Steering Pac-Man through a maze of ghosts isn’t as appealing to college kids today as it was a generation ago.
The classic title was among 38 video game machines UC Davis auctioned off this month as it closed its arcade for renovations.
For three decades, the Memorial Union Games Center served students who wanted to have fun without alcohol. Students flocked there between classes and before midterms for relief from the crunch of academic life. It was an escape filled with blaring music and neon lights.
But as video games migrated to consoles, laptops and then smartphones, the venerable arcade cabinets fell by the wayside. On a recent Friday before the closure, the arcade was practically deserted.
“Back in the heyday, our students really gravitated toward arcade games,” said John Campbell, executive director of campus recreation and unions at UC Davis. “Just like everything else, the industry has moved on. It’s the changing of an era for sure.”
Many UC Davis students don’t know the entertainment center exists or simply don’t care, according to student manager Jasmine Lee. Convincing them to spend their Saturday night playing air hockey or Street Fighter is nearly impossible.
“No one thinks about us when they want to go out,” Lee said. “It’s so sad.”
The 18- to 20-year-olds studying at UC Davis today came of age when home-based, video game consoles reached peak popularity in the last two decades. The graphics and game selection of consoles exceeded the quality of arcade cabinets, unlike the original game consoles of the 1970s and 1980s. Kids had less of a need to venture out to get their game fix.
“People wanted the convenience of gaming at home,” said Frank Lee, an associate professor of digital media at Drexel University in Philadelphia and founder of the university’s game design program. “You sit down in front of the couch and play for eight hours. Imagine doing that in a public space.”
When the games center reopens in 2017, the arcade cabinets will be replaced by 12 sleek, flat screen televisions hooked up to video game consoles. The bowling alley and pool areas will be updated, and a study lounge added. With the renovations, Campbell believes students will embrace the venue as a destination on campus.
“We can even start hosting video game tournaments,” he said.
At UC Davis, the writing has long been on the wall.
In 2006, the gaming center brought in $210,665 in revenue. Last year, that dropped to $94,404. Arcade video cabinets were once viewed as moneymakers for pizza parlors, restaurants and other small businesses, as they ate up quarters from aspiring young gamers eager to reach the next level.
Mike Antaramian Jr., a state worker who repairs arcade games as a side job, said a popular title like Pac-Man easily generated $500 a week in the 1980s. Today, an owner would be lucky to get $100 annually, he said.
And as arcade cabinets lost their cachet, it didn’t make sense for businesses to keep them around, with electricity and maintenance costs eating up meager profits. It didn’t help that the units frequently broke down.
“A rodent could get inside and start chewing on the wires. It’s warm and cozy in there,” said Antaramian, noting that the machines were also plagued by power failures and screen problems.
Frank Lee, 45, was practically raised on arcade games and remembers fondly the hours he spent duking it out with friends on a bulky, cathode-ray tube screen.
“An arcade sustained itself as a place with options and variety. It was one of the primary sources of entertainment and camaraderie,” Frank Lee said. “Now, these days, people hang out on Facebook.”
California State University, Sacramento, also had a popular arcade of its own, but administrators replaced it with video game consoles in 2007, citing declining usage and technical issues.
“It’s not up to the heyday but there’s good solid usage,” said Sacramento State University Union Director Dean Sorenson, whose employment in the department dates back to 1986.
Arcades are still found in suburban strip malls, miniature golf courses and other entertainment venues. But that market overwhelmingly caters to small children.
Campbell, who has two grandsons, 5 and 7, said he always needs to get quarters ready whenever he visits them. As for why the old machines appeal to his grandchildren, who, like others growing up today have myriad gaming options at home, Campbell offered, “They’re able to sit down and have a steering wheel in front of them and the machine shakes,” he said. “It’s so large and so loud. It really embraces them.”
Arcades also have made a comeback at bars and restaurants as a novelty catering to the 30- and 40-something crowd raised on favorites like Pac-Man and Pong.
The Coin-Op Game Room is coming to downtown Sacramento in May, replacing Marilyn’s on K, a long-standing music venue that closed last year. Coin-Op owner Roy Ledo, 35, described his franchise as a hybrid between a bar and an arcade. He wants to change the behavior of bar-goers.
“Everyone is either staring at the TV or on their phones,” Ledo said of traditional bars and restaurants. “For arcades, it’s impossible not to engage, socialize and have fun.”
Ledo opened the first Coin-Op in San Diego more than a year ago and said the franchise has proved popular with people of all ages.
“You put that quarter in like you were a kid. It’s just like when you were playing back then,” said Ledo, adding that the Sacramento location will have at least 40 arcade cabinets to start.