My favorite Sunday activity is gorging on soup dumplings and then burning them off through a couple of rounds of Dance Dance Revolution at the Chinatown Fair arcade. But when I went to meet Kurt Vincent there last Friday, he was playing a game that I had never seen before––the eighth iteration of the popular game Initial D, which is based on a Japanese manga about illegal racing. His face was mangled with total concentration as he steered his Toyota Sprinter Trueno, and it took him several minutes to notice I had arrived despite the place being practically empty.
Vincent has spent a lot of time at the Manhattan gamer haven, although actually sitting down at one of the cabinets was a rare indulgence for him. The 33-year-old directed The Lost Arcade, a documentary about CF that just finished a run at Manhattan's trendy new cinema, Metrograph. Out of gratitude, the arcade's owner gifted Vincent a bunch of free credits, so he swiped me in to play alongside him. Over a couple of matches, he told me about a recent experience he'd had at the Fair on Chinese New Year.
"Some guy destroyed me at Initial D and then afterward introduced himself by handing me this card that you can buy to save your character on," he said. "He basically introduced me to his community. It was like the fuckin' theme in the movie just playing itself out, and I was just smiling because I knew the spirit of this place was still alive."
Chinatown Fair opened in the 40s as a sort of tourist trap––the kind of place with a schlocky museum in the back and a dancing chicken as entertainment. It became a proper arcade in the 80s after the Space Invaders boom, although during that decade it lived in the shadow of more up-to-date places in Times Square. But when Rudy Giuliani cleaned up Midtown under his mayorship, many of the arcades there floundered due to skyrocketing rent, which left a niche for the relatively out-of-the-way spot in lower Manhattan to fill. A second boom during the early aughts came with the release of Dance Dance Revolution, which kept CF afloat long after console ownership became standard.
Vincent himself was not allowed to own a console as a kid growing up in Columbus, Ohio, and has always thought of video games as a sort of forbidden fruit. He first ended up at Chinatown Fair on a Friday evening after trying to go to a bar, realizing he had left his ID at home and racking his brain for an all-ages hangout. His most recent work to that point was a film about a group of misfits in Cleveland who love to surf on a lake. During his night at at the arcade, Vincent realized he'd happened upon an equally interesting subculture made up of rhythm gamers, shooters, racers, and fighters.
"I'm not a gamer, so it wasn't the games that drew me to the story," he told me. "It was this community that was so authentic and real. I wanted to answer how a place like that existed, because it didn't really make sense."
Unfortunately, Vincent's instincts were correct. About a month after his experience at Chinatown Fair, he read an article saying it was due to close in a week. So beginning in February of 2011, he started documenting a way of life on the brink of extinction. After the establishment went under, he gathered interviews with former owner Sam Palmer and the gamers who had come to call his business home.
Akuma Hokura was one of them. He ran away from an abusive foster home and eventually started sleeping on a couch at a Times Square arcade called Playland. When that closed, he became a regular at CF and eventually started working there. Even when he wasn't on the job, he clocked hours against some of the best fighting-gamers in the country.
When Lonnie Sobel reopened the place in May 2012 as a family-fun center, it provided a second story arc for the film. Vincent captured Hokura reluctantly checking out the new iteration of his favorite haunt for the first time and documented the devastation Hokura clearly felt at seeing his beloved fighting games replaced with machines that would be more at home in a Chuck E. Cheese.
"I was shocked by how purely emotional it was for him," Vincent told me. "I've thought a lot about why the guys were opposed to to the new arcade, and I think it would be like going back home to see your old hang-out spot filled with a completely new group of people claiming it as their own."
Since then, Sobel has gone a long way to try to bring back hardcore gamers. For instance, on that recent Friday we visited, the Initial D machine we were playing on was decorated with a sign saying, "Look What's New." As the day shifted from afternoon to evening, a coterie of rhythm gamers gathered to take turns on Dance Dance Revolution, In the Groove, and Pump It Up––a group of machines that Vincent says comprises the real heart of the new Chinatown Fair. As he describes it, they're the main draw now, as well as the reason that the arcade has become a much more welcoming space.
"The fighting gamers broke off to go to Next Level in Sunset Park, but the rhythm gaming community is thriving," Vincent said. "It does seem to attract a lot of gay players and the new community at Chinatown Fair is way more female dominated––it's almost 50-50."
He thinks that CF is on the rebound but worries that if it shuts down again, there will be nowhere else for misfit kids without soccer practice or piano lessons to congregate. There's a seasonal arcade down in Coney Island, sure, and the Dave and Buster's in Midtown, although that's hardly the same kind of place.
"That's what I find so powerful about the arcade," he said. "It's this great social lubricant and community center. When the arcades in Times Square closed, people saw it as a plus, because they thought teenagers congregating was a bad thing. Adults have always misunderstood teenagers and the social power that good video games have."
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