Jungle King and Donkey Kong and Pac-Man beware. This is war! Real war. Your plugs are at stake. In fact, the video arcade wars have leaped far beyond the color-spitting, sensory-numbing game machine screens and landed squarely in the middle of city council and planning board chambers in communities throughout the metropolitan area.
For the arcades, it is seen as nothing less than a war of survival. But for those communities that have taken them on, the issue is just as basic: community peace and tranquility.
In Fairfax City, for instance, neighborhood civic associations banded together to keep Frogger and Frenzy and their quarter-gobbling cousins out. As a result, the city council tightened its restrictions on arcade parlors and shut down one video game center it accused of violating city regulations.
"We could have ended up the Fun City of the U.S.A.," said Fred Silverthorne, mayor of Fairfax City when the council began its crackdown on arcade parlors this summer. "So we wanted to hit a balance. . . . One arcade applicant wanted to operate until 3 or 4 in the morning and this concerned us."
In surrounding Fairfax County, the Board of Supervisors recently voted to limit arcade parlors to enclosed shopping malls where mall management is responsible for keeping order. Supervisors also ordered the county staff to conduct an extensive study of the problems associated with the video game centers.
"Certain people don't like arcades--the noise and the lights," said Larry McDermott, assistant to the zoning administrator for Fairfax County. "There are a lot of questions about them the arcades , but as far as actual, formal complaints against them--there doesn't seem to be much."
Those neighborhood organizations that have taken on the arcades voice similar concerns. They say they don't like the noise, the constant traffic and the youthful rowdiness they associate with arcade parlors. But their distaste for the video centers doesn't stop with the issue of neighborhood decorum.
"It's a very expensive waste of time," said John McLees, president of the Westmore Civic Association in Fairfax City. "They make it possible for kids to spend money awfully fast and not have much to show for it. It's not like being entertained by the arts or sports, something that has esthetic or moral value -- this is a lesser form of entertainment."
Tell that to the hundreds of children -- and adults -- who pack the arcade parlors after school hours and on weekends. To many, mastering Galaga is an art at most, plain fun at least.
"It's cheap entertainment," says Thomas F. McAuliffe, vice president of operations for Time-Out Family Amusement Centers, a company that operates 12 arcade parlors in the metropolitan area, plus another 68 nationwide.
But McAuliffe admits the video arcade industry has been its own worst enemy: "We've been hurt by ourselves and the image we've had."
Video arcade owners say they are still battling the 1960s image of the dark, smoke-filled pinball parlor "dens of iniquity" that were seen as centers of drug abuse.
New arcade owners say they're trying to combat that image. They've carpeted their parlors. They offer free games to youngsters who can show they've improved their grades. They give incentives to students for perfect school attendance.
For some community leaders that hasn't been enough. The old images, fueled by some present-day clashes, persist, say the arcade owners, who now say they are fighting for their livelihoods.
The challenge to the arcade owners comes from within the business community, as well. A number of businesses, including fast-food restaurants, have installed video games, taking advantage of the fact that most Northern Virginia governments allow business establishments to have from one to 10 video machines without a special permit.
Those policies have annoyed the arcade owners, who say the proliferation of video machines has cut into their business.
And another arcade spinoff is now prowling the roads and neighborhood streets of Arlington: the mobile video arcade. The presence of such mobile arcades has triggered new zoning restriction efforts by Arlington and neighboring Fairfax counties.
While governments and neighborhood organizations have been wrestling with the problem of how to control the spread of video game parlors, store owners say it's expensive for them just to keep up with the trends in the ever-changing market.
"The public is fickle," said McAuliffe. "They master one game and move on." Each game costs the arcade owner an average of $2,400, he said.
It is the game-players' voracious appetites for new challenges that has sent the video game manufacturing industry into a frenzy.
While arcade owners are trying to second-guess their customers, county governments are trying to second-guess the new phenomenon that parents have criticized as addictive and financially draining on their youngsters.
In Fairfax City, the issue was crystallized when parents complained that a parlor licensed to serve only players 16 years and older was opening its games to minors. The city council revoked the 22-year-old owner's permit two days before it was up for renewal.
"The games are compelling," said McAuliffe. "They are like potato chips, you can't eat just one."