Nicholas Mainieri | Longreads | August 2018 | 25 minutes (6,273 words)
A tall man — mustard-yellow face paint, blackened eyes, Slurpee-blue mohawk, ripped denim, fingerless leather gloves, baseball bat on his shoulder — stalks past. He’s what they call a juvieganger, one of the cyberpunks who haunt the nearest interdimensional video arcade. He sneers: “Everyone’s looking around like it’s not 2038 or whatever.” Twelve-foot-tall columnar lamps emanate soft neon blues, pinks, and purples throughout the room. The dark walls bear bright geometric decals that look like 1980s fever visions of space-station Rubik’s cubes. On a row of LCD screens, space fighters zig and zag through cascades of extraterrestrial insects. Music pulses in the air, hypnotic beats threaded with the repurposed tones of old Commodore 64 games. An overwhelmed fighter explodes with a pixelated starburst. We groan, but enemies keep coming. The juvieganger guffaws, then prods a spectator: “You got any quarters, man?”
It’s 2018, and I’m in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the World Championship of Galaga, the 37-year-old arcade game whose anchor sunk deep into the cultural eddies of arcades, bowling lanes, pizza parlors, dive bars, and — at one time — fried-chicken joints, supermarkets, drugstores, and laundromats. In Galaga, a player’s control of the avatar is restricted to lateral movements along the screen’s bottom border. The gameplay itself bears the player irrevocably forward across a universe of multicolored stars. The triangular space fighter, red accents on its white wings, faces squadrons of Galagas. The Galagas are mostly space bugs: bees, butterflies or moths, dragonflies, scorpions, and cicadas (perhaps), but also, on several mildly perplexing stages, things that look like the Starship Enterprise. Dodge their missiles and kamikaze dives, mash the fire button. Once nothing remains but the austere depths of flickering space, advance.
The championship is the main event of the inaugural ScoreWars, an event organized by the arts collective Meow Wolf. It is held in a redesigned wing of their New Mexico headquarters, alongside the collective’s immersive, otherworldly exhibit, “The House of Eternal Return.” Beyond the row of ten Galaga machines hooked up to monitors, the arcade room features dozens of other classics tuned to free play for spectators, as well as a roped-off section of games including Track & Field, Ms. Pac-Man, Centipede, Robotron, and Nibbler, where well-known players will attempt to break their own high scores. ScoreWars, mindful of aesthetics and propelled by a reverence for the past, strikes a different tone than the contemporary competitions of big-business eSports. There’s something here that, even with the underlying finances, cuts more directly to the heart of what it means to play a game with one’s friends.
Music pulses in the air, hypnotic beats threaded with the repurposed tones of old Commodore 64 games. An overwhelmed fighter explodes with a pixelated starburst. We groan, but enemies keep coming.
Mark Schult, a friendly Hoosier and IT technician, is one of 10 pro-level qualifiers for the championship, where the winner will receive $10,000. Mark wears close-cropped brown hair. There are laugh lines at the corners of his mouth and blue eyes. His cheerful disposition brings the word “Midwestern” to mind. He loves the film WarGames. “A great technology movie,” he says, with bonus points for the scene in which Matthew Broderick plays Galaga. Mark and I work together back in Indiana, at the University of Notre Dame, where he supports the technology in my department. I didn’t know Mark that well yet when, one February morning this year, I overheard him recall eating a corn dog at the mall and listening to the electronic sounds from the arcade’s shadowed entrance like 8-bit sirens in a cave. It slung me back to the fifth grade, the corner of Skate U.S.A., and the frenetic theme of the Street Fighter II cabinet. Read more…