Ex Machina


The last good game I played was at the old Playland in Times Square a few
years back. Every afternoon, the arC would fill with businessmen on their lunch breaks, random passersby, and scores of high school kids who cut class to spill guts and gobble points on the video screen. For me, it was the only real way to play video games. Playland was encrusted with decades of
dirt and laid out much like the New York City grid— cramped, dark, and electric. I walked in looking for the latest game. At the time, it was Mortal Kombat— one of the first photographically enhanced kung fu fighting games where you play best two out of three bouts.

A huddle of high school kids were guarding the machine. I looked over and laid my quarters on the console (the way to get in line for the game). They all turned quickly to see who it was and a few began eyeing me. Who does he think he is? He thinks he can just come up to this machine and play? He better be good.

To play the latest, hottest game wasn’t an easy task. Sure, you could go to your local game store, buy the game (for fifty bucks), and play it in the privacy of your own home— but then there’d be no audience. (Friends and family don’t count.) You always had to break through a wall to get to the game; endure stares and taunts; stare back and put up your quarters. It somehow lent more meaning to the gameplay. It became a sporting event where you were both fan and player.

My turn. I take a quick peek at the competition— a tall, scrawny kid who couldn’t be more than 15. He has these long, gangly fingers that appear to melt into the console when he plays. Man has become machine. He’s beaten the last three players. Yeah, my kung fu’s better, he’s thinking. Come on old man! (I’m barely 20 at the time.) Let’s play! I drop my change, look at the screen, and choose my player.

I lose the first round quick. He’s got the combinations down already and this game is only a few days old. I only get a few hits in. He turns to me and grins. It’s part of the spoils, a temporary crown. Or the yellow jersey in the Tour de France. His friends are jumping up and down, laughing. Not over his win, but his grin. A dis all real game players love to pull.

In the next round, I manage to get the special moves down (keyed combinations that produce fireballs and general bad-assed fighting moves). The crowd behind me starts yelling things like “Oh shit! He’s got the moves!”

My competition has fallen into an obvious pattern where he attacks on the retreat. A good pattern, but I’ve easily spotted a hole. I throw a few fireballs on his retreat and hit him before he can throw out his attack. I do it over and over. This round, mine. And yeah, I grin back. But the kids don’t laugh this time. He’s their player. I’m the outsider. They’re still loyal to him.

Last round. He knows I’ve figured out his pattern and changes course. Neither of us wants to lay out an attack for fear the other will discover his tactics. A twitch play ensues, each trying to get the other to commit. The crowd of kids is barely audible. After a close round, I win. “Oh shit!” someone yells. My competition turns to me and reaches out his hand. We shake. Game over.

The game was never as good after this. Technology has advanced, but the players have not. That Playland, in fact, is now extinct. The newer “arcades” in Times Square sport a wide array of VR-type games, a clean, well-lit space, and a staff that wears logo’d polos. Families and tourists come to play. I swear I’ve seen Mickey Mouse there.

Game consoles have been around almost as long as the arcade, and they have inspired a new generation— “forged a new market” in biz-speak— of players, but they have also inspired a certain kind of regression. The console is a solipsistic affair. There is no audience.

Video games have become so popular because they have mastered a deception. They make you think you’ve won (or lost) the game— that you’ve racked up points and powers and kills. Thing is, you don’t actually get to take home the points when the game’s over. The kill is unreal. There’s nothing to display over your mantel after defeating the monster. There’s no real-world effect. But in the arcade, the points, the kills didn’t matter. The audience was your record. The grin. The stares. The adulation. These were your trophies and marks of defeat.

After the handshake and even more stares, the group of kids walks away. They’re out of quarters. The tall kid looks back at me like
he’s saying, Next time, I’ll get you. But for the
moment, I’m left to just play the machine.