For Amusement Only: the life and death of the American arcade
If you’ve never been inside a “real” arcade, it could be hard to distinguish one from say, oh, a Dave & Buster’s. Authenticity is a hard nut to crack, but there are a few hallmarks of the video game arcade of days gone by: first, they have video games. Lots and lots of video games, and (usually) pinball machines. They’re dark (so that you can see the screens better), and they don’t sell food or booze. You can make an exception for a lonely vending machine, sure, but full meals? No thanks. There’s no sign outside that says you “must be 21 to enter.” These are rarely family-friendly institutions, either. Your mom wouldn’t want to be there, and nobody would want her there, anyway. This is a place for kids to be with other kids, teens to be with other teens, and early-stage adults to serve as the ambassador badasses in residence for the younger generation. It’s noisy, with all the kids yelling and the video games on permanent demo mode, beckoning you to waste just one more quarter. In earlier days (though well into the ‘90s), it’s sometimes smoky inside, and the cabinets bear the scars of many a forgotten cig left hanging off the edge while its owner tries one last time for a high score, inevitably ending in his or her death. The defining feature of a “real” arcade, however, is that there aren’t really any left.
To say that Nolan Bushnell single-handedly created the arcade would probably be overstating it: coin-operated machines had been popular in America for decades by the time he got his start in the early '70s, and the pinball arcade had a storied (and notorious) spot in American history. It is also undeniable, however, that the video game arcade would not have happened without him. The video game arcade had its roots in 1971, when Computer Space, the first commercially sold, coin-operated video game, was designed by Bushnell and Ted Dabney. Though considered a failure at the time, the game was revolutionary, and formed the foundations of a new industry. It also marked the beginning of a long, illustrious, and world-changing career for Nolan Bushnell. In 1971, however, Computer Space looked anything but illustrious, and the idea that there would soon be arcades dedicated entirely to video games was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind — except for maybe Nolan Bushnell’s. To understand the ecosystem that Bushnell and his ilk injected themselves into to create the modern video game arcade, however, you have to go back a lot farther than the 1970s.