In December 2006, I drove up to L.A. with my roommate to make an appearance at a friend's house party. He had asked me to bring an extra Guitar Hero controller, which I assumed would sit in the corner of his living room as people mingled. But there I was, the clock nearing midnight, sitting on a couch and watching a hipster in tight jeans attempt his best Elvis Costello impression, sliding his feet along the ground and bobbing his head spastically as he hammered away at the colored fret buttons on the controller's neck. Next to him, with a second plastic guitar, was a young woman, trying her best to find her rhythm but failing. Slinging the controller off her shoulder in resignation, another guest saw this as an invitation for conversation.
"You did so good!" he said, slurring slightly, a beer in hand. "You looked like Debbie Harry with that guitar! It was hot." That was the first time I had seen someone use a videogame to try to pick up a woman.
It didn't work, but that didn't matter. A large group of people had huddled around the TV, chatting with people they didn't know while taking turns trying to play "Ziggy Stardust." When my friend hooked up his iPod to a pair of speakers so we wouldn't have to hear "Ace of Spades" for the 17th time, the crowd lobbed a volley of "boos" his way.
This was a new experience for me. As a lifelong gamer, I'd gotten used to the idea that most folks, even people my age, viewed gaming as an antisocial activity. The stereotypical gamer nerd, holed up in a dark room with fingers stained orange from repeated dips into a bag of cheese curls and eyes bloodshot from staring at a television for 17 straight hours, was a far more common image than a sociable, well-kempt young man who just happened to love playing games. Gaming had always been my dirty little secret, something that I purposefully didn't bring up when talking to new people because it would often grind conversations to a halt.
That began to change when Guitar Hero blew up, and continued with the success of the Nintendo Wii and DS. Suddenly, it was acceptable for non-gamers to use games as a means to socialize.
This brought me to The Whistle Stop, a small bar in the South Park neighborhood of San Diego. I had heard about their Tuesday evening event, which the bar advertised as the "Friends Chill" night. Walking into the bar, nothing immediately seemed out of the ordinary. Less than 10 people were sitting at the front bar; a few watched Futurama on the small television hanging in the back corner (the only TV in the place, as employees are proud to point out). Another 30 or so sat at tables scattered across the two open rooms of the bar. Most of them were playing board games, quick and easy classics like Jenga and Connect Four.