Video ar­cades caused a frenzy in the ’80s. And now they’re back.

Those new video ma­chines swept S.F. in the 1980s, caused panic and faded. Are they back in the game?

San Francisco Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Peter Hart­laub

It was, with­out doubt, the great­est day in the his­tory of BART cus­tomer re­la­tions.

Through most of 1976, the Pow­ell Street BART plat­form was a blank can­vas, with­out so much as a bench to dis­tract pas­sen­gers wait­ing for their trains. And then on Dec. 6, 1976, it ap­peared: a mush­room-shaped ar­cade kiosk, with six state-of-the-art video games, in­clud­ing Pong, Tank and the driv­ing game Le Mans. As pas­sen­gers clus­tered around the fu­tur­is­tic de­vice mak­ing its bleep­ing and bloop­ing noises, the won­der on the faces of both chil­dren and adults was iden­ti­cal.

That was one of the ear­li­est events in San Fran­cisco video games, a his­tory that was no­table for both a high level of early en­thu­si­asm and a sur­pris­ingly quick change of heart — in­clud­ing ac­cu­sa­tions that ar­cade games in­clud­ing De­fender, Space In­vaders and Pac-Man

were turn­ing chil­dren into ad­dicts and zom­bies. By the mid-1980s, with San Fran­cisco su­per­vi­sors help­ing to blaze the trail, nearly ev­ery big city and county in the Bay Area had an ar­cade ban on the books.

And yet de­spite the pros­e­ly­tiz­ing move­ments to re­strict game play­ing, that cul­ture came back stronger than ever. The Bay Area re­mains one of the video game cap­i­tals of the world, and San Fran­cisco has grown as a video game busi­ness hub. Among other stu­dios, San Fran­cisco is the home of Sega of Amer­ica, Zynga and the North Amer­i­can head­quar­ters of Ubisoft.

The first video game cov­ered by The Chron­i­cle, in 1970, was a board with some lights and but­tons called Com­puter Foot­ball.

The ar­ti­cle fea­tured the first of three tropes from the early days of video game jour­nal­ism: won­der­ment that adults were play­ing th­ese so-called toys for chil­dren.

“We get cou­ples com­ing in to buy

th­ese games for their own use,” The Chron­i­cle quoted Mar­ket Street toy store owner Robert Alt­field as say­ing. “I had a hockey game on dis­play once, but I fi­nally took it down. Busi­ness­men were com­ing in from Mont­gomery Street on their lunch hours to play the thing, and it was hurt­ing busi­ness.”

Trope No. 2 was the idea that games were re­plac­ing phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity — as if the sale of a base­ball video game some­how elim­i­nated the de­sire or need to pick up a real ball or bat. And the last trope was true: that the nerd was in­her­it­ing the Earth.

Long be­fore The Chron­i­cle pro­filed Steve Jobs, Larry El­li­son or Ge­orge Lu­cas, the news­pa­per fea­tured a fan­tas­tic story about Nolan Bush­nell, who founded Atari and made Pong the first ma­jor ar­cade hit.

The 33-year-old Bush­nell posed for pho­tos in his Los Gatos hot tub with a stat­uesque fe­male friend, and gave the press a tour of a home that in­cluded a

king-size wa­terbed and a li­brary that en­com­passed both a cal­cu­lus text and “The Joy of Sex.” “Some ladies feel com­fort­able around me, and some don’t,” he told The Chron­i­cle, in one of sev­eral swag­ger-filled quotes. “I find the aura of power and money is very in­tim­i­dat­ing to an aw­ful num­ber of girls.”

In those early years, video games were greeted pos­i­tively by the public, with head­lines like “Amaz­ing Video Games” and “Sil­i­con Val­ley’s Wiz­ardry.” A lo­cal kid with an As­ter­oids high score was treated like a hero. Lo­cal TV sta­tions pro­filed Ed Zelin­sky and his son Dan, who cu­rated the Musee Me­canique, an ar­cade mu­seum be­neath the Cliff House that com­bined mod­ern ar­cade games with ob­scure early 20th cen­tury me­chan­i­cal games left over from Playland-at-the-Beach. San Fran­cisco Mayor Dianne Fe­in­stein posed with a guy in a Pac-Man suit at a Save the Ca­ble Cars event, to which Atari do­nated $1 mil­lion.

But at some point in the mid­dle of 1981, the nar­ra­tive shifted. Did the games get a lit­tle too popular? Were par­ents re­luc­tant to ac­cept tech­nol­ogy as art? Were the high-pow­ered nerds look­ing like less of a nov­elty and more like a threat?

What­ever the case, the at­ti­tude to­ward games seemed to change overnight, adopt­ing a “Reefer Mad­ness” vibe. Wire sto­ries from across the na­tion ran in lo­cal pa­pers, spot­light­ing chil­dren com­mit­ting crimes to feed ar­cade habits. (Sto­ries with the head­lines “Video Game In­ter­rupted, Man Slain,” “Youths Steal to Sup­port Video Game Play­ing” and “New York Study Links Drugs to Video Game Par­lors” all ran in The Chron­i­cle dur­ing a 15-day pe­riod in March 1982.)

Video game ar­ti­cles fo­cused on tru­ancy, with uni­ver­sity types warn­ing of a fu­ture of mind­less game-play­ers. This from a Sept. 7, 1981, Chron­i­cle ar­ti­cle head­lined “Ad­dicts Go for Broke: How

Kids Feed Their Habit”:

“Tommy Guer­rero, 14, who es­tab­lished a lo­cal ‘Scram­ble’ record with a score of 25,000, says he has no prob­lem bum­ming money to keep on play­ing. ‘What else am I sup­posed to do?’ he says.”

(Lit­tle Tommy turned out just fine. He was a pi­o­neer­ing mem­ber of the Bones Brigade skate team, co-owned a skate­board­ing com­pany and has had suc­cess in a sec­ond ca­reer as a record­ing artist.)

Then the ban on ar­cades started, and sup­pos­edly lib­eral San Fran­cisco turned into that Bi­ble-thump­ing town from “Foot­loose.” En­trepreneur­s try­ing to open a Rich­mond Dis­trict ar­cade were met at a per­mit board hear­ing by 50 res­i­dents and re­li­gious lead­ers, lining up to tell city of­fi­cials that video games were destroying the city’s soul.

At a time when smok­ing at many Bay Area high schools was still al­lowed, San Fran­cisco su­per­vi­sors in Au­gust 1982 unan­i­mously and with­out de­bate en­acted leg­is­la­tion that banned any ar­cade game within 300 feet of a school or play­ground, and ef­fec­tively outlawed ar­cades in res­i­den­tial ar­eas. At that point, anti-ar­cade laws were al­ready in pla­cein Berke­ley, in Oak­land. Alameda They County quickly and fol­lowed sev­eral cities on the Penin­sula.

The video game in­dus­try cratered later that year, in part due to poor de­ci­sion-mak­ing by Atari’s new lead­ers. When the in­dus­try re­bounded in 1985, the home con­sole Nin­tendo En­ter­tain­ment Sys­tem, not the bulkier ar­cade games, fu­eled the come­back. Within the next few years, most Bay Area ar­cades had died.

There are he­roes in this part of the story. At the peak of anti-ar­cade fer­vor, a few iso­lated voices stood up for video games as a form of art.

Steve Lis­berger, who had di­rected the

movie “Tron” in 1982, told Herb Caen: “The older gen­er­a­tion has no qualms about leav­ing us with dirty air, dirty wa­ter and 9,000 nu­clear war­heads, but they worry about whether video games are good for us.”

At a time when video-game back­lash was at its high­est, Bob Wilkins — known to Bay Area res­i­dents as the for­mer host of “Crea­ture Fea­tures” — pro­duced a 1982 pro-ar­cade doc­u­men­tary for KTVU, cor­rectly pre­dict­ing that the lo­cal game devel­op­ment in­dus­try was part of some­thing big­ger. “This whole Sil­i­con Val­ley is in­trigu­ing,” Wilkins told The Chron­i­cle. “You never know what’s com­ing next. I heard of a ca­ble sys­tem the other day that’ll soon be pump­ing video games to your home set, for a monthly charge.”

And then there was the Obi-Wan Kenobi of Bay Area ar­cade man­agers, Dan Zelin­sky, who kept the Musee Me­canique open dur­ing all those lost years for ar­cades, and con­tin­ues to this day.

The Musee Me­canique moved to Fish­er­man’s Wharf in 2002 — one of the few places in the city ex­empt from the anti-ar­cade laws.

In 2015, no one can call it a toy or a fad. The Chron­i­cle re­ported that in 1980, when in­ter­est in video games was surg­ing rapidly, sales reached $2.8 bil­lion world­wide. In­dus­try an­a­lysts at New­zoo have pre­dicted that world­wide gam­ing sales will eclipse $100 bil­lion by 2017. In the Atari era, most devel­op­ment cen­tered around San Jose. New in­dus­try pow­er­house Elec­tronic Arts set­tled in Red­wood City. Other large stu­dios grew in No­vato, San Rafael and Emeryville.

This time, San Fran­cisco be­came home to some ground-break­ing de­vel­op­ers, from smaller stu­dios such as Dou­ble Fine (mak­ers of “Psy­cho­nauts”) to jug­ger­naut Zynga (“Far­mville”) and the EA-owned Popcap Games (“Plants vs. Zom­bies”). Games are her­alded as part of San Fran­cisco’s per­son­al­ity and iden­tity.

And slowly, the clas­sic 1980s ar­cades have started to re­turn. High Scores Ar­cade opened in Alameda in 2013,

by­pass­ing the city’s anti-ar­cade laws by call­ing it­self an “ar­cade mu­seum.” When Brew­cade opened in San Fran­cisco’s Duboce Tri­an­gle last year, the brew pub/video game cen­ter was the first new ar­cade in the city in decades.

San Fran­cisco Su­per­vi­sors Lon­don Breed and Scott Wiener have worked to erase the 1982 ban that was fu­eled by hys­te­ria and looks so ridicu­lous now. In this age of smart­phone apps, Face­book and Snapchat, the ar­cade ex­pe­ri­ence for kids seems safe and down­right so­cial.

“Times have changed,” Breed said last year. “So it’s time to deal with out­dated leg­is­la­tion in a way that pos­i­tively im­pacts our busi­nesses in­stead of adding un­nec­es­sary lay­ers of bu­reau­cracy.”

Times have changed, and lessons have been learned. The video game revo­lu­tion that par­ents feared is now a pos­i­tive part of the city’s cul­ture.

Brant Ward / The Chron­i­cle

Eric Luse / The Chron­i­cle 1982

Ar­cade vis­i­tors, top left, linger near the en­trance of to­day’s Musee Me­canique, now lo­cated at Fish­er­man’s Wharf. A Bay Area ar­cade, above left, rolls out the new video game Robotron in July 1982. Phil Lob­singer is at the con­trols.

Ar­cade vis­i­tors linger near the en­trance of to­day’s Musee

Wel­come to Our San Fran­cisco, a year­long project look­ing at 150 years of the city’s his­tory. Each week a dif­fer­ent topic will be ex­plored in the news­pa­per, on SFChron­i­, in Peter Hart­laub’s The Big Event blog on SF­ and on so­cial me­dia...

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