Edgewood Avenue bar Joystick Gamebar has been a hub for geeky gameplay since opening more than a decade ago. Owners Johnny Martinez and Brandon Ley see the bar as an homage to the arcades of their youth — swapping out soda and fountain drinks for cocktails and beer. Joystick hosts a variety of social events throughout the week, but added regular Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) meetups to the roster after noticing an uptick in its popularity with Millennial and Gen Z patrons who assemble at tables for rounds of the fantasy role-playing game.
And Joystick isn’t alone. While trivia continues packing people into Atlanta bars and restaurants weekly, many establishments are also adding D&D and games of chance like bingo to the events calendar. No longer relegated to basement gatherings, where players battle to level up their thieves and fighters, or in church fellowship halls filled with people listening for numbers pulled from a bingo cage, younger generations are now creating opportunities to connect socially, enjoy music or drag performances, and even explore gender roles through these classic games.
Martinez feels younger generations are far more open to the idea of not conforming to societal expectations and gender roles, especially during rounds of D&D. It’s not unusual to see what he describes as “uber-masculine alpha males” at Joystick playing female characters, allowing them to explore gender and sexuality through the game.
“Younger people today are more open to things than other generations,” says Martinez. “They know just as much about a Fleetwood Mac song as they do about some new trap song. They seem to be okay with not putting themselves into one box.”
This appears to also be true when it comes to the present-day bingo scene in Atlanta.
Once thought of as only a game played in church fellowship halls, on cruise ships, or at the local Elks lodge, bingo is enjoying a resurgence among younger people, thanks in part to drag queens hosting events at bars, breweries, and restaurants.
While this may seem like a recent phenomenon, bingo’s makeover nationally really began in the 1990s, with a Seattle organization called the Chicken Soup Brigade. According to Time magazine, the Chicken Soup Brigade hosted gay bingo nights in order to raise funds for people battling AIDS. The original events were emceed by a group of local drag queens dressed as nuns known as the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. It was such a success in Seattle, other AIDS nonprofits around the country began hosting similar bingo events.
Over the next three decades, drag bingo became a mainstay at bars and restaurants nationwide, including right here in Atlanta, where events might take place on weekday evenings or during Sunday brunch. And people come for the sassy comedy and impromptu performances by the dazzling emcee as much as they do for the chance to win prizes and free beer. Some of the city’s most popular bingo events are hosted by Atlanta drag performers like Brent Star.
Star first started taking bingo gigs back in 2011, several years into her drag career. Eleven years later, Star now leads four regular bingo nights at Guac y Margys in the Old Fourth Ward, Urban Pie in Kirkwood, Atlanta Hard Cider in Marietta, and the Stratford in Avondale Estates.
“The fact that everyone is welcome makes drag bingo especially appealing for young people who are looking for a space and are maybe exploring gender fluidity, which is much more accepted and common for this younger generation,” says Star. “[Bingo’s] not just for senior citizens. It’s for everyone. We are all humans, including us drag queens.”
Bingo has proven to be the perfect blank canvass for dramatic makeovers, too, something at which drag queens are particularly adept at doing. But they’re not the only ones putting a new twist on the game. Once a month, Red’s Beer Garden in Atlanta’s Benteen Park neighborhood hosts Punk Bingo, pairing the classic game of chance with punk rock music trivia. Like other bingo events over the last 30 years, Red’s partners with a different local non-profit every month and donates the proceeds to the charity. Co-owner Kristen Sumpter says the philanthropic aspect is a big draw for their Millennial and Gen Z patrons. Punk music is an added bonus and fun.
“I truly think if you put a spin on an old classic, you realize that old classic hasn’t gone out of style,” Sumpter says.
Even board game nights are popping on weekly calendars at Atlanta bars and breweries like Fire Maker Brewing Company on Chattahoochee Avenue, when Mondays see tables of people playing everything from D&D and Battleship to Clue and Yahtzee. On a recent Monday night, the Underwood Hills brewery was full of mostly private D&D groups.
“Not everyone feels like they can go out to a club, drink, and hook up,” Star says. “Having a specific activity [like bingo and D&D] makes it easier for some people to connect.”
For longtime players of D&D, this return to what’s old is new again is giving players a chance to reconnect with their youth. Popular culture has only added to the appeal of the role-playing game. Shows like The Big Bang Theory and Stranger Things heavily feature D&D, and Critical Role, a web series in which professional voice actors play the tabletop RPG, became wildly popular during the height of the pandemic lockdown.
Soel Tran, co-owner of Battle and Brew in Sandy Springs, points to the upcoming movie Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, starring Chris Pine, as helping to bring the subculture game into much more public spaces. Similarly, drag has become more mainstream, thanks to shows like Ru Paul’s Drag Race, Pose, and We’re Here. Bingo events with hosts like Star and Brigitte Bidet make it easier to experience drag in person around Atlanta.
“There are plenty of people who love their collegiate sports team and also play Dungeons and Dragons,” Tran says. “You can be passionate about hundreds of things, and we want to give people a channel to express those passions, enjoy them, and connect socially with other people.”
These in-person experiences tap into growing fandoms, too, and allow for casual engagement, which Tran says seems appealing to younger people he encounters at Battle and Brew. The gaming restaurant hosts regular D&D nights every month, and has for years. But he’s noticing the young people who come in to play appear invested in the storytelling aspects of the fantasy game rather than the hardcore D&D experience where people hope to get their fighter or thief to the third or fourth level.
Sumpter and Martinez also believe people are attracted to bingo and D&D these days because both games are relatively inexpensive and casual forms of entertainment. And the games offer people something to do together beyond simply gathering for dinner and drinks.
“You don’t have to have a lot of skill or tactics [to play bingo]. You’re just using your ears to listen to what’s coming out and using your eyes to see if you have it,” Sumpter says. “You don’t have to strategize and be on a team. It’s laid back, easygoing, and something fun to do while you’re hanging out.”
Olivia Harrison (@oliveh19 on Instagram) is an Atlanta-based entertainment and lifestyle writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Daily Beast, Tudum on Netflix, Refinery29, Eater Atlanta, and BUST Magazine. She can be found tweeting about her favorite (and least favorite) snacks, local politics, and reality TV at @OH19.