February 2008 Issue
Game rooms add an element of fun to home decor.
From arcade classics to modern-day PlayStations, Americans love their games. Why? For starters, they are sources of nostalgia, escape, wish fulfillment, stress relief, competition and social bonding. And they’re fun, too. Some enthusiasts even design entire rooms in their homes around their favorite games.
When Laurie and Rex Elsass, residents of the Columbus suburb of Dublin, were building their new home four years ago, they knew they wanted to devote their basement to family fun.
Rex wanted a bowling alley for the couple’s three sons, ages 8 to 15, but Laurie disagreed. “I thought the children would quickly tire [of that],” she says. After much discussion, the couple opted for an expansive, well-stocked game room in their spacious basement, boasting various video, pinball and arcade games catering to children and adults of all ages.
|Elsass Family game room
Photos by Megan Nadolski
The lower level of the Elsass home emits a cacophony of bells, whistles and lights from its various offerings of all shapes, sizes and challenges.
To name all the games owned by the Elsass family is to virtually recite a guidebook of arcade games. According to Laurie Elsass, each game was purchased with a specific purpose, and sometimes even a certain person, in mind. For example, their Roller Coaster Tycoon pinball machine is simple enough for their youngest to enjoy, while the older boys are fans of Arctic Thunder, a snowmobile racing simulation game. One of that game’s most unusual aspects, she says, is that “you can actually feel the cold air blowing on you while you’re snowmobiling,”
When Cincinnatian Jeffrey Lawton, 61, was a teenager in New Jersey, he received his first pinball machine, a Gottlieb-made College Daze, circa 1949. It was one of only 2,230 such models built by Gottlieb, a one-time leading manufacturer of such electro-mechanical games. And for Lawton, it was love at first sight — he’s since written a book and numerous magazine columns on the topic of antique pinball machines, which he collects.
These games, he says, evoke a strong sense of nostalgia. He and his late wife spent many hours in their basement game room. “I was the better repairman but she was the better player,” he says. Today, he plays the games with friends and with his children and grandchildren when they visit from New Jersey.
Friendly rivalries have developed over the years, says Lawton. One 8-year-old grandson “really wants to beat his dad,” and on one pinball machine not too long ago, Lawton’s son earned a record 8,300,000 million points to overtake grandpa’s former high score of 8,200,000.
Greg King, a computer engineer in Cleveland, owns several games, including Pac-Man, Asteroids, Tron and four slot machines. King says the games “bond me with my five nieces and nephews and gives us good memories.”
Nostalgia was a factor in Cincinnati realtor Mary Kirby Helmsderfer’s becoming a game collector. Helmsderfer, 37, was practically “addicted” to playing Ms. Pac-Man as a child, so two years ago, when clients selling their home told her she could buy the game and a pinball machine they owned, she jumped at the chance. Today, playing Ms. Pac-Man reminds Helmsderfer of the days when she and her younger brother competed against one another at the game.
The reasoning behind the Elsass family’s game room is simple. “We wanted a kid magnet,” Laurie says emphatically. “We wanted our kids to be home and their friends to want to be at our home, too.”
Playing arcade games and pinball offers a thrill different from home video game systems such as Xbox 360 and Wii. The Elsasses’ basement is not without those attractions, too, but arcade and pinball games offer a feature missing from home video games.
“Our games let all ages have fun. Adults want to be kids again, too,” she explains.
It’s not unusual for the basement to be filled with children and teens, no matter the day or night of the week. Not too long ago, the Elsasses hosted a birthday party/sleepover in their basement for one of their sons. “I had 18 kids over and you’d never know,” Laurie says.
To complement the game-room atmosphere, the Elsasses’ arcade is accented with black-and-white linoleum flooring and old license plates on the walls. Laurie scoured eBay and antiques stores in search of just the right accoutrements for the room, a lengthy project she thoroughly enjoyed. “We went for a Route 66 theme,” she says.
Basement rooms are being repurposed for fun by other game aficionados. Jeffrey Lawton’s lower level is home to his collection of 19 pinball machines. “My basement is nothing but games,” he says, although he also owns a full-size Tempest arcade game, which he keeps in his upstairs family room.
Mary Helmsderfer stores her Ms. Pac-Man and pinball machine in a basement storage room that she and her husband emptied and then painted. While the room is small, Helmsderfer says she would find space if she finds what she calls the game of her dreams. “If I saw a Centipede and the price was right, I’d buy it,” she says.
Greg King keeps his various games in a basement room he labels a “rec room/office.” In addition to three arcade and four pinball machines, two of which are Japanese Pachinko models, King’s room also houses a foosball table and poker table.
Arcade games and pinball machines are not nearly as popular as they once were, King observes, in part due to the ubiquity of home video game consoles, which are less expensive and take up far less space than an arcade game or pinball machine. Furthermore, today’s pinball games are very complex and challenging, perhaps too much so for younger children, and can be expensive to repair.
At the same time, King doesn’t want to discourage people from buying the games. “There’s a lot of information on the Internet, so anyone with technical ability might be able to repair [a machine],” he says.
Whether purchased new or used, arcade games and pinball machines can be costly. The Elsasses spent more than $25,000 on their game room during the Christmas season in 2004. Helmsderfer paid $900 for her two used games, while Lawton sold a Wiggler pinball machine, made in 1976 by industry giant Bally, to his financial advisor six years ago for $750. Partly because they are difficult to find, King estimates that to replace his Asteroid arcade game, he would have to spend between $600 and $700. However, he says, more popular games, like Pac-Man and its equally beloved counterpart, Ms. Pac-Man, can be found for about $500, depending on their condition.
Still, according to Laurie Elsass, the time and money her family has spent on their arcade room has been well worth it. “This is an investment in togetherness,” she says.