Video games nowadays often seem to create a confusing, alienating milieu – at least to fogeyish thirty-somethings like me. Players turn on, tune in their wireless headsets, and drop out, sometimes for hours, as their headspace is filled with the sounds of gunfire and fellow gamers hurling insults about each other’s mothers.
While there are still many games that deliver more emotional complexity than your standard shoot-em-up, a spectre of loneliness still hangs over the hobby like a floating mushroom. But two upcoming local projects, each in their own way, are delving into video gaming’s past to break this stereotype for good.
GamePad is a new series of ‘social gaming events’ presented by mayamada – a clothing company that sprinkles its stable of original manga characters onto shirts, hoodies and into comic books.
Co-founder Nigel Twumasi explained the nostalgia that drives their events, and extends to more than the games themselves: “When we were kids, playing video games before the internet arrived, we’d actually have to leave our house and go to a friend’s to play split-screen all together in the same room.”
Split-screen gaming involves all the players crowding around the same television, and while this can still occasionally lead to tears (e.g. me and my sister’s Street Fighter II battles), Twumasi described the experience as “magical”.
“I think when you’re playing in the same room, it roots that gaming experience in reality,” he said. “Yes, I’m playing a game, but I’m also playing with a real person, and I can see them, talk to them and we can interact. It becomes not just a username on a screen, but Sarah or Barry or whoever.”
In the end, the aim is also pure fun, in the grand tradition of Nintendo – who happen to be providing their new console-handheld hybrid, the Switch, for the event, as well as games like 1-2 Switch, Super Bomberman R, and the Wii U’s Super Smash Bros, the fighting game that answers questions like “What would happen if Mario and the Wii Fit Trainer got in a huge ruck?”
Twumasi is using GamePad not only to bed in mayamada’s characters – he envisions “people in mascot suits” one day – but also to encourage community and social cohesion.
“We see that different types of people play games – guys, girls, families with children, people from different ethnic backgrounds. We wanted to bring them together in one room,” he added.
The events, soon to be thrice yearly, are augmented with workshops in schools around Hackney and Tower Hamlets. Pictures from previous GamePad get-togethers show many the smiling face and new friend, and one would expect that to continue when they come to Maker Wharf, near Hackney Road, as part of the London Games Festival Fringe on 8 April.
For those veteran enough to find traversing the social world a little easier, at least when lubricated with industrial amounts of beer, Four Quarters East is a natural hopping-off point on this video game ramble. Four Quarters started when workers at Retro Game Base, the legendary Streatham store, found some fellow lovers of vintage gaming and decided to launch a bar on Rye Lane in Peckham.
Staff member François Kitching, whose love of video games grew in the arcades of Whitley Bay, outlined the difference between the Peckham branch and the new Hackney Wick site at Here East: “It’s more ‘nightclubby’ in style to what East has become. In Peckham we do a lot of fairly raucous events.”
Here East is well known as a digi-destination. Its current ‘digital archaeology’ exhibition 64 Bits explores similarly retro waters, offering people a chance to browse the very first website, try out the first-ever search engine, or create their own digital city. (The show ends on 21 April.)
However, raucous is certainly not the first word that comes to mind when you stumble onto the 1.2 million square foot complex.
“It’s not the same sort of site,” continued Kitching, “where you can do three o’clock in the morning rave-based insanity – it’s not a basement in Peckham. We have to look at it in different ways.”
These different ways build on the relaxing quality of the River Lea lazing by outside, as the focus is moving towards more family-friendly, daytime events – film screenings, Mario Kart tournaments (SNES, N64 and Gamecube editions), and “slightly geeky” jumble sales are on the horizon.
When I proffer the idea that East is where you go on a hungover Sunday after a Saturday at the Peckham location, Kitching says “Exactly!” Although one can continue the boozing with 12 lines of draft beer, many a bottle and can, and a video game-themed cocktail menu. Snacks are available in the afternoons.
The game selection is what fundamentally gets people through the door, as are the little touches like the magazines papering the walls of the bathroom – when I saw pages from the dearly missed N64 magazine I squealed with delight, an auspicious noise to make in a toilet.
When I visited, Four Quarters East had cabinets ranging from the ancient Asteroids to the relatively modern Point Blank 2 and House of the Dead 2 running, as well as tabletop machines, pinball and custom-made console booths containing a PS2, Dreamcast, N64 and more. Machines and games will be swapped out regularly.
In a gaming landscape that Kitching describes as “online and disparate”, both GamePad and Four Quarters East hark back to a time before trolls, Gamergate and other such modern hells.
For the nostalgic and young folks seeking unfamiliar thrills alike: game on.