The Video Arcade Comes of Age

Playing video games the social way—in an arcade.



High Scores Arcade

Pat Mazzera

Those well-versed in the history of video games fondly remember the heyday of the video arcade in the late ’70s and early ’80s. There, among the mullet-coiffed in a spirit of camaraderie fueled by nacho cheese Doritos and Mountain Dew, records were broken on classic games like Donkey Kong and Pac-Man. All for the price of a fistful of quarters.

Eventually, technology continued its march, and gamers sought their thrills on consoles hooked up to TVs, from the comfort of the living room. This left the video arcade a festering relic.

Or did it? One entrepreneur who refused to go quietly into that gentle night is Shawn Livernoche, 37. Livernoche, who grew up in New Jersey in the 1980s, credits the cheapskate neighborhood arcade owner who refused to update the machines with his lifelong love affair with classic games from the so-called golden era of video arcades.

A video game collector, along with his wife Meg, for more than 10 years, Livernoche opened his first arcade in 2010 in Burlington, N.J., while working as a teacher. When Meg’s job was transferred to the Bay Area, Shawn decided to bring along their cache of video game machines. Earlier this year he opened High Scores Arcade on Alameda’s Park Street.

Five dollars buys one hour ($10 gets you all day), unlimited access to any of the 32 video machines like Star Wars and Punch Out!!, as well as five pinball machines. Rounding out the ambience, the high scores recorded by patrons on various machines are listed next to the world record holders on the wall behind the front desk. To put gamers in the appropriate mood, a well-stocked jukebox pumps out rock, pop, and hip-hop gems only from the late ’70s and ’80s.

Livernoche is definitely on to something as evidenced by the throngs, ranging from little kids to people in their 50s, who poured into the arcade on a recent afternoon five minutes after opening. This doesn’t surprise him, though he readily admits that far more people will continue to play games at home. “Will more people see an M. Night Shyamalan movie than Citizen Kane?” asks Livernoche while wearing a Super Mario tee and flip-flops. “Yes. Does it still suck? Yes.”

For Livernoche, the reason home gaming sucks is simple: Online and at home gaming lack real social interaction. And online, it increases the likelihood that a competitor will say something rude over the internet that they wouldn’t dare say in person.

One Alameda–bred gamer who can appreciate the High Scores atmosphere is Graham Wolfe. Now living in Fremont, Wolfe regularly makes the short trek so he can defend his High Scores score on Donkey Kong Jr.

“It feels like I’m walking into an amusement park,” says Wolfe. “The paintings on the wall, the lights. Everything is done just right. I could play at home for free, but it wouldn’t be the same feeling I get at the arcade with the music and the people.”

Wolfe says that he always preferred the group gaming experience. And, the “’80s had an even better one.”

Still, not everyone gets it immediately—especially the little ones. Livernoche notices that they’ll come in and try to maneuver objects on the screen with their fingers as if it were a touch screen. They’ll learn.

High Scores Arcade, 1414 Park St., Alameda, 609-468-3083, www.highscoresarcade.com.

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