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OPINION: Where Everybody Knows Your Game

Amusement bars dominate the new crop of watering holes and it’s worth enjoying them and examining why.



It started with arcades. Then shuffleboard. Soon, there will be elaborate storytelling with a side of putt-putt. And eventually… axes. We rarely just drink anymore. For every proclivity, there's a bar. Constantly reinventing yourself? Try that gimmicky switch-up place on Broad Street. Need a speak-easy? We have two.

Amusement bars, as I like to call them, have developed a foothold in Richmond over the past few years. For the casual observer, it's worth thinking about why that is and figuring out how to enjoy them responsibly.

For a lot of reasons, this kind of bar can be a good thing. A single friend told me she prefers places like Tang and Biscuit for going on first dates. The idea being the activity — along with a beverage — takes the edge off the awkwardness of getting to know and talking to a complete stranger over a meal. Even the most awkward of suitors has some game, if it's only the one they make small talk about until the check comes.

Amusement bars also offer respite for parents from sweltering heat while keeping kiddos sufficiently amused with a plethora of classic arcade games. Arcades basically now sprout, like Athena from Zeus' head, from the floors of restored warehouses in Scott's Addition. None of this represents a brave new world. Most of the concepts popping up aren't particularly untried. People elsewhere have combined classic games, arcades and activities with bars for at least a decade, if not longer. The ideas finally have migrated to midsized cities like Richmond, copied from hipper, more worldly places, now that they're viable.

The local buzz about arcades continues with Circuit moving to larger digs and Bingo Beer Co. offering various options. Bingo is strangely not offered at Bingo. … something it should work to remedy quickly, ideally with a regular night for drag bingo.

Whether these enterprises portend Aldous Huxley's bleak view of a society too distracted to realize its own lack of power is probably too heady to debate. Richmond's bar scene is more diverse than ever in what it offers people, and that's awesome.

The connection between games and bars is likely ancient, as Eater pointed out in a recent piece, going back to the earliest days of Atari, long before Ms. Pac Man began heedlessly gobbling blinking dots and assorted fruits. Arcades enjoyed years as a staple of decent malls before facing dim prospects by the later '90s. But the very first games, Eater reported, were placed in the corner of campus bars.

What shouldn't be lost in all this fuss is that Richmond can be original. We have developed our own home-grown events that track with the idea that drinking isn't really about the drink so much as the company and the activity — whether board games, yoga or reading quietly. Sometimes we drink alone together. The Silent Reading Party, held at various bars around town, regularly sells out of its spots in minutes after tickets are released.

The average observer might throw snark at the event as some sort of millennial nonsense or quip that anyone can have a silent reading party at home for cheap or free. While that is true, the events I've tried out demonstrate the power of collectively engaging in something — even if it's reading silently for two hours. You feel less alone in your interests or habits and in the world. And you can't feel bad about supporting a local business that plays host to book nerds. It's community without the din of overly loud music or crowds.

It's hard to say what inspired our latest evolution in drinking with games and amusement. But it is just that … an evolution. And I believe it's a good one. That craft breweries have become the most relevant community spaces for so many people is pretty exciting and, I hope, economically sustainable. It's also nothing terribly new. Our forebears all got sauced on fermented beverages to survive — some likely also played with large wooden hoops and sticks. We've come full circle.

This isn't a vast reinvention of the third spaces we inhabit. Nor do I think it's about regressive nostalgia. I don't think we're amusing ourselves to death. Whether we're trying to distract ourselves or to slow down and find or create community remains to be seen.

I am hopeful we'll see more of the latter.

Opinions on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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