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?
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.
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 SFChronicle.com, in Peter Hartlaub’s The Big Event blog on SFGate.com and on social media...