Video games are a good thing. At least that's how I see it. This outlook was formed in the days of my youth. There were no labels then of "casual" and "hardcore," no perception yet that video games were for this kind of person but not for that kind. Games offered an escape from the sometimes painful realities of life. Games provided bonding experiences; one friend and I worked together to get farther than either of us had before in Mario Bros., and I earned the respect of another by demonstrating my impressive skills at Yie Ar Kung-Fu.
These formative experiences and so many others took place in lively, noisy places where heroes were born and alliances were forged, family-friendly places where, rather than resorting to mocking and trash talk, people would smile appreciatively if a mom bravely tried her hand at Donkey Kong for the first time. These were places that understood that games were for everyone, that it was far better to let games bring us together than to let them push us apart. These were the arcades where my love of games was born.
"…religion, race, sexual preference, social class, gender, style… none of it mattered. People were equal when they put those tokens into the cabinet."It's because of this deeply rooted outlook that the name of a project I heard about recently resonated with me so strongly. The project is called Play Videogames Be Happy, four words that encapsulate my attitude about what games can and should be. Play Videogames Be Happy is the dream of Pittsburgh resident Anna Hegedus. For over three years now, she has been collecting and repairing arcade machines, in the hopes of opening her own arcade in the Pittsburgh area.
Reading about her reasons for wanting to do this on her blog, I immediately felt that this was someone whose love for games and for arcades was much like my own. "Once someone walked through those doors and into the dimly-lit corridors," she wrote, "religion, race, sexual preference, social class, gender, style… none of it mattered. People were equal when they put those tokens into the cabinet. They stood in front of the same screen, mashing buttons and gritting their teeth as they whittled down a paper route's paycheck on NBA Jam."
I asked Hegedus about where her own love of games and arcades comes from, and was unsurprised to find that her passion and mine have similar roots.
"I was an eccentric kid that had a hard time fitting in. I found a group of friends that had their own idiosyncrasies too. The quiet kid, the scrawny kid, the kid that grew up way too quick, the kid in the closet… In high school, we would all hang out and play games. All in all, we survived because we had each other. The more that I think about it, games are what did that. We had this arcade in the local mall, a Namco Cyberstation. We would go there a lot just to play DDR, air hockey, or Point Blank."
Memories of one particular person who frequented the arcade have remained especially vivid for Hegedus. "I still get a little misty-eyed when I think about this one guy. He was so shy and quiet, with long dark hair and this bucket hat that he wore with the brim pushed down over his eyes. But put him on DDR pads and slap a few tokens into the machine…it was like a switch was flipped. He was alive, and his laugh was so contagious. I don't know if he realized it, but I saw the way the light danced in his eyes. It's like his soul woke up. When I think back to those times, they weren't just happy—they defined me as a person in some ways. You can't do that over Xbox Live or the PSN. It happens in front of the glow of a Wells-Gardner, side by side with a living, breathing person."
"…for a small 20-machine arcade to run, you need over ten thousand dollars for taxes. This is way over what we could ever dream of raising in such a short period."Those moments, and the positive impact they can have on us, are what it's all about for Hegedus. "I think of what it was like back then for him, for me, and for all of us. I miss it dearly and I want to recreate that for people. Whether we like to admit it or not as a society, prejudice and social pressure are alive and run deep. Escaping those things is one of the most important things a person can do. Arcades bring people together and erase the divisions that are erected around us by race, class, gender, sexuality, or any other trait. It makes our defenses drop and our hearts come closer together, just like it did for the kid I talked about earlier. That's my vision. That's what I want."
Wanting to open an arcade is one thing. Actually putting in the work to be able to do it is something else. But Hegedus has poured her time, money and skills into this project. Scavenging newspapers, Craigslist, eBay, anything that might give her a lead on an available arcade game, she's traveled far and wide to put together a collection strong enough to make for a darn good arcade. A lot of the machines were in pretty bad shape when Anna acquired them, but she's fixed them up, and shared some of her technical knowledge in a great series of tutorial videos on her YouTube channel.
Unfortunately, hurdles stand between Anna and opening an arcade. Pittsburgh laws make the prospect of opening one in the city prohibitively expensive. As Hegedus explains, "In the city proper, you need an arcade license as well as a license for each machine you wish to use. The machine permits are over $300 a piece. The quarterly arcade license is $800. Plus there are the occupancy permits and other things. That means that for a small 20-machine arcade to run, you need over ten thousand dollars for taxes. This is way over what we could ever dream of raising in such a short period."
In this video, Anna speaks about her reasons for wanting to open an arcade.
It was clear to Anna that the concept of an arcade is one thing to her and something very different to some other people in the area.So she began looking at options in the suburbs, but has run up against opposition from some who don't see games as the good, unifying thing that they are to people like Anna and myself. During a recent zoning hearing, one community member raised concerns about kids dealing drugs in the arcade, while others asked if their taxes would be used to pay for police assistance if and when incidents occurred at the arcade. It was clear to Anna that the concept of an arcade is one thing to her and something very different to some other people in the area. "Each time someone brought something up like this, I became a little more upset inside. We did have one or two supporters there who spoke out against chasing businesses away from the downtown area, but I had a hard time focusing on the positive. My ideas were obviously at odds with a lot of folks."
Currently, Anna is waiting. She might get full approval to set up the arcade and open. Or she might be denied, in which case the search for a home will begin again. It might be easier to find an accommodating spot farther from the city, but Anna is reluctant to head too far out. "[The city is] where we can do the best work with the community. I just can’t see kids and seniors taking the bus out to the rural countryside to play Pac Man."
I've got my fingers crossed. I think we could do with a lot more places where people can come together over games, and just be happy.
You can keep up with Anna Hegedus on Twitter at @akh13, and read her blog at annahegedus.com. Her Youtube channel, which has lots of great tutorials as well as fun stuff like this Famitendo she created, is at https://www.youtube.com/user/annahegedusdotcom.