“Rain woke him, a slow drizzle, his feet tangled in coils of discarded fiberoptics. The arcade’s sea of sound washed over him, receded, returned. Rolling over, he sat up and held his head.
Light from a service hatch at the rear of the arcade showed him broken lengths of damp chipboard and the dripping chassis of a gutted game console. Streamlined Japanese was stenciled across the side of the console in faded pinks and yellows.” – William Gibson, Neuromancer
We were in a basement somewhere in Beirut. We were shooting pool.
Mid-90’s summer and there was no air conditioning. Slow fans and fluorescent lights.
The walls were covered in cracks and ripped up, yellowed flyers with pictures of dead men.
I become bored, I look around for something else to do.
A row of arcade cabinets in the distant corner. I put my cue down. I walk over.
I watch the demo looping bright neon animations.
A puzzle game. A friend comes over.
He watches the demo.
We stare at the flashing pictures of naked Asian women that pop up behind the solved puzzles.
He sits down at one cabinet. He drops in the coins. Tries to play.
He only manages to uncover a woman’s face locked in orgasmic fury.
As he gets up to leave, I lock eyes with one of the dead men hanging above the grimy arcade machine.
He looks determined. He looks ridiculous.
Either nationalism or religion killed him. Electric sex keeps his memory alive.
We step outside into the sticky night. We walk past a bombed out theater.
Lights reflect in the ruin.
It looks ridiculous.
It looks determined.
We lived in southern California. 45 minutes outside of LA.
We drove to Vegas once a year for vacation.
90’s Vegas tried to market itself towards families.
Every hotel had massive, expensive arcades my brother and I would bury ourselves in.
A few years ago I went back there with my father for the first time in over a decade.
The arcades died there too: Vegas dropped the family act.
Walking down the strip at sunset, I realize how much I had forgotten about this place in the winter.
I notice how cool the air is, how dark the sky.
Standing at a crosswalk, I hold a cigar to my mouth and look down.
Cards with mostly naked men and women had been cast all over the corner.
I grind my foot into their polished, gutted faces.
So this is what Vegas wants to be now?
Must have lost money betting on the American family.
The 90’s lied to this city the same way it lied to all of us.
I watched the fountain go off in front of the Bellagio.
I felt like a ghost in its towering white light.
I felt like the dead man and his sex machine.
Someone turned nostalgia into its own virtual world.
I was upset the first time I saw this.
It’s all lifeless.
The player touches everything and experiences nothing.
This isn’t an arcade: It is a funeral pyre.
In a world where digital media is highly consumable, we have forgotten how to act around things of value…
including our memory.
There was a line around the entire arcade.
Word was out they bought a VR machine.
$20.00 bought you five minutes.
I wait for the line to die down. It takes a few hours.
I walk up to the attendant. Give her the money.
She wraps the giant, plastic headpiece around my eyes.
I am anxious about becoming nauseous.
The game starts.
I look around the room. I am in a warehouse.
Everything is low-poly. Poor framerate.
Things shoot at me and I have no idea what to do.
My five minutes are up. I leave unimpressed.
More than a decade later Oculus Rift gains traction.
Sony announces Project Morpheus.
I download PolyFauna on my phone.
I put on headphones and stand in my living room.
I hold my phone close to my face and turn with it to navigate.
I am in two three-dimensional places at once and this realization shocks and thrills me.
I see a future defined by both cheap and expensive VR.
Bright colors. Dark spaces. Heat. Intimacy. Distance.
VR’s arcade inheritance.
We were standing by the beach, watching the roaches skitter along the shore.
It was night. Everything was lit up by small shops and looming towers crowding Beirut’s shoreline.
I catch the lights of an enormous tanker parked in the sea.
I daydream about its machinery.
Coffee in hand, I turn to watch the taxis speed by.
A friend of my cousin walks up to us and pulls out his phone.
He asks us if we want to see something funny.
He cycles through the menus. Pulls up a video.
He holds the phone up to our faces.
It’s a video of a naked woman doing illicit things with a lit cigar.
I look up from the video.
I see gutted phones and computers in the window of a repair shop across the street.
I tell my cousin I’ll be right back.
I cross the boulevard.
I watch the guy work by his window.
I notice his limited selection of pirated games and vast quantities of Chinese knockoff consoles.
Lebanon has a strange relationship with technology: Everyone wants it, but only a few understand it.
Years later, the iPhone 4 would sell here for $1400.00 USD.
At a bar just outside downtown Madison, WI.
Waiting for a live show to start at a venue down the street.
The bar has one arcade machine and one video poker machine.
I watch the poker demo.
I enjoy the crispness of the cards and their fluid animations.
I enjoy its bright glow.
It reminds me of all the machines in Vegas.
The rows and rows of digital and mechanical vice.
The UI flashes my mind with the basement and its dying porn games.
I never found gambling interesting.
But I enjoy the technology and aesthetics of seductive manipulation.
The running thread beneath it all is to focus the user, to isolate a person without giving them to the space to understand the illusion.
Arcade machines. Virtual Reality. Slot machines. Mobile phones.
My favorite types of mobile games are the ones that capture this illicitness.
They are inheritors of the arcade as filtered through Vegas.
They are products of and a celebration of vice.
Bright colors. Money. Chance. And the sensuality of being alone with others.
The modern drives as sold through slick, minimal UIs.
The modern drives as the bonfires of the synapse.
“There was a place near an airport, Kowloon, when Hong Kong wasn’t China, but there had been a mistake, a long time ago, and that place, very small, many people, it still belonged to China. So there was no law there. An outlaw place. And more and more people crowded in; they built it up, higher. No rules, just building, just people living. Police wouldn’t go there. Drugs and whores and gambling. But people living, too. Factories, restaurants. A city. No laws.”
—William Gibson, Idoru
It is early.
We shamble out of the club.
I am shocked to see the sun.
Red Bull and vodka still coursing through us.
We make our way to the shore.
Beirut is an ugly city in the light of day.
It thrives through the night.
My cousin buys some coffee. He hands me a cup.
I watch the sun hovering just above the mountains.
I wonder about how we’re going to handle the hour-long trek back to the village.
We still had to drop off my cousin’s friends.
They meet up with us.
We walk over to the car and take off.
They both live in the hyper-religious slums of Beirut. Hezbollah territory.
We drop them off and I look around as my cousin says goodbye.
The buildings are close. The streets are narrow.
Sunlight blotted out by a thick, complex spiderweb of black cable.
I think about the infrastructure of access.
I see the faces of martyrs hung up on electrical poles.
I watch a man smoke a cigarette with an AK-47 slung around his back.
This is a place of violence. Of drugs. Of religion. Of money. Of power in the most classical sense.
My uncle once told me that in the city you have to pay for things that should be free for everyone: Access to sunlight and air.
I imagine who might live at the top of all these buildings.
What do they do with all their access?
I look at the cut sky through the dirt on the windshield.
I pull out my phone and check for messages.
I lean my head back. I close my eyes.
I think of vice and violence.
And I smile.
And I bask in the mute, dark heat of our hearts.
And I drown in the polluted glands of this city.