Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Level Up Your Liver: Gaming Taverns

If there’s one thing that I know gamers are good at--besides gaming--it’s drinking!  I have seen so much alcohol consumed during gaming sessions, over an intense game of Munchkin, at Rock Band parties and at meetups at bars, you wouldn’t believe it!  Or maybe you would believe it; maybe you’re one of those people, like me, who likes to drown their sorrows in a drink after having your ass handed to you at Super Smash Bros. Brawl or Halo 3.  There are Geeks who Drink, Drunkosophers (just wait, ladies and gentlemen, Drunkosophy is going to be the greatest gift to clever geeks since Plato! Till then though, you should follow us on teh Twitterz), The Drunken Moogle, and a million various blogs, Twitter accounts and Tumblr posts dedicated to the glorious art of being geekily drunk. And yes, geekily is an adverb, it’s a real thing. I Googled it. 

In a noble effort to bring together two of these incredible elements, gaming and liquor, a few brave souls have rolled their dice, plotted their course, and opened the doors to their own gamer-oriented establishments that feature full (or partial) liquor service.  Most of these gaming bars are for adults who are of legal drinking age (21 years old in the U.S.) and have a distinct bar or lounge atmosphere.  Some gaming taverns are more family-friendly and have sections open to families and under-21s, and some establishments have specific all-ages hours and become 21-and-over after a certain time of day.  

Gamers go out to see friends!  TAKE THAT, societal assumptions!
While preparing to write this article, I decided to poll a few willing participants about their experience(s) with gaming bars, and also to get an idea of how honest my friends would be about their drinking habits (just joking!). 

Thank you very much to those of you who participated!  Next time I may throw in some prizes for participation, so stay tuned for more exciting surveys! I received 33 responses from 8 US states and 4 countries (including the US), an impressive data set, if I do say so myself (and I have some sexy pie charts to prove it!)!  Of those surveyed, a full 72% said that they thought gamer bars were “amazing” or had been to several, and 18% have not yet been to a gaming bar but would be interested in seeing what they’re all about.  Emorimiku says he likes gamer bars because they're like an adult equivalent of old arcades, and petfish believes that gamer bars have a more accessible environment for shy patrons.  Josh P. believes that gamer bars "are way better than regular bars, which are stodgy and boring", an intriguing observation!  No one who completed the survey said that they are not interested in gaming bars at all--which makes a good deal of sense given the purpose of this survey and the sample population that I surveyed. 

 And now, a comparison chart!  It seems that more people tend to go out to bars than arcades, but my quantitative data suggests that most (60%) of those that I surveyed would go to or return to a gamer bar if given the option.  Those who weren't interested in visiting a gamer bar said that they are either typically too expensive or they'd rather just go over to someone's house to play games.

"Multiplayer" and "Specialty" (expensive arcade cabinets) games seem to be most popular.
It makes a lot of sense that board, card and drinking games are popular at bars, especially for those of us who know that gamers aren't social outcasts.  It also seems sensible that arcade cabinets and pinball games are popular items at gamer bars, since they're usually "specialty" items that are expensive to maintain and aren't generally things you have at home. 

Now that we’ve established some basic stats, here’s a list of some real-life gamer bars and a brief synopsis and mini-review of each!  So settle in, grab your favorite at-home-and-browsing-the-internet-beverage, and find out which of these places you’ll want to have on your “must see” list for 2012! 

Location: Everett, WA (a good 35 minutes north of Downtown Seattle)
What it’s all about:  AFK Tavern opened in November 2010 amid extreme excitement from Seattle gamers, and, specifically, from our Pretty Gamer contributors!  In fact, we had a great opportunity to interview Alison and Kayla, two of the women who lashed together steampunk cogs and mana pools to bring AFK into the world.
Why it Rocks: AFK have everything you could ever ask for in a gaming tavern, period.  There is an impressive array of 3rd-gen consoles and games, large tables for RPGing or boardgames, an impressive sofa/TV setup (that’s great for watching fighting games), and it’s open to under-21s.
The Downside: It’s far, far away (from Seattle), and expensive.  Nianiania, on of my survey participants, points out that AFK costs about twice as much as other bars.  AFK has also had some bad reviews regarding food, slow service and “you have chosen poorly” cocktails.  But if you go with an open mind and average expectations, you’ll survive, and you'll like it.

PINBALL!!! (Shorty's)
Location: Seattle, WA
What it’s all about:  Shorty’s is a sweet, sweet heaven of hot dogs, nachos and pinball games.  It’s where Seattleites and informed visitors go to become Pinball Wizards! (Another place I’ve heard great rumors about is the Seattle Pinball Museum in the International District, no booze there, though).
Why it rocks: Booze, Pinball, Hot Dogs, Arcade Games.  Boom.  
The Downside: It’s in Belltown.

Location: Seattle, Washington
What it’s all about:  Cafe Mox is an extension of Card Kingdom, an expansive, comprehensive and really well-laid-out game store just south of the main thoroughfare of Ballard.  Buy your games at Card Kingdom and then drop into Cafe Mox and Playtest.That.Shit!
Why it rocks: The best part about Cafe Mox is Card Kingdom; it’s a great place to sit and play new games.
The downside:  Cafe Mox is teeny-tiny.  Don’t expect to go with a group of more than 4 or 5 or you’ll have to make sure you have good stats in Diplomacy to get someone to trade tables with you.  

Tron at Ground Kontrol
Location: Portland, Oregon
What it’s all about: Portlandians be proud!  Ground Kontrol is the big name around these parts, and even Seattleites make pilgrimages down to Oregon to stop in at this forerunner in the gaming-bar industry.  Ground Kontrol started out in 1999 (NINETEEN-NINETY-NINE!) and has been serving up drinks alongside classic arcade cabinets and pinball machines for nigh-on-thirteen years.
Why it rocks: Aside from the awesome classic pinball games like Demolition Man, Lord of the Rings and (classic) Doctor Who, they have /light-up-tables/!
The Downside: I want to take a jab at Portland here, but, I just can’t do it!  This place is just too cool!  You’d really have to make a day/weekend trip to Portland to make it worth it, but, Ground Kontrol has an established reputation for a reason.

Location: Las Vegas, Nevada
What it’s about: It’s a bar in Vegas without the gambling.  Instead of slot machines you have, well, arcade cabinets with slots to put your quarters in.  And, to be quite honest, it actually is a bit of a gamble as to whether or not the machine will accept or eat your quarter.  Insert Coins is in downtown Vegas so it’s a lengthy bus ride to and from the strip.
Why it rocks: If you’re tired of losing money fast on bad luck, you know you’ll at least be able to get some real entertainment from a couple quarters here.
The Downside: It’s far from the strip, in a sketch area.  And I was serious about the cabinets eating your quarters. 

Location: Melbourne and Brisbane, Australia
What it’s about: Mana Bar exudes an exotic, international-gamer aura of intensity and hot Australian accents.  (In reality, though, I haven’t been to Mana bar, and I’m pissed that their Melbourne opening got delayed and I missed it, so I have no idea whether my fantastical image of this place is at all accurate...)
Why it rocks:  Clearly I have some of my own idealized notions about this place, but I have a sneaking suspicion (based on some of their expertly shot press photos and.. actually that’s all I currently have to go on) that I’m not far off base with my glamorization of this place.  
The Downside: It’s about $2,000 away from where I’m at!  If you’ve been to Mana Bar and you’d like to tell us about it, please comment below, so that I may revel in sweet, sweet jealousy.

The chains: Gameworks, Dave and Busters, Chuck E Cheese.  Are they “gaming bars” (or, for the kids-only places like Chuck-E-Cheese, "gaming establishments") or arcade power-houses?  Or something else entirely?  Perhaps I’ll do some more research and find out!  In the meantime, happy drinking!  If you make it to any of these places, tell us about it! 

For more images of gaming bars around the country, check out this album!


  1. I don't know about elsewhere, but CEC here serves beer & wine. On the one hand, how else are the parents going to survive the hell that is CEC? But on the other, these parents are going to be driving their kids home and I know for a FACT that they nearly never designate DDs. :/

  2. Great article, Erin; it was a pleasure to read and you definitely put so much effort and research into it. :)

    It's really inspring that there are many places in the pacific northwest that cater to the gamer niche and can profit off of it. As someone who came out of my shell by meeting new friends in arcades, spent thousands of dollars over many years working my gaming craft, and getting to know many people who work and ran the scene when I played Dance Dance Revolution in the tournament scene, I've come to realize many things. Establishments need to piggyback their niche and focus on something more profitable. The costs of arcade cabinet upkeep, especially with proprietary parts, pretty much spell doom for arcade owners who refuse to evolve their concept for fear of compromising their values and interests. Similar expenses can be found in maintaining current console or board game libraries as well. With all businesses, profitability can truly only come from catering to the customer, and gamer taverns are a perfect marriage of hobbies and revenue to keep any sort of gaming establishment profitable.

    Most of us serious rhythm and fighting game enthusiasts are familiar with the now-defunct hybrid of Tokyo Game Action here in New England, an import game hobbyist's attempt at running an arcade primarily dedicated to his passions. The standalone arcade scene in Japan thrives and profits, unlike in the United States, where virtually all video gamers identify as consolers or PC gamers. The cost of importing brand new cabinets from Japan, upgrading existing ones from proprietary upgrade kits, trying to work out the expenses of running a Japanese mini-restaurant/snack bar daily, and most unfortunately of all, unforeseen accidents and circumstances, drove this well-intentioned arcade hybrid out of business. Just in the past year, the same unique scene of arcade-based rhythm and fighting gamers lost the top two standalone arcade meccas, Arcade Infinity in southern California and Chinatown Fair in New York City. It's a crying shame, but it's just evidence that arcade hybrids have to really cater to many types of people to turn a profit, not just bona fide gamers, while not alienating the very same group who is loyal to them. It's a very delicate balancing act.

    Chains and other arcade hybrids follow similar concepts to stay afloat by attaching gaming to things like childrens' parties, bars, bowling alleys, and pool halls. A new Dave and Buster's opened in metro Boston, in Braintree, and many of the rhythm game community has embraced the new location. The mainstream chains, in many areas of the country not blessed with a strong market of people who would financially support gamer taverns of all varieties to profitability, can do a lot to cater to the gamer subculture and give them a place to socialize with likeminded people (and maybe plant that inspiration to run a true independent institution!)

    Erin, while you're in New York you should definitely check out Barcade in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. They specialize in classic arcade machines but also have a killer craft beer list with many of them on tap, on par with many other standalone beer bars in New York! Field research! ;D

  3. Wow, thanks for the great insight! I'm definitely going to come to you once I start drafting my business plan... ;)

    Barcade sounds awesome, I'm definitely going to put that on my list of places to go! I'll put together a post-PAX-E update!

  4. But... All of them are so far away from me! I want a nerd/gamer bar.

  5. I too would love a nerd/gamer bar. I think even some of the arcade power houses like Gameworks are just plain fun. I think there is something nostalgic about spending far too much time at your local arcade playing Mortal Kombat and Galaga and as an adult you get to reminisce while having a beer. Plus sometimes it is really nice to get away from the consoles and socialize.

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