Reconstruction 10.2 (2010)

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Arcadian Rhythms: Gaming and Interaction in Social Space / Jason Tocci

Abstract: Based on research conducted in four locations, this article describes the social organization of the neighborhood arcade. While cognitive and neuropsychological strains of game studies describe selection of and engagement with games in terms of innate dispositions, the playing styles and social behaviors of arcade patrons suggest strongly culturally-informed motives in selecting games, potentially understood through Bourdieu's notion of habitus. Though the arcade potentially represents an open, social environment, arcade patrons erect social boundaries between hobbyist gamers and "casual" visitors who game less frequently. The games that arcade visitors select may be informed less by spatial reasoning skill or attraction/aversion to violence, for example, and more by how well games allow for social formation/insulation, or how welcoming games seem to those who do not consider themselves "gamers." The article also discusses certain design considerations that may help narrow the gap between different groups of players. 

<1> In the 1970s, video game arcades seemed to offer not only cheap amusement, but an early passport into the twenty-first century. Dens of iniquity in the eyes of some, many others still viewed them as havens of racial harmony and classless access to early computer technology (Surrey; Williams "Video Game Lightning Rod"). Computers and home consoles have since surpassed the processing ability of their ancestors in the big cabinets, however, even allowing social interaction online. Accordingly, the video game's history in mechanical, coin-operated games has largely been neglected (Huhtamo), and the spaces of critical interest in gaming have largely shifted from the physical world to the World of Warcraft.

<2> This should not suggest to us, however, that the video arcade has nothing left to offer to researchers of play and popular culture. Whereas console and computer games today largely focus on a narrow demographic, simultaneously catering to and constructing specialty interests, the arcade still attempts to cast a wide net. As a result, arcades arguably offer more egalitarian access to video games: open to any who can spare a couple quarters, featuring a broad variety of games, potentially encouraging personal contact and play among a variety of audiences and social groups -- not just those who can afford a special gaming rig (Swalwell). The arcade thus presents an opportunity to observe how a variety of gamers play within a shared space. The participant-observation study presented here explores how people play games -- and select which games to play -- in a real-world environment with a low barrier to entry.

<3> As some scholars have pointed out, the home gaming industry is largely focused on designing and marketing games that favor traditionally masculine interests (Cassell and Jenkins; Kline; Wood et al.). Some have gone so far as to suggest that games designed today tend to favor cognitive processes typically stronger in males than in females, such as an inclinations for conquest or certain kinds of spatial reasoning (Hoeft et al.; Sherry). As such, it may stand to reason that the onscreen content and structural characteristics of games are the major predictors of who will want to play them. There are, however, even broader social and cultural forces to consider when examining who plays what and why, with players deciding upon some preferences (or aversions) before anyone even looks at a screen.

<4> As Carr describes in one study, a group of girls developed perhaps unexpected preferences in games when offered a setting that encouraged practice and experimentation (i.e., a "game club" in an all-girls school). The sort of social environment Carr constructed for this study might not exist "naturally" in our culture at large, but this scenario may still suggest to us that the structural elements of games and the players' supposed cognitive strengths were less relevant in game enjoyment and selection than a simple lack of experience with games, perhaps combined with a hesitance to try games at all. The study presented here considered the possibility of whether the neighborhood arcade might be a sufficiently welcoming an open environment for new gamers, potentially challenging some widely held notions of how players approach games.

<5> Much as some earlier, perhaps surprisingly optimistic or utopian writing has indicated, my own research did indeed find arcades to be active social spaces, where challenges take place between friendly banter, and strangers strike up friendships without apparent regard to class or ethnicity. Nevertheless, some of the existing social categories constructed in the home market -- such as "casual" versus "hardcore" gamers (Carr) -- can still be observed as distinct groups that rarely interact in arcades. In this context, skill level, styles of play, the ability to participate in game- and pop-culture-related conversations, and culturally-constructed comfort zones in general prove greater barriers to interaction than commonly recognized markers of group belonging such as social status or skin color. Drawing from contextual cues in arcade spaces, the behavior of others, and the games themselves, players establish an informal social structure that describes who plays what and with whom.

<6> There are several ways of understanding how this social structure comes about. One which I find to be particularly useful, which I will return to later in this article, is Bourdieu's concept of habitus, which he defines as

a system of lasting, transposable dispositions which, integrating past experiences, functions at every moment as a matrix of perceptions, appreciations, and actions and makes possible the achievement of infinitely diversified tasks, thanks to analogical transfers of schemes permitting the solution of similarly shaped problems. (82-3)
In other words, a given individual's habitus is effectively a toolbox of ideas and behaviors to use in navigating the world at large, created through the experiences of one's life. Habitus might be described as the set of social and cultural experiences which influence where a person feels at home in his or her own skin. As I will describe, a subtle sense of belonging may help to guide arcade visitors in choosing what to play, or what not to play.

<7> To explore how people use arcade spaces and play games, I visited four arcades in two Eastern urban areas. I identify each arcade here by a pseudonym relating to a feature of the place's function or location: City Arcade, located in a major city near a large university; Campus Arcade, located in a major city on a large university campus; Sports Bar Arcade, located in outside a main city, and granting more space to bar activities; and Strip Mall Arcade, located outside a main city, along a highway. I made regular visits during the winter, spring, and summer of 2006, spreading my visits between weekdays, weekends, early afternoon hours, and evening hours. Most of my visits exceeded an hour, and I visited City Arcade and Campus Arcade more frequently. I played games in the hopes that strangers would spontaneously join me, and many did. I joined other players' games, I watched games in progress, and I made field notes from informal talk with players, spectators, and arcade employees. My own experience with video games proved invaluable in conducting research: Not only was I able to participate in casual conversation requiring background knowledge about arcades and games, I also did not need to learn common game conventions just to interpret play as some previous researchers have had to do (Michaels; Surrey). 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.

<8> Admittedly, we cannot cleanly extrapolate from this study to the home gaming market because arcades are a dying business model, already declared "dead" by some (Williams "Why Game Studies"). Nevertheless, the arcades studied here are among those that have survived that market failure so far, perhaps suggesting that they are doing something effectively. More to the point, however, these arcades still offer a real-world look into how people from different backgrounds and audiences approach the same set of games.

The Arcade Landscape

<9> In some ways, the interior of arcades has actually changed little in the last couple of decades: Game cabinets and coin machines still line the walls, usually crowded close together, and the room is typically a cacophony of sound (Surrey 72). The games themselves, of course, take up the majority of floor space at most arcades.

<10> Most arcade video games can usually be categorized into a few popular genres: point-and-shoot, with plastic guns to be aimed at enemies onscreen; fighters, with a couple joysticks and corresponding rows of buttons to control figures engaged in head-to-head combat; racing games, which generally offer a seat, steering wheel, pedals, and sometimes even a clutch; "retro" games from the 1980s, such as the Ms. Pac-Man/Galaga 20 Year Anniversary combination machine, or the Ultracade cabinet featuring dozens, perhaps hundreds, of old and obscure games; and, more recently, "rhythm" games that require players to perform complicated dance steps, beat a drum, or scratch records, such as the popular Dance Dance Revolution (or DDR) franchise.

<11> Other genres still exist, such as action/adventure games that involve commanding a superhero, spaceship, or cartoon character through a barrage of enemies, or puzzle games like Tetris. These have been largely crowded out by games more unique to arcades, however; the descendents of the action/adventure games now exist primarily on home and handheld consoles. City Arcade also introduced three cabinets holding Xbox game consoles (since replaced with Xbox 360s) with online play capabilities. These have seen a decent amount of use since their installation, though the subsequently installed cabinet with a PlayStation 2 seemed generally untouched: Xbox's online service, after all, has a monthly fee that makes it less likely to be something arcade visitors have at home. Recent years have also seen the development of various genre hybrids and unusual hardware, such as shooters that detect the player's movements in order to dodge bullets, or games with madly vibrating handles claiming to test resistance to electrocution.

<12> In addition to digital video games, nearly all of the arcades I visited feature some combination of "analog" games, including pinball, air hockey, and various "redemption" games, which dole out tickets players can redeem for small prizes. Some redemption games are very similar to what one might see at a carnival, such as a game that involves knocking clown faces over with balls shot from an air gun. Other redemption games include Super Shot Basketball, with reduced-size basketballs to shoot at a moving backboard, and Skee Ball, which involves rolling balls into a holes marked with different point values. City Arcade also features a simple photo booth which sees frequent use, particularly among female visitors and families.

<13> The different arcades I visited each differed somewhat with regard to their furnishings, neighborhoods, and game offerings. Unsurprisingly, this means that they differed somewhat in their uses and clientele. Strip Mall Arcade, for example, features an entire room of redemption games, a laser tag arena, and a small room for hosting children's birthday parties, in addition to a neon-glowing game room emulating 1980s arcades; as such, it sees a large portion of its business from parents with children. Sports Bar Arcade similarly hosts children's parties, but also attracts an even larger adult clientele, offering 20,000 square feet of games, batting cages, an indoor go-kart track, pool tables, a full bar with cheap beer and pizza, and giant projection TVs showing various sporting events. City Arcade, an old neighborhood arcade from the 1970s, is more cramped, hosting a few dozen games and pool tables, and attracting large numbers of locals on weekend nights. Campus Arcade, meanwhile, is half-arcade, half-student-center-lounge -- a quieter space, with 15 games and two vending machines widely spaced along the walls, two pool tables nearer the center of the floor, and several couches, chairs and tables where students sit to study, eat, nap, and watch people play games.

<14> Despite their differences, these arcades exhibited fairly consistent overarching patterns of social organization and game selection among players. Based on the game selection, play styles, and social interaction I witnessed among arcade visitors, I came to conceptualize arcade visitors as belonging to a couple overarching categories. Some gravitated to a few specific and complex games popular among skilled players, particularly including dancing games and fighting games. These players often interacted with friends and strangers alike. I recognized many of these players as experienced visitors, based primarily on my perception of their skill level and patterns of interaction with other visitors. [1] (The cues I used to perceive this are described later.) I recognized several of these visitors as regulars, attending weekly, semi-weekly, or even more frequently.

<15> Other visitors appeared to avoid the games frequented by experienced visitors, even when those machines were not surrounded by players vying for a spot at the controls. These players often sampled a variety of games, focusing especially on carnival-style games like Skee Ball, redemption games, and point-and-shoot games. These visitors tend to arrive in private parties and avoid interaction with other players. Arcades have no shortage of such visitors, but I tended not to recognize many of them returning for multiple visits. I came to recognize these as casual visitors for their irregular attendance and lack of preference for specific games. [2]

<16> This is, of course, not the only way to categorize and organize arcade visitors; I could offer a number of finer distinctions and subgroups. I focus on this distinction, however, because the distinction between habitual, hobbyist gamers and unpracticed, occasional players seemed consistent between every arcade I visited, clearly observable, and not necessarily encouraged or demanded by the arcades themselves. Moreover, this distinction may suggest a major difference between how different audiences choose what games to play, potentially even before experiencing gameplay on the screen.

Gaming Among Experienced Visitors

<17> Experienced visitors could usually be found clustered around fighting games and dancing games in the arcades I visited. During the period of my study, fighting games like Marvel vs. Capcom 2, Soul Calibur 2 , and Tekken 5 were especially popular among boys and men, while various versions of Dance Dance Revolution were popular among players of a wide range of ages and genders. This is not to say that these visitors did not play other games, but such a player shooting hoops at Super Shot Basketball seemed more often than not to just be killing time or taking a break between rounds of some fighting game.

<18> I noticed a few factors in the design and physical form of games that appealed to experienced visitors. These can be very complex games, requiring memorization of patterns and trained body-eye coordination. As earlier researchers have noted (Michaels; Surrey), the quality and newness of games are large factors in what draws visitors (or at least those who are most dedicated to gaming as a hobby). I once saw nine young men at Sports Bar Arcade standing around Tekken 5, a martial-arts fighting game projected onto a giant screen; one player explained to me that it had just arrived at the arcade. I also noticed that experienced players at Campus Arcade always went to the newer DDR Extreme machine, whereas casual visitors showed no preference between this and the other Dance Dance Revolution machine on the other side of the room.

<19> To discerning players, the working condition of game machines can also be a major attraction. With so much repeated use, damages are inevitable, and arcade employees devote much time (particularly during slow periods) to disassembling parts of machines and fixing them. Nearly every member of the large group around Tekken 5 noted above had his own PlayStation controller or joystick to plug in, as the joysticks and buttons built into the new game were already broken. On the other end of the spectrum, a neighborhood resident hanging out on the couch at Campus Arcade informed me that the aforementioned DDR Extreme machine there was so consistently maintained that "serious players" from all over the state come to play it on weekends.

<20> From talking to people, I learned that experienced arcade visitors are also frequently hobbyist gamers who own home consoles. These players come to the arcade for games they cannot play at home. Many Dance Dance Revolution players who own the home version of the game still go to the arcade: as several players explained to me, they like to use the industrial-strength dance pads and lean against the metal bars while dancing. And, though several arcade regulars told me that they enjoy home console and computer games with stories, such as the Final Fantasy series, this does not really matter to them for arcade games. Given the noisy din of most arcades, this makes a great deal of sense; it may be too difficult to be immersed in a narrative in such a setting. When experienced visitors played games with video "cut scenes," they tend to hit whatever buttons they must to skip them.

<21> Some, though not most experienced players played in solitude. I recognized some who came in from time to time for pinball, occasionally making the machine chirp with a free game earned from a suitably high score. A few such players even played multiplayer games alone. I once approached a person in Campus Arcade playing Soul Calibur 2 on a single-player mode that allowed him to play against characters controlled by the computer; in this mode, the characters are "trained" by actual players who had played before, logging in with a password. This mode does not enable challengers to join during play, so at the end of his game, I asked if I could join. I received a brief "No," and saw him put in two more tokens for another single-player game. In addition, I never saw strangers join in on an ongoing cooperative game. I even saw one person waiting for a turn on Strikers 1945, an old airplane shoot-em-up, though he could have just joined the game in progress and helped the other player. One might wonder why players would come to the arcade just to play multiplayer games alone, especially when skilled gamers are likely to have their own gaming systems, but the options to compare high scores and play against smarter artificial intelligence offer opportunities not necessarily available at home.

<22> For the most part, however, I saw such visitors interacting with one another, or at least remaining open to that possibility. The main advantage to arcade play over home play for most experienced players are social in nature. This is why fighting and dancing games, which offer opportunities for both competition and conversation, figure so centrally into play. The membership of any given group around such games changes over the course of a few hours as people come and go, but even complete strangers often become familiar with other players in these groups over time. Players of fighting games at Sports Bar Arcade and Campus Arcade, for example, told me that they have met new friends and a number of acquaintances playing in arcades. One player explained that some groups coordinate meetings on websites. An employee at Strip Mall Arcade described fighting game and DDR players as forming "little communities," sometimes coming from far and wide to play and spend time together.

<23> City Arcade in particular functions as a neighborhood hangout. Inkjet-printed signs adorn the machines, announcing upcoming tournaments and special events, warning that "IF YOUR NOT PLAYING, YOUR NOT STAYING (sic)." One newly upgraded machine featured a sign that read, "TEKKEN 5.1 -- From [City Arcade] to You," announcing it like a gift to the community. When curfew nears, the employees make announcements warning visitors to have IDs on hand, and urging them to "just play a video game." Employees wander the floor -- potentially as a deterrent from misbehavior, but also frequently chatting and playing games with the arcade visitors as well. On a particularly crowded Saturday night at City Arcade, players call out greetings and pound knuckles with passers-by between rounds. At City Arcade in particular, employees frequently observe players during downtime. One employee often joked with me and offered comments as I played. Visitors chat less while actually concentrating on playing, except for the occasional exclamation from being surprised, frustrated, or impressed by the opponent. A visitor might only spend a fraction of his or her time in these brief moments of intense concentration on play; the crowds of observers and players in waiting surrounding multiplayer games tend watch the game in progress, cheer the players on, and chat.

<24> Perhaps unsurprisingly, extended conversations between strangers in the arcade tend to be about video games. At both City Arcade and Campus Arcade, for example, people started chatting with me about rumors of a Soul Calibur 3 arcade release, which had so far only appeared in Japan. In Campus Arcade, I talked to two different individuals about the business troubles many arcades face. In fact, the only conversations I had trouble starting were those in which I introduced myself first as a researcher. It made more sense to bring this up in the context of a game in progress.

<25> Much of the talk around games is simply a reaction to game play. One player whom I defeated at Soul Calibur 2 skulked off with a friend, muttering that he would go find something he knew how to play. Another player whom I saw waiting in line for a game of Marvel vs. Capcom 2 against a particularly skilled opponent joked that he'd be right back after a smoking break to "bust your ass" (and all involved had a good laugh). In a particularly dramatic display of boasting, I once saw a player in City Arcade defeat several people in a row and send a group of players into hysterical laughter: He slammed the buttons to deliver the death blow, grabbed his friend by the shirt, and loudly exclaimed, "I'm the One! I'm fuckin' Neo!" -- referring to the godlike computer hacker from the Matrix action movies. This kind of behavior indicates that fighting game play is something akin to a neighborhood basketball game: a social and physical experience, complete with friendly trash talking.

<26> The ritual of joining multiplayer games with strangers is relatively straightforward and non-confrontational, and has been in place for decades: put a coin on the machine to mark your place in line (Surrey). I once had to figure out my own place in line when a particularly large group surrounded Tekken 5 and was not using quarters, but the other players were friendly and welcomed me into the rotation. Surrey notes that people of different ages and social classes often join in on games with one another, and I witnessed much of the same. At Campus Arcade, for example, I once saw a Hispanic boy from a nearby high school ask an Asian-American woman from the university if he could join her next game of Dance Dance Revolution. She agreed, and he let her pick the songs. Surrey's examples, however, included people taking turns to compete for a higher score in games like Pac-Man. On older games, lining up for a game usually meant waiting for the current game to finish, perhaps initiating a two-player game in which players alternate their turns. I saw no interaction among strangers over such games; players prefer to interact over games that allow them to use machines simultaneously.

<27> As noted above, DDR offers simultaneous play for who players who start together. Fighting games also allow challengers to interrupt a single-player game in progress. Some challengers simply walk up and insert coins without a word, and others ask permission to join. Either type of player may be likely to chat with opponents between rounds, and the winner of the match gets to stay for the next game. Much of my time in the arcades I visited involved playing fighting games and waiting for a few minutes at a time before challengers or observers walked up, though I also joined several games in progress. I once asked a player on Tekken 5 for permission to join, for example. He happily invited me and explained that he preferred to play with other people, and we proceeded to chat about the video game industry and my own research between the rounds of a few games. Unable to join during an ongoing game, Dance Dance Revolution players typically just observe while others are playing, waiting for their turn. Many players even dance alongside games in progress, practicing the steps.

<28> In theory, any player with a couple quarters can compete against other players, but players are actually quite selective in whom they challenge. I call the ritual of challenging strangers "open play" because it lowers some social boundaries, though the boundaries between players of radically different skill levels remain intact. For example, in playing Soul Calibur 2, which I play reasonably well, I noticed that the opponents I defeated would often keep inserting coins to continue play as long as I did not play too aggressively. When I played to my full ability and ended matches quickly, most challengers gave up. Meanwhile, no one ever challenged me in a game of Tekken 5, which I barely know how to play, though I spent a considerable amount of time playing and saw many people join in with other players.

<29> To arcade regulars, the markers preserving this social barrier are evident in the act of gameplay itself. Inexperienced players are recognizable by certain behaviors, such as using generally ignored machines (like the older of the two Dance Dance Revolution machines in Campus Arcade), indiscriminate "button-mashing" in fighting games rather than utilizing combination maneuvers (c.f. Murphy), and short game times. Measures of skill evaluation are even built into some games: Dance Dance Revolution assigns a letter grade after each song; many games keep track of high scores or time elapsed in completing a game; and fighting games tend to keep track of win/loss records, even including the use of personal data cards inserted into Tekken 5 to keep track of players' lifetime records and skill level.

<30> These examples suggest a couple basic social functions that arcade games provide for experienced visitors, beyond the obvious function of personal leisure. For one, games give strangers something to talk about, particularly for men who may be otherwise unlikely to engage one another personally -- a function similar to that which has been suggested of televisions in bars (c.f. McCarthy). Conversations and comments about upcoming arcade releases, the arcade industry, and games in progress all require some prior knowledge of gaming, establishing a common talking point and sense of belonging for unacquainted individuals. The social behavior surrounding games -- play fighting in imitation of virtual martial artists, shouts of victory recalling a sci-fi action hero -- suggest that the players in arcades establish a sense of solidarity and competition that draws on their background as gamers and movie fans rather than (or in addition to) knowledge of other stereotypically masculine settings and pursuits, such as sports or politics.[3] Moreover, arcades offer numerous, injury-free opportunities for competition, potentially important for those who do not feel they have other outlets for competitive urges -- non-athletic people, members of low-income communities with fewer organized athletic leagues, women who may be excluded from sports teams, and so on.

<31> This social interaction is predicated, however, on a shared understanding of gaming, an implicit agreement that the play's the thing -- a "gaming habitus" of sorts, even for those who might not strongly self-identify as "gamers." Those who feel at ease interacting with strangers in this social milieu draw on previous experiences with games and with other gamers, potentially re-prioritizing what is considered a socially valuable behavior. This principle of arcade interaction helps explain to some extent why arcades seem such wondrous models of racial harmony: Once in this gaming environment, class and ethnicity are not nearly as much a barrier to socialization as uneven skill level. By the same token, as I will describe next, this social barrier is also reinforced by the inexperienced players themselves, who insulate themselves from competition with unfamiliar players by visiting in private parties and playing other sorts of games entirely.

Gaming Among Casual Visitors

<32> Like experienced visitors, casual visitors choose games based on both formal and social factors. Being not particularly invested in any one genre, franchise, or play style, casual visitors do not necessarily exhibit any preference for games as specific as that of the experienced players', but some patterns do still emerge. These players tend to show up in small groups, the most common including groups of late-teens and twentysomethings (often largely composed of women), parents and babysitters supervising and sometimes playing with children, and couples on dates. These visitors often move between several games in a visit, playing cooperatively or competitively against one another, or experimenting with single-player games with novel interfaces. These players, especially young women, tended to avoid fighting games and gravitate toward carnival-style games like Skee Ball and point-and-shoot games.

<33> It is possible that these players' avoidance of fighting games reflects how women and players unaccustomed to frequent game play may be socialized to avoid violent content. My observations, however, suggested that casual visitors seemed perfectly happy to play violent games when in private parties, though they were more likely to choose games that involve waving a plastic gun than games that involve manipulating a joystick and buttons. One female friend I brought to Campus Arcade, for example, proclaimed that her favorite game we played all night was Invasion, a point-and-shoot game -- the only game in the arcade that some regular visitors told me "no one" ever plays, and also the only game in the arcade rated for "Lifelike Violence." After we left the arcade, my friend explained why she enjoyed it so much: "When you're playing a fighting game, you don't really feel like you're fighting the person, but when you're playing a shooting game, you really feel like you're shooting mutants in the head." On another occasion at City Arcade, I saw a young girl leading her adult companion from game to game to play together, seemingly indiscriminately flitting between fighting games, racing games, and point-and-shoot games. Point-and-shoot games also seemed extremely popular among couples on dates at all of my sites. Formal aspects of arcade games did likely play some part in what games casual visitors chose to play, though this may have had little to do with the content designed for gameplay on the screen.

<34> For one thing, as noted earlier, the way games are maintained can influence what visitors choose to play. Casual players tend not to bring their own PlayStation controllers, so they are unlikely to bother with a broken Tekken 5 machine. The games that see the most use (most likely by arcade regulars) are those that sustain the most damage. In addition, as arcade managers reuse the old cabinets housing games, the cabinets occasionally feature labels for games that are not actually inside them. This is generally not a big deal for experienced visitors, who are likely to know the what they're looking for in the arcade already, and can tell what game they're looking at by a glance at the on-screen demo. Removing games from their original cabinets can be problematic for newcomers, however, as original cabinet artwork sometimes displays instructions for play. Even the visuals on-screen often seem practically incidental to arcade managers: One DDR machine at Campus Arcade, for example, displays instructions in Japanese during downtime. Certain games, then, are not even displayed in such a way as to entice newcomers to play.

<35> Even before getting close enough to a machine to judge it based on its instructions, however, casual visitors may avoid a game based only on the seeming complexity of the controls. Outside of arcades, I have often heard people remark that they "don't get" or "can't play" modern console video games, such as those on the Xbox or PlayStation systems, because of the overwhelming number of buttons and joysticks. For this reason, arcade fighting games seem similarly unwelcoming to new players: They require an abstract method of control, translating button combinations and joystick rotation into on-screen avatar movement. Moving a joystick from down to forward and hitting a punch button is considered a very basic and commonly understood combination in most fighting games.

<36> Certain types of physically-oriented game play, on the other hand, may simply be more intuitive and thus more appealing to casual players who are not interested in putting in a lot of time or money into mastering a game. The rules of Skee Ball and air hockey are particularly obvious. Racing games and shooting games present reasonably familiar control interfaces as well, presumably known to anyone who has at least seen driving and shooting performed on television. Dance Dance Revolution, which I noticed did see some attention from casual visitors, only has four "buttons," and how they must be used is obvious from watching someone play (even if actually using them is harder). In the case of the video games noted here, the action performed on the controls is reflected by a logically corresponding action on the screen: shooting sends bullets where you point, steering sends your car where you turn, arrows light up as you step. Players can more easily connect off-screen action with on-screen response.

<37> These considerations may sufficiently explain why casual visitors tend to avoid some games entirely. By the same token, I suspect that there is another dimension to the preferences exhibited by casual visitors. Even fighting games that make use of complicated combinations can still often be played with "button-mashing." Such games' controls may seem daunting at first glance, but can also be explained simply: Use the joystick to move, top buttons for punches, bottom buttons for kicks -- comparably simple to popular shooting games that involve not just a plastic gun, but also a pedal to control reloading and ducking for cover.

<38> Another consideration for why casual visitors play as they do, then, relates not just to the gameplay experience, but to the environments and activities that seem acceptable based on the cultural associations and stereotypes of games, and their own previous experiences; that is, people choose what to play based on habitus. Certain cultural associations may be particularly off-putting to women who feel unwelcome among gamers: Video games maintain a stereotype of being for "nerdy" boys (Kendall; Margolis and Fisher), and arcades are the historical descendents of the penny arcade and the pool hall, spaces historically dominated by men and unwelcoming to women (Peiss). These spaces also have "lower class" connotations, and the somewhat shady associations with arcades have certainly not been forgotten by arcade managers and employees themselves. One former employee of Sports Bar Arcade described the place as "sleazy"; the manager of City Arcade warily asked me if I thought video games were "a good thing or a bad thing" when I first asked for access to the space; and Strip Mall arcade features a round counter in the middle of the room with a view of the entire arcade, a precautionary measure against fights that (employees assure me) haven't occurred in years. Potential visitors likely factor in considerations about whether they "fit" in such an environment before even walking in the doors. One night at Strip Mall Arcade, I witnessed two late twentysomethings/early thirtysomethings enter in date attire, look around, and leave immediately. A friend of mine astutely observed, "Too old, too well dressed."

<39> For those that do make it past the threshold, then, arcades must provide something familiar to those who do not feel a "gaming habitus." One way that arcades manage to attract those who would otherwise be put off by cultural baggage is by including attractions associated with amusement parks, historically female-friendly places that can even encourage socialization between genders through games and dancing. Thus, redemption games are particularly popular among mixed groups of teenagers at Strip Mall Arcade and Sports Bar Arcade in particular; these groups use the arcade as an evening hangout and collect tickets to exchange for cheap prizes, and may not play an actual "video" game all night. The cooperative shooting games in arcades, meanwhile, are rather like target shooting games at amusement parks and carnivals. Even Dance Dance Revolution, which evokes a dance-club setting through its music and flashing lights, may make the arcade more reminiscent of female-friendly environments (Thornton), immune to the "gamer nerd" stereotype and more easily identifiable as part of the habitus of those who aren't frequent gamers.

<40> This appeal, of course, still attracts those within the dominant age range of the arcade overall, skewing heavily to the late teens and early twenties. Older visitors do attend, but feeling out of place in terms of age is a barrier in itself. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, nearly everyone I saw over the age of 40 in the arcades I visited found some passport through youth. Some visitors may only identify themselves as belonging in the arcade when they have an earlier connection with the environment (e.g., a nostalgic taste for pinball), or, as in most cases I witnessed, when they play a role in accompanying someone else who belongs there (i.e., supervising a child). Even for those who pay no heed to stigmas of gaming as low-class or potentially harmful, the "gaming habitus" may still seem inextricably tied to childhood, despite the rising average age of console and computer gamers.


<41> Despite lingering (or resurgent) concerns among academics and others that video games represent an antisocial pursuit, this study recognizes that gaming can and does foster friendly interaction, even bringing together "little communities" of various social backgrounds. By the same token, my observations in arcades suggest that even a relatively free and open gaming environment remains socially fragmented, particularly between frequent and infrequent players. To some extent, this fragmentation may be a function of the environment and the games themselves, as in the cases of machines that require special equipment or knowledge to operate. No less important, however, are the barriers that players erect themselves, through tacit social understanding of appropriate behavior in the arcade. I posit this here as an important, perhaps overriding consideration in discussing how people choose games to play, or whether to play games at all.

<42> There are, of course, real biases in the gaming industry regarding who is represented in games and to whom games are marketed (Cassell and Jenkins; Kline). And, potentially even more problematic, there is indeed overt sexism, racism, and homophobia among many gamers (Christensen; Kuznekoff and Parsons). Nevertheless, game developers have slowly warmed to the idea of selling their games to the other half or more of the population, and socially abusive behaviors may be more pronounced in anonymous settings, such as in online games, rather than in "gaming culture" at large (Christensen). Social exclusion works in more subtle ways than much research tends to acknowledge. The social barriers keeping women from gaming are part of (or parallel with) a larger system of "belonging" that extends to just about anyone without a sense of "gaming habitus." Seeing greater gender and ethnic parity in the game industry would be a welcome advancement, but may not necessarily open up this pursuit more broadly.

<43> Preferences between games are not only predicated upon favorite genres, objectionable versus inoffensive content, or control schemes. For those enculturated as frequent gamers, the details of game design and novelty may be a greater draw, but for others, the decision of what (not) to play may be made before even glancing at a screen. Some console game manufacturers and publishers have begun to realize this, particularly evident in the marketing of the Nintendo Wii as a family-friendly device and social music games such as Guitar Hero and Rock Band (which all remained either unreleased or still widely unknown during the research period described here). Through broader marketing efforts and atypical, (seemingly) simplified controllers, such approaches to gaming are proving financially successful. Another approach to extending the "gaming habitus" to new, adult audiences is in the business model favored by chains such as Dave & Busters, which include arcade-style gaming (with cost-inflated prepaid cards instead of coins) in a bar/restaurant atmosphere.

<44> With the rise of home gaming, particularly among those old enough to be parents themselves, playing video games may soon figure in to the normal experiences of enough people that the boundaries between what we now consider "casual" and "hardcore" will gradually dissolve. Some games show signs of bridging the boundaries between this gap already, such as how Dance Dance Revolution -- a favorite among arcade regulars of both genders and an object of frequent interest and curiosity among casual visitors -- offers increasingly complex opportunities for mastery for the hobbyist, and difficulty level selection and non-intimidating controls for the newcomer. Such successes in the home gaming market may mean that the neighborhood arcade won't survive this transition, but the console market may eventually reach a saturation point for different plastic musical instruments, dance pads, and specialty controllers. It remains to be seen how long arcades will continue to be seen as useful not just to the researcher of socializing and play, but to players themselves.


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[1] Not all experienced visitors might have described themselves as "hardcore gamers" -- potentially indicating some figuration into their identity -- so I avoid that term here. [^]

[2] I use the term "casual" here without any implied connection to the so-called "casual games" market of free computer games; the demographics may match up, for all I know, but I make no such claims. Admittedly, this is a troublesome term, potentially implying either markets or genres depending on its use. [^]

[3] This special subcultural knowledge might be seen related to the "gaming capital" suggested by Consalvo, an extension of Bourdieu's concept of cultural capital. [^]

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