How dancing arcade games sparked London’s most unlikely community

It’s a Friday night in Soho. City dwellers line up outside pubs and PR fans stand in stiletto heels. A rickshaw drives past a resounding British drill. This is your VICE war correspondent live from London.

But the real action is not there. It’s a child thing. The real action takes place in a dusty basement under a Wardour Street casino: Las Vegas Soho Arcade.

The name might conjure up images of sad dads in Hawaiian shirts and chain-smoking cougars, but I’m not here to play. I’m here to talk to members of London’s rhythm game community – an eclectic group of freaks, geeks and misfits who hang out in the downstairs arcade every Friday and Saturday night.

the online reviews for LVA Soho divide opinion. This is a “super cool place!” according to RouselJ, but “boring and chunky” says lenhardt99. They are both liars.

Here, it’s more Tokyo than Sin City. The volume is somewhere between a gabber rave and a NASA launch. Countless neon screens catch my eye. There are shoot’em ups, beat’em ups, retro racers, whack-a-moles, brave ducks, candy cabinets, spin n’ wins and, in a dark corner under the stairs, four dancing machines.

Alisa Teterina is a motion blur. It is leaned against a metal bar facing a giant LCD screen; his feet strike a dozen incandescent arrows a second; the word “perfect” flashes on the screen (unless otherwise specified, while Alisa is playing, the word “perfect” always flashes on the screen).

She is one of the best in the UK Pump it up players. The game is the Korean equivalent of from Japan dance dance revolutionwhich was popular in British arcades in 90s and 00s. These days, she tells me between sips of water, Pump That’s where it happens.

“I fell in love with music. The game is made by a Korean company, so it contains a lot of K–pop, as well as J-music, EDM and D’n’B – genres that young people want to hear.

Like many in the rhythm game community, Alisa has a global perspective. She was born in Kyrgyzstan and moved to London when she was young. “I’ve met people from all over the world here – East Asia, Middle East, South Africa, South America – so many different places.”

The 22-year-old is as much a dancer as a player. She grew up doing ballet, figure skating and street dancing – and it shows. She’s got more rhythm than anyone you’ll see on a Friday night in Fabric.

Alisa certainly doesn’t fit the image of the arcade-goer I had in mind – and that, Toby Nakhorn, a two-decade rhythm game veteran, tells me – is part of the problem.

“Arcade rooms get a lot of negative press,” he says. “A lot of us weren’t popular in school and were labeled as computer geeks. But we come here to socialize. We are the geeks with street smarts!

With his silver hair and his ironic smile, Toby is a friendly guy. In a parallel universe, he became known as the Francis Bourgeois of rhythm playing. As it is, he’s happy in his element. He regales me with great stories about his run-ins in the arcades with Somali gangs and Chinese mobsters – the kind of stories you hear from 80s punks and uptight skinheads. Here, the spirit of old Soho is alive and well.

Alisa is glistening with sweat as she gets off the dance floor and claps his hands. Pump is as much a workout as anything else. Players not here in cosplay wear joggers, base layers, and gym gloves. A man in a yellow gym vest stands out more than most.

Patrick, 35, is a competitive bodybuilder and former Mr. Ireland winner. He has a shaved head and arms the size of my legs. He is, I am assured, a gentle giant and one of the most popular players on the scene.

“For me, it’s a win-win,” he told me, lacing up his sneakers. “I meet friends and exercise. It helps me stay in shape between competitions. Of course, there are challenges for a player of his size. “My shoulders are too big for the bar – this game was not designed for bodybuilders!”

Patrick belongs to the older generation of gamers who came of age in the 90s and 00s. They saw the scene explode and crumble and mourned the loss of some of its most important venues.

Take London’s Trocadero, a three-storey entertainment complex in the West End, which closed in 2011. The old guard speaks of “Troc” with hushed reverence. This is their Hacienda; their Shoom.

These days we play games at home – on Xbox and PlayStation. Arcades like this can’t survive on nostalgia alone (Toby points out that Gen Z doesn’t care about space invaders – and why would they?).

But all is not gloomy. Places like Free Play City at Manor House and Chief Coffee at Turnham Green are bringing arcades into the 21st century, using Discord and TikTok, and games like Street Fighter V.

“Arcade rooms are so important to our tight-knit community,” 33-year-old Kaveh Rahimi tells me. “I’ve seen people on the spectrum without friends or voices thrive here. I’ve seen people who hate exercise transform their lives and stay fit. I’ve met Bitcoin millionaires, world-class harmonica players, Korean models, gaming industry professionals, and people from all over the world through Pump. It changed my life in ways I could not have imagined.

Maybe it’s the sweaty bodies or the warm glow of machinery, but the vibe here reminds me of an intimate club or hometown pub at Christmas – not something you usually associate with central London on a night out. a busy weekend. But community is community, no matter how you dress it.

Later, Toby sends me an email with an article he wrote in 2011 mourning the closing of the Trocadéro. “In an arcade, anyone can make new friends and be accepted without judgment,” he wrote. “I know I made friends for life.”

About Walter J. Leslie

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