The Arcade: lost gaming community

Dr. Phill on A Lost Aspect of Video Games: The Arcade

The last reading on your list last week was a piece by Jonathan Fiske wherein he laid out a Marxist reading of Pac-man/the arcade machine. What he told you, essentially, is that the player in the arcade played as much against the game as against the machine; the desire was to monopolize as much of the machine’s time as possible for a single quarter.

This was a tradition for decades, for players of all skill levels to descend with their quarters upon machines in places as diverse as grocery stores and pizza parlors (there was a Hook’s Drugstore down the block from my childhood home where I pumped quarters into a game called Hippodrome, an early fighter game). But the vast majority of gamers met, congregated, and formed the gaming culture that now permeates MMOs in arcades.

The game I mentioned, Hippodrome.

Arcades started in America around 1972, reaching wide-spread appeal within a few years. These were large areas in malls filled with video games, sometimes in department stores (K-Marts notoriously had large arcades placed safely at the back of their stores so that kids could play while parents shopped), sometimes chained with pizza places (Chuck E. Cheese, for example), bowling alleys, etc. In an effort to build customer loyalty most arcades had machines that exchanged cash for “tokens” that were roughly quarter shaped (so as to use the same coin slots) and roughly the same weight, but bore the logo of the arcade. Often there were small but valuable discounts (like 25 tokens for $5) for purchasing in bulk.

It’s interesting for me to talk about arcades with students your age because I can’t imagine, as gamers, what your similar experience was with gamers. I grew up with consoles, but there was no network play (we’d first play online games like Doom when I was a senior in HS, and I cut my teeth online gaming in college on our dorm LAN system). We would go home to play console games when the night was over, but to get a really cutting edge experience, we hit the arcade after school. We often hit it hard, playing for hours. In the summer, we’d even hit the small arcade in the local 24 hour truck stop to hone our skills at Mortal Kombat, NBA Jam, Street Fighter and Tekken.

The reason that the arcade was popular might seem obvious: in those days, arcade machines where vastly superior to consoles. It wasn’t until the PlayStation era that games at home were actually on-par with cabinet games. But the real appeal was the chance to get out, play with others, to socialize. We’d keep lists of Mortal Kombat finishers we’d found scribbled in notebooks in our pockets. People would gain notoriety in certain places. Other notorious gamers would wait for them, to challenge. People would gather just to watch.

The gaming community in most areas was tightly knit. I grew up just outside Richmond, IN (about a 20 minute drive up US 27 from Oxford), and the guy who ran our mall’s Namco Arcade lived a few houses down from me. I delivered his newspaper. He’d often let me stay after the place locked up– just me and a couple of friends– playing the newest games. He wanted our stamp of approval, and he wanted us to tell him what made the games good.

Arcades started to die out in the late 1990s. The most obvious reason for the demise of the arcade is that quality games came home, but the real culprit is the internet. Online gaming, the rise of online communities, etc. meant that video game nerds had new outlets. Without video game nerds flooding the mall (and, in fact, with online shopping and super-strict regulations ending the era of the mall rat), there was nothing to fuel the arcade fire. What an awesome pun I just made.

There are still things “like” arcades. Chuck E. Cheese thrives, and Dave and Busters offers games and food and fun and all that, but the arcades of my youth, the arcades that were the stomping grounds of the generation that made the games you grew up with, are but a faded memory. In a way, it’s sad, but in another way, it’s exciting.

What is YOUR arcade experience? Where did you meet and share with other gamers? Where’d you hang out when it was time to game?

Here’s a link to an article with some arcade history. The really cool part is the 8 minute video.

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