In Back Alleys and Basements, Video Arcades Quietly Survive

by Kat Bailey

SAN FRANCISCO — The Stockton Tunnel, excavated in 1914, lets San Francisco drivers get between downtown and Fisherman’s Wharf without having to ascend the scarily steep grades of Nob Hill. The tunnel is bordered on the west side by the famous cable cars and on the east by the Chinatown gate, so no tourists need ever walk near it. Accordingly, the tunnel entrance is a dingy block crammed with aging tenements and seedy shops. Junkies tweak out on the sidewalk; a grimy massage parlor called The Green Door advertises “A Touch of Ecstacy.”

Late every Saturday evening, the massage parlor, the tiny taqueria and the assorted other shops all close up, but one is still bustling. A gaggle of young men wearing Street Fighter T-shirts and toting their own massive arcade-style game joysticks mingle inside the tiny Southtown Arcade, jammed wall to wall with arcade cabinets. They’re throwing down in friendly matches for now; later tonight they play for cash.

Here in this dingy alleyway is the leading edge of what Seth Killian, director of online and community strategy at Street Fighter maker Capcom, calls the “second wave” of video arcades — run not by businessmen looking to make a buck, but by those with a passion for communal gaming.

“The second wave was the people that grew up in the arcades and dreamed of starting places of their own, maybe a bit like Flynn from Tron or something, or just because they — like me — had so many intensely happy memories of that kind of place,” Killian said.


In the late ’70s, during the heyday of Atari, one of its sales managers trumpeted the new family-friendly video arcade: “Many arcades used to be in rat-hole locations. Now they have turned into family amusement centers where you can take your wife and six-year-old daughter,” he said, as quoted in the book Replay.

Now, the big family arcades are closing and the gamers are moving back into the rat-holes. In San Francisco, New York, Austin and elsewhere, these gritty little storefronts hearken back to the days when arcade cabinets mostly lived in bars, pool halls and run-down amusement parks. They are a place for gamers to test their skills against like-minded enthusiasts, a digital Fight Club for those looking for something more than Skee-Ball and Dance Dance Revolution. It’s in these packed alleyways and basements that video arcades are staying alive.

“You can always drink a beer at home, but that’s not what you’re looking for, right? You’re looking for that communal interaction,” says arcade owner Myung Kim.

A player’s fingers fly across a fighting game controller during a Southtown tournament.
Photo: Brian L. Frank/


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