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Video arcades: pool halls of the '80s?

By Keith HendersonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 30, 1986

Framingham, Mass.

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.

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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.

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.''