Most big budget video games give you a bloated, moribund kind of experience—they cost you a bundle, and you play them alone. The relationship between value and enjoyment has gone all askew as major studios attempt to trap players for hundreds of hours in seemingly never-ending digital deserts of ur-content.
The Toronto-made SpriteBox, a DIY "cocktail style" arcade cabinet (the screen is horizontal and both players sit across from each other) embodies the exact opposite ethos. It only plays locally made indie multiplayer games, and it doesn't want your money. What it will accept in its specially-modified receptacle are your trinkets, personal notes, and even your garbage. You can also decide to throw nothing in but air, and it'll still work. It's the ultimate name-your-price model.
The SpriteBox is currently set up at the Electric Perfume gallery space in Toronto for a DIY arcade exhibit called Curious Cabinets, organized by Electric Perfume, SpriteBox Arcade, and the Hand Eye Society non-profit. There, SpriteBox creator Nik Stewart told me that the idea is to, first, get some homegrown indie games out in public, and then to get players to think about their own sense of value in terms of what entertainment is "worth" to them.
"I hope I get some garbage," Stewart said. If a player feeds their junk into the coin slot, he said, it means they "engaged with it and made a choice, and decided to make a statement."
I got to look inside the box and see what players have opted to throw down the chute as payment. There was a white marble painted to look like a glass eye (god, I really hope it wasn't actually a glass eye), an ornate doodle on a piece of paper that said "seven dollars," a dinosaur statuette, and other sundry items.
For my part, I threw in an old points card for an arcade in a suburban mall that had a really good food court—guess I won't be using that again. It was a small price to pay, however, for getting to play the superbly fun Blobber Basher, an alien soccer game where the ball is alive and gets pissed off if you kick it around too much. Creators Miguel Sternberg and Alina Sechkin told me the game took just about five days of work, but hell, it only cost me an old piece of plastic to play.
I'll be the first to admit that I can be a real sucker for blockbuster games that require me to spend hours locked away from my friends and loved ones. But the SpriteBox reminded me that games can be precious labours of love, and sometimes, even priceless.
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Update: The piece has been updated to reflect that Electric Perfume and SpriteBox Arcade were co-organizers of the event.