City and Play in The Lost Arcade

The Lost Arcade (2015)

Seeing Kurt Vincent’s The Lost Arcade brought back some personal memories although they were set in a completely different urban landscape. As a kid in the eighties I was also lured by the shiny newness of video arcades. They were relatively rare in the Netherlands and the closest one for me was a small and dark venue in Rotterdam. Mostly a casino with one part that had some classic video games. As a young kid you had to be careful not to be thrown out as the owners had to be strict about the age limit due to gambling laws. Still some employees would turn a blind eye knowing we just wanted to play games.

Even though the setting was a bit shabby, the games promised a bright future with their state of the art graphics and cool sounds. This was even more so in another arcade in Scheveningen beach. One of the biggest arcades in the country that catered for tourists and beachgoers and had all the newest titles. 

After a brief surge in the eighties, arcades quickly became a thing of the past once consoles and PCs began to take over. Home playing replaced the more communal atmosphere of the video arcade. As I played on my Nintendo Entertainment System and later on my Sega Megadrive I must have wondered: ‘Why go all the way to an arcade and spend coins?’ Of course I didn’t really think of the social aspect of playing video games. Curiously enough the arcade in Rotterdam was situated opposite a bar that was one of the few gay hangouts in town. Two subcultures opposite each other. All forming a part of the ever-changing fabric of the city.

The Lost Arcade

It’s these shifts in urban space caused by economies of desire and the wish to belong that are dealt with in The Lost Arcade. It sets a wonderfully hypnotic tone at its start: An imaginary monologue about a lost soul in the city over images of New York at night. Someone traverses the streets and we follow him in a steadicam shot focused on his back. Irene Chin, who wrote the movie, uses some evocative words that in their sensuality could just as well have suited someone looking for a fix or cruising the streets. But this is another unknown pleasure that the city offers:

“Last night I dreamed I went to China Town Fair again. I travelled there by train on a clear evening. The city showed nothing in the way of malice. (…) After all these years the path to the arcade was ingrained even in dreams. As I stood in front of the door I could smell the arcade. The smell was a primordial memory hidden deep in my mind. Somewhere beyond time and space.”

And as with all desire there is that melancholic knowledge that one can lose that feeling:

“My quarter was lost into the deep abyss with all the other quarters I fed the arcade. There was no way to get it back. For Chinatown Fair was no more.”

It is an incredible way to open a documentary and the images of two men playing in an arcade add to its dreaminess. The dark being beautifully illuminated by that otherworldly hue that arcades seem to have. One of the machines has a tempting latin proverb on its marquee: hic rhodus, hic salta … The song Deep Blue by Gill Talmi beautifully adds to the reverie with bleeps that hint at video game music and sound effects that subtly pop up over a dreamy soundscape.

This opening sequence makes the arcade a sensual experience within city life. I was tempted to think about the writings of Walter Benjamin and especially his vast and unfinished Arcades project. The arcades he had in mind were different of course: covered areas with shops, cafes and other establishments that became popular in the nineteenth century as cities began to grow. But Benjamin’s vision of the city as a dynamic playground of desire and the ways in which the texture of the city accommodates that springs to mind when watching the film.

After its spellbinding opening, The Lost Arcade shows us a present day arcade and the kids who visit them. In a time where everybody plays at home you would have thought they would be obsolete. But the film shows this New York subculture that is kept alive by people who were hooked on the machines in the eighties and newer generations who like the communal feel of the place. 

In a brief historical overview we see how popular the arcades once were. Some interviewee reminisces on the big venues you could find on Times Square. They have since disappeared. But one place keeps coming back. China Town Fair (CTF) wasn’t in the centre and had a shady reputation. It had a long history (it opened in 1944) and was famous for its dancing chicken that appeared in the movie Falling in Love (1984). The Fair was also used in a music video by Ol’ dirty bastard. The Lost Arcade shows owner Sam Palmer who kept the place open for seven days a week. After rising rents he decided to close it much to the dismay of fans who travel from throughout the city to play there.

The Lost Arcade

One of the most fascinating figures in this scene is an African-American man who calls himself Akuma Hokuru. After he was placed in a unloving foster home as a kid, he ran away and ended up in the streets. The arcades became a place he could hang out, find coins, and meanwhile perfect his playing skills. As a regular of the China Town Fair he eventually started working there. 

Another fascinating figure is Chinese American Henry Cen who also has fond memories of the Fair. From the warmth the machines give to their flashing screens. They are not alone as a whole subculture comes to the Fair to hang out. Vincent lovingly captures this atmosphere that feeds on competition but also mutual respect. As a subculture it is also surprisingly mixed. Racial and class divides being less important than the mutual love of video games.

As CTF disappears, Cen tries to recapture the magic with his own arcade. Something that requires a lot of hard work as getting parts for the machines is difficult. Meanwhile a new owner tries to revive the CTF. His attempt seems to backfire at first as his arcade seems to be aimed more at children. The arcade kids don’t buy it. But slowly a new crowd comes for the dancing games.

These two attempts make one think about the nostalgia and authenticity in the city. The old lure had its own specific flavour to the people who felt it. How can one recreate that? Or is that feeling gone forever? Of course it is this real and artificial image of a street or neighbourhood that seems to be at the heart of gentrification. That contradictory desire for a raw old city but also one that offers all the conveniences of modern life.

The Lost Arcade shows the tension as Cen and the new owner of CTF talk to each other. Cen and Akuma seem to be disappointed at what he has done with the arcade. Cashing in on a trend but not really getting the feel of the place. It perfectly shows how entrepreneurs try to use the allure of a certain subculture as bait even though nobody is having it.

But what the movie also shows is that there will always be a drive to connect. As a writer for the gaming magazine Kill Screen says: the call to play is too strong to ignore. People want to find their tribe. The city may change around them. Sometimes granting them their wishes sometimes ignoring them until somewhere in some far-off street or neighbourhood something happens. The Lost Arcade is a paean to that urban vitality of subcultures that are driven by the desire to play. That purest of human activities where we feel childlike in wonder and amazement. So let’s game on!

This Essay Framing the City article was published in April 2018