On Sunday afternoon, in the backroom of Understudy Denver, Ryan Policky was busy building an immersive mountain set around a pinball machine he’d repainted and redesigned himself. He joked that it’s like the “Meow Wolf of pinball.”
“I always wanted to do a game that was more of an open-world kind of pinball machine, where you’re in an actual environment,” he said.
Based on a video game Policky created for PlayStation’s Dreams platform, both the machine and the set built around it are designed to feel like Mt. Evans. It also has death metal elements and aliens. Policky rigged the game with different triggers, so when a player hits different points, it causes the environment to change around them — flashes of light, sounds like dogs barking and thunder.
Policky bought the machine from the old Pinball Museum on Colfax. At the time, the game wasn’t running. He took it apart, created new plastic pieces, repainted and clear-coated it. He said the gameplay itself is the same. It’s just got a different look and feel.
“This was a total professional re-theme of that game,” Policky said. “We did everything we can make it look like a modern game with an old electromechanical aesthetic.”
Policky played a lot of games as a kid and says it felt only natural that he’d end up making them as an adult.
“I never grew up,” he joked.
For years, he created online games for Adam Sandler movies as part of the films’ online promotions. He said for every one of Sandler’s movies since Wedding Singer, producers would give him a script, and he’d create three themed games. Now, he’s actively involved in the pinball community. He operates the games at Mutiny Information Café and hosts a large-scale immersive pinball experience called Horrorhouse Fest — a haunted house crossed with a pinball tournament, where entertainers try to scare you while you’re playing. Recently, he worked on a pinball machine for John Carpenter’s Halloween.
“I’ve been in the game world forever. So I want to step it out and make it more immersive,” he said. The Understudy ARTcade was the perfect opportunity to branch out into immersive gaming.
ARTcade is an artist-designed arcade experience based out of Understudy’s experimental art incubation space in the Colorado Convention Center.
Starting Wednesday, visitors can stop in to play recycled and repurposed arcade games like pinball, claw machines, a coin pusher, a custom video game and Japanese Gacha machines, each of which has been redesigned by a different artist.
The games are all 50 cents to play (quarter machines are available onsite) or free, and designed so that you can actually win. As in a traditional arcade, visitors play for prizes, either traded at a prize redemption booth or won by playing prize dispenser games like claw machines.
The difference here is that the prizes are all pieces of art. They include NFTs, vinyl records, enamel pins, paintings, prints, small sculptures and more, created by 60-plus artists and groups in Colorado and elsewhere like Anthony Garcia Sr., Access Gallery, Colectiva, Denver Digerati, IRL Art, Japanese Arts Network, Julio “Jwlç” Mendoza, Karma Leigh, Mathias Svalina, Moe Gram, Nathan Hall and Thomas “Detour” Evans. Councilwoman Debbie Ortega even contributed some hand-made jewelry to the prize pool.
The ARTcade is a project the Understudy team wanted to make happen for years.
They got the idea from Art-o-mat vending machines, old cigarette machines repurposed to dispense art. For a while, the idea of an artist-designed arcade seemed too difficult and expensive to make possible.
“This concept is too cool to just sit on,” said Thadeaous Mighell, the Director of Arts and Programming at Understudy. “So here we are.”
The team started with a claw machine they bought from a bodega on East Colfax at the start of the pandemic. Mighell learned to repair it, and Raymundo Munoz of Birdseed Collective redesigned it. After that, they gradually commissioned artists they’d worked with before or had working relationships with to build out the arcade, and later, to fill it with prizes.
“We literally just hit up every artist that we knew,” Mighell said, “And said, ‘Hey, here’s our budget. Do you have anything that is old that you want to get rid of, that’s maybe small scale? Or, do you have any materials that are just like taking up space that you can make some really quick, simple pieces with? Or, is there something that maybe you’re prototyping that we could mass produce?'”
Meanwhile, they worked with Policky, who’d had years of experience in collecting games, to find old machines on Craigslist. Policky said there are a lot of arcade games out there just sitting in disuse.
“They’ve just fallen apart for no reason. And they need to be played,” he said. “My house is full of games. I always start to feel guilty when the games are just not being played every day.”
It was an expensive undertaking, and a challenging one logistically. They had to figure out how to physically move the games, many of which weighed hundreds of pounds. The machines could be finicky and difficult to customize. And they also had to figure out how to power an entire arcade with just a few outlets.
“There’s a reason that people haven’t done this before. And we, of course, learned all those reasons at the same time,” said David Moke, Denver Theatre District’s Director of Programming.
The experience blends art with play and taps into a nostalgia for the arcade games so many of us played growing up, and the memories and feelings associated with that experience.
“It’s fun for all ages,” Moke said. “I like when parents and kids can play together.”
He said it’s also a reimagining of where art can go — a project that leaves room for artists working in all different media to contribute different kinds of art.
Mighell said he hopes the ARTcade will make the arts more accessible.
“One of the ultimate goals of this project is to get art into the hands of people that otherwise wouldn’t be able to, or wouldn’t find themselves in a situation where they would be able to collect art, whether that be because they don’t go to art museums or art spaces, or maybe because they felt excluded from that community,” Mighell said. “I think we have hundreds and hundreds of pieces of art. That’s hundreds and hundreds of new (hopefully) art appreciators.”
You can check out Understudy’s ARTcade at 890 C 14th St., Wednesdays through Sundays, from December 8 – January 30, 12:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. Understudy will be closed December 15-21 for CCC construction, and December 24, 25, and 31 for the holidays. Masks are required, and surfaces will regularly be disinfected. And if you want to keep playing the games, don’t worry — all of the machines will be returned to the artists who made them or else repurposed in other installations around Denver.
This story has been updated to include dates Understudy will be closed for a CCC construction project.