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.

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“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.

A large screen taking up a significant portion of the back wall next to the DJ booth caught my eye. Projected onto the screen was a heated match of Killer Instinct between two twenty-something males, who sat in metal folding chairs in front of the display, looking rather serious as their thumbs moved across the controllers. This is the main attraction and what caught my eye about Friends Chill: Nintendo on the big screen.

“It started about six or seven years ago with the board games. It was about four or five years ago with the Super Nintendo,” said Scott Caligure, a Whistle Stop employee and creator of the Friends Chill night. I spoke with him as he was setting up an oversized, custom-made Connect Four board in the middle of the bar’s dance floor. Caligure said the bar’s owner had asked employees to come up with activities to draw in patrons on weeknights. The idea came to him rather organically.

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“I was spending a lot of time playing board games with friends at my house. I think the game was Apples to Apples. So I brought the idea of bringing in games to the owner, and he loved it. It was funny, you know, because here we bring in this Mensa-endorsed board game, and everyone’s drinking and having a great time playing it.”

The idea to bring in videogames was the next logical step for Caligure. The bar had just purchased a video projector, which they mostly used to play movies. Realizing that he could hook up a console to the machine, Caligure and his fellow employees first tried an Atari 2600. When they discovered the projector didn’t have the inputs needed, they bought an SNES and some games from local pawn shops.

“We went with the Super Nintendo because it had more competitive games, like Mario Kart and the fighting games, along with the classic stuff like Mario Bros.,” Caligure told me. When I asked him if men or women tended to play more, he admitted that guys usually gravitate toward the screen earlier in the evening to play fighting games, but he’s seen ladies hog the system when they realized they could play Super Mario Bros. 3. The idea was to keep the games simple enough to attract people, but complex enough to keep them coming back.

Caligure saw the Super Nintendo as a way to get people talking. After all, videogames have been a constant in the lives of most young adults, so there is some common ground for people to start conversations. The entire set up is designed to get people talking, too.

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“There’s no sign up sheet or anything,” Caligure said. “There’s the system, the controllers and some games. If you want to play, you just go up and grab a controller. If somebody else is playing, you actually have to ask them to play. It forces people to talk to each other.”

But The Whistle Stop isn’t the only bar in San Diego that offers videogames in lieu of more traditional fare. The Bluefoot Bar & Lounge, just up the road in North Park, often has a couple Wii consoles hooked up to projectors. The atmosphere isn’t nearly as laid back as The Whistle Stop, but that didn’t stop bar patrons from playing Mario Kart and Wii Sports, laughing and chatting it up all the while. One particular stand-out moment the evening I attended involved an attractive young woman swinging her arm wildly and accidentally releasing the Wii remote, sending it flying across the bar and straight into a man’s back. Is there a better conversation starter than that?

Back at the Whistle Stop, I talked to Brian and Leanne, a couple who have sat down to play Super Mario Bros. 2. When I asked them what brought them to the bar on a Tuesday evening, Leanne smiled and pointed at the large screen.

“This! I come to play Mario now,” she said with excitement. Previously, she went out to other bars in the area for the music, until she realized her favorite game from childhood was playable just down the street. Now, it’s strictly about the games.

Unsurprisingly, not everybody is there for Nintendo on the big screen. In fact, Caligure admitted that most people come to Friends Chill for the board games rather than the digital entertainment. But Caligure told me that the most important thing is that people are talking and having a good time together, whether they’re playing board games, billiards or videogames. He’s even seen gamers bring in their PSPs and play wirelessly across the bar.

“We’ll keep doing this until people stop coming,” Caligure told me. The fact that people keep showing up, especially when they could easily have a beer and play videogames from the comfort of their own living room, seems to show that people crave social interaction.

Of course, videogames have yet to replace alcohol as the number one social lubricant, and they probably never will. Still, it’s nice to be able to make a quip about red tortoise shells and get a smile instead of a blank stare.

Quintin Marcelino is an Intellectual Properties Developer for Upper Deck. He has recently begun to preach the importance of gaming to attractive women in bars and other public places and has been met with a tepid response.

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