On a hot June afternoon, driven by an anxiety that seems to track with the viciousness of the national mood, I visit an arcade to see if it still has the analgesic effect I craved as a lonely teenager, when I felt especially embattled because, as a black person, I’d begun to realize what America might have in store for me. This time I know. As if to prove it, there are two mass shootings the same day, both in broad daylight: at a UPS in San Francisco, and on a ball field near the Capitol.
The light inside Next Level arcade, near Sunset Park, is fluorescent and unforgiving. There is no pretense about what this place is—“an arcade in the early-’90s mold: a video-game dungeon where practiced hands could battle,” as its website reads. Of his customers, the owner of Next Level, Henry “Golden” Cen, says that what separates his customers from your average fighting-game enthusiast is a passion verging on madness. Cen is a former Chinatown Fair employee, who is said to have bought rare cabinets for that arcade with his own money. What distinguishes the great from the merely good, in other words, is an artistic inspiration born from mania. Cen’s players possess a deep understanding of the rules that govern fighting games and the limits the machine imposes; they don’t seem to smile until they win.
It’s Wednesday night, which is for hardcore players; the room is small and full of brown and black men, all of them muscular, and each has brought his own stick—controllers that replicate the arcade-cabinet experience. Tension and testosterone are high. An announcer periodically calls out free stations, like a square-dance caller leading us through the steps. The mood is escapist and fraternal, but the obligations are clear: Tonight is for serious play, which is different from amusement.
A guy in a red shirt, Yankees fitted, jeans, and white Reeboks sets up an Xbox 360 in a corner of the store. Papercraft models from the game Magic: The Gathering dangle overhead.
“Playing something older?” an employee asks Red Shirt.
“Street Fighter IV. Fire, baby, fire,” he replies.
It’s a routine. Other men gather to watch him practice; they genuflect by asking that question—“Playing something older?”—before settling in. Red Shirt could be anybody. But here he’s a hero, and now he’s methodically working out combos against the computer. It feels disrespectful to take pictures.
Nobody stares, but I can feel players sizing me up—they’re wondering why I’m here, and whether I want to play. It’s a scene so familiar that, for a moment, I feel transported a decade into the past. In every arcade, I remember, belonging is a settled question: You become the sum of your skills at the door. Inside, what matters is whether you can beat the people in the room. Next Level is a safe space to flower, tucked away from the world’s concerns. The men here, who look like me, know this already.
— Bijan Stephen