That renowned photo-essayist Ira Nowinski recorded the very beginnings of the video craze in California is something short of a miracle. Most of his work up to that point was more focused on local arts and sociopolitical topics; i.e. “urban renewal” forcing pensioners from their longtime homes, the American migration of Soviet Jews and, of course, the San Francisco Opera where Nowinski had been the staff photographer since 1978. These are the events and topics he was most interested in at the time, not pop-culture fads.
But for some reason in the late Summer of 1981 Nowinski began visiting area arcades in and around San Franciso and the nearby cities of San Mateo and Santa Cruz, and recording what he saw there.
Since arcade games in the early days appealed to a far wider range of people than they do now, I suppose he was drawn to the energy of the moment that was creating for the first time a social scene that hadn’t existed around electronic games before. It was all new, fresh and, as the cultural movement it most certainly was, still not yet defined. No one knew yet what it was doing or where it was going -only that it was.
The young and old, and every age in between, as well as all races and sexes, appear in his photographs; businessman from the financial district, dock workers and suntanned teenagers, men, women, boys and girls, all appear together in Nowinski’s photos. Personally, I get the feeling Mr. Nowinski himself was a fan of video games otherwise he wouldn’t have recognized that what he was seeing was important enough to document it in the way that he did.
There were undoubtedly others, like Ira Nowinski, men and women who documented the video craze in photographs yet whose collections disappeared into attics and basements across America never to be seen again. Thankfully The Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries has been generous enough to house Ira Nowinski’s collection of vintage arcade photos as well as his other works. They’re an absolute treasure and can be found in their entirety here.
Now let’s go back…back in time…it’s late Summer/early Fall 1981…MTV has just launched it’s first broadcast, and cars on the boulevard are pumping out tracks from either Foreigner’s “4” or Iron Maiden’s “Killers”, the two #1 “street albums” at the time. There’s a new fad exploding around the country –video games– and arcades are popping up everywhere, so much so that their numbers nationwide outnumber 5 times the number of Starbucks street locations in America today. The forlorn hedonism of The 70’s discos and the redundantly painful bad taste that came with it are over. A new generation is coming of age to a soundtrack cut by a chorus of robots. The world is about to walk headlong into a hot-electronic dream it will never want to awaken from…and never will.
Welcome to the video craze of 1981.
Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco, CA 1981
First Street Arcade, San Francisco, CA 1981
Broadway Arcade, San Francisco, CA 1981
Chuck E. Cheese, San Mateo, CA 1981
Santa Cruz, CA 1982
There are hundreds of photos by Ira Nowinski to be seen at The Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries. Again, the collection can be reached here. Please take a stroll online through images he collected of a time that will never come again but whose impact we still see and feel in video games today.
And to all you arcade collectors out there, keep stuffing your garages, your spare bedrooms, your hearts. Keep fighting to preserve what’s left of “the video craze”.
Writer, arcade collector and historical researcher with a deep interest in urban legends, unsolved mysteries and 20th century pop culture. DeSpira was featured in the 2013 documentary film, "The Video Craze: Where Were You in '82" and appears in the forth coming documentary series in conjunction with The History Channel, "The Polybius Conspiracy" (2017).
View all posts by Cat DeSpira