How I Found Myself Working In Arcade Gaming Hell

I love arcades. I wrote a book about them. But there was a time that I hated them. Well, not all arcades, just one in particular.

I’ve been in Japan a long time now, pretty much all of my adult life. When I first arrived, I didn’t have a job for a few months. This was the turn of the century, and a great time to be in Japan. I started working, doing odd jobs like working in a bar and as a photographer’s assistant. And like many foreigners in Japan, I taught English. But I did it in an arcade.

This was way back before I started writing full-time for money, back before I started staying home all day never to venture out, back before there was even a Kotaku. At that time, I was assigned to go to various places, and I actually didn’t mind the teaching bit at all. Actually, I found it somewhat relaxing and enjoyable. It was nice meeting people who wanted to learn my language and were willing to impart knowledge about their own culture.

Teaching English is fine, I reckon. But teaching English in an arcade sucked. And sucked bad. Everyone has one job they’d never want to do again. For me, that would be teaching at a game centre.

When people hear the words “game centre” or “arcade” mentioned in the same breath as “Japan”, they probably imagine a flickering wonderland that will allow them to play Rumble Fish and Ikaruga until their heart’s content. This arcade was not that sort of arcade. For one, it was in Nara, the country’s ancient capital. Nara is a nice place to visit, but not an enjoyable commute – especially not when you’re goal is an arcade located in an Ito Yokado shopping centre, overrun with tacky crane games, Anpanman attractions, old sticker picture machines and gutted pachi-slot machines. It was arcade hell.

One of the reasons why it was so damn awful was there was nothing to play. Literally. So whenever I had a “break”, I was stuck in this gaming wasteland. There was nothing, literally nothing. The game centre had the promise of arcade games, but that promise was empty. It was like buying a big bag of potato chips, only to find it’s filled completely with air.

My breaks were spent in the employee cafeteria – a dismal, dismal place – reading books, drinking absurd amounts of Calpis or smoking American cigarettes.

The other reason it sucked was that unlike an actual place of business or school where languages can be taught, I was simply the foreign dude in the shopping mall.

“Can’t you sing or dance?” one of the arcade managers asked me. Not really, no. “Well, try using bigger gestures and more exaggerated reactions.” Half the time, I was expecting people to toss marshmallows at me.

Parents, usually fathers or grandparents, would bring their children to the arcade to kill time while their mothers were shopping. For a mere ¥500 ($6), they could learn English for 30 minutes. What a waste! The environment is not conducive to gaming, let alone learning. And the thirty minutes would just drag on and on. Either the children wanted to, you know, go climb on an Anpanman ride, were afraid of me or simply too young. Every time, the kids were different, making it impossible to build up a rapport.

“Can your daughter speak Japanese?” I asked one parent of a one-year-old. Not really, was the reply. So English is probably going to be a little difficult, no?

But in a way, I was no different than the Anpanman merry-go-round. There was a bit of a let’s-go-meet-a-foreign element, but also, I think there was a genuine desire on the part of the parents and grandparents to expose their young ones to English and Westerners – both of which were commendable. And while the setup was awkward and horrible, one thing I could never ever get my head around was why the hell the arcade didn’t have decent games.

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