The arcade games at The House of the Eternal Return are indeed free however we always find people pumping quarters into them anyway.
Arcades have largely gone the way of the mastodon, but kids from the 1980s and 90s still remember the excitement of being surrounded by phalanx of cabinets in a dimly-lit room. Even something as simple as watching the machines on "attract" mode was worth a trip to the nearby mall or bowling alley. Indeed, if your parents were tight-fisted with their quarters you might have to make do with watching the Street Fighter opening on a loop, but the free arcade games at Wiggy's are on hand to approximate your childhood, real or imagined.
We assumed that setting all the games to free play was the best possible version of reality. And gather free games while ye may, because Wiggy's Plasma Plex is very much a story about loss. Pop culture is leaving arcades behind and yet video games have never been more popular. There's still a lot of affection for arcades. Collections sell on every major gaming platform and titles like Namco Museum and X-Box 360's Game Room let avatars walk around a digital facsimile of an arcade.
Even though entropy is claiming arcades they are still a vital part of pop culture. Wiggy's Plasma Plex, the free arcade inside the House of Eternal Return, speaks to this contradiction with more than one dozen free classic arcade games. Meow Wolfer Benji Geary built the space and peopled it with characters whose culture was informed by iterative nostalgia for things that no longer exist.
Why does an art exhibition need an arcade? The building Meow Wolf now occupies used to be the Silva Lanes Bowling Alley, which closed its doors more than seven years ago. The bowling alley had the last arcade in Santa Fe. The other notable arcade, Jets at the Santa Fe Place Mall, closed and was replaced by Tuesday Morning, a discount home furnishing store.
“It was a major insult when that was replaced,” Benji said of Jets. “Tuesday Morning is 180 degrees opposite of an arcade. It's the worst.”
Arcades like Jets leave behind vacuums when they disappear. Pop culture still refers back to them, even though the spaces themselves no longer exist. For Benji, this idea connected with modern Internet subcultures such as vaporwave or fly-by-night aesthetics that live their short lives entirely on Tumblr before dying a month or so later. A common theme Benji noticed, especially of vaporwave, is the heavy nostalgia of 80s and 90s cultural ephemera — the Windows 95 logo, old Diet Coke ads, the Solo “Jazz” pattern, or music that was remixed from the Weather Channel. Benji wanted to create a sci-fi dystopia based on the concept of “unremembered, unlived nostalgia,” a place where kids who possess no context for the original culture nevertheless grow up within these retro movements. He called these kids "Mallplex Juviegangers." They have a Tumblr you can use for reference.
“So there’s a little gang of kids growing up listening to Hobby Lobby jams and I’m daydreaming what it would be like to be old in the future and walking through a mall or something and you’re being stabbed by all of these kids, all of these undermallers (who have) no context for what they’re emulating and they don’t even know it’s an emulation of the past,” Benji said.
An arcade would be the perfect haunt for that kind of trend, a cultural relic that serves as a lair for people whose culture is entirely simulacra. The undermallers also evoke the 1980s moral panics surrounding arcades— claims that such spaces were dens of juvenile delinquency. Perhaps the undermallers assume that this panic was justified and they're reviving it.
The undermallers have started to bleed into the world of the exhibition. They were out in force during Halloween, menacing people who crossed over into their turf. During Halloween I played a round of Street Fighter 2 with an undermaller wearing a hot pink ski mask. I lost the match (Dhalsim sucks), but I won a personal pan pizza as a consolation prize. This pizza box, designed by Benji, featured a cartoon rat named Plotzo.
Plotzo, who looks like the lowlife brother of Chuck E. Cheese, is the leader of the undermallers. Wiggy, the absentee landlord who owns the arcade, rents the place out to Plotzo who uses it as the nerve center of his undermaller criminal empire. Whether or not Plotzo is actually a rat is debatable. “You don’t know if it’s a dude wearing a rat mask he never takes off or if he’s fucking with gene splicing biz a lot and he wanted the rat head anyway,” Benji said.
The Plasma Plex has more than a dozen free arcade cabinets and others are always cycling through. Benji’s favorite “gets” are the Neo Geo cabinet with more than 100 games on the board and the famous 4-player Simpsons game.
There are a few other emergent examples of “unremembered, unlived nostalgia” at work in Wiggy’s. The first is the 1990 SNK game Nam 1975, a shooter that uses a fictionalized version of the Vietnam War (think Apocalypse Now meets Contra) to rewrite the conflict. And even though every arcade game at Wiggy’s is free, people (even children who have less access to arcades today) insist on pumping quarters into the machines. Benji isn’t sure if this is trained behavior or if the act of paying a quarter is an important part of the experience for people. “Maybe it’s a hyper nostalgia thing,” he said.
At first the staff assumed that no one would pay for a game if they didn’t have to. After a while they noticed that the machines were malfunctioning. Benji said that sometimes quarters can pile up inside the cabinet and then fall onto the circuit board, shorting it out.
Fixing retro video games is a specialized knowledge and largely depends on DIY community troubleshooting because the arcades themselves are disappearing. According to Benji this means that one can’t type “SOUND WORKING, BUT ARCADE SCREEN NOT WORKING” into Google and expect an answer. “Cabinet playing blind” will. Esoteric knowledge like this helps us push back against the tide of entropy and keep the machines alive.
Like our arcade, the undermallerss are both authentic and fake. The patrons at Wiggy’s Plasma Plex fill their cultural vacuum with referential nostalgia that points to something that no longer exists. As screens go blank and as the occasional quarter shorts a circuit board it’s easy to see that the forces responsible for this contradiction are slowly crawling toward Wiggy’s. The vacuum that claimed arcades at Silva Lanes and Santa Fe Place Mall will come for our games, too, and one wonders how undermallers of the future will adapt. “It’ll never be the same arcade again,” Benji said. “We’re getting the last of it.”