Coin-Op Century: A Brief History of the American Arcade

For those of us who grew up during the so-called “golden age” of arcade games (late 1970s through the middle 1980s), the word “arcade” conjures up images of carpeted walls, smoke-filled rooms, black lights, and row after row of brightly colored video game cabinets. For some, the thought of these spaces evoke such vivid memories of playing video games that similar establishments created before and after the “golden age” simply aren’t “arcades.” In fact, most discussions of arcades inevitably hinge on phrases such as “the rise and fall,” “boom and decline,” and “life and death” of arcades.  Although many of our favorite places to play video arcade games closed their doors by the end of the 20th century, the arcade—a space where people from a variety of backgrounds gathered to play novelties and amusement machines—existed in one form or another for more than a century.

The roots of the American arcade can be traced back to the dime museums, exposition midways, and amusements parlors of the 19th century. At the end of that century, parlor owners filled their establishments with such new novelties of the Industrial age as phonographs, kinetoscopes, and mutoscopes. These inventions provided parlor goers with the magical experiences of listening to recorded sounds and watching moving images. However, by the turn of the century, as the novelty of those inventions wore off, many amusement parlors transformed into penny arcades. When arcade owners repurposed these spaces, the character of their establishments also began to change as the crowds of refined men and women willing to pay as much as 25 or 50 cents to view kinetoscope films were replaced by throngs of nearby office workers, tourists, vacationers, shoppers, and young, working-class men. Arcade patrons flocked to coin-operated peep show machines, shooting galleries, grip and strength testers, stationary bicycles, slot machines (in some areas), machines that dispensed fortunes or candy, and other mechanical amusements they could play for as little as a penny.

During the 1930s, David Gottlieb’s Baffle Ball (1931) and Raymond Moloney’s Ballyhoo (1932) introduced pinball to arcades. As pinball designers added bumpers, flippers, and thematic artwork, pinball surged in popularity, even as some local legislators banned the game because they associated it with gambling, organized crime, and delinquency. Nevertheless, over the next three decades arcade owners replaced many older mechanical novelty games with pinball machines and electromechanical baseball, target shooting, horse racing, shuffle board, and bowling games. Pinball machines ruled arcades until the late 1960s when new more sophisticated electromechanical games such as Chicago Coin’s Speedway (1969) and Motorcycle (1970 and 1974) grew in popularity. These new machines used motor-powered, belt-driven, spinning discs and blower motors to simulate the thrills and spills of the race track.

The introduction of arcade video games during the early to middle 1970s pushed pinball and electromechanical games out of many arcades. Pinball, it seemed, couldn’t compete with the blips and bloops of Pong (1972) while Speedway couldn’t match the excitement of navigating a glowing race car in Gran Trak 10 (1974). By the early 1980s, video games were a cultural phenomenon and arcades had transformed again, becoming “video arcades.” Indeed, according to Play Meter magazine, by 1981 there were approximately 24,000 full arcades with thousands more non-arcade locations including restaurants, gas stations, and dentist offices all over the United States. An oversaturated market for arcade games, improved home video game consoles, and rekindled anxieties about the relationship between arcades and juvenile delinquency (among other things) all contributed to the decline of video arcades by the end of the 20th century.

Today, the arcade survives in several related forms, including entertainment venues such as Dave & Buster’s and Chuck E’ Cheese, where families can munch on pizza while playing the latest redemption games; vintage arcades and museums such as the American Classic Arcade Museum and exhibits such as The Strong’s eGameRevolution and Boardwalk Arcade (opening July 6), where visitors can test their skills at a range of classic and modern arcade and pinball machines; and theme bars such as Barcade and Ground Kontrol Classic Arcade, where adults can quench their thirsts for arcade games and spirits. ICHEG and these other museums and businesses recreate or put new spins on the arcade, assuring that visitors can relive past glories or create new arcade memories in the 21st century.