"I'm technically the last of a dying breed." Mark Starkey isn't being romantic, he's the last qualified arcade machine engineer in the UK. He was the only person taking the course in his year and the next year they stopped running it due to a lack of applicants. Arcade engineers are a dying breed because the arcades themselves are so few and far between these days. The Heart of Gaming in Croydon is a survivor, run by Starkey himself.
Starkey's love of arcades dates back to his youth. "I believe that the arcade did a lot for me personally. It was a very good time for video games because it really brought people out socially and in person." Back then arcades were the only place most people could experience the very best of gaming. "Arcades aren't really the top end of gaming anymore, they do still have that all important social vibe that people can relate to and people can be part of."
The number of arcades in Britain declined for numerous reasons. The most cited is the rise of the home console — why go out when you can play from the comfort of your own home? Mark believes there were other factors. The people who ran the old arcades weren't gamers, just people who were looking to make a quick buck off the trend. "Now it's different. For the few arcades in the country now, they're run by people who were gamers themselves when they grew up. You need to stay in touch, you need a gamer's mind."
One of the last major arcades in London was the Trocadero at the heart of the West End. "A lot of the machines in this place comes from the closure of the Trocadero," says Starkey, "I used to be an amusement technician in the West End in the 90s and I stayed in touch with a lot of the engineers. They gave me the heads up on what was going down regarding Trocadero's Funland situation [it closed in 2011, a few years before Trocadero's eventual downfall in 2014]. I was able to make a deal with them, to take some stuff away and that's how the Heart of Gaming got started.
"You might say it's the world's first recycled arcade."
Not only did the games come from the Trocadero, so too did the gamers. "When Troc fell there wasn't much of an arcade scene." That's what Yan a regular and former volunteer at HoG tells us. He'd been going to Troc as he (and John Betjeman) calls it for years. Not long after the closure he heard about Heart of Gaming, and quickly found a new home.
He's swung by today to do more than just play games — he's here for a workout. The game's called In The Groove 2, an intense dance machine that tests one's coordination and cardio. Yan moves his feet to the rhythm at bewitching speeds, eyes glued to the screen as he racks up high scores. He's prepared for just how intense the game is, wearing gym shorts and bringing along a towel to wipe himself down with.
"I like working out, but I find cardio really boring, so ITG [abbreviations are all the rage here] works out well for me." Mark also praises the game: "I didn't start playing dance games until a few years ago. I dropped a load of weight and met a lot of new people in the community and now I do it to help me keep fit."
That community is a tight-knit one. It has stuck with HoG through the good times and the bad. "We were robbed a few years ago. We set up a GoFundMe project after a few members of our community suggested it would be a good way to recoup the losses. We went for a target of £5,000, we ended up getting nearly £6,000 in 24 hours. We had arcades in Japan, America, even Australia sending over financial support. To know that there are people that are that far across the proverbial pond that want to help, it's a very encouraging feeling."
HoG was originally in Acton, but their lease expired so they needed to find a new home. They originally planned on making the short trip to Shepherd's Bush, but when that fell through they stumbled upon this empty space in a corner of the WhitGift Centre in Croydon. It's just a pit-stop for HoG as the shopping centre has a ticking timer over its head. In a few years it will be demolished in place of a brand new Westfield and HoG will need to find another new home.
"It's different because we're no longer based in an industrial unit in North Acton," says Starkey, "we're further out, in what is essentially a city, inside a shopping centre with a very big space. Some people may feel it has lost something, people liked where it was before. Obviously some of those people have to travel further, but by the same inkling some people don't have to travel as far. Wherever we are based, it's going to be easy for some, it's going to be difficult for others. We are getting a lot of support, encouragement and advice from key people within the town centre.
"Our goodwill nature towards the community towards gamers, and most importantly towards young people, are being very well received."
Ian and Jed are both young 'Croydoners', checking out Heart of Gaming for the first time today. They've spent their day playing a variety of games from different eras: Street Fighter, Fifa, even some competitive Tetris. "We definitely want to come back and bring all our friends." They especially like the price model, where you pay for entry then play as much as you like — as opposed to the old-school arcades that had you endlessly jamming machines with coins till your pockets were empty.
Mark tells us people are willing to travel from a tad further afield than Croydon to come here. "Back in Acton we had Americans come straight from Heathrow, who'd pop their luggage behind the desk, play for a couple hours and then head off to their hotel." They haven't had anyone travel to them from across the pond to Croydon just yet, although they do have people come on day-trips from all over Britain to pummel buttons at the arcade.
The Americans might've heard about HoG due to a beautiful tribute they created a few years ago. "We have managed to make a bit of a splash overseas," says Starkey. "When the president of Nintendo, Satoru Iwata, died some years back, a couple of girls in our community made a beautiful mural of him surrounded by all the Nintendo characters that he was responsible for. That went viral and it was seen by Nintendo of Japan, who sent an image to his family."
Speaking of female gamer, brings up an interesting point. There's a stigma that video games are only for nerdy boys, one that reared its ugly head a few years ago through the Gamergate Scandal. "That stigma becomes more more and more dead every day. In the 90s in the arcades the only times you really saw women in there, was if their boyfriend brought them in. Nowadays girls are every bit as hardcore as guy players, video games are not gender specific, they are for everyone. I think that's brilliant."
Video games shedding their stigmas has led to a resurgence in the mainstream. Mark says when he was growing up people used to tease him for his passion. Nowadays, there are plenty of options for social gamers. The Four Quarters in Peckham, Meltdown in Barnsbury, Loading Bar in Dalston and Stratford, plus some of the city's BrewDogs, cater to the gaming community in their own craft beer/cocktail swilling kind of way.
So why do people like retro games? "Nostalgia is a very powerful thing. If you ever see the film Casino with Robert de Niro he says: 'Running this place is like selling people dreams for cash.' While, I wouldn't be that boastful about it, everybody wants to see something that takes them back, or have that one more gaming experience with their friends that now because they're all grown up they don't always have time for."
Starkey has built this place on a mantra of socialising and friendliness. He walks around talking to punters, encouraging them to give new games a go, or just stopping for a quick chat.
If you're looking for a place to play video games with your mates, or make some new friends, you'd be hard pressed to do better than Heart of Gaming.