In a busy arcade, it's not uncommon to be so close to another player in the row of video games or pinball machines that you bump elbows with your neighbor—at least, until one of you accepts defeat and moves along to a different console or needs to re-up from the token machine. In a society that has become so virtual, where more and more entertainment exists in the "cloud," arcades are exciting in their physicality. You press the buttons of Mortal Kombat, move the joystick of Ms. Pac-Man, and thwack the flippers on Twilight Zone; you play with your friends in person—and that's the appeal.
In 2013, the writer Laura June concluded in the Verge, "Everyone seems to agree on one thing: the arcade is dead, and most people are okay with that." The economics didn't make sense, the community support was gone, and gaming companies had found success in home markets, June wrote. Despite that, the popularity of nostalgia-driven arcade bars like Barcade, which has eight locations across the country, and LA's Button Mash rose in the latter part of the decade. Though they came close to graduating from niche status to mainstream, the arcade industry is now reeling from the effects of the pandemic.
Like all small businesses dealing with forced closures, arcade owners have major concerns about cash flow, layoffs, and how long their businesses can feasibly continue. The physical nature of the industry provides additional worry and complications, as the novel coronavirus thrives in tight spaces and high-contact surfaces. It's not clear yet what the post-pandemic arcade will look like in America, but rest assured that at least for a while, it will be different.
Before arcades can reopen, they have to figure out how to stay in business. "Our income trickled to zero," Paul Kermizian, CEO and co-founder of Barcade, told VICE. On March 16, Barcade—which he and his business partners started in Brooklyn in 2004—closed all of its locations. They furloughed about 90 percent of Barcade's staff, and with a portion of their money coming from deposits for since-canceled events, "not only did it go to zero, it went in reverse," Kermizian added.
Given the heavily hit cities where Barcade is located, like New York and Jersey City, Kermizian doesn't think its locations will be allowed to re-open soon, so for now, his focus is on building Barcade's takeout and delivery operations and to-go beer sales. Because the chain's operators can't pay the exorbitant fees of delivery apps, they're handling it all in-house. "It's not much business, but it's getting some of our employees back to work," Kermizian said. Unlike many small businesses, Barcade has successfully received support from the government's Paycheck Protection Program, which offers forgivable loans so businesses can pay their employees during the pandemic.
Pivoting an arcade to only serve food has its limits, though. "The pandemic has obviously had a profound effect on every facet of Button Mash," Gabe Fowlkes, co-owner of the Los Angeles-based restaurant, bar, and arcade, told VICE in an email. Having closed before California's stay-at-home order, Button Mash offered takeout and delivery for a few weeks before shutting down completely. Currently, it has re-opened for weekend-only meals.
"However, the bottom line is that unless you are a pizza place or other restaurant whose business was already majority-focused on delivery, the numbers during the quarantine (or slow re-open) just don't add up," Fowlkes said. "The square footage of a dine-in restaurant, especially one with a vintage arcade inside of it, requires a monthly rent and related fixed costs that is incredibly difficult, if not impossible to be met by delivery/take-out business only. Or by being held to 25 percent or 50 percent capacity."
Though Button Mash received a PPP loan, Fowlkes told VICE, it's "being advised not to use any of it yet" because of the loan's "incredibly murky and up-in-the-air rules." As the New York Times reported, the terms of these loans put businesses in a tough spot since loan forgiveness requires re-hiring employees immediately and paying them for two months, despite continued closures and the fact that unemployment pays more than many restaurant jobs. "The program, due to being a loan and the 75-percent payroll requirement, is not the help small businesses that have been shut down need, as the past-due bills continue to mount," Fowlkes said.
In Portland, Oregon, one arcade has taken a lucky gamble on the home gaming market. On the ominous day of Friday, March 13, Quarter World Arcade temporarily closed its doors. Aside from its flagship four-year-old arcade, Quarter World has supplied games to bars and restaurants across the city since 1996. Having amassed a large collection, Quarter World made the business-saving decision of renting its games that Monday, the same day Governor Kate Brown ordered restaurants and bars to close.
"We decided to pivot our entire business model and begin renting to the home market, which pretty much saved our tuchus," Logan Bowden, director of operations, told VICE. Quarter World has since sent more than 130 games to at least 120 people for monthly rentals, a success Bowden attributed to a run of press coverage. Quarter World has also received some government aid, but Bowden said, "It was a whole month of just watching the bank accounts get smaller and smaller, and because of our home rental market, that's what bridged us."
Once arcades are given the go-ahead to reopen, business owners will have to approach a new, multi-headed problem: reenvisioning the arcade for a post-pandemic world, while also preparing for a potential change in customers' mindsets. Now that we're cautioned to stay at least six feet away from anyone outside our households, will people still want to play games together in public?
"I don't know what projections to make," Kermizian said. "Games are actually a big part of our revenue. I have to see what the climate is—if people will want to come in and interact physically with video games and pinball machines."
Patty Barber, general manager of Silverball Museum Arcade in Asbury Park, New Jersey, is betting they will. "I think—and so do the owners—that in times of the economy being on a downward spiral and people [feeling] scared and traumatized, they will look for entertainment, and we'll still want to offer that to them," she told VICE.
Though Silverball closed in mid-March, now offering only take-out pizza, Barber sees continued interest in the arcade. On recent warm days, she said, Asbury's beach has still been packed with people who want to get outside. "You might not want to fly to somewhere, you might not want to take a cruise, but you probably will come to the Jersey Shore and I can tell you that even yesterday, and every day that I've had this cafe open, people pull on the back door to go into the games and then ask me, stunned, that they're not open."
In the face of uncertainty, arcade owners are thinking about how to change spaces to make people feel more comfortable.
"The way I always tell people is that we're not a bar that has games in it: We're an arcade that has a bar, and the thing about arcades is it's such a hands-on environment," Bowden said. "That's what we're focused on right now—how are we going to provide a safe place for people to come and enjoy an arcade? Because you're not going to have fun if, the whole time, the fear monster's on your back."
Whenever the time comes, Bowden has a provisional plan of how Quarter World will reopen, focused on making people feel safer in the space. The arcade's capacity (currently around 600) will be reduced to whatever the government mandates, and the staff plans to take temperature readings before guests are allowed in. To increase space between players, they'll remove about 50 percent of all games and separate them with tables. Aside from the pre-existing hand sanitizer stations on the walls, they'll increase the amount of cleaning and add disinfecting wipes. "It's almost like a gym ethic: you finish with the machine, you wipe it down," he said.
According to Zach Sharpe, director of marketing at game-maker Stern Pinball, "Social distancing, frequent sanitizing of games and locations, the availability of hand sanitizer, masks, [and] plexiglass dividers will all likely become the new normal in arcades and family entertainment centers." With commercial business slowed due to the pandemic, Stern is now designing and producing "health-oriented pinball accessories such as Stern-branded face masks, plexiglass game dividers, and stands for hand sanitizer."
While Fowlkes is confident in Button Mash's cleanliness and plans to employ any new safety standards, he isn't sure that drastically changing the format of the arcade is the ultimate solution. "I don't plan on removing machines from the arcade. It's an arcade. If arcades are the issue, then we will close. We will continue to clean our games and practice proper sanitization, but will try to steer clear of 'safety theater' like removing every other game," he said. "If that was the case, would we also be taping off the player 2 side of Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat? Removing one of the guns from Time Crisis 2 or one of the steering wheels from Daytona USA? I don't believe that is the answer."
As California moves forward with its reopening plan, Fowlkes said that Button Mash will begin to reopen "when the State and local government give the go-ahead, if the initial restrictions they place on businesses does not make reopening untenable."
In states like Georgia, where restaurants are now legally allowed to reopen, this is the current quandary. New mandates on capacity are striking another blow to already-struggling businesses because with their occupancy halved, for example, rehiring a full team of full-time workers doesn't add up and could be the final nail in the coffin for many small businesses, as Eater has reported.
But with the global circumstances shifting each day, arcade owners are taking it one day at a time. Every day, for Bowden, is a hustle, as he tries to keep up with what's changing across the country.
"I think there's going to be some arcades and some businesses out there that are sort of arcade-esque that aren't gonna make it," he said. "But I mean, then again, you see people open up the beaches for one day, and it's like spring break out there. Maybe it'll be just like that—it's hard to tell. All we can do now is speculate."
Follow Bettina Makalintal on Twitter.