For most kids, the local video arcade is a place to hang out with friends, rack up some scores, and blow a week's allowance. But not for Timothy Lee Garner, chair of the sociology department at Indiana's Franklin College and author of the doctoral thesis The Sociocultural Context of the Video Game Experience. To Garner, the arcade is something most parents have probably never considered: a ''symbolic community'' with stylized rituals of mating, aggression, and social bonding until, that is, all the quarters run out.
To hear Garner tell it, in his often breathless patois of ethnography and electronics, America's arcades are a kind of vast cultural Serengeti where (to choose but one example) teenage boys vie to impress the opposite sex with their mastery of cutting-edge technology. ''The males use the games to show off their prowess,'' Garner explains, sounding a bit like Marlin Perkins on Wild Kingdom. ''If they get a high score, they'll turn to their girlfriends and say, 'What are your initials?' and then enter them on the screen.''
This ''community'' also confronts the issue of violence, both on the video monitor and among real-life players. While the former has become distressingly common Garner cites one popular new game, Mortal Kombat, which features realistic characters spilling digitized blood as they pound the pixels out of each other the latter, it seems, is relatively rare. ''People will become so involved that they can lose their tempers,'' Garner says, ''but it's usually over glitches in decorum'' such as an experienced player's refusing to cut a newcomer a little slack by letting him win a couple of games.
The professor stresses, though, there's a lot of good to be found in the arcades too: ''People who wouldn't be friends at school play games together, because it's a common point of reference.'' Perhaps most significantly, he adds, video games offer players a ''portal of entry'' into the rapidly evolving world of computer technology and are thus a valuable resource for kids struggling to come to grips with the demands of an increasingly information-obsessed society.
Garner, who estimates he has played about 500 different video games in his 10 years of formal research, says he has had little trouble convincing colleagues that his time in America's arcades has been every bit as worthwhile, sociologically speaking, as more traditional forays into, say, the heart of the Brazilian rain forest. ''Games are powerful things,'' he concludes. ''The way a culture socializes its members is largely through games.''