Over the past fifteen years, Alan Meades has documented and studied British arcade culture. Richly entwined with the history of the traveling showmen, the seaside as static tourist draw, gambling practices, and economic and business history, the arcade in Britain occupies an important but often overlooked position in the larger history of video games and coin-operated amusements. Meades’s work to date includes dozens of often-lengthy interviews with current and former industry leaders and archival efforts that have covered topics like the invention of the coin pusher, the popularization of bingo in England, and the rise and fall of coin-op manufacturing.
However, like many historians, he initially found himself unable to arrange interviews. In an effort to make his work more publicly accessible and to demonstrate what he had in mind, he produced Arcade Tales (https://arcadetales.com/), a comic-book series on the history of the British arcade and his ethnographic and documentary practices. A rich resource on their own, the comics provide an overview of key aspects of British arcade history in an unusual, broadly appealing form. They also introduce Meades himself, covering his own childhood love of arcades and demonstrating his knowledge and approach. The first issue is effectively a call for stories, the second is about Arcade Club, the largest retro arcade in Europe (fig. 1).
The cover of Arcade Tales 1 shows Alan Meades making a call for reader stories.
Subsequent issues cover other types of arcade experiences from the perspective of players and owners. While to some degree these comics were a means to an end—a way to introduce the project and make explicit Meades’s own interest in and affinity for arcades—they are a robust example of the value of publicly accessible scholarship in innovative forms and are further useful for making visible historians’ often-obscure work practices. The multimodal approach innate to the comic-book form helps spin small anecdotes into compelling cultural narratives and also means the interviews and documentary work are broadly intelligible to a diverse readership. In short, Arcade Tales demonstrate how innovative public projects can be generative for scholarship and also serve as an example of a particular type of outreach that not only shares research findings but demystifies the research process.
For Meades, the comics helped launch what has become an extensive documentary effort and, now, a book manuscript detailing the industrial and cultural history of the British arcade. The project makes an essential intervention into the growing body of scholarship surveying the broader history of video games and adjacent forms, helping to decenter the youth-focused arcade of the 1980s United States as the quintessential coin-op experience. In this interview, Meades, who is principal lecturer in the School of Media, Art, and Design at Canterbury Christ Church University, discusses the historical trajectory from traveling showmen to static seaside arcades, the role of gambling in UK arcade culture, and the degree to which British arcades present as a unique cultural expression. He also considers the complex politics of scholarly interviewing and the fraught position researchers often occupy as they work to record the histories of individuals, businesses, and even families, collecting stories that are surprising in their intimacy. This interview, then, offers insights not only into the history of British arcades but also into the practice of historical interviews and the challenges and possibilities presented by working closely with professional organizations.
Carly Kocurek: Alan, just to start, can you give us a broad overview of the work you’ve been doing on arcades in Britain?
Alan Meades: Over the last, well, three and a half years now, I’ve been attempting to get a sense of player histories of the British arcades. British amusement arcades are fairly low status. They’re treated as things that no one should kind of care about—low culture—and yet, because of the way British tourism worked, they played a really important role in lots and lots of people’s understanding of play. What I wanted to do, partly in response to your book, was to try and document the British perspective of play in arcades and early histories of video-game play, as I could never really recognize the things that I experienced in the arcades in the things I read. These included playing games but also things like loitering, adolescent smoking, the constant low-level threat of fights and mischief, and the assumed presence of soft drugs. All those things seemed important to the experience of the arcade, whether real or imagined, but these seem to be overlooked within much of the literature and the focus placed largely upon the games themselves.
CK: And so can you talk a little bit about the historical period you’re covering? When does this begin and when does it go through?
AM: I was first interested in cultures of transgressive play in the arcade, the arcade as a site of transgressive play. And I really didn’t care about a specific time period. My personal experience was the mid-late eighties through to the mid-1990s. But as I began to talk to people, they told me of their experience in the 1960s, the 1950s, the 1940s, the 1970s. So the scope of what I was doing changed in terms of timescale. Even my explicit intent to look at transgressive play changed because it became apparent that the institutional history of the British arcade hadn’t been documented. The people involved in the arcades are of an age now that they’re very willing to engage with oral histories and documentation and to have their stories told. And so really the time period I’m really looking at—it’s probably going back to the early 1900s, so we talk about 1880, 1905, all the way up to the present day because the first British arcades as we know them occurred in the late 1800s. The other thing that has happened is that through doing this research, I’ve realized that the arcades fit into a time line which includes traveling fairs, traveling circuses, and things like that, and that there is an explicit evolution of the traveling-showmen community into static arcade ownership.
CK: Since probably not everyone’s going to be familiar with the British context, can you talk a little bit about those early arcades and early traveling fairs?
AM: If you think about Britain as a geographical entity, we have the Industrial Revolution in the 1860s that creates some big, industrialized cities, but elsewhere the country remained rural. While the cities boasted entertainments, traveling circuses and traveling fairs visited the rural locations. So, these small towns would have a fair that would turn up for a week perhaps over the course of a year, and this links with a deep historical tradition connecting with Roman-era entertainments, thousands of years of tradition. They had captive audiences; they made good money. Eventually, the British countryside was broken up into different divisions to enable the fairs, and different traveling families took different areas. Each family had their patch, and they were fairly well regulated. Traveling fairs were often the sites of technological innovation; for example, they adopted steam engines for transportation and were the first to offer steam-powered amusements to the public. As they adopted new technology, the fairs engaged with the development of coin-operated play. In the late 1800s, there was a popular obsession with automatization and making things coin-operated, such as automatic vending machines and automatic games. Coin-operated gambling became particularly attractive, and the traveling fair would often include a tent containing coin-operated amusements, things like spinning wheels of luck where prizes could be won, and fruit machines that enabled low-stakes, coin-operated gambling. This was the makeup of the early arcade, and yet it’s quite consistent with what one would find today.
There were successive attempts by the British government to regulate working-class gambling, including the kinds offered in an early arcade; the 1906 gambling act is a key example. This was possible in the more static amusement venues found in cities but less so in the traveling fairs because their itinerant nature meant that they could avoid or had agreements with the police. From around 1900 to 1920, there’s a gradual transition where some traveling fairs became static, which accelerated enormously after the Second World War because of the rise of the automobile, the demolishing of areas for parking spaces, and general changes in attitudes about leisure. That’s when the British arcade as we’d now understand it as a seaside entertainment venue develops—the 1940s and the 1950s. In 1960, the British government liberalized their gambling laws, making low-stakes gambling legal, and arcade owners were able to expand the numbers of fruit machines and make significant profit. The gambling laws were revised partly due to fears that Britain would see an influx of American organized crime following the introduction of the US Johnson Act. The Johnson Act made it illegal to transport gambling machines across state lines, and there were fears that criminals who had been working in Chicago’s gambling-machine manufacturing, distribution, and operation industry would see the United Kingdom as a viable alternative.
The British government legalized gambling but introduced significant administrative legislation; the government had to know precisely who was operating the gambling machinery and had very strict eligibility criteria. For those arcade owners who passed [under] the new legislation, the sixties were an incredibly profitable period. Arcades were established in almost every seaside location that had a tourist trade, and many expanded to dominate entire beach-facing seafronts. At the same time, the number of traveling fairs declined. A few large cities were able to maintain arcades, but generally we see the arcade as a coastal, often seasonal location. While the arcade industry has faced many economic challenges since the 1960s, and they have certainly declined in number, the British model remains largely the same. For example, my hometown of Broadstairs, Kent, still a seaside tourist resort, has eight arcades within a seven-mile radius. The arcades still contain a mix of low-stakes gambling—fruit machines, penny pushers—the occasional video game, and a variety of cranes, redemption machines, kiddie rides, and amusements.
CK: Is there any distinction between an arcade and a casino there? Because a lot of these are machines that, in the US, we would see in the casinos, which are regulated differently.
AM: I feel that this is the key difference between American and British attitudes toward the arcade. Within the British arcade, low-stakes gambling is legal. At Canterbury Christ Church University, we have an archive of British arcade photographs in which there are infants playing gambling machines. There’s an image of a young girl standing on a chair feeding coins into a fruit machine. This might sound terrible to an American reader, but in Britain, it was considered—and well, it still is—considered largely benign. We do have casinos with similar machines with far higher jackpots and stakes, and some arcades contain a separate, adults-only high-stakes gambling area. Within the British psyche, working-class, low-stakes gambling is the norm. The 1906 gambling act was introduced in an effort to stop working-class street gambling. The act was introduced while the British nationalized police force was still in relative infancy, and the police were seen as an essential part of its enforcement. However, the police became so concerned with the widespread public acceptance of low-stakes gambling, and the public order risk that the new law’s enforcement represented, that it was never meaningfully enforced. This makes things very strange. From 1906 to 1960, it was illegal to gamble on a fruit machine or other device, yet it was socially acceptable to do so at the same time. So, you could go to an arcade and you could gamble. A policeman would walk past the arcade, and there would be no problem. It would only become an issue if there was money laundering or if there was violence or it was deemed that the gambling was being done too visibly. So there’s this really strange situation, and within the British public consciousness the arcade became a site of overt transgression. So it’s really strangely conflicted. It was illegal but everyone was doing it.
CK: Yeah. I wonder if some of this actually ties to how important evangelicalism is in the US. I think tons of that plays into how these things are regulated and responded to. So if you look at that same kind of thing at the turn of the century, early 1900s period in the US, people are freaking out about nickelodeons. They’re so upset about them. And they’ll show these—they’re like parlors in the sense of having like Victorian wallpaper even of people like watching the nickelodeons. Some of them are racy, and that really upsets people, but then Thomas Edison is making the world’s most boring movies. And so I do wonder about the role of religion in the US, right, because so much of moral regulation in the US is really tied to religious values that may or may not actually even be widely held but are widely enforced.
AM: What’s the role of the middle class in America though? They’re quite an important dynamic in Britain because this legislation wasn’t regulating all gambling. The upper classes or aristocracy had their own expensive private clubs where they could gamble. There were laws about aristocratic gambling as well, but these seem to have more to do with losing status and dropping down the classes rather than the moral concerns of other gambling legislation. The middle classes were catered to by on-site betting; they would go to horse races and that was a middle-class way to gamble. But, of course, in order to get to the races, you had to pay for a transport and be relatively well dressed. So the 1906 act wasn’t about reforming middle-class or upper-class gambling habits. It was really just about reforming the working class. I know that’s no different anywhere else, but in England, we have this expansive and precarious middle class which worries that they’re going to slip into the working class and aspires upward as well. I know that many British scholars frame things about these kind of class systems, but I genuinely think it matters here. And even the idea of when you go on holiday and you’re away from the city or work, you can kind of indulge in things that are a little bit beneath you or transgressive.
CK: Yeah, absolutely. There’s a beautiful book about Coney Island in the US by John Kasson. There’s two scenes in it I love. And one is talking about the ride or amusement that spins, so everyone’s in their fussy clothes but then it’s flipping people upside down and their skirts are over their heads and their pocket watches are falling out. Because you’re in this kind of liminal, carnivalesque space, this is okay. And similarly, the other part I love is—at one of the parks, the owner or the manager noticed that people were sitting down and watching and that the second people were sitting down and watching, they were thinking critically about what’s happening and possibly judging people or thinking this is tawdry or something. And so he starts hiring musicians to go around in little bands, and if people are sitting too long, they’re supposed to start playing music next to them because either it will encourage them to move or maybe they’ll dance or listen to music or something instead of just sitting. That’s such a key part of how amusement parks are still today.
But I also think that sense of being in another world is so important. Las Vegas advertises around this for decades and decades and decades: what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. And, of course, Las Vegas has its own really fraught history in terms of money laundering, organized crime, et cetera. And, you know, there’s always gambling in the US. There’s gambling that’s socially acceptable and there’s gambling that’s not. And it also varies quite a bit regionally because I’m from Texas, which is very—the evangelical traditions that are dominant in the place where I grew up are very white and like that you’re not supposed to be wearing makeup or dancing or like listening to music that’s not religious. Very few people are actually like that but the policy impact of that was you couldn’t sell alcohol in my hometown until like five years ago, which is shocking. … But then now I live in Chicago … Gambling is much more normalized here. You can take a bus out to the suburbs and go to a casino, and there’s also signs on the trains about not gambling on the trains, which I don’t see a ton of but I do occasionally see. Like, oh they’re just like playing dice on the train, you know. Regulations often correct certain things but not other things. So this kind of gambling is bad. This other kind is fine. Gambling over there is fine but you cannot do it here. I’ve spent time in Britain and gambling’s much more visible there. And I think, you know, [there] it’s normal and here it’s minimal.
AM: Can I ask you about kind of the character of American arcades because my assumption is that in the nineteen—what like 1983, eighty-four, when there was the arcade crash, the video-game crash, they were reinvented as [family entertainment centers] and became kind of sanitized and juvenile. Is that true? Is that what happened?
CK: I think it’s always a both/and, right? So there’s an effort to do that that’s much longer running because the coin-op industry is so tied in the public imagination to organized crime that they [members of the coin-op industry] just have awful reputations. A lot of them [business owners] are really desperate to be taken seriously in their communities as legitimate business owners, in many cases, because they are legitimate business owners. For a lot of them, video games are an opportunity for that. And so I think, in some places, that actually starts much earlier. That doesn’t always mean it works, but I think for a lot of them, they’re like oh, these nice kids from the suburbs or from my small town are playing these games. It’s not seedy guys in leather jackets playing pool or, you know, whatever like the predecessor that they were most concerned with was. And so they really wanted to highlight these nice kids so there’s advice on how to do promotions … like give them tokens for their good grades and things like that. It’s hard to know how much of that is real and how much of it’s aspirational.
But, yeah, family entertainment centers [FECs] are very well lit, and they always have food, and they always have a lot of parents. But there were arcades that persisted in other ways, right? Aladdin’s Castle which was the largest arcade operator in the US. At one point, they had hundreds of locations. There was one of those in the mall near where I grew up until about 1995 or so I think—maybe ’96—and it was totally poorly lit and totally sticky … But, by the time I hit a certain age, my mom was like don’t go in there. And it was because the whole mall had become very suspect.
AM: We tend not to have [FECs]. In Britain, because the arcades—let’s say 80, 85 percent of the arcades were owned by traveling families so they had been the traveling showmen who were a specific demographic who had been subject over the years to incredible persecution. I think due to this they’d developed their own kind of ways of dealing with issues and disagreements. Historically, the traveling fair, certainly the major charter fairs that had been running since the Middle Ages to generate income for the church and state, were legal entities unto themselves. And more recently fairs experienced issues with the police. The police would wait outside the fair, and the people that ran the fair would then handle the issues themselves. I think that the traveling showmen’s notion of dealing with issues internally impacted upon the arcade. If you think that the majority of the arcades are run by people from a community that saw being separate from everyone else and not judged by their rules as part of their identity, it would have an impact. While arcade owners certainly would have wanted to maintain an honorable persona in order to maintain business, and would pride themselves on the quality of entertainment they offered, I don’t think they were interested in seeking public acceptance. Perhaps the pressures between the US and UK were different, explaining why there was no move toward FECs because the ownership is from a very specific demographic. The American arcades will not have fruit machines. They will not have coin pushers or, if they do, they have [tokens] whereas [in British arcades] they have both (fig. 2).
The diversity of amusements in arcades in England often means a more diverse age range among patrons. Here, two women play Crompton’s Clean Sweep, a coin pusher. Photograph by George Wilson. Courtesy of George Wilson / SEAS Photography, Canterbury Christ Church University.
CK: They were considered gray-area games for a while, and there’s vigorous debate in the trade press about whether people should buy them or not and if they’re acceptable because, in most states, they’re considered gambling unless you have them, like, running on tickets or something.
AM: A man called Jim Crompton, owner of Crompton’s Amusement Machines, invented the coin pusher a mile and a half away from where I was born. They’ve shared a huge amount of family archives with me, as part of my research, including the terrible story of their largely failed attempts to get their machines into America. It appears that they didn’t fully realize that the coin pusher would have been regarded [as] illegal until they turned up for a trade fair.
CK: Oh my gosh. Can you talk about that? That’s heartbreaking.
AM: So what happened was that the Crompton brothers, Jim, and elder Alf, lived in Acton, London, in the 1930s. They were working-class lads living in the heart of the prewar British automotive industry—Acton was Britain’s Detroit at the time. Of course, it was bombed to smithereens during the Second World War, but it was where all the automotive engineering industry was. This meant that as they grew up as kids there, they were surrounded by people with incredible skills. People knew about electronics, about motors, about engineering, and there was vast latent knowledge within the community. The brothers clubbed some money together and purchased an imported pin table. As adolescents they got a cheap Jennings pin table and decided to put it in their mother’s fish-and-chip shop. I think they made their money back in a week and a half and then they eventually became small-scale operators. They then started using their tinkering knowledge to improve these machines in order to make them more attractive and interesting. But this was pin tables.
The Cromptons became the major manufacturer or a major manufacturer of amusements. After the Second World War, there was a Festival of Britain, you know, Britain is completely knackered. There’s no money to cheer people up. There’s a yearlong fair in the London borough of Battersea, so Battersea Park Fair. Lots of traveling showmen who had been doing their fairs were invited to run the place, and it becomes a major amusement park in the heart of London. The brothers are supplying and maintaining the machines for many of the showmen. After that, they decide to set up as a bespoke manufacturer so they begin to design and make their own games. The Cromptons take the blueprint of a machine called a rotary merchandiser. It consists of a spinning plate with prizes on the plate. You press a button, an arm springs out from the center and moves toward the edge of the plate. If [you are] lucky, the arm pushes a prize off the plate to the player. The brothers modified the merchandiser: they put various holes in the plate, and they put coins on the plate. It pushed money, but it didn’t work. And then their next development was the same idea with a moving pusher instead of an arm. That was Penny Falls, the first penny pusher. There were other machines they did that made them more money initially. But, interestingly, they were going through some financial difficulties at this point and they didn’t patent the pusher. It became widely copied by other manufacturers in the UK, but still the Crompton pushers were considered the very, very best. I’ve interviewed the family. They live locally and it’s just really interesting.
They made a major attempt to bring pushers to the US and to get them into Disneyland. Disneyland I think was opened in ’69 or ’71, and the idea was that it was going to keep being developed over a number of years. The Cromptons go to a trade show in hope of getting these pushers into Disneyland. But the trade show is in Georgia, and it’s only when they’re setting up the pusher when someone on another stand asks how have they managed to make a machine where you play with and win coins and get around the gambling laws? And it seems that they didn’t realize that there were different gambling laws. And so they get hoppers, they put tokens in, and they kind of fudge it. I think they get some traction. Some of the coast states where gambling is more liberal had some of them, but they never really managed to get in there as they’d hoped. Years later then they try and get into Nevada and into Las Vegas and they run into problems.
In Nevada the law required a machine to be trialed for a period of time, four weeks I believe, and then members of the board vote on whether it should be endorsed to be used in the state. The Crompton machines were regarded as the finest, best built of their kind, and despite excellent reviews all bar one person voted for the machine. It could not be operated in Nevada, and shortly after one of their American agents built a similar machine and had it licensed. The view here was that they didn’t want Cromptons in the market because they understood the machine well enough to then copy it. There was suggestion of the agent being linked with organized crime, but there wasn’t any evidence to assert this. Eventually, the Cromptons did manage to get some machines into Nevada, but they completely lost their advantage and this is largely because they never patented the machine. It just became one of those issues; they had to win on the quality of their product.
CK: That’s so crushing, right? It’s like the swing and the miss. In the US, those are extremely common, and I can’t think of an arcade I’ve been in in a long time that hasn’t had one.
AM: Well, if you have a look at them, have a look and see if they’re Crompton’s machines. They probably won’t be because Cromptons went out of business in 2007, but then many of the people that worked for Crompton’s set up businesses. A man called Harry Levy worked for Crompton’s; he set up his company, and they’re now the world’s largest manufacturer of pushers. Funnily enough, they’re based just over the road from where Crompton’s was. So they’re all a family. They still all go out drinking together and all that kind of thing. It’s really interesting that this guy’s a multimillionaire and yet just lives normally and he’s just a normal chap. The reason I’m interested in this [is that] it tells a story about postwar Britain, about entrepreneurialism, about engineering, and about all this kind of stuff so that they have a really interesting and compelling story. They saw opportunities and took them—like you say, they swung, [and] some hit, some missed.
CK: Do you think that experience they had with the US market is unique to this instance or is this something that ends up happening regularly, not necessarily about the regulations but about the difficulties of understanding a national market?
AM: Yeah. I think that their situation just betrays that they were lads from London. They had some engineering aptitude, they were entrepreneurial, but they weren’t businessmen. They weren’t businessmen at all. They had surrounded themselves largely with their friends. And they got some fairly dodgy legal advice, [and] some very bad accountancy advice at times as well. There’s a lot of discussion within the family, some anger about the patents. They patented every one of their machines up until they got to the coin pusher. And they say that their accountant advised them against it because it’s a waste of money. The company was in financial straits at that point. So I think that that shows an absolute naïveté on their part. They were just lads from London who saw an opportunity, who had the gift of the gab and might have been a bit tough so they could hang around with the traveling showmen in the amusement park. And yet they had the brains and the common sense to come up with something that was compelling. Even today Jim’s son Gordon still talks about game design, they still talk about game play. They’re just games designers, but they come from a different world, kind of a predigital approach.
Crompton’s didn’t fail because of a lack of supply or a lack of trade. The general sense is [that] as the company was handed from one generation to the next, poor managerial decisions were made. Within the British arcade industry, many people still talk about Crompton’s and question how it failed. At one-point Crompton’s were Sega Europe; they were a powerful and well-regarded company. For whatever reason, they lost their advantage and companies like Harry Levy became dominant.
But the industry is small and tightly knit. Gordon, who was in charge of Crompton’s when it closed, is still active in the industry. He now develops amusement games for Sega, still out of one of their original factories. The sign’s all broken, and it just looks like it’s dilapidated. But you go inside it and they’ve got a development room where they’ll be building machine prototypes out of bits of air conditioning tubing, fiberglass, motors, and rods. This is how they make the game concepts, [with] no fundamental difference [from] how his father was doing the same things seventy years before. They have different materials but the same kind of tinkering. And once they get the balances right, and they figure things out, they turn it into a blueprint and then they send it to Sega and then Sega manufactures it. The industry’s still working.
And these were the kind of stories that appeared and were accessible to me. And I just thought that they were fascinating. I think they need to kind of be shared really. I’ve spoken with Andy Walker who developed an arcade game called the Pit for Centuri or Zilec; the story there is that Namco stole the idea for Dig Dug from this game and then sued Walker, but to think that that was the only arcade video game that I know of that was made in the UK. I’ve got one of the developmental boards somewhere here in my office. So you just find all these different stories of people that open up about stuff and it’s just fascinating. Colin Mallery, the chap who imported the Star Wars vector arcade game into the UK—the sit-down one—he took his daughter over to California, and she went to the star-studded kind of introduction of the arcade game. They were trying to decide what machine to bring over to the UK; Colin was going to pick something else. His daughter convinced him that it was Star Wars. These are kind of minor stories, but through them I’ve realized that my experience of the arcade, what was in there and what was available, was controlled by relatively few people. And the really strange thing is many of these people live within what is a five-mile radius of my hometown because that was where Crompton’s were based; it’s all condensed in this one area.
CK: I think that I’m hearing three threads that I think are very interesting and it’s something that I saw quite a bit here in my research is the arcade kind of in nostalgia in the US gets talked about as being about video games. But it wasn’t about that before a certain point and it really hasn’t been about that past that point, right, it’s this moment where that’s the new exciting machine and then they’re gone.
And even with the video games, I think a lot of that history is as much about invention and manufacturing, right, as it is about this abstract idea about computerness, right, or like computing or coding or the design that we assume happens on screen; it’s really about these things [that] are giant, industrial products, right, in a very real way.
AM: Absolutely. Have I shown you any of the photos we’ve got from the George Wilson collection? (See fig. 3.) What we’ve found is a British equivalent to Ira [Nowinski]’s work.
In the British arcades, fruit machines, coin pushers, and other types of low-stakes gambling were broadly accessible. Here, a youth plays a game as a couple looks on. Photograph by George Wilson. Courtesy of George Wilson / SEAS Photography, Canterbury Christ Church University.
From 1980 to ’82, a photographer called George Wilson worked as a bingo caller in an arcade in Herne Bay. He was a classically trained photographer, having studied under the Magnum photographer, David Hurn, at Newport. When he was doing his bingo calling, he would take photographs of the arcade, the adolescents gambling, the elderly playing bingo, people playing fruit machines. What I love about the work is that it shows the absolute boredom of the arcade, not playing games but just loitering. The thing that is evident when you look—it isn’t about video games. It’s about a whole collection of different activities, communities, and groups, which seems to be absent largely from the literature that I read.
CK: Can you talk a little bit about your own research practices and methods and things like that? I think those can be really instructive for other people looking to do historical work.
AM: Yeah. Well, this is a weird one because the comics were borne out of frustration really. I don’t know whether you found this, but the people in the arcade industry were quite defensive and suspicious of academic engagement. And people, when I was looking for discussion of transgressive play, people were, once again, absolutely unsure of my motives. People wouldn’t listen to me. People wouldn’t read my emails. People wouldn’t read my letters. So partly out of desperation, I thought I’d go for a comic book because I thought there might be a chance that someone might look at it and engage with that a bit more. The comic books initially were me articulating my position but also inviting people to engage. I wrote and drew the first ones myself and then realized that I was incompetent at both of those things, so I now get other people to illustrate them. But the issue with them is the huge time cost. I paid for some illustrators to do some work on the better-looking ones. It was really just to introduce myself kind of or to try and build those links which I now have. Now the strange position I found myself in is people keep coming up to me and asking when’s the next comic coming out. I’d like to but they were never the point. The point was really I wanted to really write a book about this or engage with this thing more deeply. So, the comics were an introduction. I put them to one side. I send them out freely. If someone wants one, they can just have one until I run out of them. The comics have certainly been useful though; eventually, I was approached by BACTA, the British Amusement Caterer’s Trade Association, and they said we’ve seen your work, we’d like to help. I was invited to talk at BACTA’s annual general meeting about the project, and since [then] arcade owners, arcade industry veterans, and people like that come to me and say, I’ve got a story to tell. I’d love to share it with you. And then since then, I’ve been—well every month or so I go and see people and interview them.
I’m always aware that these people are business people so I have to work with their availability. I visited Bell-Fruit Games, a major manufacturer of fruit machines, and I was there for seven hours. They opened up their archive for me to look at; it was full of interesting content. I try and spend as much time as I can with the interviewees or archives, anything from half an hour through to—well, in the case of Colin Mallory, I’ve interviewed him probably for sixteen hours. Interviewees introduce me to so many other different people with stories to tell, and suddenly more doors would open. So, I think my methodology is, in all honesty, pretty loose in the sense that it’s—I just am taking advantage of opportunities. It isn’t systematic. I have things I want to understand better, but it’s a subject so tied up with memory, nostalgia, and identity that I feel it makes sense. I just have to seize the opportunities when I can.
CK: The people you’re talking to, what do they want people to know about the industry or what do they want people to know about their history because there has to be something there or they wouldn’t talk to you, right?
AM: I often wonder what they want me to say. Most people are surprised that someone is interested in their industry. And that’s the thing that I don’t understand. My assumption is that there’s been a trail of previous scholars or interested people but I don’t think they’ve managed to get past the initial barriers, make those initial introductions that then reassure people that they can talk. Now so let me give you some ideas. What do I think Colin wants to say? Colin wants his life story to be recorded because he is proud of what he has done. Colin also has some very colorful tales which give a sense of how the industry has changed. So, I guess memorializing a golden age is part of it. A lot of these people are getting elderly now, so they have a more urgent need to record their story. The Silcocks—I went to—I interviewed a ninety-two-year-old arcade owner who, interestingly, he was painted by [L. S.] Lowry, the Manchester painter at Daisy Nook fair. Apparently, Mr. Silcock was one of the characters there, and he was offered a Lowry drawing [but] he declined it because [he] didn’t like the picture. But his story—his issue was that the traveling showmen and then the arcade community have been treated poorly historically. They’re misunderstood. And so he was quite happy to talk because he felt that I would be able to offer some kind of representation to the wider public. So there was that schism between the showmen community who became the arcade owners and everyone else. They call us flatties. And so, yeah, there was the idea of representation. But then again, these people may be participating because many of them they are entertainers and care about people. The aspect of entertainment, and being a showman, cannot be undersold.
CK: Yeah, I went to a panel years [ago]—it was perhaps the first academic conference I ever went to, and one of the panels I went to was about the documentary movement of the 1960s in the US. And the speaker talked about the stories they were able to get out of people. This has always stuck with me so strongly … he said, you know, really when you spend time and you’re telling someone I’m interested in you and you’re really listening to them and you’re letting them tell things, you’re actually saying I like you. I value you, right? I think especially when you’re working with smaller communities, I think there’s something almost sacred about that. There’s a real intimacy, and there’s a real trust. I worked on a project about barbecue in Texas, and several of the people we interviewed died after we interviewed them. And one of the families—I had taken the pictures and my colleague had interviewed them and we had sent them this package of some of the pictures we printed of this man who had owned the restaurant for a number of years and this audio recording. And they wrote us back and I just—they said, “You know, we kept meaning to record him and we didn’t. And you sent us his voice.” And I’m just like, “Oh god,” you know? So I think, so much we’re trying to tell histories because they’re important to culture or for all these reasons. But they’re really important to individual people, too. I value doing interviews and doing oral history, and I love hearing other people so much because I think it’s easy to forget that these things are playing out for individual people and individual families in ways that are really profound.
AM: But does it feel exploitative sometimes? I’ll give you an example. When I went to see the Silcocks, they own a series of arcades in Southport, just south of Liverpool on the northwest coast of England. And we meet in the arcade. We go upstairs. They kind of talk to me for forty minutes, and they say, right, we’re going now. And I said where are we going to? It’s a secret. All the family have descended, and we drive out to this place, and they say we haven’t been here for about a year and a half. It will be good to see what’s going on. We go in there and this ninety-two-year-old showman [Mr. Silcock Sr.] turns off the alarm in this big barn. He’s fiddling with all these keys and locks. When we get inside there are three wonderful Gavioli organs, you know, the musical steam organs. There’s a gambling machine from 1906 which was one the Cromptons had talked about, and I didn’t understand what it was. It was called a carousel. But in the back of this barn was a traveling wagon, a 1940s traveling wagon, where one of the family said, “I was born there.” They were bringing me into a place that very few people had seen, the wagon in which they were born. I found it fascinating, feel enormously privileged, and the experience profound.
And so they showed me all this stuff. We did all the interviews. And then I went home. And on the train, I was just really—it felt exploitative. It felt that they’d invited me into something. I asked if I could take photographs and then they said no, please don’t. We just want to show you this to give you a sense of things. And, of course, I’m completely respectful of that. So, during this process, exactly what you were saying that people realize that you like them, that you care about their stories. But being an interview, it’s not entirely easy and it isn’t really clear what my role is. I’m certainly not objective. I never pretend to be objective. And when you’re talking about methodology, that’s my anxiety that I’m kind of bumbling through this territory. I’m responding to this good will and I wish to reflect the good will and do these people proud and tell their stories in a way that they make sense within the British culture and bring more into context. It’s really tricky.
CK: I think it’s a hard balance too because, at the same time, yes, I agree and also I think sometimes I need to remember the people I’m talking to have their own motivations and their own sophistication, right? I think sometimes I’m a useful means to an end that they want, too.
AM: You’re absolutely right. Yeah, I sometimes lose track of that. I see myself as an interloper or a research instrument or someone who can cause damage. But these are multimillionaires. They know what they’re doing to some degree.
CK: Right, and those can both be true at the same time, right, because I think you can stumble in and do harm, but I think you could also stumble in and be very useful, whether you want to be useful or not. It’s very, very complicated.
AM: That original idea of transgressive play being the overarching thing, that has diminished as I’ve realized that the industry stories need to be told. And while maybe there might be a second project about transgressive play, I think, an expansive history needs to be told first, as opposed to reinforcing the kind of detrimental reading. But then that feels a bit like I’m cheating, like I’m not telling the objective truth because I’m being selective about the stories that I present. But effectively, I feel like the industry has been damaged enough due to stereotypes and a lack of understanding, and that it will be useful just to hear some of the interesting, positive stories behind it. If we have that recorded, we could begin to make more objective judgments.
CK: They’re positive but they’re also complicated. The story about the Cromptons where then the company gets run into the ground and then they’re very naïve about the US market but try to make this big international expansion. That’s extremely interesting, right, and really telling about a number of things. And it doesn’t make them sound like bad people but it’s also not just a nice story about, like, local boys make good. That’s not what’s happening either. I think every history’s selective because otherwise there’s no story to tell because there’s too much happening.
We talked a little bit about kind of Dig Dug and the intellectual property issues, right, that seemed to have a real—that’s a real factor, right, is what gets patented and not patented or what gets knocked off or not knocked off.
AM: There were very few video games made in the UK. I said about Harry Levy and the Cromptons being friends, the idea that they all go out drinking together, and yet, they’re always suing each other. This was the thing that made no sense to me. During one interview one of the Cromptons said I remember the time when he had to give me 25,000 pounds because he’d infringed my intellectual property, and then we went out drinking afterward. So yeah, I think they’re quite fierce about intellectual property, but it’s dealt with as being almost just a bit of a game to them.
CK: Deeply impersonal, right? Or maybe personal but in a fun way.
AM: Yeah, part of me imagines that there’s always 50,000 pounds floating around between them as they infringe each other’s rights and someone decides to do something about it. But I think, in the large part, they don’t. Now whether or not that’s because of the shared history that these entrepreneurs have, because they knew each other and all lived in a small location, who knows? Perhaps it’s not the case then with, you know, Sega, Bandai, or Namco Bandai. I’m not really sure. But then the strange thing is a seemingly big company like Namco Bandai—at least in the UK it’s still these people again. Often still the same families and personalities, it’s a small community.
Namco Bandai, we know that as a name and think about it as an entity but that entity is still just made up of a few of these people. One of Crompton’s sons is senior at Namco Bandai UK for example. So I think the community is really small in the UK. There might be fifty—well, there might not even be that many people—who are just kind of working all of these different positions.
CK: Yeah, it does sound really interesting. So I got the photos you sent through. How big are these spaces?
AM: Well, this is an arcade that’s still open now. It’s celebrating its fortieth anniversary. Cain’s Amusements, Herne Bay, this is one of the longest arcades in the UK. It’s also one of the most narrow. So it runs along a promenade strip. I would say that the arcade is, I don’t know, twenty-five feet deep—I’m kind of guessing here—but not very deep. And then it runs all the way along the promenade. So, I don’t know, maybe two hundred feet wide. They’re not very deep. There was kind of an alcove which is where the arcade was. The photographs are probably taken from the door looking into the arcade. So it wouldn’t be any deeper than that. But it would have been murky and dark. These photographs show a range of different arcade patrons, but the majority of the people in there would have been probably elderly ladies playing on the bingo, or the elderly playing on the bingo, and then some adolescents. And yeah,—some teenagers and then a lot of adolescents. Arcades, from my experience, were not for boys. They were for anyone. There was no kind of clear-cut distinction between the gender mix. And the strange or the interesting thing that has really dropped out of our recollection is the age mix. In a British arcade the presence of gambling meant that you might have the elderly alongside adults and children at the same time. The arcades were spaces being used by lots of people for lots of different practices.
Thank you to George Wilson and SEAS photography for allowing the use of their images. Transcription of this interview was supported by the Stanford University Libraries.