Video arcades: pool halls of the '80s?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The fad has faded, but that doesn't mean video games are on the way out -- not if the number of teen-agers milling around the Fun and Games arcade in Framingham this rainy afternoon is any indication. Bleeps, gurgles, and blips leap from every corner of the dimly lit room, screens flash and dart, and the air carries a heavy perfume of bubble gum laced with cigarette smoke. Most of the youthful patrons twisting and jerking in front of the games would probably agree with Kevin, a lanky high school sophomore from nearby Wellesley, Mass. ``It's something to do, y'know,'' he says with a noncommittal shrug.

The arcade business today is nothing like it was ``at the height of the Pac-Man craze,'' concedes Bob Dunlop, manager of Fun and Games. Back then, customers stood in line to play and Pac-Man made the cover of Time (Jan. 18, 1982). ``But it's still steady,'' adds Mr. Dunlop.

When video games were lighting up the imaginations of youngsters, entrepreneurs, and journalists alike a few years ago, prophecies abounded about their effects on coming generations. Arcades were seen by some as the cradles of tomorrow's geniuses -- places where reflexes were sharpened and motivation awakened.

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Others viewed them as harmful -- addictive, health-threatening, socially deadening. A few cities zoned them out. Critics have often tended to perceive video arcades as the pool halls of the '80s, with most of the negative attributes associated with those traditional dens of iniquity.

The reality, it seems, is probably a mix of negative and positive, with video arcades neither as bad as their detractors maintain nor as good as their fans would have us believe.

Phil Gugliuzza, a high school counselor from Metairie, La., for one, thinks the pool-hall analogy is ``excellent.'' The games themselves can be ``wholesome recreation,'' he says, but the arcades in his area, which draw together large numbers of teens, ``can be a breeding ground for drug dealing -- that's what bothers me.'' He also has concerns about kids spending lunch money or yearbook deposits on the games (which have a legendary appetite for quarters).

Arcade operator Dunlop, on the other hand, argues that the pool-hall analogy doesn't hold.

He and others say that video games are a genuine test of skill and not a merely passive pastime. That's a point few adults who've mustered the courage to tiptoe up to one of these machines would dispute. Things happen fast with ``Gauntlet'' or ``Spiker,'' and if you're not in the habit of instant acceleration, the game can be over before you've figured out what the point was.

But the youthful players on all sides here at Fun and Games know their electronic adversaries intimately. For some, it's group play, like the foursome joking and taunting their way through ``Quartet,'' or the duo squirming and leaping at the controls of ``RPM.'' For others, it's strictly one-on-one against the machine, with the rest of the world shut out.

The individual challenge attracts Stacy Higgins, a diminutive redhead from Natick, Mass., who's just out of high school. ``I've been coming here since I was 13,'' she says. ``Once I beat the machine, I won't play it anymore.'' She has conquered such arcade mainstays as Pac-Man and ``Robotron'' and is now matching wits against ``Jail Break.'' It's a worthy opponent, she says, ``because so many things come at you.''

Stacy realizes she's breaking a stereotype with her passion for video games. Many observers of the arcade scene have noted that it's largely a male domain. A number of psychologists have fretted about this -- pointing to a sexual bias in the games themselves and speculating that the popularity of video games will widen the gender gap in the world of computing.

For her part, Stacy views restraints on girls as self-imposed. Some girls just take a ``I don't think I can do it'' attitude toward the games, she observes.

As the rain continues and more and more teens wander into the arcade, the noise level -- including occasional bursts of profanity -- rises. The social aspect of this place and thousands like it again comes to mind. To what extent is it a spot where kids congregate for the wrong reasons, to get into trouble?

Sure, some people come in who've been drinking and who are looking for trouble, says Stacy. But they're usually dealt with quickly by the management and the police, she adds. (The management hires off-duty officers to help keep an eye on things during weekend and other peak business times.) And drugs, are they much of a problem here? ``Maybe a little bit,'' says Kevin from Wellesley, but ``nothing big.''

The local police, however, are sharply aware of the arcade. The occasional disturbances there ``run the gamut'' of what you'd expect at a place where large numbers of teens gather, says Lt. Brent Larrabee of the Framingham Police Department -- fights, some drug use, and drinking. Considering the size of the crowds there on weekends, however, he doesn't think the problems at the arcade are ``statistically high.''

The ages of players probably range from 10 to nearly 30. Sometimes younger children come in groups for birthday parties, duly chaperoned by a parent, Dunlop says. Susan Burt from Needham, Mass., has that duty today. Her son begged to have his party here and she acquiesced. ``I'm not thrilled about it,'' Mrs. Burt confides.

Right now her charges are concentrating on a bowling game, one of the few non-electronic entertainments here. She seems pleased that the boys chose that more traditional option. Casting an eye toward the bleeping rows of videos, she observes that ``there must be some kind of skill involved.''

David Surrey, head of the public policy program at St. Peter's College in Jersey City, N.J., has written extensively about video arcades. They have their ``sleazy'' side, he concedes, but ``I think they get blamed for a lot of problems teens have in society, things they had before video.''

On the positive side, he adds, ``kids that are very bored and turned off to school are really into video games -- and not in a rote way. They're figuring out the problems and really using their minds in an active way.''

Geoffrey Loftus, who co-authored a book on video games (``Mind at Play: The Psychology of Video Games''), picks up this same theme, emphasizing that the technology of the games may have positive applications separate from the arcade setting. He hopes to see a lot more work devoted to harnessing the ``motivational power'' the games so clearly have.

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