Play me, I'm Yours".
These were the words printed on 30 pianos left in public places throughout London last month. The instruments had been rescued by Luke Gerram, who pulled them from their purgatory of skips and recycling centres, to grant each a new lease of life in his ambitious interactive art project.
Secured to the ground with metal cables and shrouded in plastic to shrug off the capital's summer showers, the pianos acted as a focal point, drawing Londoners to share music and performance in community with one another.
Over the month that the project ran, beginners and experts alike sat down to play, the performances as varied as their players' musical tastes and abilities. From Chopsticks to Chopin's Waltz in E Minor (see below) the point of the project wasn't so much the quality of the recitals as their breadth; spectators were able to enjoy seasoned experts showboating complex pieces just as keenly as the beginners beaming at the chance to have a go in front of an friendly audience.
It's a wonderful story (and you can catch more details in this New York Times piece). And it articulates clearly that which I love about videogame arcades.
Arcades are videogaming's' public installations, a shared focal point for performance, drama and wonder in front of an impromptu assembled audience. Today videogame arcades are dismissed by most as relics of a bygone era, a pastime that has little relevance to gaming's contemporary landscape. And yes, in a sense that's true. Once we looked to videogame arcades for a glimpse into the gaming's potential. Their value, for many, was in providing a road map to interactive technology's future, a tourism promo for the destinations to which console and PC gaming would arrive in a few years time.
But as console manufacturers closed that technological gap, it grew more difficult to draw players from the comfort of their homes to play games only slightly better-looking than those we already owned. So then the primary purpose of arcades become one of spectacle, cabinets introducing bombastic hydraulics to fling their players around, or presenting peripherals on a scale that made replication in the home an impossibility. But as so many dance mats, plastic guitars and maracas testify, the uniqueness of arcades in this regard was short-lived. Today arcades gather dust, the industry that fathered videogames now poor, homeless and all but forgotten by young gamers.
But the real tragedy is that arcades became primarily about technical prowess and eccentric hardware. This was never their core strength. Rather, their enduring power and appeal lies in their ability to bring a crowd together to watch a gaming performance.
Margaret Robertson writes of how music, not film, is the most relevant reference point for games. Videogame designers, she argues, like composers, create an experience that is lifeless until a performer picks it up. Games and music both allow their performers to interpret the experience that the creator devised, adding personal inflections and character to make the piece their own.
The best arcade games encourage crowds to gather and watch a player perform the game. Sometimes the crowd watches because, like seeing a beginner play Chopsticks at a publicly-stationed piano, so the man butchering Dance Dance Revolution counters his hopelessness with endearing committal and a winning smile.
But sometimes the crowd watches because the performance is beautiful, exciting, mesmerising or life-affirming (those hyperlinks representing my own personal favourite tales of watching games as performance).
Just as a perceptive listener can tell a great deal about a musical performer's character, training, dedication and sensibilities from the way in which they perform a piece, so a perceptive gamer can tell a great many similar things about the men competing at Street Fighter. And Street Fighter, like Dance Dance Revolution, or Raiden 3 or any other game that allows the performer the chance to exhibit flair, technique and character, is a game best played in public. Here the stakes are raised and the narrative becomes a communal one; the resulting stories are unforgettable.
This is why arcades are still important, still relevant and still the most compelling way in which to watch and play videogames. Someone needs to take a stencil and a spray-can to every arcade cabinet they can find and write "Play me, I'm Yours" on its side, lest we forget how to perform.
Republished with permission from Chewing Pixels.
Simon Parkin's career in games journalism began in 2002 writing for British games bible, Edge Magazine. Over the past 8 years he's continued to write for the magazine as well as a wide variety of British and American publications including Offworld, Gamasutra and Eurogamer, where he now does the majority of his work writing thoughtful reviews, interviews and features. In 2009 he was nominated as Best Writer in the British Game Media awards. His bylined writing is collected on the popular gaming blog, www.chewingpixels.com.