On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Candice Johnson sat in the red neon-lit Level Up Game Center and played Injustice: Gods Among Us against her 7-year-old nephew, Otis Lofton.
It’s something she does regularly – at least twice a month – with another nephew, Gabriel Pinckney, 11. Of the four nephews Johnson brought to the game center that day, Gabriel is the only one who lives in town. The others were visiting and had come along for some quality time with their aunt.
“This is our time to bond,” Johnson said.
Level Up was opened at 3837 Martinez Blvd. by Robert Steele and his wife, Jennifer, in July 2010, in order to add another family-owned business to the small shopping center owned by Jennifer Steele’s parents.
“It’s like an arcade without the quarters,” Robert Steele said of Level Up.
Rows of flat-screen televisions line the front section of the darkened room. Beyond a partition are banks of personal computers.
Gamers have their choice of gaming systems, ranging from Wii to PS3 and Atari, as well as more than 600 games, including some for PCs.
The center also boasts a second game room with foosball, pool and air hockey tables.
“I tell people they can come in here and play something different every hour and still only see a very small fraction of what we have,” Steele said.
The systems are set up so that gamers can play by themselves, against friends or other gamers in the room, or against people online.
“We’ve played against other centers before, as far away as Hawaii,” he said.
For the Fourth of July weekend, Level Up will celebrate its third anniversary by remaining open from noon Friday, July 5, to noon Sunday, July 7.
About twice a month, it plays host to events that last from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. For this anniversary, Steele said, he wanted to do something a little more special. Different tournaments will be held on the big screen televisions with a variety of prizes for winners. A cookout will be held Saturday, and pizza will be offered at other times. Everything is included in the admission price.
On a typical day, admission rates are $3 an hour or $20 for an all-night event. For the two-day event, passes will be sold for $20 for 12 hours pass, $30 for 24 hours and $60 for 48 hours.
Steele said it’s been interesting to see how some of his customers have grown in the three years he’s been in business. He’s watched some graduate high school and come back to visit as college students.
“I’ve watched some of these kids grow up a little bit. In three years, I mean you think about it, that’s from age 9 to 12. Some kids grow up a lot,” he said.
Kids aren’t his only customers, however. Gamers are all ages, from middle school students to their parents. The center is popular with soldiers, and his customers are male and female. Every Friday night is Ladies’ Night. Women play for free, and quite a few take advantage of it, he said.
“Sometimes it’ll be a whole family. Mom and Dad might shoot pool for a little bit while the kids are playing video games. It’s a very affordable way for a group of people to spend time together,” he said.
Frequent-visitor Johnson agreed and said she appreciates that it is also a safe environment. Steele’s desk is just inside the door, and guests must pass through a narrow walkway to enter the game room.
“I know (Pinckney) can’t go in or out (because) someone’s always at the front desk,” she said.
She said many of the guests are regulars, and older ones often keep an eye on the younger ones, sometimes even playing games with them.
It gives Johnson a chance to hang out with her nephew and gives him a chance to meet new people in a positive environment.
“It gets you out of the house, gets them out of the house; you bond with them and they make friends,” she said.
For more on Level Up, call (706) 305-3780 or see level-up-augusta.com.