An Arcade to Make Gamers Cry

First published in The New York Times on February 10, 2011. Read the original with comments and photo gallery here.

ON my first visit to Babycastles, an independent arcade in Queens, I watched as two young women explained to a friend the rules of a video game. It didn’t involve fighting, special moves or guns, but it was full of big-headed cartoon characters wandering through a jewel-toned landscape.

“I don’t understand,” their friend said, “but I love it.” From a nearby stool, I cheered them on until it was my turn.

An avid gamer since Pong, I have always loved the feeling of hiding in a friend’s basement while playing games through the middle of the night. It was something no traditional arcade could recreate: the camaraderie, the broken-down couches, the blasting punk music. But entering Babycastles brought it all back — right down to the low ceiling and the musty basement smell. But there was one important difference: the games at Babycastles can’t be found anywhere else. There’s no House of the Dead 4, Mortal Kombat 3 or even classics like Space Invaders.

Babycastles is part of a movement of indie and amateur game designers from around the world who are rethinking games from the ground up. Every month, the arcade features games built around a different theme and picked by a rotating cast of curators. Recent topics have included “Games That Will Make You Cry” and “Christian Video Games.”

Kunal Gupta, a video game promoter and the founder of Babycastles, said he hoped to educate a new generation of players about the many forms that video games can take. It’s the best kind of education, disguised as a night of competition among strangers.

Babycastles is small, occupying the basement of Silent Barn, a performance space and living collective on Wyckoff Avenue. Mr. Gupta and three friends live upstairs and run the music events on the main floor. The arcade is open four or five nights a week, during every show. Visitors flow seamlessly between the activities on the main floor and the games below.

Three or four games are typically set up in the basement. In keeping with the do-it-yourself aesthetic of the games, Mr. Gupta, along with a legion of volunteers, has built, scavenged and refurbished arcade cabinets to hold them. With a small bar, a few overstuffed couches and dim lighting, the space feels like a 1970s rec room reimagined by hackers. This intimacy makes it natural to watch and to interact with other players as if they are old friends.

Babycastles is not a money-making venture. Visitors pay for the music shows (usually $5) but not the games, which have no coin slots. Mr. Gupta hopes that one day, the independent video game scene will support designers, in much the same way the indie music scene supports musicians. But the first step has been to create that scene in a physical space.

At a party last fall, I listened to religious rock as visitors played Christian video games from the past two decades. For many, the games were like nothing they had experienced before. And that was a big part of the appeal.

“There’s not much I can tell you about this game because I’m confused completely,” said Paul Cox, a first-time visitor to Babycastles, as he attempted to navigate a game called “The You Testament,” based on Noah’s Ark. “It’s actually a blast so far.”