Once upon a time, video game arcades functioned as a third place, a Starbucks for teens and tweens, mostly boys, but also girls and adults. With rising prosperity, we could afford not only consoles that beat the pants off did the arcades’, but also bigger living rooms to store new piles of gaming hardware. Fifteen years ago it would be hard to imagine Rock Band succeeding on the scale that it did, simply because many of us lacked the space for its peripherals. Today, dance pads, balance boards, drum kits, and all of that assorted game cruft is part of middle American life.
Clearly games did not become anti-social: we buy Rock Band because we want to play with friends. Rather, as play withdrew into the privacy of our homes, it became uncivil: while we strengthen relationships with our friends, we’re less likely to invite strangers to our homes to fill in the missing bass role, or jump into a quick round of Mario Kart.
Or perhaps not. For one thing, some games have found a niche in that consummate third place, the bar. Although rarely front and center, Guitar Hero is sometimes there in pubs where Centipede used to be. And of course, we might say that civil society has become virtual: what has done more to bring people into voluntary associations in this century than the MMO? And finally, of course, I shouldn’t wax nostalgic about the virtues of the archaic arcade. I quite recall them being dismal places.
Still, perhaps as Americans turn away from (or are turned out of) McMansions and run out of money and space for bulky video game hardware, perhaps we’ll see some renaissance of the arcade concept — game nights held in that third place between public and private.