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For the love of the game 

Video gaming with soul at Little Rock's Game Ever.

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."

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Speaking of Noel Frank, Game Ever

  • Play Bunten's "M.U.L.E." at Game Ever

    February 10, 2012
    We wrote about Game Ever, Noel Franks' West Little Rock video game arcade/museum/day spa/temple at 400 N. Bowman Road, a few weeks back, and my 12-year-old has since become a regular, spending at least three Saturdays since the story came out fragging other kids at "Halo: Reach," eating pizza, playing ping-pong and generally having a safe, fun afternoon while his Parental Units get some Hang Time. /more/
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