How Arcades Have Survived Against Overwhelming Odds
After so many ups and downs, it’s still an uphill battle for this ancestor of modern gaming
I miss arcades. The dimly-lit rooms and flashing lights of the cabinets. The pungent aroma of dust, sweat, and nacho cheese wafting through the air. The cacophonous riot of a hundred different cabinets trumpeting their siren’s call, willing me to drop a quarter into their recesses.
These were our sanctuaries as children. Spaces carved out of society where we were allowed to run wild and abandon our inhibitions, succumbing to the glitz and glamour of games old and new. Where junk food and soda were plentiful, and five dollars was considered an absolute fortune. Reveling in the promise that — should fortune favor us — we could rack up enough tickets to get our very own Sega Genesis or Super Nintendo. Though we were satisfied when all we had to show for our efforts were a few plastic army men and a handful of stale candies.
I miss the excitement, the freedom, and the community that grew around arcades. There was comfort in knowing that somewhere out there, a place existed that allowed me to be myself. And the price of admission was so low. Just a single quarter. Followed by another, and another, and another.
Then one day, it seemed like they just vanished. As I got older, these sanctuaries of gaming all but disappeared. But why? Video game arcades have been a fixture of carefree childhoods since as least the 1970s (while general amusement arcades have been around even longer). We’ve craved these spaces, and the games they provided for decades. At its height, arcades were a billion-dollar industry. Though that was far before most of us were even born. The arcades that I’ve always known — that so many of us grew up with — were always on the cusp of being irrelevant.
Society has always struggled with how to identify with arcades. People called them gambling parlors and dens of ill repute. Arcades were blamed for corrupting the minds of innocent youth. They became known as places to waste time and money, with no redeeming value. They were seedy, dirty, and no place a respectable person would find themselves. More and more they leaned into this persona, providing mediocre experiences to siphon even more quarters from their patrons. The more they did so, the more they pushed people away towards more convenient forms of entertainment.
However, arcades would see periodic resurgences in the ‘90s and ‘00s. New games with different mechanics offered something new. Games like Dance Dance Revolution or Guitar Hero pushed the boundaries of what an arcade game could be. These drew crowds for a while, but our attention would only hold for so long, and arcades were still shutting down across the country. Those that survived were likely attached to other establishments — like bowling alleys or pizzerias — existing as an afterthought. The games were old and barely functioned. They were nothing more than depressing echos of their former glory. But change was coming. The children that frequented the old arcades were now adults, burning for a way to revisit a simpler time. It was only a matter of time until someone tried to capitalize on that nostalgia.
When the first barcade opened near me, I was ecstatic. It was an opportunity for me to relive my bygone youth when I had the freedom to spend my time and money as I saw fit. All the games I remembered, and beer to boot. It was perfect, and I wasn’t the only one who thought so. Barcades became a hit overnight, drawing in crowds from all walks of life. The old guard, who’s fingers still knew all the right combos. Gamers who were never able to experience the old arcades. Even those that weren’t interested in games found something intriguing in this new kind of bar.
For many of us, it was like seeing an old friend after so many years. This blending of childhood wonder and adult sensibilities was what we needed. It might have been the newest gimmick to get people through the door, but by god was it working. Barcades offered a look back at our childhood from a new perspective. They were time machines that served alcohol. Arcades found their niche in this new world and were once again on top.
Then everything shut down.
The pandemic has changed so many aspects of our life that it’s almost impossible to keep count. In the US, local governments are constantly modifying their plans for what can stay open and what needs to remain closed. For all the turmoil and confusion this has caused, the state of arcades — along with other in-house attractions — has been dire. They are either forced to remain closed or have voluntarily shut down, unable to find a way to safely allow their customers to enjoy themselves. Even those that have found ways to remain open have taken a massive hit. While they struggle, the rest have to wait and hope. It’s all they’ve they can do at the moment. There are many pressing things to worry about right now, and for many, arcades simply aren’t a priority.
This isn’t the first time arcades have fought to be seen, nor will it be the last time. This is the industry that helped shape how we look at modern gaming, and it has deep ties to many of us. We may have taken them for granted when we were younger, but now we’re the adults. We understand what we’ve almost lost, and have the drive to retain this bit of our shared history, and preserve it for the next generation. While technology focuses on the now, there will always be a desire to look back at where we came from. The love that we have for these classic machines and the places that housed them will never die.
I miss arcades. I miss the simpler time they represent when the only worry I had was how many quarters were in my pocket. Though it may be in a different form, or with some even newer gimmick, they will be back. If there’s one thing arcades have experience with, it’s struggling through the hard times. This just so happens to be their most recent fight.
If there’s a local arcade near you that can’t reopen — and you have the means to do so — consider helping in some way. Many have GoFundMe pages or are selling merch to get through this. Just because they’ve been fighting for so long doesn’t mean they have to do it alone.
If you want to learn more about the history of the American arcade, I recommend checking out Laura June’s article For Amusement Only: the life and death of the American arcade. It is what sent me down this rabbit hole and got me thinking about their current spot in our world.