Hollywood Debuts Arcades Aimed at Virtually Everyone

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Do you love to surf the Internet, but tire of time alone with a "mouse" instead of your spouse? Do your kids' video games leave them more inactive than interactive? Has the family drive been replaced by a CD-ROM drive?

Take heart, says a new group of top Hollywood studios. A more family-inclusive - and upscale - form of high-tech amusement is cropping up in American cities faster than a laser-zapping cyborg.

Computer and arcade games are often solitary activities. The new mini-theme parks are designed to lure groups of adults or families to spend an evening together, like a bowling or movie outing. "We want to do no less than change the way America interacts," says John Snoddy, former Disney "Imagineer" and designer of GameWorks, a mega-arcade that will open tomorrow in Seattle. One of a hundred such complexes due to debut worldwide by 2002, the building is a mini-mall-sized labyrinth of video games, virtual-reality "rides," and performance arenas surrounded by walkways and restaurant-packed mezzanines.

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Hollywood hopes to attract more deep-pocketed people into silicon-based play. Costing about $20 million each, the GameWorks sites will be cyber-linked to each other, creating a self-contained worldwide network where participants can meet and compete electronically with those in other cities. The idea was conceived by Steven Spielberg, executed by former Disney designers, and backed by Mr. Spielberg's new studio, DreamWorks SKG, Sega Corp., and Universal Studios.

"With Spielberg's name, money, and talent behind this, we will see a whole new dimension to arcades that will take them to another level ... including that of a total package for the family," says Tim O'Brien, editor of Amusement Business magazine. The concept is part of a trend to build urban entertainment centers with the hope of rehabilitating the flagging, but still strong $8 billion arcade business. The business has been flat since 1990 with the growth of home computer games.

Other Hollywood film companies are moving in the same direction. Sony Corp. is opening an urban-entertainment center in San Francisco next year, Viacom will put Star Trek-themed entertainment areas in Hilton casinos starting in July, and Disney opened the first of 100 centers known as Club Disney last month in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

The Disney Centers are aimed at young families with children aged 4 to 10, while GameWorks says it wants younger adults during the daytime and 20-to-30-year-olds after dark.

"This is a change in attitude by companies going after the American entertainment dollar," O'Brien says. "Instead of giving up a day or a weekend for a theme park once or twice a year, or feeding quarters into old-style arcades every week, these both represent a new way of attracting groups of people for several hours at a time, regularly throughout a year."

As seen at design headquarters here at Soundstage 35, Universal Studios, several new attractions at GameWorks blur the old line between arcade and theme park, video game and sports contest. Exhibit No. 1: Vertical Reality. Twelve players, strapped into seats, shimmy up a pole as each contestant successfully shoots a video cyborg with a "cybergun."

If hit in turn by the cyborg, the chair falls. The winner, the first one to reach the ceiling, is rewarded with an abrupt free fall. Price $4, payable not in cash but by "SmartCards" bought upon entering the site.

Part of the participatory flavor of GameWorks is that ubiquitous video cameras film all contestants. The faces of winners are portrayed larger than life on equally ubiquitous monitors. Spotlights are used as well to focus attention on leaders of various competitions and a centrally placed "veejay" calls out scores and winners, while playing music.

"The idea of wrapping people around the various performance arenas is to create a highly social, humanly interactive environment that people want to return to over and over," says Mr. Snoddy. In one end of the GameWorks complex, a so-called Loft offers a calmer, quieter atmosphere with overstuffed chairs from which users can use laptop computers to surf the net, and connect with others in the complexes on-line.

Kids in Club Disney, Thousand Oaks are already surfing the net, painting on computer, tapping on-line services from sports (ESPNET SportsZone) to parental-resource material.

"Everything here is designed for both parent and child to participate together, not watch," says Disney spokeswoman, Andrea Borda.

There are other, non-Hollywood firms jumping on the urban-entertainment bandwagon as well. New York's Skyline Entertainment this month is expected to open XS in Times Square, a mix of simulators, virtual-reality games, and a cybercafe where patrons can sip and cybersurf. And a 15-year-old Dallas-based chain, Dave & Busters Inc., is continuing to expand its nine bar/restaurant chain to include larger and larger gaming areas.

Whether the world is ready for a leap from Dave & Busters to the scale of GameWorks is anybody's guess, analysts say.

"Video games and arcades are a highly cyclical business," says Dan Lavin, an entertainment analyst at Dataquest in San Jose. "Lots of really smart, monied people are betting a lot that people are ready to return from home-based to location-based video gaming."

Though some analysts say Spielberg, Disney, and others will fine-tune their concepts until they work, Lavin says the ideas will either work well or go under.

With the highly publicized opening of GameWorks tomorrow - Spielberg, David Geffen, and top rock acts Coolio and Beck will headline a live MTV broadcast - sociologists and others are being asked to comment on what this entertainment experiment may mean to American culture.

"We seem to be headed into more and more virtual realms," says Geoffrey Loftus, a University of Washington professor and author of "Mind at Play: The Psychology of Video Games." Used in moderation, he says, virtual reality games help teach kids computer literacy, becoming comfortable with keyboards, programs and computer sticks. Overused - like anything else - they can contribute to addictive behavior.

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