Nostalgic photos evoke the ‘golden age’ of American arcades

Marianna Cerini, CNN

(CNN) — Flipping through Franck Bohbot’s photos of Californian arcades is like stepping into a time machine.

In one, a dark, cavernous venue is lit up by the screens of retro games like “Terminator 2” and “Pac-man.” Another shows futuristic beams of neon light shooting past players in VR headsets as they fight off unseen enemies. Elsewhere, classic pinball machines stand alongside shiny, ultra-modern consoles; mid-game action shots follow images of eerily empty arcades.

One minute you’re in the 1980s, the next in the present day. “That’s the power of the arcade,” Bohbot said in a phone interview.

Shot largely in 2019, though not published until now because of the pandemic, Bohbot’s new book “Back to the Arcade” brings together almost 150 of his photographs from Los Angeles and southern California — a project intended to “document arcade culture and the escapism it provides,” Bohbot explained. “I’ve long been fascinated with those spaces, and I thought capturing them on camera would help me dig deeper into their world in a way that would feel timeless.”

“Arcades have been portrayed in so many movies I grew up with,” he added, revealing how cinema led him to the idea. “From ‘Back to the Future Part II’ to ‘Jaws’ and ‘Terminator 2,’ they’ve sort of become part of our visual pop culture. I wanted to explore that and pay homage to a bygone era, as well as my personal childhood memories.”

The French photographer, who moved to L.A. in 2018, mostly worked at night, driving in and out of the city to find a range of different arcades, from the bright and family-friendly to the moody and dark. He then snapped not just the games but the crowds they attracted, too.

“Each parlor had a very different vibe, which I found interesting,” he said. “There would be spots in the deserts, where only serious gamers would go, and venues that doubled up as bars and had more of a relaxed weekend vibe. (But I also encountered) kids’ arcades and chill spaces right by the beach. I found the variety a never-ending source of inspiration. A mix of dreamy atmospheres and loneliness, too.”

Fantasy playgrounds

Arcades emerged in the US in the early 1900s — though back then they were called amusement arcades, or penny arcades, with coin-operated games like strength-testers, slot machines and racing games providing much of the entertainment. In the 1930s, the introduction of the pinball saw it eclipse other games, captivating audiences like never before. By the end of that decade, however, pinball machines were being banned across the country because they were deemed to be games of chance and considered a form of gambling.

In 1939, L.A. officials outlawed the devices and proceeded to confiscate and destroy them. Three years later, New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia implemented a series of Prohibition-style raids on illegal pinball parlors and a city-wide ban that remained in effect until 1976 (California’s was overturned in 1974).

The development of electro-mechanical games (EM games), like Sega’s “Periscope” (1966) and Chicago Coin’s “Speedway” (1969), helped redefine arcade games as ones of skill, not chance. But it was during the 1970s that the arcade as we know it today sealed its place in our collective culture thanks to a new type of attraction: the video game.

In 1971, a space combat video game called “Computer Space” became the first commercially sold, coin-operated arcade game released in the country, setting the foundation for a new industry that would revolutionize not just the arcade, but gaming culture and the very notion of American youth.

Almost overnight, arcades became go-to hangouts and strip mall staples. Just as quickly, a growing number of companies — mostly in the US and Japan — began producing new games, paving the way for what would come to be known as the “golden age” of arcades.

Titles like “Space Invaders,” “Asteroids,” “Pac-man” and “Donkey Kong” (all released between 1978 and 1981) seeped into the everyday lives of kids around the world, becoming objects of endless fascination and, to some extent, obsession. The industry boomed, and by the peak of the “golden age,” the US was home to an estimated 1.5 million arcade machines, 24,000 full arcades and 400,000 street locations, according to a 1982 study by the now-defunct trade magazine Play Meter.

“The quality and variety of the video games selection was incredible,” Bohbot said of that era. “Those were and are classics.”

But the arcade’s iconic status wasn’t to last. Just like pinball machines before them, video games were seen by some — from officials to concerned parents — as deviant, dangerous pastimes for young people (a 1982 New York Times headline dubbed the issue a “Battle for America’s Youth”). By this time, home computers, handheld games systems and consoles by the likes of Atari were also changing the way young people played. So when the video game industry hit a recession in 1983 — partly the result of an oversaturated market — many prominent game companies went bankrupt or stopped making software entirely, with knock-on effects for the arcade market.

This recession effectively ended the “golden era.” And while franchises like “Mortal Kombat” and “Street Fighter” (which were originally arcade-only titles) helped revived some of arcades’ cultural relevance in the 1990s, their decline proved irreversible.

In 2005, there were about 44 licensed arcades in New York, down from hundreds just a decade before, according to the New York Times. By 2010, the number was down to 23.

Other parts of the US saw similarly sharp falls. Yet, as Bohbot embarked on his photography project, he was surprised to discover that — in L.A., at least — the arcade wasn’t completely dead.

“The more I searched, the more I found,” he said. “There are a lot of aficionados that have worked on bringing the arcade back.”

Nostalgic time capsules

The past few years have heralded a revival of classic retro arcades, according to Bohbot, who believes the trend is driven by a sense of nostalgia that he hopes are captured in his images.

“Arcades can transport people in time and place,” he said. “They are time capsules of something we’ve lost, but they can also look like somewhere almost otherworldly, from another dimension. I really wanted to … depict them for what they are to a lot of us: dream-like playgrounds.”

While the photographer considered expanding his project to other cities and countries — including Chicago, a hub for America’s video game industry in the 1980s, and Japan, where the arcade sector has fared better than in the US, despite similar challenges — he sees “Back to the Arcade” as a love letter to L.A., specifically.

“L.A. is a complicated city that often feels like it’s hiding parts of itself,” he said. “So much goes on indoors, and in places you wouldn’t even know about, because everything is so spread out. It really makes you look twice and search hard for what you’re after.”

The arcades he shot, he noted, exemplified that. “They almost felt like secrets, yet they were full of people playing ‘together’ and enjoying themselves. I think that reflects the atmosphere of the city.”

Back to the Arcade,” published by Setanta Books, is out now. 

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