Where Are Our Spaces for Public Play?
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Where Are Our Spaces for Public Play?

Why Toronto sorely needs an arcade revival.

Funland Arcade’s last day of operation, 2008. Photo by Jacob Rens, from the Torontoist Flickr pool.

In the summer of 2008, Funland Arcade, arguably the last proper arcade in downtown Toronto, closed down. The writing had been on the wall for a while: arcades were past their heyday, usurped by home machines—consoles that looked and played as well as or better than the games arcades offered. Once, arcade machines were readily found in restaurants, hotels, and convenience stores, but they had all but disappeared. Funland’s location near the Eaton Centre was enviable, and it shuttered to make way for an Ardene store.

The rise and fall of arcades was swift, and happened within four decades. In a way, this was inevitable. Arcade machines were expensive, and in order to provide a meaningful return on investment for their buyers, the games were designed for short play experiences in order to vacuum up quarters. It was no accident that you always lost in the height of the action—and had to instinctively jam in another quarter to keep the adrenaline going.

Console games became competitive in quality, and offered not just high-end experiences, but also the comforts of home. And with the introduction of online play and peripherals that gave an arcade feeling—think of the instruments in Rock Band or the unique Wii controller—spending a day getting tokens from a guy in an apron seemed less charming.

Even before Funland closed, I hadn’t stepped into an arcade for years. I didn’t think I would miss them, but with Gamercamp, the games festival I cofounded in 2009, ending this year, I began to reflect on what we’ve lost with the end of arcades. I remembered as an adolescent holding a pile of tokens and moving from game to game, excited that each offered an opportunity to be transported into a new world. Inevitably, there’d be a few games I would grow to love, and I’d feed in token after token in an attempt to master them.

Tweetris is demonstrated for attendees at a past edition of Gamercamp

Tweetris is demonstrated for attendees at a past edition of Gamercamp.

It boggles my mind that kids nowadays have rarely played games in public spaces, or with complete strangers. Non-sports play has become marginalized, limited to the home or the solitary worlds of smartphones and tablets. But public spaces for play are important, because they are an open and accessible way to introduce and foster playfulness.

What is play? Play is rooted in make-believe and experimentation. It’s a chance to momentarily ignore societal rules and to create new ones. Through play, we hone our ability to fail safely, learn from our experiences, and push ourselves out of our comfort zones. Play guides us to not think of life so literally, so concretely.

On a recent trip to Montreal, I chanced upon 21 Swings, an installation involving swings that light up and emit musical tones when used. I rarely go on a swing, but these seemed too special to pass up. As I swung, creating chimes, I became carried away in the moment. Others around the swings smiled—even those who were just walking by. Play serves a vital function in cities, providing breathing room for one’s imagination and counteracting pessimism.

If you take the subway, you may have noticed a new ad campaign asking riders to “rediscover the stairs,” as if exhausted commuters had somehow forgotten the joys of climbing steps. Why not instead take a page out of Sweden’s playbook? There, stairs were converted into a piano keyboard, and each step sounds a note. Two-thirds of people opted for the steps when, normally, they would have taken the escalator. That is the power of play.

I look downtown and get worried when I think of places such as the Ballroom or Spin—play spaces that have been gussied up for the King Street crowd. They are legitimate play spaces but so exorbitantly priced that play is framed as a luxury. At least we’ve seen a recent explosion of board game cafés, which remind us that we can play board games at home, but that there is value in being around others enjoying the same activity. In some ways, they are the new arcade.

Snakes & Lattes. Photo by CRUSTINA!, from the Torontoist Flickr pool.

Escape Room games have also sprouted up around Toronto, and it will be interesting to see if they turn out to be more than a fad. And, for all the snark about its crowds and their drunkenness, Nuit Blanche transforms the streets and invites people into playful experiences. It’s telling that TIFF presented two games—including Ubisoft Toronto’s Go, Poser, Go—both of which drew respectable audiences.

There are a variety of ways to build play into a city, and I hope to see an arcade revival. True, the arcade sorely needs to be reinvented: perhaps, like board game cafés, they should allow for a wide variety of games, but add a cover charge? Get Well on Dundas Street West has old machines running for free, but imagine the power of exposing Torontonians to something new.

I am optimistic that if any city can crack the code, it will be Toronto, one of the strongest cities in the world for game development, having created works that are respected and played around the world. For instance, Kan Gao’s To The Moon won an award for Best Story in 2011 from Gamespot.com. His next game, A Bird Story, comes out in November. Capy Games just released the arcade-influenced Super Time Force and will next release Below, Kotaku’s “most anticipated game for Xbox One.” Metanet, which helped kickstart Toronto’s indie games scene in 2008, will release the conclusion of its N trilogy, N++, in 2015.

Why not place these games in cabinets and spread them across the city (like those awkward decorative moose, but way cooler), in a manner akin to what the community organization Hand Eye Society did with its Torontron machines?

Gamercamp attempted to fill our giant play gap, bringing games—and the talent behind them—to the public in an accessible way. Last year, we converted Queen West’s Hotel Ocho into a giant Pop-Up Arcade (something we’ll do again this year) in an attempt to recover some of the joy that comes with exploring a sea of games and discovering new favourites. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the experience, it’s that you have to demand and create the spaces you want to see. You have to try, even if you know they can’t last forever.

Our arcade’s doors may be closing after this coming Sunday, but something makes me feel as if a replacement could be on the horizon. After all, Gamercamp arose just a year after Funland closed.