5 Women Gamers Rediscover Lost Loves

By Regina Joseph

The journey began with a Frogger upright cabinet. It ended with Frogger, too.

I was part of a floating, informal cocktail party of women who work in digital media. More important, we had all grown up on the classic video games of the early 1980's, like Galaga, Centipede, Tempest and Q-Bert.

A few months ago, Lynda Rathbone, the former Webmaster for the White House, offered to hold the party at her new condo. Upon entering, we were greeted by the sight of an original, fabulously preserved Frogger arcade machine. Lynda explained that she had ordered the game from the Home Amusement Company of Harper's Ferry, W.Va, which is said to be the largest coin-operated machine retail business in the United States. At Home Amusement, you could find almost any game you wanted, she said.

For women who had spent their formative years in dark arcades fragging 8-bit aliens, that information was tantamount to Senator Orrin G. Hatch coming across Bill Gates's private E-mail messages. Our gaming impulses rekindled, we decided to make a girls-only road trip to Harper's Ferry to reclaim the games of our youth.

On a rainy Saturday morning in March, five of us, all ostensibly adults, clambered into a van and began the long drive to West Virginia. Aboard the van - amid bottles of water and fat-free raspberry danish and tapes of Elastica, Fiona Apple and jungle compilations - we chatted about our gaming histories.

Which game was your first? That question was greeted with a unanimous cry of "Pong!" a legendary, 1980 Atari 2600 classic that revolutionized home entertainment. Being children in homes that adopted consumer electronics early, we all recieved some reinforcement. Lara Stein, who grew up in South Africa, rememebered playing Space Invaders with her brother "until one of us would clock the machine!"

Jill Greenberg, who played Space Invaders and Breakout with her sister, theorized that her game-playing gene was carried by the women in the family. "My mom was a math buff and science major in college," she said. "In 1964, she became a COBOL programmer and helped support my father through med school. She used to write programs on keypunch cards for mainframes."

Despite the fact that all our families shared a love of early 1980's technology, most of us considered ourselves oddboalls, the girls who were distinguished by our passion for the testosterone-fueled domain of video games.

"Generally, guys played games and girls went to arcades to hit on guys," said Elisabeth Crocker, who grew up in Southern California. "The parking lots of arcades were big cruise loops for high school kids, full of scary girls with big frosted perms. Because I had flat hair and didn't like makeup, I hung out primarily with guys and played games."

Lynda took game-playing one step further. "Our mission: to beat the boys at the shooter games like Galaga."

For me, the attraction of the arcade experience was sensual: the darkness of the cabinet environment that enveloped you as you concentrated on the game, the hypnotic blips and bleeps of sound, and the speedy rush of trying to reach the next level or win one more life before my quarters ran out.

After five hours, the van pulled into a lot strewn with the bodies of ancient pinball tables, an old Sprint 2 raving game and a champagne-colored Cadillac bearing the vanity license plate "Chuck". We tumbled out of the van and into a funhouse filled with mint-condition arcade machines and rare pinball tables.

Emerging from the warren of crowded, gadget-filled rooms was Chuck Niedinger, Home Entertainment's owner and founder. Asked why he has dedicated the last 39 years of his life to "kids' stuff," he replied: "Well, one day I just got fed up with my four kids fighting over what they were going to watch on TV. I bought a pinball machine on a Sunday, bought three more by that Thursday, and within three months, I had 43 machines in the house!"

Wandering around Mr. Niedinger's shop, I noticed the absence of more recent games. "In the last five years, video games have become so sophisticated that adults can't play them, only kids can," Mr. Niedinger explained. "Take Streetfighter, one of the most popular arcade titles. That has seven buttons you need to play the games. Ms. Pac-Man has only one control stick."

We convened in the back room to conduct our business. Having ordered our machines prior to the trip, we hadn't anticipated so many sired calls to our wallets. Jull was set to purchase one machine, a Data East pinball classic featuring television's Simpsonss family, but she was seduced into adding another table to her purchase, an eerie 60's curiousity called Suspense. Lara was the big spender, bagging her already ordered Centipede machine and adding an Asteroids cocktail table and a wide-body Spider-Man pinball machine. Lynda exchanged her pre-ordered Asteroids upright game for the cocktail table. Only Elisabeth left disappointed; the Kick cocktail table she ordered had a malfunctioning CPU and had to be scrapped. I got a Donkey Kong cocktail table, exactly what I had come for. The final tally for eight machines was $5,000.

The first Monday after the trip, Lara called me about an item in that morning's newspaper. Hasbro Interactive, which re-released Frogger for the PC last Christmas and experienced surprise success with that old title (selling one million of them) announced that it had paid $5 million in cash to buy the entire Atari library for re-release.

For Generation X-ers finally able to afford some nostalgia, the 80's are back. But for serious gamers, they never really went away.

Road Warriors

When five women went on a road trip to buy retro arcade games - some the size of pinball machines, others as small as cocktail tables - it reminded them of a television show from the same period "Charlies Angels." Here is a look at these women and their games.

NAME Regina Joseph
BORN New York City
AGE 32
OCCUPATION Senior analyst at Jupiter Communications and Adweek columnist
GAME PURCHASED Donkey Kong Cocktail table
HIGH SCORE 363,000
NAME Elisabeth Crocker
BORN Hollywood
AGE 30
OCCUPATION Publisher, HappyPuppy.com
GAME PURCHASED Kick cocktail table
HIGH SCORE Can't Recall
NAME Lara Stein
BORN Johannesburg
AGE 31
GAME PURCHASED Asteroids, Spiderman pinball machine, Centipede, Pac Man cocktail table
HIGH SCORE Centipede, 1,235,000
NAME Jill Greenberg
BORN Montreal
AGE 30
OCCUPATION Commercial Photographer
GAME PURCHASED Simpsons and Suspense pinball machines
HIGH SCORE 35,000 on the Simpsons game
NAME Lynda Rathbone
BORN Pittburgh
AGE 30
OCCUPATION Founder and President, Rathbone and Associates
GAME PURCHASED Asteroids Cocktail Table