Laramie’s first and only arcade bar — a combination arcade, venue, watering hole and restaurant — will close its doors Sunday, leaving a horde of nerds and other outcasts wanting for a space they loved fiercely, but ultimately could not save.
Opened in August 2016, 8 Bytes Game Cafe experienced a tumultuous ride throughout its 16-month run as owner Ryan Kiser and the crew he worked with grappled with a lack of restaurant experience and a transient customer base.
But even as it struggled for viability, the business attracted a wide variety of people, serving tabletop gamers, comic book readers, drag queens, LGBTQ folks, the DIY scene, and welcoming people of all ages.
“For whatever amount of money, I wouldn’t trade the friendships and the community that was built at 8 Bytes,” Kiser said. “I wish it was longer, but even in the short amount of time, there’s been some special stuff that’s happened there.”
Many who say they’ll miss 8 Bytes refer to the business as a “space” — one in which people who might feel unwelcome in other environments could go to be with their community, eat a meal, grab a drink, play a game or see a show without fear of rejection.
“I think that we saw 8 Bytes turn into something bigger than just having a place to go play games,” Kiser said. “It really became a community and a community for a lot of people — different groups of people that may not have other places they feel comfortable.”
A space for nerds
A large building, the main floor of 8 Bytes was divided into three areas open to customers: the bar and restaurant, the arcade and the board games room. Off of this last area, one could find a secretive room, sectioned off from the rest of the building by a curtain.
The room, set aside specifically for Dungeons and Dragons, included a raised podium, from which a dungeon master could look down over his realm.
“It was nice because you could close off the tournament, really immerse yourself in the game and get a full feel of the game and just really experience everything the game was initially meant to have,” said Chris Bybee, an avid player of Dungeons and Dragons. “It really just lent itself very well to that.”
More than the comfort afforded by the space, Bybee said he valued the community. He said it was a welcoming place where someone could make new friends.
“One of the games I’m currently in — one that I’m currently hosting — I was just hanging out at 8 Bytes and a group was just sitting down to talk about the game, plan out meetings and just starting their adventure,” Bybee said. “And I was able to walk by, chat with them for a little bit. The group and I hit it off and they invited me to play the game with them. It was just a really unique way of stumbling into a game.”
With 8 Bytes closing, Bybee said tabletop gamers will turn to other locations, such as Games Gauntlet or into private homes. But, he added, it’s difficult to say goodbye to the arcade bar.
“It’s time for the next part of the adventure,” Bybee said.
A space for LGBTQ folk
Nerd culture has always attracted members of the LGBTQ community, said Robert West, organizer of Laramie’s first Pride Fest.
“LGBTQ folk, I think, find solace in nerdom in general,” he said. “It’s a way to escape. Anime, comic books, board games — those sorts of things are an escape from reality, but it also is a place for LGBTQ people to find themselves because they see themselves in a lot of the characters.”
Because of this, Laramie’s LGBTQ community was naturally drawn to 8 Bytes when it opened, West said. As more and more from the community began to frequent the arcade bar, Kiser took notice.
“Once he saw that it was drawing the attention of LGBTQ folk, he ensured that it would be a safe place and that it would be a welcoming place,” West said. “But I also just think the niche of nerdom is inherently queer inclusive. Not all the time, I think there are segments of nerdom that aren’t. But the one that’s in Laramie and the one that space was drawing was.”
Kiser said he and his crew heard there were issues at other businesses in town, where LGBTQ did not feel welcome. He said it was not necessarily the business’ fault — sometimes it was just the people who hung out there — but he wanted to take extra effort to make his business welcoming to all.
“I wanted to really make sure, when I started hearing that, that there was a place they could go — everybody, including the LGBT group — could come in and not feel like they were going to be discriminated, harassed, assaulted,” Kiser said.
Soon, the arcade bar became a hub for the LGBTQ community, hosting weekly pride nights, regular drag shows and events during Laramie Pride Fest.
“They were all for it and super supportive,” said Cole Moncur, president of the Laramie Dragonettes. “What I would say is that 8 Bytes helped us reveal that there was an audience for things like drag shows in Laramie and the need for a place like that for LGBTQ people to have a safe nightlife place to go in town.”
Drag in Laramie exploded through 2017, gathering large audiences in the rented show space beneath 8 Bytes and featuring out-of-state acts.
Though drag shows will continue and the LGBTQ community will stay active, they have lost their favorite space among the comic books and pinball machines, West said.
“I think nerd culture is all about exploring the unknown and trying to create a reality that is not our own,” West said. “So, things that are considered outside of the norm in our society are better received there. I don’t want to say that nerd culture is perfect and welcomes everything, but they’re more willing at times to do that because it’s inherent in what their culture is.”
A space for DIY
Kiser’s business also served as a home for DIY musicians and their fans, welcoming acts other venues wouldn’t.
“It wasn’t necessarily about having any kind of commercial draw,” said Adam Croft, who regularly booked shows at 8 Bytes. “They were just willing to let their space exist for artists. Most of the time, businesses don’t offer that much in the way of freedom for artists so Laramie’s losing a pretty vital part of the artistic community.”
A space for all
Despite the popularity of 8 Bytes among so many interconnected groups, the business simply could not survive a Laramie summer. 8 Bytes, as a restaurant and venue, allowed 18- to 21-year-olds all night long and thus relied on the transient freshman population more than most downtown businesses.
Without the funds to weather the summer bust, Kiser made the decision to close at the end of the fall semester.
“We wanted to provide something, despite the risk, to the community and give it a shot, see if it worked,” Kiser said. “And unfortunately, it wasn’t quite there.”
However, he said, it was all worth the struggle and stress.
“Even though we didn’t have quite the financial success we were hoping for, I feel we’ve experienced other success in other areas, with building that community, with providing a comfortable place for groups that might not have had the opportunity,” he said. “Hopefully, it gave them a nice experience, an opportunity to create some good memories, to experience some fun times with people. To me, that’s worth more than anything else.”