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Pinheads and Vidiots 

Walking the floor with the arcade obsessed

Wednesday, Aug 6 2003
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The things that we see

And the lights they reflect

Exist in our minds

As one and the same

Yet a difference much harder

Still to detect

Is whether we're playing

Or part of the game

-- JoyStik, April 1983, unattributed

The September 1982 issue of JoyStik magazine offered an explanation of the hallowed "9th-Key" Pac-Man point-building strategy; an interview with Eugene Jarvis, the mastermind behind Defender, Stargate, and Robotron; and a feature article on the leading conspiracy theory entertained by video-game fanatics at the time -- namely, that the Pentagon (or CIA or FBI) had conspired with Atari to create Missile Command in order to locate and recruit gamesters with impressive scores and innate war-game skills. The publication's introduction, written by Matthew White, concluded with the epic declaration, "You've found JoyStik -- and you'll never be the same again."

I don't entirely doubt Mr. White's sincerity. It was an exciting time. Whether he knew it or not, a digital revolution was in the making. Video games were cool. Arcades were cool. And vid-kids were cooler. High scores drew big crowds and earned the envy of peers and the adoration of girls. The video arcade was a geek-boy paradise. Who could have predicted that the great video game crash of 1983 was just around the corner?

The death of the arcade may have been precipitated by a weak economy, greedy manufacturers, and the mass marketing of the Commodore 64, but most people blame bad games, namely the disastrously expensive Atari 2600 versions of Pac-Man and E.T. Whatever the causes, enthusiasts agree: By 1984, the golden age of arcades was over.

"1983 is my cutoff," says Brett Pulliam, a young, good-looking animator at Pixar who today enjoys rock climbing as much as a high-scoring game of Donkey Kong. "I couldn't put Mortal Kombat next to my Pac-Man. Not that I don't love Mortal Kombat, but I want that classic arcade feel. The older games are cool and nostalgic. They make me feel warm and fuzzy."

If you share Pulliam's cross-sensory affliction, the first floor of his Oakland loft should feel like a large, well-worn flannel pillowcase stuffed with hamsters. Complete with 30 video arcade games (including a four-person cocktail version of Warlords), a change machine, a jukebox stocked with early-'80s hits, a convex security mirror, commercial-grade gray carpet, matte-black walls, and a sign that warns, "Anyone under 18 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian during school hours," Pulliam's home arcade is as close as you can get to the real thing without the smell of 14-year-olds. It's nothing like the initial days after college, when Pulliam shared his one-bedroom flat with a dozen functioning machines.

"Oh yeah, my bed was on the way out," he remembers with a chuckle. "It's a good thing I moved. Now, all that's missing are game tokens with my name on them."

While Pulliam's attention to detail is impressive, his arcade is not the only boyhood fantasy being nurtured and realized in the Bay Area. It is a well-kept secret among Oakland youth that a certain garage opens on warm summer nights to offer free play on half a dozen pinball machines and a few vintage video games. In San Jose, pinball champion Rick Stetta lives with his wife and 13 pinball machines. Not far away, 45-year-old accountant Mark Birsching houses nearly 30 machines. Last year, under the watchful eye of the local arcade game community, lab safety adviser Jonathan Koolpe nearly matched a 20-year record held by Ed Knopp on Venture, one of the 20 full-size cabinet games Koolpe keeps in his Daly City home. And self-proclaimed "vidiot" Carlos Rueda owns none, but not for long.

California Extreme, the West Coast's "Classic Arcade Games Show" held annually in San Jose, is a vidiot's wet dream: two days, 23 hours, 400 games, and not a single quarter in sight.

"The first year I came to play. Both days, all day," says Rueda. "This year I came to buy."


The darkened convention center is packed with gamers of all ages, some of them going on their eighth straight hour of play. As my eyes adjust to the dimness, there is an audible gasp as my housemate vanishes among the rows of blinking, bleeping boxes: Asteroids, Centipede, Dance Dance Revolution, Freeze, Gorf, Gravitar, Joust, Robotron, Sinistar, Tempest, Track and Field, War of the Worlds, Xenophobe -- the list is seemingly endless. Not making it much further than Pong in my youth, I gravitate toward the pinball machines: The Addams Family, Black Knight, Demolition Man, Flash Gordon, Medieval Madness, Mushroom World, Twilight Zone, hundreds of them. I feel my palms start to sweat.

"Looks like you need to buy some of our outstanding crap," says 48-year-old Tim Arnold, paraphrasing the sign at his table eliciting support for the Pinball Hall of Fame to be built in Las Vegas. I peruse the homemade pinball-machine-repair videotapes and the pinball counter that records how much money has been raised thus far -- over $2,000 at this convention and more than $147,500 overall.

"This is great," says Arnold, indicating the games show, "but there has to be a place you can play pinball all the time. And it has to be in Vegas.

"Because hippies love showgirls," concludes the long-haired Arnold with a grin.

As the owner of more than 1,000 pinball machines (a condition he refers to as the "four-digit sickness") and the possessor of the only complete line of Gottlieb games in the world, Arnold is a seriously devoted pinhead. His passion, though, is more than a pastime: He has been an operator, arcade parlance for maintainer/owner of machines, since he was 14.

"I don't think I've gone a day in over 30 years without working on a machine," he says, a fact that makes the next two facts even more shocking: Arnold has been married for 30 years, and he doesn't play pinball.

"I've never played; I've always been an operator," says Arnold. "I wanted to play when I was a kid, but my dad wouldn't let me.

"He said they were evil. He thought they were run by the Mafia," continues Arnold, bringing to mind the New York City pinball ban from 1942 to 1976. "But hippies love the Mafia."

"My wife tolerates it pretty well," says Arnold about his collection. "I'm not hygienically challenged like some of my fellow pinheads. I'm like a fancy cook who goes home and eats Burger King: [Instead of playing pinball,] I'd rather go to a movie, wrestle with my dog, or throw things at cops. Hippies hate cops."

Taking a risk, I ask his opinion of video games.

"Playing video games is like kissing your sister," he says, leveling a suspicious eye on a nearby video game player. "What's the point? You memorize the moves and do the same thing every time until you beat the computer. The ball is crazy, unpredictable, wild, like hippies. Pinball takes skill."

"Actually, video games are great for one thing," clarifies Arnold as a vidiot passes within earshot. "If you have a boat, they make great anchors."

"Video games are the best," pants 7-year-old Ash Gaylord, peering around his father's elbow at Ms. Pac-Man. "The best. This is the best!"

"I'm enjoying it, too," says Mr. Gaylord, passing the game over to his son. "Maybe more than him. It's finally leveled the playing field. He always beats me at the new games, but these are way more fun anyway. Nowadays, they worry too much about graphics and sound effects and not enough about F-U-N."

While not quite as enthusiastic as some attendees -- say, my housemate, who comes home with sore shoulders and bruised palms from pounding the buttons on Track and Field, and a smile that will last a week -- I am nonetheless swept up by the excitement and whimsy of classic video games such as Prop Cycle, on which one sits and pedals a yellow "flying machine" while navigating the aerial world on a large video screen, or Bubbles, in which I, the bubble, must evade all razor blades, scrub brushes, and cockroaches in the sink, while wiping up ants and grease spots. By the end of the day I'm actually hooked on a video game and can only chuckle as I see Rueda, the self-proclaimed vidiot, leaving with a pinball machine.

"It was created by Nintendo," he says with a smile and a shrug. "I love Nintendo."

About The Author

Silke Tudor

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