Giving Up Gaming's Ghost

In Brookfield, IL, just a block away from Brixie's Bar & Grill, there is a national treasure of nostalgia: Galloping Ghost Arcade. In the United States, aside from game rooms at hotels, pizza joints, and the occasional Chuck E. Cheese, the traditional arcade is all but dead. Galloping Ghost is a beacon of light among the ruins.

If you played video games on a cabinet during the '80s, chances are Galloping Ghost has one of your favorites. And for $15 at the door, you can play all day long. No quarters required. Until a few weeks ago, Galloping Ghost was, to me, only an idea. A tribute to another time and place in pop culture, off in the distance. Last Saturday, however, that changed, when  I finally made the 45 minute drive out to Brookfield and stepped into what was once the high watermark for a teen's entertainment in America. It was great.

On the way home that night, though, I couldn't shake a creeping sense of longing, almost emptiness, and I couldn't figure out why. Despite the slow, steady decline of the arcade, Galloping Ghost really does successfully emulate an '80s setup in all its run-down glory, while at the same time offering the modern day freedom to play any game as much as you want for as long as you want. It has virtually every retro game you could imagine, and some you probably never even knew existed. The spot is not a cutting edge gamer haven. It is a nostalgia factory. Unfortunately, despite those fleeting moments in Brookfield, I'll never be able to go back and fully enjoy the arcade era. And it's all because of the internet.

Decades ago, if you wanted to play games with friends, you had to crowd around a boxy Gauntlet or Turtles In Time cabinet at the arcade, mashing greasy buttons while strangers looked on, waiting for their turn. The only alternative was a coordinate effort that had everyone arriving at the same house, controllers in hand, to take over the family living room. (I was even lucky enough to have a friend with a 4 controller hub for the NES!) There was camaraderie there, as your group slashed its way through virtual castle corridors or battled enemies through time and space. It was a feeling of togetherness that cannot be duplicated with an online game. 

Gaming enthusiasts who were around back then tend to revere arcade era and the console boom that followed it as something of a golden age. Without the surge in popularity and the technological progress it brought, the gaming industry would not be as advanced as it is today. On the flip side, we also tend to forget the negatives, the growing pains, the problems that came with that kind of attention. I left Galloping Ghost, and didn't want to go back. It's fun to visit, but I don't want to stay.

On last week's episode of The Campfire Project, we discussed the Call Of Duty franchise, and what it means for both gaming and storytelling in general. Incredibly successful, the series has garnered is fair share of criticism since launching as a World War II themed first-person shooter in 2003. It is often seen as gaming's equivalent to the summer blockbuster movie: big and boisterous, it breaks sales records annually though nobody seems willing to admit they enjoyed the experience. 

I take a different approach. Though I don't pick up the new release each year, Call Of Duty installments are a mainstay in the rotation of what my gaming friends and I like to call our "Christmas Tree Games." A few years ago, one of my regular gaming buddies divulged to me his guilty pleasure for December: turn on his Christmas tree lights, put on his pajama pants, crack open a beer, and play a new video game. Ever since he told me that, each year my brother, and my best friend from childhood, and I zero in on a Christmas Tree game that we can play online together, in our pajamas, next to the tree, while drinking beers. We become kids again (aside from the beer part). While we all live in the Chicago area, we also all have families, crowded calendars, and miles of traffic that separate us. Our digital connections give us options. I have probably communicated more with both of them on Xbox Live or Playstation Network more than I ever have on any phone. And so, Call Of Duty fits our "Christmas Tree Game" tradition perfectly. Exciting action, multiplayer modes, and eye-popping campaigns. Gone are the days of gigantic wooden boxes, clunky joysticks and pixelated screens. Game graphics are fantastic to the point of film quality. These are all things we just didn't have in the '80s. 

I look back on my teenage entertainment fondly. I loved the games, I loved the culture, and I will still pump all the quarters I have in my pocket into a Galaga cabinet any time I see one. But to go back would be to take a step back, away from my family and my new traditions. In the case of my gaming habits, I'm planted firmly in the here and now, and that's where I want to stay.