Virtual reality arcades are making arcades in which you don’t don a headset and see 3-D fruit swirling around you, taunting you to slice them with a giant sword, seem positively old-fashioned. While nothing can replace Skee-Ball and Pop-a-Shot (except for virtual Skee-Ball and Pop-a-Shot, I suppose), the analog games of yore can’t show you what it feels like to walk a plank hundreds of feet above New York City, skydive over the Grand Canyon, or ride roller coasters without having to wait in the hours-long social experiments known as amusement park lines.
Over the past year, my sons and I have visited several of these virtual reality arcades, including the newest to join the ever-expanding ranks, Escape Virtuality, in Manhattan, which combines its huge virtual gaming space with three escape rooms, plus a mini escape “counter” in which you have five minutes to stop the Chernobyl nuclear plant from exploding. (Could my 12-year-olds have prevented the 1986 disaster?)
For the most part, kids need to be older than 7 to enjoy VR experiences; the equipment typically doesn’t fit tiny heads. But tweens and teens? This may be your best shot at actually doing something together as a family. So for the next rainy, cold, or way-too-hot day, these VR spaces offer an excellent way to bond in a whole new dimension…even if, in this dimension, you’re forced to hunt your zombie-bitten son down and obliterate him before he can infect others. He’ll understand; it’s for the greater good.
Our favorite VR arcade so far, Escape Virtuality emphasizes experiences over games. So instead of just sitting with a headset on and waving your controller in the air as you fight enemies, slice fruit, or walk planks, here you stand on a Xtrematic Machine that simulates the experience so that you can actually feel the wind in your face as you slalom down a black diamond slope or kayak through rapids. The race car simulators here, too, are way more realistic—and difficult—than any we’ve ever seen or tried. The augmented reality climbing wall is a unique feature, as well (the wall climbing is real; the monsters you have to push out of your way are virtual). 130 West 29th Street (between Sixth and Seventh Avenues), Flatiron. $35 for one hour; $60 for two hours; $80 for a day pass
Part nightclub, part geeky AV club room, VR World has the coolest-looking space by far, with plenty of Instagrammable backgrounds and nooks, a fully stocked bar, VIP rooms, and neon-lit game bays. It has a huge selection of VR games, from the beginner and intermediate (Job Simulator, Tilt Brush, Fruit Ninja, and Richie’s Plank Walk) and the advanced (SuperHot VR, Arizona Sunshine) to the terrifying (Kobold) and the trippy (Ayahausca Kosmik Journey). This is a great place to get a taste of everything, though it caters more to adults than kids, and there can be lines for each of the experiences. 4 East 34th Street (between Fifth and Madison Avenues), Midtown East. $44 for two hours; $64 for a day pass.
With so many other cool things to do nearby on the Lower East Side, you can make a pretty epic family day out of a visit here. The space is cool and manageable, with all the standard VR games (see above) plus roller coaster simulators, a skydiving experience, and omnidirectional treadmills for entering into virtual battles with—or against—your kids. And it’s also the most affordable at just $30 for an all-day pass. You can play a few games, leave for lunch, then come back to play some more. 180 Orchard Street (between East Houston and Stanton Streets)
Another newcomer, this Brooklyn virtual reality game room looks, from photos, like a ’90s-era European computer café—all black light and white leather couches—but nevertheless carries all of the latest games, including the Creed: Rise to Glory boxing fave, Google Earth, Beat Saber (a rhythm game that’s fun for musically inclined kids!), and Raw Data (better for older teens). 6604 Eighteenth Avenue, Bensonhurst. $27 per 30 minutes per station; $49 per hour per station
Unlike other VR arcades, this neighborhood spot is specifically targeted to school-agers and their parents, which means the staff is patient about adjusting headsets and explaining games, though YokeyPokey doesn’t have the exciting simulating machines that a lot of kids dig. It’s conveniently located near our favorite actual reality Gowanus spots for rock climbing, archery, fencing, and ax throwing. Make it an extreme sports kind of day? Just call before you go; YokeyPokey often closes to the public for day camps and birthday parties. 537 Atlantic Avenue, Gowanus. $40 for one hour; $60 for two hours