As the gaming demographic has settled into its 18-34 status in the past several years, the intersection between gaming and drinking has only grown. This has been compounded with the rising popularity of craft beer and bars with themes beyond “get drunk and play pool maybe.” Ten years ago, you’d be lucky to find a Pac-Man cabinet in a bar. Now, “barcades” are a big deal all over the place, and that idea has expanded to including things like geeky trivia and even tabletop games. But another type of gaming bar has also grown, and it’s one that’s now under threat of extinction before it can really get going.
You may not have encountered a console gaming bar yet in your lifetime. I haven’t. But I’ve seen advertisements for them and social media buzz. They’re more common outside of the US, with prominent gaming bars popping up in places like Japan and the UK. They sound amazing; walk into the bar, get a drink, and get set up with a console with your friends to game and drink in a friendly environment, likely decorated with all kinds of fun gaming flair. But it’s not all rainbows and sunshine.
When a public place like a bar wants to have certain kinds of entertainment, the unfortunate reality is that rights are involved. If a place wants to show a movie or host a live sports event for example, fees have to be paid for the content, and those fees are substantial. A stack of board games hanging out in a bar aren’t beholden to the same rights, and arcade cabinets are already licensed for public use by their nature. But those cabinets take up a ton of space, not like setting up tables lined with monitors and consoles, and the much easier storage of game carts and discs. But there aren’t notable licensing agreements in place for individual games.
It’s leading to trouble, too. In Japan especially, local rights holders are starting to crack down on game bars, which are very small businesses already by nature of location, both physically and economically. It’s illegal to have these games publicly available in a bar setting, and recently, arrests have been made. Several popular bars have had to remove their monitors (leaving the games and stuff around for decoration is fine, so the themes are at least preserved), but that’s killing business. Kotaku recently did a story on popular game bar Space Station, and owner Matt Bloch recently had to shut down indefinitely while he figures out a solution. It’s a sad state of affairs, for such a cool idea.
Certainly, rights holders are within their current rights to have these sorts of operations shut down. People are playing their games and the money isn’t going to the publishers. But instead of shutting them down, perhaps governing gaming bodies (such as the ESA in the states) should be working instead to find a way to make these things happen, and viable for both the rights holders and bar owners. These are a great avenue for both the community and the game companies to benefit from, if not piles of cash, word of mouth and goodwill. There’s no reason these places should be shut down, and it’s especially unnecessary to have people arrested.
Ultimately, game bars haven’t spread as much as barcades or other novelties because of complicated rights issues. Piracy, to which this sort of thing is dubiously related, is still a huge boogeyman and scapegoat for executives who see dropping numbers and need to point blame somewhere other than their own business practices. It should be painfully obvious a small bar full of kids playing Mario Kart for a few hours with their drinks isn’t killing anyone’s bottom line, but common sense and suits don’t historically get along very well. For now, let’s hope that the underdogs of this story can make it out alive, living to fight another day and perhaps finding a solution in the process.