A ‘Wii’ bit of bar games

By WilliamPrentiss

Barflies are finding a new way to play at their favorite dives, but it involves more movement than a game of darts. (Of course, people can rent PDC World Dart Championship 2009 if they’re feeling lethargic.)

Bars like The Ashland, 2824 N. Ashland Blvd., have adopted the tiny white box, the Nintendo Wii, as their next big thing. The video game console has cropped up in a variety of bars around Chicago because its motion controls provide an easy pick up and play game for serious gamers and newcomers alike.

Yanier Gonzalez, editor of the popular gaming blog Destructoid.com, said it makes sense from a bar owner’s perspective since Wii games provide something quick for people to get involved in and attracts a crowd at the same time. He doubts many bar owners would try to have a well-rounded catalogue for serious gamers, but would appreciate having the option to play games.

He works in Miami and said he hasn’t heard of any bars with video games in the area, but if there were he would pay them a visit.

“I would go running,” Gonzalez said. “One time by accident, we walked into a bar that was having a retro night. They had outfitted the bar with projection screens and classic NES games … It was the neatest thing ever, [but] not that many people were into it and it went away. I was heart broken.”

The Ashland owners bought a Wii and Xbox 360 when the bar came under new management in April 2008, along with music games Rock Band and Guitar Hero. Co-owner Chris Burkett considers himself a serious gamer and is a fan of the Final Fantasy series, sprawling role playing games which can take up to 40 hours to finish.

Burkett said they aren’t necessarily looking to get more people to play games, but it’s simply something else for patrons to do while they drink. They avoid more solitary games like Gears of War, he said.

“We’re social gamers,” Burkett said. “We enjoy gaming, but we enjoy going out and hanging out as well. You know, not all gamers are nerds who can’t socialize.”

The owners house the video games in the backroom of the bar where a large flat-screen TV rests under a modest skylight. Two Rock Band guitars and a drum set sit in front of the TV ready for use, while a second, smaller flat-screen TV for the Wii rests against the bordering wall.

There’s plenty of room for people to flail about if they fancy a game of Wii Tennis or Bowling. Burkett said the back room can get loud on a Saturday night when the late night crowd arrives.

“We get people that don’t really play video games,” Burkett said. “They see a bunch of people on a Saturday night drunk and having fun back there socializing and playing Rock Band, and they jump in for the first time.”

They’ve gone through about four different sets of Rock Band instruments since they got the game and customers break drum sticks on a weekly basis, Burkett said.

Harrigan’s, 2816 N. Halsted St., has a large TV set-up next to their front door with a Wii plugged into it. Bartender Shannon Eres said they’ve had the system for a while, and people generally treat the controllers nicely and rarely take or break them.

People passing by will often stop in to play with the bar’s regulars after they see customers playing through the window, Eres said. Bar staff and patrons have created Miis, Wii avatars, that resemble various celebrities like President Barack Obama, Snoop Dogg and The Joker that anybody can play as.

Eres said that part of the reason the system is attractive to bar owners is because it doesn’t take up as much space as games like pool. George Aldaba works next door and frequents Harrigan’s after work. Competition can be fierce among some of the regulars. Aldaba said one of those regulars, Dave, claims to be the king of Wii and will challenge anybody to a game that walks through the door. The Wii is perfect for bars, he said.

“Everyone’s having a good time, everyone’s moving around,” Aldaba said. “You’re not sitting down and actually focused on it … You can play with people around you.”