What happened to the arcade in America?

Posted in Around The Nation at 11:11 am by wcnews

I you grew up in the late ’70’s and early ’80’s like I did this will be incredibly nostalgic, For Amusement Only: the life and death of the American arcade (tip to Kotke).

If you’ve never been inside a “real” arcade, it could be hard to distinguish one from say, oh, a Dave & Buster’s. Authenticity is a hard nut to crack, but there are a few hallmarks of the video game arcade of days gone by: first, they have video games. Lots and lots of video games, and (usually) pinball machines. They’re dark (so that you can see the screens better), and they don’t sell food or booze. You can make an exception for a lonely vending machine, sure, but full meals? No thanks. There’s no sign outside that says you “must be 21 to enter.” These are rarely family-friendly institutions, either. Your mom wouldn’t want to be there, and nobody would want her there, anyway. This is a place for kids to be with other kids, teens to be with other teens, and early-stage adults to serve as the ambassador badasses in residence for the younger generation. It’s noisy, with all the kids yelling and the video games on permanent demo mode, beckoning you to waste just one more quarter. In earlier days (though well into the ‘90s), it’s sometimes smoky inside, and the cabinets bear the scars of many a forgotten cig left hanging off the edge while its owner tries one last time for a high score, inevitably ending in his or her death. The defining feature of a “real” arcade, however, is that there aren’t really any left.

That’s exactly the way they used to be. I remember the ones I frequented usually had a Coke machine, snack machine, and a cigarette machine. Here’s an excerpt about the heyday of the arcade in America.

The years between 1978 and 1982 saw unprecedented growth across the entire video game industry. A January 1982 cover story in Time magazine noted that the most popular machines were pulling in $400 a week in quarters and the number of dedicated arcades in the United States reached its peak with around 13,000. Video game cabinets also appeared in grocery stores, drug stores, doctor’s offices, and even in school recreation centers. The arcade chain Tilt began opening locations in the growing number of shopping malls across America. Beginning with Space Invaders in 1978, a string of now legendary games (see graphic above) were released in rapid succession. Simultaneously, the home console business blossomed: from the primitive Magnavox Odyssey in 1972, the concept of home gaming erupted with the Atari 2600 and the Apple II in 1977, the Intellivision in 1980, the Commodore 64 and ColecoVision in 1982, and the NES and Sega Master System in 1985.

It was 1980’s Pac-Man, the most successful video arcade game of all time, released by Midway in the United States, which had the most lasting effects on the industry and the American psyche. The colorful, pizza-inspired Pac-Man and the ghosts who chased him inspired enough branded products to rival Hello Kitty, including lunch boxes, clothing, a Saturday morning cartoon and a 1982 Billboard hit, “Pac-Man Fever,” which sold more than a million copies (for reference, the top-selling single of 1982, Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” was certified platinum with sales of two million copies that year). Unlike previous video games, which seemed to appeal primarily to male players, Pac-Man appealed to everyone, allowing the hardcore player to mingle with casual gamers. The idea of professional gaming also took root, and shows like Starcade pitted opponents against one another to play the newest games on prime time television. Walter Day, owner of the Twin Galaxies arcade, proclaimed Ottumwa the “Video Game Capital of the World,” and both the Mayor of the city and Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley recognized it as such. In July of 1983, Day established the US National Video Game Team, made up of what were then the country’s six best players.

A cursory scan of back issues of RePlay magazine, the coin-op industry’s publication of record, tells the story of the arcade boom: “Industry doubles annual growth to $3 billion” in 1980, with “everybody and his brother” getting into the arcade business. The next year, the cover boasts “Industry grosses $7 billion annually.” When Warner acquired Atari, the game-maker was a small part of its overall business, but by 1982, Atari made up 70 percent of its revenue, eclipsing both its film and music businesses. Other companies were also seeing exponential growth: Bally’s sales hit $880 million in 1981, and Williams, which made the popular arcade game Defender, hit $126 million that year, up from $83 million the year before.

Arcades in the late 1970s and early 1980s held a particular place in the American way of life. Like shopping malls and roller skating rinks, they were safe, isolated areas where kids and teenagers could hang out, and, with a reasonable amount of money, spend hours without their parents. Bill Disney, a pinball enthusiast and owner of The Pinball Gallery in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, says of his younger years that “most parents, they basically didn’t know what their kids were doing any time of the day. They were on their bikes, out the whole day,” and “they didn’t care where they were.” This laid-back attitude varied by family, as well as by geography, but the relative autonomy of older children in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and early 1980s, was much greater than it would be moving into the ‘90s. Films of the early ‘80s such as E.T. and The Wizard show typical, American kids, left to their own devices, playing video games and capturing aliens with their friends while their parents are at work.

That describes the way I grew up, and it’s nothing like the way my children are growing up. For better or worse those days are gone. And like this video shows kids now are “ticket” oriented when going to today’s arcade, like Chuck E Cheese’s.

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