Gaming & Technology

All but dead in the United States, game centers have woven themselves into Asian nation's culture

The death of the video game arcade has not, alas, been exaggerated.

For gamers older than 30, memories of plugging endless quarters into Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat and After Burner cabinets are just that: memories. In most of the world, arcades with stand-up cabinets and pinball machines have been replaced by high-powered home consoles.

In Japan, though, the arcade survives and even thrives.

That's the topic of a new book by Brian Ashcraft, who now lives in Osaka, writing about video games and technology for the gaming blog Kotaku, Wired magazine and other outlets.

He has written perhaps the first coffee table book for gamers: Arcade Mania: The Turbo-Charged World of Japan's Game Centers.

The slender, colorful volume is breezy and enthusiastic, peppered with photos and screen shots and historical sidebars, obviously the work of both a hard-core gamer and a dedicated researcher. Each chapter of Arcade Mania chronicles a different arcade genre, including fighting games, virtual mah-jongg, photo sticker booths (“an analog Facebook” for Japanese girls), shooters and more.

Ashcraft spoke about the book via e-mail. Here are some excerpts:

Question: What inspired you to write Arcade Mania?

Answer: As someone who mourns the decline of arcades in America, coming to Japan was like being in arcade heaven. Heck, it is arcade heaven.

In big cities like Osaka or Tokyo, arcades are found near large train stations. So it's very easy and convenient for Japanese folks to go to arcades, or game centers as they're called in Japanese. Arcades are very much integrated into the Japanese urban landscape.

And even if you are not interested in going head-to-head against another player, there is the spectacle aspect where players practice a game like, say, Dance Dance Revolution and go to the arcade to, in a sense, display their skills. Some players often practice in their neighborhood game center and get amazingly good before daring to play and show off at famous arcades in Tokyo.

Q: Was it tough to get inside the culture of Japanese arcades?

A: Japanese arcades are, in a way, an extension of Japanese society. Inside them, you'll find all sorts of people, from businessmen to schoolgirls and everything in between. … Japanese manners extend into arcades. Things that are considered polite and respectful in Japanese society at large carry over into arcades. It's a matter of being aware of social norms and then examining them in an arcade setting.

So, for example, if you go to a bookstore and buy a book, the book is wrapped in a brown book cover so you can discreetly read it on the train or wherever. That's the same logic behind the unspoken rule that you do not look over the arcade cabinet to see your out-of-view competitor on the other side.

Gamers are gamers. I wanted to examine those differences and hopefully point out the commonalities.