doing these same activities in an online world.

Bottom line, while I too think of the past wistfully, one must also be willing to embrace the future of things to come and yet be vigilant of the evil by-products of progress. Unfortunately for the youth of today, that future involves virtual battlefields, nonsensical screen names, and rivalries that will only exist in a cyber-world. I am truly amazed by how easily the kids navigate these new advances and simultaneously feel sorry for how isolated they are from their peers.

You've got me sounding like my dad when he reminisces over his days on the farm in rural Alabama.

Lady Zora, Chauncey DeVega, and Gordon Gartrelle said...

I think you hit the nail on the head. These new ways of playing can be very isolating! In our day we played video games with other people, played sports, read comic books, went to conventions, and my friends also played role-playing-d and d, star wars, etc.

We actually interacted with people in person...I wonder how many of this newest generation of ghetto nerds are having this experience?

The technology is amazing, but so much of the core game play is pretty weak in my opinion. There is a great book on the history of games which tracks the history of games from Chess and Go to the present and points out that the classics, the time honored ones will be played forever because regardless of the technology and presentation they have so much in common.

thanks for chiming in, hope to see you more.

Chauncey DeVega

Zora said...


You are lamenting the loss of "human interaction?" Isn't this blog a way of interacting? How much broader has your ghetto nerd community become? As I remember it, ghetto nerd groupings rarely went beyond 4 or 5. Four or five socially awkward kids whose interests marginalized them even further. How much interaction did you honestly have as a ghetto geek?
What kind of life would this guitar hero have had twenty years ago? A geeky black kid who gets off on video games and heavy metal? Thank god his world is greater than ours was at his age. Your little ghetto nerdlings won't have to take the crap that you did.

Ahhhh, progress is good.

Lady Zora, Chauncey DeVega, and Gordon Gartrelle said...

I was very popular as a young ghetto nerd. In fact I was THE most popular ghetto nerd in the neighborhood. When my friends and I would play I always had the best GI Joe and Star Wars toys, and I always won because I played Cobra or the Empire and the "good guys" were punks. I would go to the local arcade in my white and purple shorts by the way and defeat anyone who stood in my way--my outfit was a way of psyching out my opposition.

And I didn't like heavy metal by the way...I liked poison and def leppard and bruce springsteen. Geez, get the story straight. Although I did like Guns N Roses, hell in fact I may do a Guns N Roses tribute on this site Miss Zora.

Why don't you tell us, our growing public, about your ghetto nerd existence as a young black radical female geek?

Chauncey DeVega

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Oh man, one of my college dorms had the Addams Family pinball game. Me and a bunch of the guys on my floor were obsessed with it, we would play for hours, always trying to break into the top three scores on the machine. That game was a true work of art!

Lady Zora, Chauncey DeVega, and Gordon Gartrelle said...

Yes, Yes, Yes, Senior Bear! I knew I wasn't alone.

It was amazing, and you know what for its physical charms--the intangibles of having to actually having to play a game with your its music, will not be equaled anytime soon.


Dallas Penn said...

You respectable negroes have inspired me to return to the last seedy arcade I know of in NYC. It retains all the charm of the lost Times Square arcades.

I remember when I first entered it how a chill ran thru my back. The Times Square arcade was a place of wonderment and real danger. Drug dealers, child molestors and stick up kids all passed thru the doors like some tumbleweed saloon in the settler days of New Mexico.

Me and my best buddy DJ Herbert (Freedom Friday famous) has just come from having lunch at our favorite dollar dumpling spot. The arcade was directly across the street from Wo Hop restaurant. I don't think I need to say anything about Wo Hop.

Kids were still gathered in their small groups. One or two kids would be playing the games while three more were in rapt concentration at the onscreen movement.

That's when DJ Herbert and I saw the ultimate challenge. The Dance Dance Revolution game was being pwned by a fat kid wearing a tank top and sweating like no tomorrow.

The arcade in Chinatown was still the bastion of Bizarro Earth where zeroes could become heroes. I couldn't beat dude on the DDR but I did pwn Herbert's ass. [ll] to the fact that there were no ladies in the arcade. Same as it ever was.

Will Guitar Hero and all these games kids play while locked inside of their bedrooms stunt their ability to interact with others when they do come outside. Nahh, kids are retarded anyhoo.

What might be interesting to see in a few hundred years of evolution would be the new console hands that allow us humans to be really good at PS3000.

P.S. Ms.Pac Man was the greatest whore evar. For only a quarter she would swallow balls until she died.

chaunceydevega said...


Ms. Pac Man swallowing balls. Damn.

She is a bad girl.

You were right, there were alot of pedophiles and pedarasts at the local video spot.

I feel a bit dirty.

chauncey devega

Anonymous said...

I loved this article! Growing up the pinball machines were one of my favorites. I would like to know though why some guys are surprise when they encounter a girl who likes video games etc?

chaunceydevega said...

When I was growing up women who liked video games or pinball and that one would actually want to pursue were at a premium. It seemed that everyone had their eyes on the 1 or 2 women that fell into that category and would fawn over, court and basically harass them until either she gave in or ran off.

Many ghetto geeks don't figure out the girl thing to a little later on, but we do better comparatively than the suburban d and d playing geeks who stayed in their basements.

Chauncey DeVega

August 21, 2008 4:20 PM