The On the Street series looks at the past, present, and future of neighborhoods in Greater Boston.
MALDEN — When James Cobalt first moved to Malden 12 years ago, he was just a guy that liked games and stunts. A lot. At the time, he was organizing flash mobs around Boston, including the infamous no-pants subway ride. Now, he doesn’t have to even have to hop on a train (or drop his trousers) to have a good time.
That’s because Malden’s downtown has what might be the nation’s only gaming district. Other cities might have a theater district, a financial district, or an arts district. Malden has gone all-in on experiential entertainment and now hosts a cluster of storefronts offering interactive play, including The Immersive, Cobalt’s forthcoming 3,000-square-foot live-action theater opening this summer.
“Businesses that have synergy should be near each other,” Cobalt said. “Nightclubs tend to congregate and it makes sense for gaming too.”
Today, wandering down Pleasant Street in Malden can feel a bit like being in a theme park. Comic book characters peer out from restaurant windows. Video screens flash in unison from inside stores. People walk around decked in workout gear, talking about “quests.” There’s karaoke, a comic book store, and even an augmented reality game about Malden’s history that you play on your phone. Project: PUTT!, a bizarre science lab-themed mini-golf attraction, just opened, and a rock climbing gym, Rock Spot, will join it this summer.
The root of all the fun and games can be pinpointed to the arrival of the Swedish gaming phenomenon Boda Borg in Malden in 2015. When the social gaming company decided to open in the United States, it chose the seemingly unconventional locale in part because it was hard to find a 30,000-square-foot space in Boston. The experience is designed as a series of rooms, or quests, that teams must puzzle their way out of, and it requires plenty of space. Eventually, local owner Chad Ellis zeroed in on Malden due to its proximity to the city and its MBTA Orange Line access. He signed a lease for the former Sparks department store and has been drawing more than 150,000 visitors a year ever since — 97 percent of whom are from outside Malden.
“It’s really become the engine of the downtown,” said Kevin Duffy, the city’s business development officer, who, in addition to creating the Pac-Man themed Gaming District signage and maps, is planning to launch a marketing campaign for it this summer to draw visitors from across Greater Boston. He said although experiential businesses suffered at the outset of the pandemic, a mix of federal, state, and local support allowed most to hang on.
It’s been such a boon that the city’s restaurants now cater to corporate team-building events and school outings. (Spicy World, a Sichuan restaurant, went so far as to add video game decals to its windows.) What’s more, the gaming focus has attracted new businesses to the district: 13 new restaurants have opened in Malden since the start of the pandemic.
“The streets are always busy. You can always tell the people who are coming for gaming, they’re dressed a little differently,” Duffy said. “But they’re kind of bouncing down the street.”
Mai Luo, a local real estate developer who leased the building that houses Boda Borg to Ellis, immediately saw the potential. “There are not many places where you can have fun with your family,” he said. And now Luo is a business owner, too.
Shortly before the pandemic, he leased the adjacent building to Chinese esports company Wanyoo. COVID shutdowns forced the company to pull out, but Luo has since opened Mixer Esports in its place, housing dozens of high-definition monitors and private rooms for video gamers and esports teams.
“We can all play at home, but we need the social component,” he said. Perhaps now more than ever.
That’s what Cobalt is banking on, too. When he opens The Immersive this summer, he plans to curate a rotating series of escape rooms, live-action player events, VR experiences, and art installations in the theater’s seven event spaces. He said now that the city has a grasp of how to license and oversee gaming businesses, it’s easy for entrepreneurs to set up shop. That’s how he convinced his friend Skip Dylen — a haunted house designer out of Salem — to open Project: PUTT! in the building next door to the theater. It’s all about the synergy, he said.
“If it was another city, it might not have worked,” Cobalt added. “Now I’m not going anywhere.”
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Janelle Nanos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.