Running a Arcade Bar in a Way of Operating an Art Gallery Interview with Mark Kleback

Author: Rashel
2022-11-24
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Wonderville is an indie game arcade and bar in Brooklyn, New York, founded by husband-and-wife team Mark Kleback and Stephanie Gross. Most of their games were developed for arcade gameplay or were selected and installed in the arcade cabinets for the audience to play in the bar. Wonderville regularly hosts various events — game nights, showcases, art festivals, concerts, etc. related to indie games.

The organization also runs workshops with game developers, showing them how to cut and paint wood, solder electronics, and assemble physical installations for video games. Today, when everyone can use computers and phones to play games alone, arcade games have been taking an important role in gathering players in the physical world. Thus, Wonderville has now become one of the most influential game spaces in New York City. It is a social place for developers, artists, musicians, programmers, and other talents from the DIY circles. Recently, indienova visited Wonderville and interviewed one of the founders, Mark Kleback. Below is our conversation.

Mark Kleback and Stephanie Gross

Rashel:
How did you start Wonderville?

Mark:
We started building our arcade cabinets at Death By Audio (a once famous underground music venue in Brooklyn) in a building in Williamsburg on Kent Avenue, and it closed in 2014. So, we ended up having a bunch of arcades without knowing where to put them. We were always looking for a new place, and we'd have to keep moving. In 2019, our friends who owned this place were trying to sell it. They said, if you guys want to buy this, you could have the bar, you could put all the arcades. They made us a deal and we thought “this is too good; we can't pass up on it.” So, we said yes, and we did a Kickstarter to raise the money. It worked. We made like a hundred thousand dollars.

Rashel:
Bushwick is a clubbing community. How do you think Wonderville fits in this neighborhood?

Mark:
I think we're not as much of a club as House of Yes (a funky nightclub in Bushwick). We don't stay open until 4 am, except on the weekends. We close at two. And I think people don't come here late at night as much as they would go to a dance club. Yeah, but people like to come here and play the games and we do a lot of events. I think people in Bushwick like to appreciate art. We have an arcade that offers free games that you’ve never played before, and we treat it like an art gallery.

The bartender Annalie was shaking hands with a customer in the bar of Wonderville

Rashel:
Do you think games are an art form? This could be a very boring question.

Mark:
Oh, no, people will keep asking it. Yeah, games are art for sure. I think if you had a public space and had a painting that lived on the wall for three months and then you swapped it out and put another painting on the wall, that would be an art residency. Right? It's the same thing. It's just that our art is games, and I think there's been an ongoing debate, but look at VIDEOFREAK, Hair Nah, and Line Wobbler, and of course, some of them are very gamey, but some of them feel very different. And I think it's great to have all kinds of games.

Mark Kleback is playing the game Line Wobbler designed by Robin Baumgarten

Line Wobbler,A one-dimensional video game

Rashel:
About the game developers and the audience — who are these people?

Mark:
So game developers tend to be on the more affluent side, I guess. They have more money. And there are people who have been to graduate school or work for Google, which is great for us because we are selling expensive beers and they don't complain about it. When we try to choose games for residencies, I think we try to think about the developer and where their background is. For Hair Nah we chose a black woman because we didn't have any games made by black women. And I think that was a really important message. In terms of whoever comes here, I think it depends. If we do a hip hop show, we get people who like hip hop. If we do rock band shows, we get people who like rock bands. So whatever event we choose, that's sort of the demographic.

Rashel:
Has your original goal of opening this space been realized?

Mark:
I mean, I think so. We are lucky because many of the games we have are built by local New York City game developers. It’s funny. People ask all the time: “Are you going to open another Wondererville somewhere else?” But you need to have a community. If we were going to open this in Los Angeles, I would need to know all the Los Angeles game developers and I would need them to put their games into our arcade cabinets because it's important that the people who make the games live nearby and they foster the community of coming together to make this experience.

So I do think we're in a good place. I don't know if it is fully realized. Certainly we didn't plan for a pandemic. We opened in 2019, so we were only open for like ten months before we had to close. The pandemic was terrible. But we got to build this workshop. We got to redo the whole bar. We did all the new drinks. While we were closed. We got to think. Everyone handled the pandemic differently, so I think we made good use of it.

Mark Kleback’s workshop

Rashel:
I noticed some of your collected games were published on Steam or Switch, but some are not. Do you want your games to reach out to a wider range of audience?

Mark:
Some games are on Steam, but nobody's going to play them on their computer because it's not fun if you're home alone. But in an arcade, it's a lot of fun. So, I think there are some games, and I think this works for Street Fighter II and other similar games that work well in an arcade because people are playing together with their friends. So, for KungFu Kickball, the designer wants to make more arcade cabinets because the game is played better in an arcade than it is on Xbox. But I'm not trying to publish games. I think that's a whole other business.

Rashel:
Then what's your primary role in this field?

Mark:
I think I am a curator primarily. My background is in building. I probably built 40 or maybe 50 arcades. And now I like finding good games to put into the arcade cabinets. I don't make the games because there are other people who are better at that than me. But I love making objects that look beautiful.

Rashel:
Do you have a long-term collaborative relationship with NYU Game Center?

Mark:
We're starting to. We've had an intern from the NYU Game Center for the last two years and their role has been to do one gallery show per month.

Rashel:
It is like a curatorial project.

Mark:
Yeah, the position is a curation internship. They'll email people or talk to people at the Game Center and bring in the games. And then we'll set up tables for one day. We have a relationship with Game Center as well as the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU (ITP). It's nice to have a space where people can make interactive art and then show it outside of school.

Byte Ball, a 4-player competitive game designed by NYU ITP student Philip Cadoux

Rashel:
So that curatorial project is different from the residency program?

Mark:
We have a specific four-people committee for the residency program. We have a pretty good schedule where we play games and promote. That's on its own timeline. As far as the other stuff goes, sometimes we just talk to ITP and we say, “Hey, we have a screen. Maybe there's some art you want to put on the screen. We'll pay for the materials if you want to build something.” So there's nothing else regimented.

Rashel:
How often do you call for artists?

Mark:
Every season. We'll play everything and we’ll vote and then call whoever was chosen: “We like your game, but we want to print the name of it. So can you send us the image for the name?” And then maybe there's a couple of small changes we have to make, so we'll have a list of things and they'll have about three weeks to make changes.

Rashel:
Do you have specific criteria when you choose the games?

Mark:
For any arcade game, it has to be easy to learn. I want to be playing the game in about 10 seconds. This happened in the summer when one of our designers made a game in which you could choose your color, hair, eyes, and nose. And we said we don't care, pick a random thing and give that to the person. So he randomized it. It was great because you could just say I want to play and then got a character, and that's who you were.

For a lot of grants, we want to pick games that are done already. Even if we knew that person was a good game developer, it needs to be a finished game. And I think lots of games are good in the arcade, but also lots of games are bad, so we work as a group to decide what games could come into the arcade, what ones we should have for the residencies, and what ones we should build cabinets for.

Rashel:
Could you talk about the business model of Wonderville?

Mark:
It's actually pretty basic, right? Everything on this side (the arcade) doesn't really make money. Some events charge $10 to get in. All the money from that goes to pay the performers and the staff who run the event. But the point of having an event is to bring in a bunch of people who will buy beer or drinks. So the whole business model is to sell drinks and hot dogs.

I think we provide a little more than just a bar. We have games and things for people to do. Someone said on Twitter I was really happy with this. They said, I love that Wonderville has so many non alcoholic options because I don't drink and I want to go play games with my friends and it's nice to be able to get mocktails, seltzer, yerba mate, and all other options. And I think it's a good thing because we wouldn't be able to just be an arcade if we just charged quarters and didn't have a bar. Like we wouldn't stay open. Like you can't pay rent. So did we want to open a bar? Not necessarily, but the bar is what lets us do this. So as long as the bar runs it's fine, then we can do everything else.

The general manager Alberto is preparing shots

Rashel ordered a “Princess Peach,” yes, it is named after Super Mario’s Princess Peach!

Rashel:
You spend so much time on building the cabinets and organizing the workshop and the residency program. Do you still have time to operate the bar?

Mark:
Our manager Alberto handles ordering all the liquor and the beer and meeting with plumbers. So he's doing all the bar things and emails and social media as well. I still work on the cabinets. I'm like the janitor, so I fix whatever's broken. And Stephanie, she takes care of things like getting a new license. The three of us work together on running everything. The games are my specialty, but I teach at NYU a few days a week. And Stephanie works a full time job in the city. It's good that we have someone full time to worry about the bar, because the bar is how we make money.

Rashel:
What is your teaching method at ITP?

Mark:
I do make the students do a lot of research. I make them play video games. I'm like, “go play Space Invaders, go play Dig Dug and tell me what makes this a good game.” Because you're building an arcade game, you have to look at arcade games from the 1970s and 1980s. I make them look at alt. ctrl. games. What else can you do that's not like a joystick and buttons? What else is out there? It's helpful to try to have them get the knowledge of the industry before they build anything.

Rashel:
What is your relationship with BabyCastle (an indie game development collective, arcade, and art space in New York City)? How is your Artist-in-Residency program different from theirs?

Mark:
They were the organization that introduced me to this field. Back when I was living at Death By Audio in 2010, I built an arcade cabinet, the first one, and I put Street Fighter in it like other old arcade games. And then I met the people from BabyCastle, and they said, you know, there's really cool games that people in New York make. And so we did a show together. They've had a couple of different spaces, but they haven't been open since the Pandemic. Different from BabyCastle’s, Our residency programs don't need the artists to even be here at all because they send us the game to be shown on the WonderCab. All they need is the cabinet. So it's not really an Artist-in-Residency program. It's more like a Game-in-Residency where the game lives here.

I think most indie game developers in New York probably know about Wonderville or have been here. There's not a lot of places that do this. If somebody said to you, bar arcade, I think most people would think Barcade retro Pacman. So anyone who's making their own games is very inspired by this place. I think the community is aware.

Mark Kleback and Stephanie Gross

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