At the Arcade

by | Jul 24, 2023 | Creative Nonfiction, The Attic

Arcade games in a row.

I never had hobbies. Everything is all or nothing with me. Art isn’t a hobby. It’s my whole life. Riding my bike isn’t a hobby. It’s another way to enliven myself. Playing guitar is a spiritual quest. Being in the forest is a way to merge with heaven. And back in my twenties, carpentry was a job, a pleasant part-time income stream. So throughout my life, when the question of hobbies arose, I’ve always been at a loss. Nothing ever felt minor.

And then, after I finished art school, I found Ms. Pac-Man. My boyfriend took me to an arcade. This was way before everyone had apps in their pockets. The arcade felt like a watering hole without the water. It had a benign shadiness about it. We played a few rounds of pinball, and then we tried our hand at Ms. Pac-Man. We were quickly consumed by ghosts. And then my competitive urge reared its head. I wanted to win. I played a few extra rounds, and then we went home.

But I went back. And I got better.

I might even describe what I had as an innate skill. It wasn’t the sort of skill I would label as useful. I couldn’t even put my finger on how to categorize it, but there was no denying: I was good at this. I kept going back. I kept improving. I wondered about the point of it. What good did it do? What drew me? Did I have myself a hobby? I wasn’t producing beautiful artwork. I wasn’t working a paying job. I wasn’t exercising.

But then, I never made art for the finished product. I make art for the experience of making art. I take on jobs for more than the money. They have to feed my spirit in some way. And I ride my bike not to get exercise, but to have the feeling of flight. So what did it matter if Ms. Pac-Man did any good? I liked it.

When I played, I entered into an odd sort of calm. A zone. I’d chomp through lines of pellets, avoid ghosts, and eat the stylized fruit icons: cherries, strawberries, peaches. I got really good. The game gave me satisfaction, but I didn’t get prideful. I felt peaceful. It was like a meditation.

One day I went in and, as always, I strode past the teens at their game stations. I pumped my coins into Ms. Pac-Man and started to play. I felt an anchored spaciousness in me. My focus was sharp. No ghosts got me. Then I sensed someone watching me. A few people. A small crowd of teenage boys had formed around me. They watched my moves in silence. I played through every level of the game. Toward the end, one of the kids gasped, “She got to the banana!”

I felt a mixture of pride and absurdity. “What is this?” I thought. “The new jazz?” I wasn’t making beautiful music. This was not an achievement I would ever flaunt. But even so, I was pleased. I liked being accepted by these kids, being in the spirit of their world. I liked the unspoken camaraderie. I liked being a minor star for a moment.

I walked out into the afternoon light, contented and calm.

Photo by Steven Miller, used and adapted under CC.

About The Author


I grew up in the foothills of the Allegheny mountains and was shocked when I left and found flat, tree-less terrain. I am forever amazed at how peculiar and beautiful life can be, and hope that my amazement comes through in my work. I’ve had writing published in The Photo Review, IndyWeek, The Oakland Review, and various literary magazines. I’ve exhibited my visual art nationally. To read/view more, please visit