One of the big buzzwords in modern gaming is “social gaming”, the idea of moving gaming away from being a solitary past-time to one where you interact with other players.
Pah. Like so many other “new and innovative” things, the idea has been around since I was a kid (and longer). It’s just that in the old days, it didn’t have a fancy name like “social gaming”, it was just called “going down to the arcade”.
For those of you over the age of about 30 that sentence alone will instantly bring the memories flooding back. Younger readers might need a bit of explanation.
How best to describe arcades? They were places where hundreds of games cabinets sat side by side, just waiting for you to insert your coins and start playing. Typically, they were dark, dingy places, often populated by some dubious looking characters and full of cigarette smoke (remember kids: this was in the olden days, when smoking in public places was still allowed). For a teenager growing up in the 80s, they were magical places.
Just wandering between the ranks of machines was enough to cause a shiver of excitement. The flashing lights and beeping sounds, the shouts and cheers from gamers and the loud music playing over the arcade’s speakers made arcades feel like exciting, daring places… and that was before you even started playing. There was something there for everyone. Older games rubbing shoulders with brand new titles; out and out shooters like Operation Wolf sitting alongside driving games like Outrun; the imaginative cabinet design (a motorbike to sit on for Hang On; a cockpit for Star Wars, handlebars to control Paperboy); the stunning artwork decorating the cabinets… All of these things made arcades very special indeed.
Arcades actively encouraged social gaming. They were places where you could physically meet and play against real people (as opposed to insulting strangers over the internet), testing your skills against other players. There was an unwritten etiquette behind the ones I used to visit, too. If you wanted to play a game that someone else was occupying, you stacked your coins on the cabinet and waited for your turn; only rarely did anyone try to nick it or queue jump. You could even go off and play on another machine, returning periodically to see how close it was to your turn.
Many of the arcade games of the late 80s and early 90s had multi-player modes and your stack of coins allowed you to challenge other gamers – the winner stays on, the loser had to vacate their spot and make way for a new challenger. There was no place to hide in arcades. If you did badly, your humiliation would be there for everyone to see – you couldn’t just drop out of the game and pretend your internet connection had failed. On the other hand, people who did well and could ace a game on a single credit were treated like gaming gods.
I didn’t get to play in arcades very often. There weren’t many near where I lived, so visits were mainly limited to the annual summer holiday or the odd day trip to the seaside. Yet, every time I went in, I could feel that sense of excitement, that buzz that comes from having so many games and gamers together in a relatively confined space. This was multiplayer gaming at its absolute best.
Modern social or online gaming doesn’t come close to recapturing that same sense of excitement. Even with the advent of headphones and video allowing you to see/hear your opponent, there’s not that same sense of immediacy. Nothing beats turning round to look at an opponent standing next to you when you have just blasted their on-screen avatar into oblivion.
I miss arcades. Whilst a few still exist, they are shadows of their former selves, filled with those toy-grab machines or serious looking gambling machines with scarcely a video game in sight. I can’t feeling help that today’s gamers are missing out on something special.