Re-imagining the Video Arcade
By Andres Lombana-Bermudez
The creative and social spaces established by the Juegos Rancheros community through their monthly meet-up events and annual exhibitions at the Fantastic and Marfa Film Festivals can be considered new iterations of the video arcade, a particular kind of public space that became very popular among U.S. youth in the 1970s and 1980s. With deeper roots in the history of American popular culture that go back to the amusement parlors of the 19th century, and the nickelodeons and pinball arcades of the 20th century, the video arcade is part of a longer tradition of spaces for play, social life, and interaction with media technologies. For more than a century, the arcade, as a public space for showcasing and playing media novelties (e.g. phonographs, kinetoscopes, mutoscopes, electro-mechanical games, video games), has been continually reimagined and repurposed. In its various iterations the arcade has been a site for the development of a range of practices that reflect the characteristics of particular social, cultural, economic, and technological contexts.
The Golden Age video arcade was a particular iteration in the history of this kind of public venue. Glowing video screens, custom built cabinets, computers, coins, action games, and youth, characterized the arcade of the 70s and 80s. Embracing commercial values, this space turned out to be one of the major drivers of not only the commodification of video games, but also of the masculinization of video game culture (Kocurek 2012). Because it was a public space, the video arcade helped to introduce computers and interactive media to a broader intergenerational audience, and to create a “culture craze” among youth (June 2013; Kocurek 2012). Pay-for-play practices were encouraged at the arcade by an emergent videogame industry influenced by manufacturers, distributors, operators, and arcade owners who were interested in maximizing their profits. Either a token or a quarter was required for playing video games such as Pong, Pac-Man, Space Invaders, or Galaga. Although the arcade patrons could also just hang out while watching other people play, or observe the screens of the cabinets showing game demos, most of the attendees played games and spent their money.
Although the video arcade never completely disappeared, it suffered a tremendous decline after the video game industry crash of 1983, the devaluation of the U.S. dollar, the popularization of home video game consoles, and the increasing adult concerns about youth safety in unsupervised public spaces. While declared dead by some, the truth is that in the 21st century, it is possible to still encounter spaces that operate like the video arcades that are reminiscent of the Golden Age, with coin-op cabinets and other interactive attractions of the digital age that can be commodified.
Today, however, indie game making communities like Juegos Rancheros have been able to reimagine the video arcade and make their own version of it based on the values and practices of indie game culture. The “indie video arcade” emerges as a space of opportunity where a productive audience/public of young creative workers comes together, and meets for a short period of time in order to play, learn, connect, and have fun. This new arcade is open and temporary, it is diverse in terms of gender, and, importantly, it is not commercial. Participants do not engage in pay-for-play; instead, all the gameplay is free. As Wiley Wiggins, a game developer and one of the co-founder of Juegos Rancheros explained, these indie game video arcades are like “temporary autonomous creative zones” outside the mainstream videogame industry. According to him, “you have to sort of organize, and get together and work to create protected areas for things that aren’t commercial, for things that are worthwhile but are not necessarily making money out of the bag.”
At the indie video arcade, participants engage in a range of gift exchanges, where ideas, design tips, feedback, and games actively circulate among the community. For instance, instead of relying on the pay-for-play practice of the arcades of the 20th century games are given as a gift at the indie video arcade. Developers (who are at the same time producers/distributors) give their games to all the participants in the space, including newcomers and regular members of the Juegos Rancheros community. The gameplay is not commodified and attendees do not need coins or tokens to operate the computers, mobile devices, or custom-built arcade cabinets loaded with indie games. In return, and also as a gift, developers get feedback and ideas from players (usually peers) that often become the first testers of their games. The indie arcade is both a play space and a creative space.
Furthermore, status and prestige among the community and the wider indie game culture are earned instead of cash remuneration. According to Randy Smith, a developer from the Austin based indie studio Tiger Style, it is an honor to exhibit your games to the community at this kind of video arcades. Explaining his experience at the Fantastic Arcade 2014 when his studio had a custom built cabinet for the game “Spider: Rite of the Shrouded Moon,” Randy said, “…as a community we take turns. Having your game exhibited at the arcade is like your turn to get in front of your peers and show what you have been working on. You have a unique opportunity to get feedback and engage with an audience.”
The exchange of gifts, Lewis Hyde explains, creates a kind of non-market economy that is emotional and supports social life. Hence, by circulating gifts at the indie video arcade, participants of Juegos Rancheros establish emotional connections with each other and build a sense of community. As Hyde points out, “when gifts circulate within a group, their commerce leaves a series of interconnected relationships in its wake, and a kind of decentralized cohesiveness emerges” (20). This explains why participants of indie video arcades are driven by passion and not profit. As Rachel Weil, a NES developer and Juegos Rancheros organizer said, “the games that are shown here and the people who come, they’re not necessarily about making a profit, or making the game that sells the most copies, or makes the most money. And the people are just driven by passion for gaming and passion for the community.”
The creation of the indie video arcade, in its several iterations, is one of the most important innovations to emerge from the Juegos Rancheros community. This new kind of space has helped to solve, at least
temporarily, some of the challenges that game developers and other creative workers confront in the new economy. By coming together and making the indie video arcade, creative workers passionate about video games have been able to compensate the isolation of freelance work, the insecurities of irregular labor, and the boom-and-bust cycles of the mainstream game industry. At the arcade, participants are able to become a collective, aggregate themselves in a physical space, and engage in a series of shared practices. As they do so they are able to make a space of opportunity where participants can learn, play, connect, and have fun.