Play-Sites, Historical and Virtual

This is more of an op-ed piece, maybe even an abstract for future research on the topic, and I’ll get back to the actual archaeology of games hopefully sooner rather than later depending on when (or now likely if) I’m actually going to New Mexico to help with the Atari Burial Ground excavations that will be filmed by fuel Entertainment. In April, I’ll be blogging the heck out of the archaeology of Elder Scrolls Online once the blogging embargo is lifted by Zenimax.

In preparing remarks on archaeogaming for an upcoming lecture at Marshall University, I was considering the space where video games are played now v. when I first began playing them in the late 1970s and 1980s. My dad used to take me once or twice a month to our local video arcade where, like all good dads, he would play me head-to-head in Asteroids (which had just come out in 1979) or we’d take turns at Space Invaders (1978). I was terrible at both, which probably says a lot about how far kids have come between now and back then when rocking a joystick and mashing ONE button was the pinnacle of difficult.

These arcades were dark and noisy and filled with kids of all ages, waiting on lines to play new games, observing the “quarter rule” for gameplay: put your quarter on the deck of the game to get dibs at playing it next. Once my $5.00 was spent (usually in 20 minutes), I’d hang around and watch kids way better than me play Pac Man, Galaga, Centipede. You want plot? Forget it. The pinball games remained popular, but all the cool kids were going digital, and the really good ones would draw crowds to watch the masters at work. Arcades were social spaces in the real world, and we all cheered and gasped as things happened beyond the pane of the screen. High scores appeared on the scrolling banner of the games, kids’ initials that would remain until the game was unplugged.

On occasion you can find the rare video arcade that is not tied to kids’ birthday parties (e.g., Chuck E. Cheese) or that caters to nostalgic grown-ups who want to play arcade games while drinking cocktails and eating a real dinner (e.g., Dave & Busters). There are a couple Old School arcades on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City that my brother and I go to between stops at the Casinos (where we play table games and stay away from the digital). These still have the old bubblegum stuck everywhere and the smells of fake buttered popcorn while playing loud pop music. All is forgotten as soon as we put our heads in the games: Afterburner, Moon Patrol, Gauntlet. We tune out and watch each other play. Sometimes we draw a crowd.

The social nature of the arcade and the arcade’s promise of technological novelty were both huge selling points and kept these spaces popular. The writing on the wall came with the mass deployment of Atari, and to a lesser extent Intellivision (which we owned), Colecovision, and others, the first generation of consoles for at-home gameplay. All of a sudden, we could play games any time we wanted, and we could play with our friends. There was no more playing surrounded by strangers, and there was no more pay-as-you-go gaming to continue play after a final life was lost in-game. We (or our parents) paid once for a cartridge, and we were set for the weekend.

The economy of play then had a very real effect on gaming, as did the advent of being able to actually save your progress. Why go to an arcade to throw money away on a novelty when I could play (and ultimately save) my games and my scores? The economy shifted as soon as gaming consoles were introduced, and those gaming palaces largely shuttered over the following years. The arcade games are still available for purchase on ebay and elsewhere, for collectors and hobbyists and for those hung up on gaming nostalgia.

In looking at contemporary gaming, especially with the advent of MMOs like Everquest and World of Warcraft, one begins to see the mix of playing with friends and with strangers, and a merging of one-time payment with pay-as-you-go (i.e., monthly subscriptions). With XBOX and Playstation, we can also now contribute to global leader boards for scores, and can play and communicate with anyone during gameplay, merging gaming with strangers with the comforts of home and other gaming friends (even if those friends are countries away). We have moved away from the physical space dedicated to play, basically these chapels of gaming, into a gray space where we meet inside the virtual world to explore, to compete, and to communicate.

The archaeology then is of these older gaming spaces and understanding why they were abandoned or repurposed. This was a spatial shift as well as an economic one. Play became portable, but the community of the arcade did not disperse. It just found a bigger venue in which to gather. The bricks and mortar became unimportant. The play’s the thing.

I wonder what happened to the original owners of the old video arcades. What did they do once they shuttered their businesses? Where did they go? Do they resent the shift in gaming? Do they care? And how were these spaces re-used? What businesses moved in, and do the current owners even know that their new ventures are sited atop (and within) a space held sacred by kids of a certain age who, from time to time, want to put down their controllers in favor of a joystick and a single button to push?

Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming


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