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‘Coin-Operated Americans’ Tells of the Time When Arcades Took the Children of Displaced Workers

America’s youth crowded arcades, deposited quarters, and saw a way out of the modern, productive industrial economy of the post-war US and into the postmodern, postindustrial consumer economy that we inhabit today.

Most video game arcades today are either relics of the past, preserved through sheer will and by the weight of history, or are newer, modern (yet retro) spaces that traffic in craft beer and nostalgia. However, as professor and author Carly A. Kocurek demonstrates in her latest book, Coin-Operated Americans: Rebooting Boyhood at the Video Game Arcade, arcades were once big business, expanding from a niche market into something major, and nabbing national attention throughout the late ’70s and early ’80s, until an economic crash in 1983 submerged many, kicking off a slow, not always assured, decline.

Kocurek’s book comes at a prime moment. Between widely disseminated and examined controversies like GamerGate and the growing impact of video games on our culture, and wallets, examining the roots of this once subculture is long overdue. Indeed, for many non-gamers, the explosion in popularity of, as Kocurek notes, “an entertainment industry so substantial it regularly outperforms Hollywood’s profits, and an arena for competition so fierce as to support an entire professional circuit” is a shock. With this steadily growing power, “video gaming has come of age as an established industry with its own standards, professional organizations, degree programs, and lobbying groups.”

The research gathered by the author, and the story told, is perhaps indicative of larger transformations in American culture. Images of the gamer from the late ’70s / early ’80s (youthful, mischievous, rebellious, epitomized by Matthew Broderick in 1983’s WarGames) linger in the popular, collective unconscious. Though dated, they say a great deal about what the arcade was and how this space birthed a new power, one fixated on disruption, consumption, and creative destruction.

As Kocurek observes, “To journey through the arcade conceptually is to confront the digitation of culture, a process that has transformed everything from banking and education to film production and television viewing practices, and also to think critically about the role of money in daily life.”

So, what was the arcade? What was this place? And, though now largely running on nostalgia, or fixtures of larger entertainment complexes, who did the arcade cater to? Kocurek speaks to how arcades represented the future of America’s economy. Sprouting up in suburban shopping centers, these spaces catered to a youthful clientele, coming of age during deindustrialization, in a jaded, post-Watergate environment of deregulation, accelerating globalization, and stagnating wages. The factory lights in countless towns went dim, then dark. But the arcade, bright, noisy, open, took in the sons (and, despite common perceptions, daughters) of these displaced workers.

Although a shrinking middle class, declining wages, and an increase in temporary labor are trends common today, partly expected, in the late ’70s early ’80s, the arcade’s genesis moment, they were invasive forces, abnormalities, assaults on prosperity previously unheard of in the U. S. of A. With dimming prospects, many of America’s youth crowded arcades, deposited quarters, and saw a way forward, away from the modern, productive industrial economy of the post-war United States, and into the postmodern, postindustrial consumer economy that we inhabit today.

The author notes that this field of scholarship, about arcades and video games, is still in its infancy and, partly, that shows in the repetition of material, limited availability of outside sources, and her calls for further inquiries. Nevertheless, Kocurek makes commendable contributions, especially during interviews with an arcade owner in Ottumwa, Iowa, proprietor of the legendary Twin Galaxies Arcade, a key fomenter of early gaming competitions. Kocurek’s long analysis of the Life 1982 “Year in Pictures” of teenagers posed in Ottumwa, and how it mainstreamed the image of the gamer, is also rich and nuanced.

It’s when the author traces today’s information economy to the arcade culture of the late ’70s / early ’80s that Coin-Operated Americans is its most engaging. The title itself is a double entendre. It points to the denizens of the arcade, while also hinting at the piecemeal, bit work, the contingent, contractual labor that an increasing number of Americans engage in, especially younger ones. Sites like Elance, TaskRabbit, Uber, Lyft, just to name a few, along with the flexible scheduling software of big box stores and fast food restaurants, and temp agencies farming workers to subcontractors for Amazon, thematically, though tangentially, have their root in the arcade: the digitization of physical objects and services.

Even beyond America’s economy, the arcade challenged our concepts of freedom of expression and individual identity. After a landmark case, City of Mesquite vs. Aladdin’s Castle, Inc., where a small Texas town’s statute banning arcades was overturned, Kocurek notes, “the ruling nods not so subtly towards the late capitalist assertion that the freedom to consume is a fundamental civil liberty.” In a way, through the arcade, “individual identities [came] to be affixed to consumer products and practices…” People became what they liked, not who they were, fostering the rise of tags like the aforementioned “gamer”.

That’s not the end of the story of the arcade, as the author notes, nor should her verdict be definite. The arcade’s influence on our culture is deep and long obscured and that excavation is only in its infancy. So the arcade was many things: a place where boys became men, where culture became digitized, where the industrial economy became the informational economy or, as Kocurek notes wandering through a modern arcade, Dave & Buster’s, “maybe it is whatever makes money.”

RATING 8 / 10