Before going any further, a warning to the reader:
Yes, you are about to read an article about a truly amazing place hidden smack dab in the middle of Villa Crespo.
Yes, you’re probably going to want to drop everything you’re doing to go there immediately. But there’s a catch.
I’ve been advised…
No, no, scratch that. I’ve been warned by the owners of this magical place that I cannot, under any circumstance publish its address. And don’t try finding it on social media either, because, against everything that is widely considered to be good marketing nowadays, this place doesn’t have a Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter account. Arcade Club Social has preferred to keep it analog, congregating its massive cult following by way of good old fashioned word of mouth and lending the Buenos Aires nightlife something it didn’t know it was missing: classic arcade video games.
The masterminds behind Arcade Club Social are Emi and Ana, two girls who I will only refer to by their first names in the interest of maintaining the locale’s mysterious aura.
At first glance, Emi and Ana are probably not what you have in mind when you think about this place, and they’re well aware of it. “A lot of people, when they come here for the first time, ask us if we know the owner and we actually have to explain to them that we are the owners,” Emi says. “In the beginning there was a lot of mansplaining going on, guys telling us that they had never received any instructions from girls in this industry and telling us how to do things.”
To make things even harder for them, neither Emi nor Ana were what you would call hardcore gamers. They came from the advertising industry, where they’ve kept their day jobs; this was their first-ever foray into any sort of self-managed enterprise. To say the odds were stacked against them when they began this project is a bit of an understatement.
The “no social media” policy of Arcade Club Social is, as you might expect, part of a well-crafted strategy that is meant to transport users to a simpler time when you had to ask around and walk the streets to find places like this.
“Working in advertising, we believed that there is something in social media that has become sort of tiresome,” explains Ana. “There is something about the commercial communication of those platforms that people don’t really trust so much nowadays. So we decided to take on this challenge, it wasn’t a random decision.”
This strategy became a part of every part of their venture. When they were scouting for a location, for example, they had the opportunity to rent a space in Palermo, a few blocks away from MTV’s offices. “It would have been a certified success,” recalls Emi. But they decided instead to go for the current place in Villa Crespo, a worn out space which they had to remodel pretty much from scratch. As Emi puts it, “only the ones that were truly interested in video games would show up. Almost everyone that comes in says that it was exactly as they imagined it, and that is very satisfying for us.”
To achieve this atmosphere, Emi and Ana had to take care of all the other necessary aspects to make this a true throwback to the old “fichines” that used to exist in Buenos Aires and can only be found today in several coastal cities of Argentina like Mar del Plata, Villa Gesell, and Miramar. (Emi is quick to point out that arcades still exist in Buenos Aires inside of shopping malls but they do not have classic games and, as she herself puts it with a smile in her face, “you usually have to wait your turn behind some small kid that doesn’t even have the money to pay and just watches the demo go on and on in endless loops.”)
This search led them deeper and deeper into the world of video games in Argentina, meeting a series of characters along the way that would become fundamental for their later success.
There was Darío, the 60-year-old man from Lugano that had worked all his life in the arcade business and provided the girls with their first 15 arcade machines for a reasonable price (“at first he wouldn’t budge, but then he understood what we were doing and now we’re good friends, to this day he’s the one that does maintenance on the machines”).
There was the video game developer called Hernán and the art director and video game aficionado nicknamed El Gaita, who would become the godfathers of the Club and the most fervent organizers of special events (“they are definitely our best customers”).
All in all, this was the time in which they started forging a community around their idea, months before the place had even opened its doors. Around 200 people from this era would go on to become the only lifetime members of the club, enjoying special benefits and discounts. “If the place is packed and there’s only room for ten more people, those with membership will always have priority,” Emi explains.
By the time March 2017 rolled by, Arcade Club Social was finally ready to debut. Their impressive catalog included such famous titles as Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, 1942, and Wonderboy. It took less than a week for the rumor to spread like wildfire and people started lining up outside of the place before opening.
“I think it touched on something that wasn’t around,” explains Tuti, a faithful customer from day one that can be found on any given day passing the time in front of the Tetris machine, her favorite. “When I was little I was always a fan of playing Tetris this way, with the joystick and the buttons. But with time these places sort of disappeared. And now with this place you can actually enjoy it at night, after a long day at work. You can come here to unwind. You wanted that and it just didn’t exist.”
Emi and Ana had struck a nerve in the collective nostalgia of a generation and were reaping the benefits of their hard work. “When you were little you would play for as long as your parents were willing to spend so you had to make the tokens last,” Emi explains with a laugh. “But today when we tell the customers how much the tokens cost, they get very excited because now they are earning their own money and can do whatever they want with it.”
Arcade Club Social quickly became a meeting point not only for players but also for video game developers that would use the space to try their creations out on gamers. The aforementioned Hernán is to this day a regular fixture in the Club, were he has one night a month with his latest creation DOBOTONE (a kind of wordplay with the Spanish equivalent of two buttons). The game allows four players to accumulate points while competing in several contests, using only two cylindrical joysticks with only two buttons (hence the name of the game). At the same time, a fifth person can serve as a sort of game master, by manipulating a separate control panel that regulates different functions in the competition, from the speed of the game to the size of the screen.
DOBOTONE is just one example, but there are plenty of other developers creating challenging games in Argentina and they seem to have found a kind of laboratory in Arcade Club Social. As Ana explains: “developers don’t usually have much public financing, so we do our best to defend the video game as a cultural cornerstone, with some of the same storytelling virtues as film or TV, but with the added bonus that it is more interactive.” They have even made alliances with a video game department in San Martin University, allowing the students to use the Club to experiment with their developments.
Arcade Club Social turns one year at the end of March. It has burst into the Buenos Aires nightlife scene by tapping into a massive niche that not even Ana or Emi could have really envisioned at the beginning. In Emi’s own words: “People think that only boys come here, but I can assure you there are nights in which women are the majority. Besides all the different urban tribes of Buenos Aires can be seen on any given night converging in the Club. You can’t really see that in many places.” Ana adds: “We are actually starting to validate that video games are not only for kids and teenagers. Arcades are actually really democratic. They are for everybody.”