Arcadian Rhythms: Gaming and Interaction in Social Space

I have a new article up, titled “Arcadian Rhythms: Gaming and Interaction in Social Space.” It’s published in Reconstruction, a peer-reviewed journal of cultural research available for free online. (And don’t be put off by the French theorist in my abstract. I’m pretty sure the piece is accessible overall.)

This article focuses on how people interact in arcades, and how social dynamics and the cultural connotations behind games influences who plays what and with whom. It’s not nominally about geeks or geek cultures, but this study did end up influencing how I thought about my dissertation research. When you get to the parts about how people insulate themselves socially, and particularly one moment in which a boy loudly proclaims upon winning a game, “I’m the One! I’m ****in’ Neo!”, you may see what I mean.

A lot has happened since I wrote the first draft of this paper, back when the Wii was still codenamed the “Revolution.” I wish I had been quick enough in revising it and progressing through the academic publishing process that I could have explained why the results of my research indicated that Nintendo’s new console was going to sell like hotcakes, but not as much among the gamers who call themselves “hardcore.” The best I can do is point back and say, “In retrospect, this should have been obvious to us.” Ah, research.

My thoughts on the terms ‘casual’ and ‘hardcore’ as applied to game players have also developed somewhat since writing this article, but I think that has more to do with how the terms are applied elsewhere than with what seemed appropriate for this paper. I opted to use ‘experienced’ over ‘hardcore’ in the most recent revision, and I suspect I could have replaced ‘casual’ with ‘inexperienced’ or ‘irregular’ (which is not at all consistent with how you’d refer to a “casual” gamer who plays Plants vs. Zombies several times a day), but those terms have their own sorts of connotations as well. For now, I hope I can be forgiven for using the terms that seemed most appropriate at the time, despite their lack of terminological specificity. For more on how I was thinking about the terms, check out Diane Carr’s excellent 2005 study in Simulation and Gaming, “Contexts, Gaming Pleasures, and Gendered Preferences” (sadly, not available free online unless you belong to a library that subscribes to the journal).

Of course, probably the most predictable development since writing this has been the continued erosion of the arcade business model in the US. The first draft of this paper covered such developments in greater detail, but I had to pare the focus down to something more manageable. For now, though, I’ll say that arcades have only gotten more scarce since this paper was written, and I think that’s a shame. For all the negative stereotypes surrounding such establishments, what I remember most about my months of research was how central some of these arcades were to their communities. The two sites where this struck me the most—”City Arcade” and “Strip Mall Arcade”—are still in business. The other two have closed since turning in the final revision of this paper to the journal editor. I can’t speak for the reasoning behind closing down “Campus Arcade,” but as far as I know, “Sports Bar Arcade” was still doing good business when its landlords refused to renew its lease so the space could be sold to a chain store. As the end of the paper predicts, chains like Dave & Busters still seem to be doing okay.

As a final side note, I thought some of my readers here might arch an eyebrow upon reading the sentence, “One of the most useful tools at my disposal was being good enough at certain games—and being sufficiently able to gauge the ability of my opponents—to control for the outcome of a match.” Please do not think me merely boastful. Before graduate school, I worked a job as an overnight security guard in a mall (which was not among my research sites). I was only expected to patrol once every few hours, and invited to use the rest of my night as I wished, so long as I stayed awake. The mall left the arcade open all night, where it remained accessible only to the security and cleaning staff. The arcade had Soul Calibur 2, and I am drawn to playing characters with Italian names. Let us leave it at that.

(But yes, I do still stink at the entire Tekken series.)

2 thoughts on “Arcadian Rhythms: Gaming and Interaction in Social Space

  1. I find myself shying away from the popular games because I have a sense that I’m going to suck at them. I hate to take up space on a popular game I’m going to suck at even more than I hate looking silly for being really bad at it. I don’t know why that is; I’m clearly paying more to rent the machine in that scenario.

  2. I think I know how you feel. Some games are so popular that there’s a line for them, or that you’ll be challenged immediately upon starting up. In some ways, knowing that someone might jump in with you is even more nerve-wracking than feeling like you’re taking up space, as human opponents are usually more ruthless than AI. Most people are not holding back for research purposes. (The best guy I played at Soul Calibur 2 did hold back so he wouldn’t bore his opponents, though, which was kind of him. The one time I made any progress against him, he offered a genuine compliment, and then handily decimated me in the next two rounds.)

    I wish I’d gotten more interviews with people during the course of this study, for comments like yours. It turns out, though, that people you meet in arcades are even less willing to be interviewed than people you meet at comic book conventions, so eventually I just gave up on trying and focused on informal talk and participant observation.

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