Arcades actually go back to the early 1900s in the US, where
they were called Penny Arcades, and while they had slot machines and pinball,
they also had things like love testers and Edison kinetiscopes where you could
watch a woman take her clothes off.
People are often surprised to hear that the pinball machine
didn’t have flippers until 1947 and they weren’t even at the bottom of the
playfield until the early 1960s. Pinball (at least in the form it currently
exists) is a lot newer than you think and is barely a decade older than the
arrival of video games. The original form of pinball was basically a game of
chance where a ball was dropped only to ding off metal pins at random and fall
down holes with different payouts, very much like the modern game of pachinko.
Because Pinball was for gambling, there was a huge moral
crusade against them in the early part of this century. On a personal note, my
grandma used to tell me to stay away from “hooch, wild women, and pinball”
(sorry Nani, I failed you on all three).
New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia declared war on pinball,
and vowed to smash every single pinball machine that existed. Technically,
pinball has only been legal in New York City since 1976.
What the Penny Arcades of the turn of the century actually had
to offer wasn’t quite as important as who visited them, who the audience
was for them: they were designed as cheap entertainment for the huge wave of
American immigrants in big cities who had a little bit of money to spend. A
major part of the reason movies were always a universal art form accessible to
everyone (as opposed to something like ballet or theater) is that they had
their origins with kinetiscope amusements consumed by immigrants in penny
arcades, along with the nickelodeons that showed things like sports reels for
boxing matches aimed at working class sports fans.
If I could be allowed a little digression, this is always
why something like “upscale” movie theater chains like the Alamo
Drafthouse make my skin crawl. Movies should be for the poor and for everyone,
not for people who can shell out $14 for a bad order of hot wings, or a
milkshake with wine in it. It’s a sinister sign of how wealth is massively
concentrated in our new gilded age that these upscale theater chains target a
shrinking percentage of the population with disposable income instead of the
impoverished masses. The selling point of upscale movie theaters is that they
automatically kick out anyone making noise, too, to create a “genteel” movie
experience free of riff-raff, which I think is the kind of snotty crap a bad
guy in a Rodney Dangerfield comedy would do. Recently, Alamo made waves for
having all female showings of Wonder Woman. I have nothing against
this idea (why would anyone be offended by this when you can see the movie in a thousand places?), but it comes off as phony grandstanding when done by a chain who’s
sole reason for existing is delivering an experience for
rich people. The living version of this image below:
Returning to the original point, the key thing to remember
about video games is this: in the beginning, they didn’t start off in the
arcades, but were marketed toward bars and bowling alleys. This is why the
marketing for these games in the early days was extremely adult. It kind of
reminds me of how, come 2007 or so, the discussion around the Nintendo Wii was
that it was a toy that could get you laid. Little by little, video games
started to creep into the arcades.
The tipping point where the momentum shifted toward video
games over pinball in the arcade was definitely Space Invaders in ’78, which
was so wildly successful it showed that arcade video games were here to stay,
and that they were a bigger moneymaker than the pinball machines were. There’s
a story that Japan had a shortage of the ¥100 coin because of Space Invaders, which unfortunately is just
too cool to be true, but it does go to show how it was a new cultural force that came in.