On a side street by Tohoku University’s Katahira campus, I found a handwritten little blackboard decorated with a smiling wine bottle and monitor making a kissing face. It invited people to PonyHack, a video game bar. Having never been to a video game bar, I didn’t know what to expect. When I was growing up, video games were mainly something we played in a friend’s living room, crowded around the TV with controllers in hand. Arcades crammed with cabinets of the latest games were also popular, but I only got to go for birthdays and special occasions. How would this place compare?
“Konban wa,” I announced. A college-aged gamer turned around to acknowledge me before returning to his battle game. I noticed the mice and controllers were slightly intimidating with aggressive black lines and extra buttons.
The manager Ryosuke Miura, came out from behind the bar to greet me. With a quick laugh and broad smile, he told me he just took over three months ago but the bar has been here for a few years. As he poured me an oolong tea, behind the bar a large screen streamed a professional gaming tournament.
Ryosuke told me he is working to attract new customers to the bar. I asked what was different about PonyHack.
“I don’t think this place feels like Japan. It’s hard to put it into words, but Youki [the owner] and his wife have spent time abroad and brought some of that back with them. The goal is to make a place anyone can feel comfortable in. This is a place away from home where you can play games and have drinks. I want people to chat with the other customers and enjoy themselves.”
I noticed on the far wall he had artfully coiled obsolete computer cables into cursive roman letters: Make yourself at home.
This is a place to meet unusual people, people you probably wouldn’t get a chance to get to know otherwise- Masato Minami
As we chatted at the bar, the college-aged gamer, Masato Minami, put down his joystick and came over to talk with us. I asked him why he played here instead of at home?
“The specs of the computers here are different. At home I have an aging gaming laptop but these machines have better graphics and CPUs for more complex games.”
As another friend, Sho Takahashi, joined us by the bar, he continued, “It feels like home here and is conveniently close to the colleges. You can be in front of a screen while having fun with others. This is a place to meet unusual people, people you probably wouldn’t get a chance to get to know otherwise. You can drink and game together.”
Soon the conversation drifted into professional gaming and why Japan wasn’t competitive against the US and Korea for first-person shooters. Then Masato switched to fluent English to tell me about his legal research into corporations setting up their headquarters in the state of Delaware, before switching topics again.
I watched one session of a new shooter with teams of robots battling each other. It was much more complex than the early 3d games like Virtual-On I’d tried many years ago, and looked like it took real strategy and cooperation to advance. While his expression didn’t betray his feelings, when his robot exploded in defeat I wondered if Masato's team had let him down. Interestingly, while they could play with the people in this room, they could also compete against players across the world. I had never thought about it before, but by their nature games are international.
Ryosuke agreed, “Japan is a very small country and sometimes our way of thinking about things is quite different. But games, manga and anime started here and have become global. That Japanese culture is valued by the world is something to be proud of. I play Street Fighter V Arcade Edition online against people from Brazil, China, Korea, and from some national flags I don’t even recognize.”
At around 9pm, the owner, who goes by Youki (pronounced Yo Ki), arrived with his wife to drink and chat. While his staff and customers were in their 20s, they (and I) are in our 30s.
I asked Youki why he decided to start PonyHack and he observed,
“Young Japanese don’t go to restaurants and bars, maybe they just go to cheap izakaya. Instead, they spend their money on smartphone games, apps and multiplayer online games.”
Youki wanted to make a new, affordable style of bar where people from multiple generations could come and feel welcome. As it’s a game bar, they know they have at least one topic in common to get the conversation going. I felt the appeal, especially as with the number of students and quieter atmosphere, your chances of having an intelligent conversation was better than at most bars!
In my few hours there I learned about a number of new online games I had never seen, and had gotten to know five people. PonyHack felt like a new style of living room. People can come to play games, watch other people play games, or just hang out in a low-key welcoming atmosphere without even picking up a controller.
PonyHack (ポニーハック) is open Tuesday-Sunday from 6-11:30PM with all-you-can-drink plans with alcohol starting at 1400 yen per hour, or just 500 yen for soft drinks (with a discount for those under 22).