Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Herz, JC

Joystick Nation
Chapter 4
A la re Cherche du Arcades Perdu

This chapter traces the history and development of the videogame parlor, from the advent of coin-op amusements of the 1890s to the 20 year heyday of the videogame arcade in the 1970s and 80s, to its subsequent decline and replacement with the brightly-lit, ‘family entertainment center’. The author, JC Herz, then addresses the migration of the gaming community to the online world.

Herz begins her study of arcade history at the beginning of the 1900s with the appearance of penny arcades, nickelodeons, phonograph machines and the kinetoscope. From the very beginning, there was concern that cheap coin-op entertainment would ‘drive the arousable masses to riot and iniquiety’. The rise of these amusements corresponded with and catered to the influx of blue-collar working-class into the cities. The invention of the ‘parlor’ in the early 1890s accommodated a mixing of working class with upper class individuals, primarily young and male. Herz quite reasonably points to this blurring of class distinctions as the real ‘threat’, rather than the amusements themselves. The early arcades were a great equalizer in that anyone with a nickel had access to the latest and greatest technology.

Another point the author makes in the ‘some things never change’ department, is the concept that ‘new’ means ‘improved’. As the x-ray and fluoroscope (oops….sorry ‘bout those feet!) machines migrated to the medical office, phonographs and gramophones are replaced with the kinetoscope and mutoscope. Each machine has a new feature, making it an improvement over its predecessor. Herz makes the point that ‘automatic’ became the buzzword back then, much like ‘virtual’ is now.

We move on in time, and the kinetoscope is relegated to the seedier peepshow, while pinball becomes popular. It it still seen as a threat by the status quo, due in no small part to Marlon Brando and James Dean and the corresponding “Rebel Without A Cause” imagery.

In 1956 the first enclosed mall was built, and by 1974 there were 13,714 of them. By 1982, that number increased to over 20,000 in the US and Canada. The rise of the shopping mall corresponded to the development of the microchip, which paved the way for mall-based videogame arcades. The early games were innovations, the likes of which had never been seen before: Pong, Space Invaders, Asteroids, Battlezone, Defender, and Pac-Man. By the early 80’s game quality was declining as the arcades were becoming seedier.

This led to what the author calls the ‘arcade sanitation crusade’ or, in this reviewer’s mind, the ‘Chuckie-Cheesification’ of the video arcade. The arcades were getting grubby, only attracting 15-year-old boys, and there were no good videogames coming out. It was then that arcade proprietors noticed the steady appeal of skee-ball, followed by the crane machine and the kiddie coin-op, ticket-spitting ‘redemption games’, such as those found locally at Chuckie-Cheese’s and in the Wisconsin Dells. These places are very heavy-handed in their attempts to appear safe and secure, so as to reassure parents, who then whip out the credit card.

At present, the egalitarian, merit-based world of the video arcade has moved online, where a person’s grades, paycheck or social class means nothing if their avatar just got its butt kicked.


Nick S said...

Jo's "Chuckie-Cheesification" has got to be the term of the week. If this class is ever introduced to the fall or spring semesters that term easily deserves a couple of lectures. Being born in 1986 I missed the arcade times, but Chuck E. Cheese, Showbiz Pizza for the true fans, was the greatest place in the world for a little kid. I remember bringing in my report card to get extra tokens and going crazy on the games right after I was finished with my pizza.

I feel the most interesting part of this article that Jo didn't summarize was when Herz stated that by the end of 1981 the video arcade and home videogame market raked in more cash than the US movie industry and Nevada gambling combined.

Jon72585 said...

I would have to agree with Nick that "Chucke-Cheesification" is a fantastic term. I totally grew up in Chuckie Cheese, and I'd have to say that while I did enjoy the "redemption" games, I also spent a lot of time playing side-scrolling arcade games like Ninja Turtles and the Simpsons Game.

One aspect of this article that I found really made it stand out against the previous article, was the way that it was written. The author at times seemed extremely angry at the way that arcades had been adapted to become a more "family friendly" environment. I'd have to say that there is the hardcore gamer in me that has to agree, especially after spending 30 infuriating minutes in a "videogame arcade" in Las Vegas last year (which turned out to really be a place for gambling adults to dump their obnoxious children). However, after reading these articles and watching the movie today, it seems almost inevitable that games had to appeal to families as well in an effort to pull away from the demonization of the game.

Anonymous said...

I only wish I was alive during the times of the first generation of arcades. The ominous smells and sticky floors must have a certain degree of nostalgia for those who were able to enjoy such places. Even in movies that take place during the 70's and 80's, I feel as though they fail to recreat the dark aura of the video arcade and use the "Chuck E. Cheeseification" standard.

My experience dates back to the times of family fun centers. Where redemption games and bumper cars were combined in the same building. It is nice to see the generations of arcades delineated as it was in the article.

Adrian said...

I hated the Chuckie Cheese/Showbiz Pizza era.

I still remember when there were video game arcades that managed to last in downtown Madison. These were places that you could go to, and often end up spending a LONG time. One thing that I didn't see in the article that disappointed me was the tournament culture that definitely existed around games, particularly fighting games. You wanted to be the one that could hold the seat in Street Fighter 2, or Tekken, or Virtua Fighter. Even in non-fighting games, you wanted to know who was the guy that had beaten your high score.

I don't know how universal this culture was, but it was definitely a reality in arcades here in the 90s.

Marlon Heimerl said...

What stood out most to me in this article was the interplay of society, the individual, fear-mongering elitists and the usual lack of foresight by those caught in the midst of a revolution. After the advent of the kinetoscope—also being a major precursor to the blooming industry of motion pictures—Thomas Edison took the stance that the motion picture would emerge as a thing meant to be done in private, as a personal viewing experience. When people told Edison to connect the device to a projector, Thomas Edison, known for his genius as an inventor and for his misgivings as a marketer, called any person making such an assertion crazy.

It is my opinion that Edison stands as a microcosm of a phenomenon that seems to repeat itself throughout history. People caught up in a revolution commonly miss the mark when projecting the future as a result of the introduction of a device (or entity) into society. The same as critics said that Star Wars would be a kids movie, or that the telephone would never make it past infancy due to what critics thought was a device with no practical value, so too did people taking a look at the budding society of gamers feel threatened by their changing world. This feeling of fear commonly leads people to reach irrational conclusions similar (at least in metaphor) to Edison’s misgivings as one of the fathers of the motion picture. Though Edison’s blunder was due to a lack of foresight rather than fear of what the motion picture could do to society, he stands as a glaring example of the tendency of people enthralled in changing times to misjudge the future.

How this ties into larger themes of the course is a monumental point to make. Indeed, without understanding the history of any occurrence or phenomenon one can never hope to understand its present implications or future possibilities without fully understanding its history. Video games are no different. We must understand that Anglo-Saxon communities saw these ‘vices’ as a conduit for ‘outsiders’ to take root in the community. This certainly had repercussions for creating the budding society of gamers who saw themselves at the forefront of a mischievous industry. The same as concerned Madisonians fought tooth-and-nail to stop the building of a casino in the outskirts of town, so too were the concerns of the people then legitimate, if only due to a sense of blissful ignorance. All I’m saying is that my largest take away message from this article is that these historical implications have modern day consequences and that these social phenomena will continue to play-out in the future, as parents will always be concerned and threatened by anything that could gobble up their children’s or spouses money or occupy their time.

In a nutshell, I would say I feel fortunate to have a historian teaching this class, as the history of the technology and the reaction of society are inseprable from the past, present and future.

p.s. while history is on my mind I would like to put forth another term that we might want to historisize for the remainder of the class: 'Desensitization' and the changing comfortability of society to leave the door open for things that ten years earlier would have seemed disgusting.

Sarah. R. said...

If nothing else, this article was a fun trip down memory lane and reminded me of the fact that spending time and money in arcades back in their heyday always felt vaguely dangerous and subversive. I think this article really hit the point home that there has always been a moral judgment associated with video game playing (a negative one, that is). Perhaps it's because, as the author suggests, video games were relegated early on to spaces reminiscent of vice parlors and attracting a similar clientele. Maybe there are other reasons at play, such as the heavily Calvinist American attitudes toward leisure and wanton spending of money. For whatever reason, that judgment was there, and I think it pervades a lot of the discourse and cultural debate around video games even today.

Eric M said...

To go along with the trip down memory lane (or lack thereof) theme that is developing, it kind of makes me a little sad that I never got to experience the old grungy arcade style of the 1970s and 1980s. When I got into arcades in the early to mid 1990s, the redemption era had begun. I could remember saving a five gallon ice cream bucket of tickets that my brother and I would add to after our weekly trips to the arcade. I would always play this game called Dino Score where you would use this coin-flipping gun to try and hit a target to get tickets. Anyways, when we had our 5000 tickets or whatever, we got our prize. A small scale red Corvette model. Even though we could have got it at the store for $8, there was a certain gratification when we turned in our tickets. I just would have liked to have at least experienced once the grungy arcade scene, even if I wouldn't have liked it. Oh well.

Eric M said...

Of course, when I wasn't playing the redemption games, my favorites were always Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and X-Men. Oh, the nostalgic feelings I have right now.

Jasun said...

As long as we're taking trip's down memory lane...

I spent most of my Friday nights during middle school at the local roller skating rink (Fast Forward... now hosting Roller Derby!) and I can remember when they got Mortal Kombat. Line five to ten deep of guys on skates from the minute the rink opened to the time it closed. Some guys didn't even rent skates anymore.. just came to play the game and hang out.

In terms of the article itself, I agree that it provides an interesting, if brief overview of the sociological development of the video game and game arcade. It's almost disapointing when you reach the end of the article, given the recent boom in MMO's and Internet capable consoles.