Bright neon lights, the lively buzz of excitable conversation, the sound of coins clinking down slots–stepping into a barcade, you might think that you’ve travelled back to the ‘80s.
This boozier more adult oriented evolution of the arcade certainly isn’t like those traditional places of worship populated by children in a world before mass produced consoles. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Like the industry that it birthed, arcade gaming continues to evolve and adapt. Instead of kids and teens, here you’ll find 20 and 30-somethings enjoying a beer (or several). As many of the gamers that once populated traditional arcades grow up, barcades can be seen as an entirely natural evolution.
So how did arcades populated by gangly teens mutate into the dapper and trendy drinking holes more common today?
While there are millions of games to play today, there are very few places to mingle with fellow gamers outside of the online environments of modern multiplayer gaming. Entertainment centres have taken the place of old arcades, and many are geared towards family fun or gambling.
Barcades are the answer to that vacuum. “I think what we’re seeing are ex-gamers who are now grown up and opening their own places to combat all the ticket and redemption chains that seem to only focus on families and very young children, ignoring GenXers, millennials, and older GenZ kids,” says Toby Nanakhorn, owner of London-based barcade Las Vegas Arcade.
Video gaming started as a niche hobby, played only by a select demographic, mainly children or young teenagers and mainly male. However, the mass appeal of video games has exploded since those times. Half of gamers in the UK today are female, bucking the old stereotype that games are for teenage boys. Around 46 percent of people who play regularly are older than 40.
The universal appeal of video gaming means it’s not just gamers walking into the doors of barcades. “Video gaming in general is just more popular and when you add alcohol to the mix, people who may not normally come to an arcade – when they know there is drink and food – that gives them that extra reason to go,” says Jessie Baker, owner of Arcade Legacy: Bar Edition.
Arcade games and pubs may seem like a novel combination. However, the two actually have history that traces back to the very beginning of arcade gaming. Computer Space, the very first coin-op video game, was installed for a test run at a bar called the Dutch Goose. Pong first pinged its way into our collective gaming psyche in Andy Capp’s Tavern.
Booze has always been a favourite pastime for people who want to unwind after a long day of work. Barcades offer that, along with a heaping dose of nostalgia for simpler times. Fortuitously, the same generation who played retro games from the ‘80s and ‘90s are also the ones with the most spending power, further enabling the business model of barcades.
The decline of arcade gaming could partially be blamed on newer tech. Although they started out as the most powerful devices on the market, console and home computers quickly caught up. By the 2000s, people rarely had to head out to play games, and video games became a largely solitary activity.
However, the appeal of playing in real life with friends never truly went away. Many barcades today bank on offering a social experience, on top of nostalgia for the good old days. "The idea of opening a bar and arcade came from us seeing how popular the video games were when I would have friends over or [host] parties,” shares Paul Kermizian, the owner of Brooklyn-based Barcade.
Some might dismiss barcades as gimmicky. But these businesses are more than just pubs reskinned with neon lights. Often, barcades are the only places where you can find machines that look like and play as they did three decades ago.
This attracts an odd mix of clientele. Many go to relive childhood memories through one or two rounds of Pacman. Some, like Hank Chien, go in to become champions. Chien, a former high score title holder for Donkey Kong, trained in Kermizian’s Barcade for months.
One powerful aspect of arcade gaming continues to sink its teeth into players today: a simplicity that hides an addictive feedback loop. “Games are so approachable; they’re designed to be easy to understand but difficult to master, so that’s how they suck you in and make you want to play again and again,” says Ground Kontrol owner Jeffrey McEachin.
Paired with bar chow and pints of craft beer, barcades become a gaming paradise. Which, according to a study by Deltic Night Index, patrons will be willing to pay for: UK consumers are willing to spend nearly 15 percent of their budget for a night out on entertainment alone.
Kermizian’s Barcade is often thought of as the place that sparked the barcade trend in 2004; it even bills itself as the “original arcade bar”. It’s been a long 16 years since then, but the industry is still seeing promising growth. Barcades are opening across the UK, proving that these places are no flash-in-the-pan trend.
Naturally, the bustle has been quieted by the current global pandemic. But sustained by the power of nostalgia, alcohol, and community, it’s only a matter of time before these modern day arcades start humming back to life.