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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Game Center


What is amazingly loud, probably legal, filled with screaming teenagers, generally smoke-free, involves no nudity among living breathing people, and no doubt run by the Japanese mob? Answer: Your neighborhood "game center." These are pachinko parlors for the under-20 set, an expensive and addictive form of initiation into the pleasures that await in Japanese adulthood.

They can be found in almost any area where high school students congregate: urban shopping arcades, suburban malls, on downtown street corners, in grungy alleyways near train stations. Normally I avoid at all cost contact with human beings between the ages of 13 and 17, but for the sake of research spent half an hour in one game center in downtown Osaka. (At that point, I yielded to sense and ran out in search of an ear doctor.)

Japanese Game CenterA typical Japanese game center could not be further removed from the Philadelphia pinball arcades I wasted my youth in. First of all, the games are loud--really loud--and cute, really cute. Incredibly, though, above the deafening roar and clatter, you can often hear the cloyingly cute squealing of packs of 14-year-old girls. They play their own type of game, which involves seeing who can emit the loudest squeal, which is intended to show surprise, amazement, cell-phone induced hysteria, or just general hormonal overload. Another difference is the lack of menace. In Philly, you watched your back while you smashed and rocked the old manual pinball machines; the arcades had hired thugs to break up fights and prevent damage. In Osaka, the only danger is to your frontal lobes and eardrums.

The technology of the games, too, has come a long way. There are now games with sit-down race car driving that induce vertigo; baseball pitching games that measure the speed of your fastball; a game in which you guide talons to attempt to reach down and scoop up a stuffed doll; and a punching game. This machine gauges the power of your punch, and was the source of endless amusement for three women who, combined, could not have weighed more than 200 pounds.

Then there are the "exercise" games: drumming to an electronic beat [click here to listen to a podcast of the game: turn the volume down], and a dancing game. A young couple worked the taiko drum sticks frantically as they tried to keep up with the beat.

The last category is perhaps the "commemoration" games: puri-kura photo booths. In these, you can take a series of photos that can be manipulated--add images, change the background--at the touch of a button. When you are finally ready to print, you push the button and wait several minutes. Then, out slides a sheet of tiny identical photos that can be peeled off and stuck on your cell phone or in your date book.

Full disclosure: I ended up staying for an hour, posed for photos, didn't get into a fight--and there were at least five people (besides me) over 30 in the game center.

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