Arcades thrive because they're no place like home


Beep-beep! Whrrrrrching! Kapow! Kapow! ThbthbthbthbBANG!

It's the sound of arcade madness -- human against machine in the techno-color haze of an electronic battlefield. Many have grown up with this sound, many have yet to grow out of it, and nearly everyone has taken it home. Because home video-game systems and entertainment software for personal computers are continually improving in quality and convenience, one might think the arcade is close to being a thing of the past. But in fact, the arcade remains popular.

The arcade industry generates about $8 billion annually -- a figure that has remained constant for the past five years, says Valerie Cognevich, editor of Play Meter Magazine, a trade publication for the coin-op industry. There are about 14,000 arcades nationwide, plus another 300,000 establishments that also house arcade games. The arcade and home video-game industries have always survived together, says Ms. Cognevich, and as long as arcade technology stays one step ahead of home game technology, their separate successes should continue.

"There's a lot more to an arcade than you would think. Anybody can come in here and find a game that's right for them," says Barri Hutchins, who works at #1 Fun, an arcade in Westview Mall in Catonsville. "It brings people together."

Perhaps the biggest attraction of playing in an arcade vs. playing games at home, Mr. Hutchins says, is that the arcade is not home. "The games at home you play all day long until you get bored with them," says the 21-year-old political science student at Morgan State University. "But at the arcade, you get to meet people. You can bring your friends. The arcade is some place to get out. You don't have to be at home."

A rewarding difference in the arcade experience for children, he says, is the prizes, which range from candy and stuffed animals to sports paraphernalia and radios. "It gives them a little satisfaction. They can say, 'Look, I played this game, I did good, and now I can win some awards for it.' But at home, you really can't do that."

Arcade equipment helps make those games more enjoyable than home systems with their standard and fragile controls. "It's more exciting at an arcade because at home they have these little pads, it's not like the joystick," Mr. Hutchins says. "The joystick is always better." As if on cue, a group of game-enthusiasts grumbled and shoved their game, Nintendo's new Killer Instinct, in frustration.

"See how hard they're playing those games? You can play those games harder than you can at home," Mr. Hutchins says.

One of the players is Roosevelt Nelson from Randallstown. He has a collection of home video-game equipment, but still visits arcades to play the newest games and sample the latest video-game technology. "I have an IBM computer, I have Genesis, I have CD-ROM -- I have everything. But when they come up with a new game and they don't come out with the cartridge right away, you've got to come here," he says.

Mr. Nelson, a forklift driver and free-lance disc jockey, says he seeks out new arcade gameswhenever he has time. "I hadn't been in an arcade in a while. But when this game came out, I played it once and I loved the graphics so much I got hooked on it," he says.

Besides the advanced technology, customers may find arcade games similar to a spectator sports, says Mr. Hutchins. "People come in here and they tell you, 'OK, I'm going to do this move,' and they do it. . . . It's like watching a show!" he says. "You don't even have to play and you're excited about it."

Mr. Nelson agrees. "NBA JAM -- now that's a game I could watch other people play because it's just like a slam dunk contest . . . Michael Jordan doing his original moves in an animated feature -- it's fun to watch that," Mr. Nelson says.

While he appreciates the social atmosphere of arcades, Mr. Nelson says he prefers to do his more serious playing at home. "The only way I can master a game is at home," he says. "I can spend all day and learn all the mistakes that I've made." He says he occasionally returns to old games such as Pac Man and Donkey Kong for their nostalgic quality.

Frank Yantosca, 42, a building superintendent from Baltimore and self-proclaimed "video fanatic," says he became disenchanted with the arcade experience when the industry began focusing on the martial-arts genre. "The '70s and '80s were really the glory days of the arcade. Now there's so much more on the computer than there is in the arcade. But game for game, it depends on what mood your in. It's a trade-off between the intimacy of being in your house or standing in an arcade."

Children and teen-agers like the camaraderie of playing together in an arcade rather than the isolation of playing at home, says Sharon Speelman, manager of Bally's Aladdin's Castle in Eastpoint Mall. "The kids like the competitiveness of playing against each other in an arcade. They can get more information on moves and how to win the games by watching each other play."

And to those on the post-Atari end of the video-game generation, quality is more impressive than convenience. Fifteen-year-old Traver Johnson, a 10th-grade student at Old Mill High School, has her own home game system, but visits the arcade every other weekend. "Arcades have better games to play with," she says. "The games are more interactive."

Jared Brown, 14, a ninth-grader at Annapolis Area Christian School, agrees with Traver. Standing next to a driving game in the Champion Amusement Center at Marley Station in Glen Burnie, he says, "The features on this one are the best. For the home ones, all you have is a little hand control; but here you have a steering wheel, a seat and pedals and stuff. It's pretty real."

The new, improved systems that are coming out in software are "rather promising," says Joe Gorleski, manager of Boardwalk Fun in Harford Mall, Bel Air, and that may change their effect on the arcade industry.

But for now, the arcade and video-game software industries should not affect each other substantially. "We are competitors to a degree because we're all competing for the disposable dollar," says Mr. Gorleski, adding that the industries are not really providing a similar service. "Coming through the arcade and playing the game is a lot different than going home and playing the game. There's the thrill of winning and showing off to others."

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