Photos by Megan Leigh Barnard

Alexa and the Arcade

I went to Josh and Steve Snyder-Hill’s house for one reason—the arcade game. I’ve interviewed Steve a few times, and he always mentions it. In July they moved their lives, and the arcade, into their new home, a sprawling manor in Olde Towne East.

It was built in 1896—there’s a metal ring fixed to the exterior brick where the owners once hitched the horse that pulled their buggy. The gorgeous first floor interior has period-specific touches, and the house is filled with personal treasures. There’s a grand piano, a couch they purchased from marriage equality activist Jim Obergefell, several ornate chessboards, a centuries-old Bible, and two cuckoo clocks—one of which Steve rebuilt by hand after it broke. The level of craftsmanship is astounding.

But I’d really like to see the arcade.

First, Josh decides to demonstrate something. “Alexa, turn off the house,” he commands. Like magic, the lights around us dim and the hum of electricity fades. Alexa is the name of the digital assistant attached to Amazon’s new Echo, a smart speaker and microphone system wirelessly integrated with the home. She’s Siri’s more useful cousin.

For example, Josh and Steve can turn on music in any quadrant of the house, just by asking their ever-ready helper. Between 6 and 9 a.m., the news plays as soon as someone walks into the master bathroom. We go to the kitchen and Steve points out the LED lights, which are capable of shining any color in the spectrum. They’re hooked up to Internet weather reports to display forecasts for the next day. Right now they’re white—sunny and clear. The lights around the house can also synchronize to music, which the couple uses for their popular karaoke parties.

Then their dogs, Gizmo and Macho, dutifully help with the exhibition by walking to the back door and setting off a chime. They’re bell-trained, except the bell rings digitally throughout the home whenever they cross the rear threshold. These dogs tell the house when they need to go to the bathroom.

But about that arcade…

Finally, we’re into the attic loft, the game room. There are light switch covers from Jaws and The Goonies, a popcorn machine, and a Predator figurine made from car parts. Two of the couple’s friends—Zach and Zac—are sitting on a wraparound couch playing a video game projected onto the wall.

Steve and I enter a room that looks like a walk-in closet, and there, tucked into the corner, is his arcade. He built the arcade cabinet with his grandpa—it has four joysticks, tons of buttons, a track ball, and a dial. Also, basically any controller can link to it, a very useful feature because it plays video games from more than 90 different systems—268,095 games to be exact. Yes, you read that correctly.

The nameplate at the top of the cabinet says “MAME,” which stands for multiple arcade machine emulator. The simplest way to describe it—as well as the worldwide MAME project—is that diehard gamers take data from the chips in the original arcade games and write code that pretends to be the actual hardware, so the games all look, sound, and play like the real thing. The goal of the project is to preserve the games beyond the lifespan of the aging machines. Steve begins clicking through the titles. He connects a plastic gun and pulls up Area 51, which I loved playing at skating rinks when I was a kid.

“When people come over, it takes them back to their childhood,” he says. Soon he’s cycling through his own youth. He shows me two different versions of a game called Dragon’s Lair. He has one of the game’s posters on the wall next to the arcade cabinet, and the imagery is also displayed in the colorful tattoo on his arm. When he was younger, he played video games as a way to escape the feelings he didn’t yet understand, of being gay. His grandpa took him to the arcade frequently back then; at his funeral, Steve slipped a quarter into his hand.

Steve calls Josh to come play a game against him so our photographer Megan can get a shot of the two of them. As Josh comes up the stairs, he laughs and says Steve will pick a game he’s not good at so Steve can beat him. He’s pleasantly surprised when he sees Steve’s choice on the monitor. “I might win this,” Josh says. “It’s possible.”

He doesn’t though—Steve beats him multiple times while Megan snaps away from behind the cabinet. Both their faces are blissful in the black light fluorescence and the pale wash of the arcade screen. They share a look of pure delight, just like little kids.