In Depth: Death of the Arcade

Any gamer in their mid twenties or older remembers a time when much of your gaming was done in poorly lit rooms full of giant boxes that you would pump quarters into for a few moments of gaming excellence at a time.  These typically female free, and sometimes hygiene free zones may not have always been the nicest looking, but no other store in the mall or on the street had décor nearly as fun.  Arcades once populated this country in mass, like the buffalo, and much like the buffalo the advent and spread of new technology lead to their demise.  For buffalo it was the railroad and more accurate firearms, for the arcade it was the likes of Nintendo 64, PlayStation, and others.  For many of us the sounds of Pac Man chomping pellets represents not only a game but a physical space, where strange smells and good friends would congregate in hopes of having a good time.

This is what Gameland used to look like

This was especially true for myself.  The photo you see above you is Gameland, the arcade that seemed to be a permanent fixture in the downtown area of my small hometown.  It originally opened its’ doors in 1944, and many would claim the floors hadn’t been cleaned since.  It was poorly lit, many of the games no longer worked properly and the selection hadn’t changed much since 1995 but as a kid I loved it.  I spent countless hours inside Gameland as a child, pumping quarters into X-Men, The Simpsons, NBA Jam, Rampage, Pole Position (The old school sit down style cabinet!) and more. In many ways, my love of video games was initially sparked by Gameland and many other places like it, and of course my father’s love of games like Pac Man which enabled me to spend so much time there. Returning as an adult was often like walking back in time, to a past where I would use one of the arcade’s various milk crates scattered around so that I could properly see the pinball machines.  So even though I hadn’t stepped foot into Gameland for years, I was still saddened to see the once great arcade close its doors forever in late 2008.  The photo below is what Gameland looked like this past winter as they finally began work to renovate the building.

Gameland now

While many of us in town held some sense of surprise that Gameland’s doors had finally closed, it was only due to the fact it seemed as if it never would.  Despite various attempts by other entrepreneurs to open newer, better arcades downtown, none took, meanwhile Gameland stood almost untouched by time.  So to some of us it may have seemed like it would never go away, the real surprise was that Gameland managed to last as long as it did.  The term arcade these days applies mostly to small rooms in movie theaters or so-called family entertainment centers.  The few arcade cabinets that remain out there populate restaurants and fill empty corners at bars.  In the rare case an arcade game is popular these days, it is often some elaborate physical contraption that simply cannot be replicated in the average living room. But how did it get this way?

This is the closest you get to an arcade these days…

Some put the blame squarely on the home consoles, and there is some validity to the claim.  PlayStation and Xbox combined with the rise of large hi-def televisions hammered the last nails in the proverbial coffin in more ways than one.  Now parents could purchase an entertainment system often beyond what was available in arcade without having to go with their children to these often dark, poorly kept places. Adult gamers no longer had a desire to go drop all their spare change into an arcade cabinet when they could game from the comfort of their own living room.  What’s more, the rise of the home consoles increasingly pushed gamers away from the way arcade games did business; typically simple beat em’ up style games designed to be extremely difficult so that they cost more to play.  While we were often blind to this as children (“But Mom! I just need 1 more quarter, I’m so close to beating Shredder!”), playing some of these games in their digital formats today (such as on XBLA) highlights the cheap nature of many of these titles, and having them both on the same console highlights the huge disparity between the often epic narrative style of modern games compared to what is found even in arcades today.  Games have become much bigger time commitments than had been before.

But even the games that can’t truly be replicated in a digital home offering, such as pinball, have seen serious decline. (Yes, I am aware of games like Pinball FX, but sorry, they are and never will be the same.)  It could be said that gamer’s taste have grown to sophisticated for pinball machines, but pinball machines remained popular long after they were effectively replaced with Space Invaders and Pac Man from a technological standpoint.  The tables themselves are big, bulky and costly to buy and maintain so this may explain in part their decline; cost was also an issue arcades dealt with for all cabinets as the numbers began to dwindle. Today there is only a single manufacturer of Pinball machines in the world, highlighting how even these truly unique experiences have fallen to the wayside in the last 25 years, leading me to believe the home consoles aren’t solely responsible since there is decline in a medium they have failed to replace.

A row of pinball machines at Gameland

Speaking with the Chicago Tribune in an article about the closure of Gameland, Roger Sharp, director of marketing for WMS Gaming, which at one point in its history was a leader in pinball and video games but now produces slot machines had the following to say, “This is part of our culture. And the arcade industry has always prided itself on being recession proof. But, then, this has never been an industry full of brain surgeons. For years they didn’t have to do a lot of work to get customers, then when they were faced with competition, they lost them. It’s pathetic.”  While Roger sounds like a man scorned by an industry he was once deeply passionate about, the question of marketing and smart business practices is a pressing one.  There was a time when people lined up just for a chance to play a game like Pac Man, and for years arcades competed with home consoles such as the NES and SNES with at least modest success, so what changed?  Thinking back to that era, many who lived it first hand will tell you that often the games available on a SNES were often in your local arcade as well, but being able to play the game, even if only for a while, with some spare change was a lot cheaper than buying it. Other games were never available outside of the arcade, like the fantastic beat em’ up Simpsons arcade game.  As video game tech improved on the home console, arcade games seemed to lag behind, and then they began to separate the arcade and home games more and more.  While some have claimed this has saved what little industry there is left, this may have also been the final deathblow.

Go big or go home, that became the motto of many arcade cabinet manufacturers.  Games like DDR started popping up in the few remaining arcades, asking gamers to dance, jump, kick, paddle and whatever other physical task one could imagine.  As Penny Arcade commented in one edition of their fantastic comic strip, going to the arcade became unrecognizable for the older generations and was beginning to look and feel more like a gym.  Beyond having an almost alienating effect on those who had kept arcade in business for years, the problem with many of these machines was the increased cost combined with the fact that most of them were short-lived fads, if that.  DDR in particular had its’ moment in the sun, but it too fell to the way side leaving many arcades with a giant cabinet that likely cost a small fortune that ultimately collected dust.

Penny Arcade’s take on the modern arcade

Now here is the part where I reveal the true reason arcades failed… ok, so I don’t know for sure.  The simple answer is that people stopped going to them, but the less clear reason is what drove them away?  I don’t entirely buy into the notion that home consoles did it, because in really no other entertainment business does the ability to do something at home cause massive declines in business.  People are watching movies at home on bigger and better TV’s than ever, but they still go to the movies.  Odds are you have some food in your fridge, but you still sometimes go out to eat.  You can have a beer and play music in the comfort of your own home, but people still go to bars.  The common element most of these things share is the experience, something that is not the same as doing it at home.  This was at one time true for the arcade as well, but somehow, somewhere along the way, they lost it.  To me this implies that the experience either became one that was no longer unique, or it became one that was negative.  Whether it was due directly to the games or the rooms that housed them is less certain, but in the end the arcade still shut its doors for good.

In closing I’d like to leave you with this very odd, very bad music video I came across in my research filmed in Gameland.  Enjoy.


About Tristan Rendo

I've made movies, written and performed music, and in January of 2011 got bored and started the awesome gaming site you see before you. My gaming roots began with the original NES, and endless hours spent spilling quarters into machines at the local arcade. I have a personal collection of over 200 Nintendo 64 games, and for many years it was the only system I owned. I re-entered the modern generation of gaming consoles when I decided to purchase a 360. I typically prefer the single player experience of games, so I’m usually playing through some single-player campaign, but can occasionally be found doing some damage in Halo Reach.