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If you're old enough, you probably remember the old-school video game arcade — though maybe with a mixture of love and revulsion. Sure, the old arcades were dark, about 107 degrees year round, smelled like feet and fried wiring and usually had carpet stickier than the stuff they use to glue the heat-resistant tiles on the space shuttle. But for a certain kind of kid — the geeky, the awkward, the easily bored — a handful of quarters and a room crammed with cabinet games like Donkey Kong and Centipede could be something approaching heaven: a place where those who didn't socialize well had a chance to be around others who shared their interests and, for a moment, show their stuff.
The rise of home-gaming consoles like the Nintendo, Xbox and Playstation signed the death warrant for most of the old arcades. Within a decade, gaming went from an activity that required being around others to something that one did alone, or with — at most — one or two friends.
In Little Rock, however, there's one person who remembers the Golden Age of the arcade: Noel Franks. His gaming parlor, Game Ever, which opened last March on Bowman Curve, is a chic and fun place where kids can compete and socialize while playing the latest video games and generally spending time getting to know others. With an encyclopedic knowledge of gaming history and a Willy Wonka-level enthusiasm, Franks is single-handedly trying to bring the social aspect back to the medium he loves.
At 32, Franks' love of gaming is in his blood. As a kid, the Tucson native's family couldn't afford a game system, so he played at friends' houses, "spectated" at the local arcade and slowly saved up enough money from odd jobs to buy his first Nintendo at age 11. He's been hooked ever since.
"The way I see video games is as the most important communication medium since film," he said. "Humans have never produced anything quite like it. It's essentially a dream — through code and human magic — made into something tangible."
When Franks was 13, his father got a job with a company making inroads into emerging markets in Russia. While living in Moscow — an American kid in a strange land — Franks made friends in the arcades and immersed himself in the burgeoning video game culture there, playing games imported from Europe and the Pacific Rim, many of which never made it to the U.S.
At 16, work brought his family to Little Rock. He graduated from Central High School, and later Hendrix College, then kicked around in low-level jobs before moving to San Francisco, where he landed a job with gaming software provider Havok.
Havok was the dream job that wasn't. "It should have been ideal," he said, "but when you have somebody who is so hardcore raw about his love for this stuff, and it butts up against business models, it can get a little sticky."
Franks and his wife moved back to Little Rock, where he first created a sort of mobile arcade called Little Rock Multitap, lugging 46-inch TVs into community centers so people could play cooperatively. He found a silent partner investor who believed in the idea and started Game Ever in 2011. He never even considered locating in another city.
"For people my age [in Little Rock], it's 'I'm talented, I'm skilled, I'm well-educated, guess I have to leave,' " Franks said. "No, dude. Invest in your home ... I've traveled a lot and I freaking love it here. I don't think we view Little Rock as the capital that it is. We don't think like a capital, and my goal is to be part of a Capital Movement. Frankly, we're an awesome place to live."
Game Ever is already a quantum leap beyond the old arcade in terms of design. Clean, modern, lit by plenty of windows and the walls hung with quirky posters saluting the history of video gaming, the place manages to look both classy and friendly at once. Except for the comfortable, wrap-around chairs, Franks designed and built all the furniture at Game Ever himself, including the tables and stands which hold individual flat-screen TVs at Game Ever's 53 game-play stations. He and two friends spent weeks sanding a quarter-inch of carpet glue off the concrete floors with diamond-grit pads before sealing it themselves.
There are always around a dozen games available for play at Game Ever, from the latest Xbox 360 sports and shooter titles, to old-school games on lovingly-maintained vintage consoles like the original Nintendo and Sega Genesis — which haven't been made since the late 1990s. At least two new titles rotate in every week. All the games either have multiple controllers, or are linked by a network so players can compete directly with others in the room. Games available are rated from E-for-Everyone to M-for-Mature. Keeping kids in mind, Franks sweats a lot over which M-rated games will play at Game Ever, making sure the language isn't too rough, and not scheduling those which feature realistic, human-vs.-human violence such as "Call of Duty: Black Ops" (human-vs.-alien games like "Halo: Reach" or human-vs.-zombie fighters like "Left 4 Dead" are often on the menu, however). For those not interested in video games, there's a full-sized ping-pong table in the back room, a competition-quality foosball table out front and a stack of board games by the counter. He's considering figuring out a way to "fold in" more mature shooters and games with saltier language and situations for adult gamers, possibly by building a separate space upstairs.
"I approach this from a very social perspective," he said. "You'll notice this place is great for one and more players. You can be a single player and sit down at any game, and it will be awesome. I make sure that's the case. But we have games that excel at multi-player. It's because I fell in love with video games on the couch. I fell in love with video games as a social pastime."
Given how good the place looks and what it must have cost to build it, the most surprising thing about Game Ever might be how cheap it is to play there — a nod to Franks' own Nintendo-coveting past. Prices are $2 for one hour, $3 for two hours, or $10 for an all-day pass. Game Ever does birthday parties as well: $50 to rent the room, plus $10 per kid for all day and parents play free.
"I'm not here to get rich," he said. "That's not my goal. My goal is to have the coolest place in town, period, and to make sure that it's safe and affordable. I have very simple ambitions."
Parents are welcome to stay and play, but can also drop off their children for a few hours at Game Ever, which has a 15-camera security system and strict protocols in place regarding patron safety. Everyone who buys time to play is photographed, with their photo placed in a file at the constantly manned front desk, along with two forms of contact information in case of trouble. There's also a lounge for parents who are nervous about leaving their kid alone. Though there's no official lower limit on the age of those who can play there without parental supervision, it's generally very teen- and tween-friendly. Not surprisingly, it's usually fairly packed on Friday and Saturday nights.
"We had a couple drop their kid off and when they came back, they were really decked out," Franks said. "I was like, 'Hey, hey! Looking sharp!' They said: 'We went on a date! First time in, like, 10 years!' To me, that was a special moment. They seized what I'm doing here."
With his business taking off and a newborn daughter, Franks is loving life and his role as head Geek Monk of his temple of gaming. His goal, he said, is to be a benefit to the community, and introduce others to the joy he knew as a kid with a controller in his hand.
"I see this place as part living museum, part day spa, part community center. It's all that. It's a really special thing for me to be a part of," he said. "Little Rock, I'm very proud and honored to say, has embraced this place. We very rarely have people who come once. We're a very return-friendly kind of place. We develop friendships here."
400 N. Bowman Road
3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tue.-Thu., 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. Fri., noon to 10 p.m. Sat., noon to 6 p.m. Sun. Closed Monday.
$2 for one hour, $3 for two hours, $10 all day.