Before We Were “Gamers”: History of an Unrecognized Youth Movement/ Part 2

boogie bowl(Continued from Part 1)

For many school age kids, the American Summer of 1978 was the longest anyone could ever remember. Save for the release of Jaws 2, the only real bite any kid got from anything that summer was if he or she was into Disco, the new craze sweeping the nation from the success of last year’s holdover movie sensation, Saturday Night Fever.

The reason for the long summer was due to a nationwide teacher’s strike, a frequent occurrence throughout The 70s that affected millions of children by delaying their usual return to school in September upwards by a month or more depending on what State they lived in. But 1978’s strike hit harder than others before because it came at a time when society’s focus on children was at an all-time low due to a vast adult population of The Me Generation casting off their social responsibilities, including parenthood, to embrace new found unapologetic forms of hedonism and faddish self-improvements. The extended summer vacation meant yet more time alone, unsupervised and bored.

Disco dance clubs were, of course, the largest obsession for anyone between drinking age and 30+ but the adult preoccupation with self-help books, exercise fads and the truly cultish EST (Erhard Training Seminars) coupled with the little free time they had in their work schedule, multiplied the distance between parent and child. In fact, by 1978, children and adults were now living in completely separate worlds, with completely separate objectives, needs and desires. If parents were tuning out and turning away, so were their children.

skater_boyFor while young adults and parents were looking ever inward towards self-reflection in an attempt to change themselves or create a new professional identity to combat the 6.1 national unemployment rate, their children were looking ahead, lost in a rather unrealistic new age society their own parents had created but their children rejected. As the summer stretched on, a lot of kids began scanning the social landscape for something, anything adults hadn’t touched, attached their own rules to or twisted out of shape yet. Some got into pinball, some deeper into Star Wars collecting, and some, like me -now under the influence of my new found skater friends- tasted the first sweet freedom of rebellion by starting “a band” in a friend’s garage, a terrible sounding unit we named “Too Cool” comprised of members between the ages of 10 and 13 who could barely play an instrument let alone even come close to mimicking the KISS songs we loved so much. But none of that mattered in that early process of finding ourselves. The point was we were trying, and in the midst of what felt like a crumbling world, we succeeded in finding each other.

bike kidWe, like millions of other American kids left to their own devices,  were looking for a tribe of our own. Something that reflected our interests and our energies. Something that we didn’t even know the name of yet but only knew that we needed it and it felt good whenever we found something that filled the space of time. If we couldn’t find it, we’d build it ourselves -whatever it was. A shitty garage band or a massive Stars Wars collection; a library of horror comics or by carving out our names in neighborhood history by chancing a massive BMX jump, one of the millions remembered 40 years later in every city and small town across America, usually done by some guy named “Timmy”.

So when “it” came it sort of felt like a savior. And in many ways it was. Our parents may have found Rock n’ Roll, Woodstock and The Rolling Stones. But we…?

Well, we found something better.

I’m Not In Love…It’s Just a Silly Phase I’m Going Through
In the summer of 1978 many of us saw “it” for the first time. If you’re one who remembers seeing “Big Foot” with astonishing clarity, you aren’t alone. For a lot of us it’s a childhood first preserved like a bee in amber, its wings forever arrested in the speed of flight. For millions of kids it was the point of lift-off, the moment we finally found something new and in a space we could conquer, plant our flag and call our own.

Despite the fact that industry historians record Space Invaders as being released in the USA in October of 1978, there are numerous eye-witness reports of the game appearing in small numbers randomly throughout several States in the late summer of 1978, a full month and a half before its wide release that coming Fall. I was one of those kids who saw it. It was fantastic. It was mesmerizing. It was love at first sight. But it became the catalyst to something more. Something no one really expected, and especially from kids: video game competition.

Competition on a video game was not something new but prior to Space Invaders it meant something entirely different. Sea Wolf, from Midway in 1976, was the first to use the phrase “high score” but only in the sense that the player had a set amount of time to reach a certain number of points to get a bonus. Sea Wolf didn’t save your score. Space Invaders did. The next player up, if he or she felt up to it, could try to beat your score and if they did, their initials would be preserved for all to see. That changed everything.

funspot 1979
I’m not sure how much Space Invaders played in the sudden phenomena of millions of kids laying down their bikes and kicking off their roller skates to move in unconscious and unintended orchestration towards taking over the adult arcade spaces, but I do remember that it happened rather quickly after Space Invaders was released. Suddenly places you never thought of going to became the “place to be”. The old, crummy Foos and pool halls, with its chain-smoking champs and old timers who smelled of stale booze, became daily pilgrimages. No one cared where the game was or what you had to do to get to it. Playing it was all that mattered.

By the spring of 1979 Space Invaders was everywhere, in bowling alleys, in movie theater game rooms, convenience stores and pizza parlors. But it was in the already long established game rooms and recs that the effect was most pronounced and where the biggest crowds of kids, usually boys, could be found huddled around the game, trying to beat each others scores. The adults were now being outnumbered by kids. The demographic had changed. Noting the rise in revenue, the game manufacturers began to increase production to meet the demands for exciting new games but still were marketing them to adults, unaware the profits were coming from children. In time they’d learn.

After the 1978/early 1979 Space Invaders craze, an array of new games flooded onto the scene. Lunar Lander in August 1979. Galaxian in October. Then in November, just when the operators of the game rooms thought business couldn’t get more ideally lucrative, Atari released Asteroids, the game that overtook the frenzy created by Space Invaders and instantly doubled not only their revenue but their quarter-popping customers rabid desire for more new games. What had first been recognized as a fad was now a full-blown national obsession.

An interesting insight into how quickly some game manufacturers responded to the sudden appetite for arcade games can be seen in Atari’s production number data logs, specifically on the titles released between the years of 1976 to 1980. Production numbers at Atari prior to “the Space Invaders craze” hovered on average between 1000-5000 units per title depending on the game, with only Breakout and Football exceeding the 10,000 unit production point prior to November of 1979.

aster 5However in November of 1979, a year after the USA release of Taito/Midway Space Invaders, Atari released Asteroids and its production number swelled to 47,840 units. The battle of the arcades had begun. The surface value of pocket change had taken on a new meaning.  Strangely enough, the cultural currency of a new and younger generation, once found in summer movies and amusing gadgets, could now be found in a single quarter popped into the coin slot of a video game.

Due to the rampageous interest in these new games, game rooms had no choice but to move foosball tables and pinballs aside to make way for the crowds of kids and teens who swarmed around Space Invaders and Asteroids. Sometimes they’d move the foos and pinballs back again after the weekend only to realize the crowds were only steadily increasing and were using them only to pile their coats on. By the summer of 1980 many of the foosball tables and pinballs were gone, moved or sold, or as I once observed, disassembled and stacked in a small room off a service corridor by the restroom, like broken toys. My guess is they were relocated to bars and nightclubs. They’d suddenly became a relic because Space Invaders and Asteroids were making more money than all the other machines combined.

pinball lonelyLooking back it was rather sad fate for pinball, a pastime that had only recently had the 1940s ban lifted on them by the Supreme Court. In some States affected by the previous ban, pinball only had two years to make a new generation fall in love with them before Space Invaders and Asteroids stole their hearts -and money- away. They didn’t stand a chance, really.

With what must have appeared to be something akin to a gold rush to investors eyes, new and larger game rooms with total focus on arcade games began popping up in every town, in every neighborhood and often in multiple locations. With the unemployment rate wavering at a dismal 6.1% many first time operators gambled the remains of their life savings on opening a “game room”, taking out any necessary bank loans or mortgages needed to line the walls with the most popular titles. It was a gamble but at the moment it looked like the odds were in their favor.

In the winter of 1979 on into the spring of 1980, the beginning of the year that would end with arcade games having generated by today’s calculation almost five-billion dollars in revenue (and an estimated 8 billion the next year), the sound of falling quarters from the fingertips of children created a symphony of more than just change. It was the year the world transitioned from The 70s depressing color palette of somber browns and dull, muddy greens into vivid-electric interplanetary color.

Video Killed The Radio Star: The 1980s Rise of Machines
arcade scenes

To refer to the phenomena of the North American video craze as a craze at all barely captures in essence the sheer magnitude of its cultural explosion. It’s sort of like when people speak of seeing The Beatles play Shea Stadium in 1965 to 60,000 people. You know it was culturally a huge deal but unless you were there, caught in the din and the rush of a thousand screaming teens, you really have no clue what that crush of passion felt and sounded like, or how the phenomena affected America thereafter. For people who were at least 10 years of age or older between the video craze years of 1979-1982, they remember with astonishing clarity how the world around them was transformed in an instant by a cacophony of robotic choruses and was never the same again. Words and phrases most often used to describe those feelings are “mind-blowing”, “a life-altering experience” and “fucking incredible”.

My own personal memories of the explosive transition of our town’s game parlor into a full-blown total video arcade in 1980 is one never to be clouded by time, age or forgetfulness. It’s one of walking into the old Fun Center on the night of their new grand opening with a group of my girlfriends and having to push and pull each other through the crowd outside to even get inside the door. Within two hours of it opening it had swelled over capacity. We couldn’t get near a game so we just stood in the center of it all, caught in a sea of backs walling us in from all directions, rocking on the waves of a hundred kids bumping and pushing past us like groupies trying to get to the band. Someone called the fire department and the place was evacuated. When we were all outside someone  pointed out that, “Ryan’s still in there playing!” He was.

In spite of the place getting raided, that kid kept on playing Asteroids through it all, not giving a rat’s about the chaos around him or the lights of the police and fire trucks swirling outside. He was having a good game and he wasn’t going to stop. A fireman went in and pulled him out. The crowd cheered and laughed as he emerged. His name was Ryan Reed. He was 13-years old. By his 14th birthday he held the in-house high score on both Asteroids and Defender in every arcade in town. He became the first “ace” I ever knew and the coolest kid in town. Guys tried to emulate his playing style, learn his tricks and beat his scores but they never did. Us girls just wanted to know him. He was too cool not to notice. The initials he used for his high scores was “FOX”. We thought that was accurate.

To give one an idea of the sheer magnitude of the video craze, by 1981, according to a national census conducted that same year, there was an estimated 24,000 fully stocked arcades and over 100,000 independent street locations totaling over 1.5 million active arcade machines of various types just in the USA alone. That’s more arcades and game-designated locations than there are Starbucks in America today. Arcade games could be found in laundromats, gas stations, convenience stores, beauty parlors, bowling alleys, and just about anywhere they could fit, including grade school, high school and university cafeterias. They were in airports and bus terminals, on aircraft carriers and military bases. They were quite literally everywhere.

The affects of the video craze were widespread but none more noticeable than in the American music industry, one that had once enjoyed a previous high during 1978’s “disco craze” only to come down and burn out in 1980. In a way, popular music had suffered the same fate at the hand of video games as pinball and foosball. The annual industry revenue for music sales in America prior to 1980 was roughly 4.6 billion dollars. By 1981 coin-operated video games were pulling in 8 billion dollars. American music sales numbers wouldn’t catch up until 1991…but then only briefly. Video games from here on out would always be one step ahead of the music industry in America.

80s teens article image

But the most noticeable change in early 1980s America was in the kids themselves. No longer estranged from society and looking for a place of their own, they had found and founded their own community in the game parlors, now commonly known as “arcades” and staked their claim. It became a place where, with little to no adult supervision, kids were free to express themselves, adopt new fashion statements and language in a place -and a lifestyle- that hadn’t existed before. In these often dark yet eerily glowing sanctums, they discovered who they were, formed friendships with other kids that under different circumstances they would have never met, and in the act of game play alone, some would learn of talents they hadn’t known they had before.

Meanwhile, in an arcade in Texas, notebook in hand, a former oil trader and Space Invaders fan, began keeping a record of high scores, instantly recognizing that there was more than just game play and a video craze going on. He saw champions, young electronic athletes whose talents were being lost and going largely unrewarded. In 1981, frustrated by the stress of working in the oil business, he moved to Iowa and opened an arcade on a quiet, little street. The growing arcade culture in America was about to witness the beginning of the most expansive cultural explosion since Space Invaders landed: the rise of the American competitive player.

NEXT :  “Before We Were Gamers” Part 3

Wizards, Warlords and Whiz Kids:
The Rise of American Competitive Players


-Cat DeSpira/Retro Bitch

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