September 14th, 2011
Games Without Screens
These are tough times for the arcade. In New York, we recently saw the closing of the Chinatown Fair, the last real arcade in the city. If you go there today, youll find endless condolences written on the steel door in its place. Some remnants of the old ways remain, but to many, the arcade has become a relic. Most gaming now takes place on a home console or within the confines of a smartphone.
It’s not completely gone though. Last week, a few of us went over to Babycastles, an underground, artist collective/DIY arcade tucked away in nearby Williamsburg. We showed up for the opening night of F%!k the Screen, an exhibition showcasing highly physical videogame installations – games without screens, mostly developer experiments that use existing technology for homemade projects. And the results are great. Games like Johann Sebastian Joust elicit the type of gameplay that manufacturers can only dream about. Between the beta culture, the live music, and the surprisingly robust selection of beer (4), Babycastles might just be this generation’s arcade.
So why do we gravitate toward this type of homemade physical interaction? Maybe it’s a response to our digital lives: we long for the activities we knew growing up, from sandbox to Capture the Flag. At this new type of arcade, the hardware gets dismantled and rebuilt to form games that focus almost entirely on us, the players. We no longer need to contain games and hold them ransom for quarters from behind a screen. There are no change machines at this arcade.
The amount of collaborative tinkering at F%!k the Screen also shows how we cant always predict what users might need. We cant design for every possible scenario. People will appropriate technology as they see fit – finding unique ways to let it adapt. The concept now drives interaction, and the technology becomes its vehicle.
Traditionally, technology has been central to the user experience, in gaming as much as anything else. Now, its more of an enabler. Like the jungle gym on a playground – its a framework that houses interaction. None of us remember our favorite brand of swing set, but we all remember our friends, our playground, and the games we played.