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Pinballers, Videoits, and the Arcade: Race, Segregation, and Leisure Space in Twentieth Century Los Angeles

Published onMar 22, 2024
Pinballers, Videoits, and the Arcade: Race, Segregation, and Leisure Space in Twentieth Century Los Angeles
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This paper is born out of a presentation to the Digital Humanities Summer Institute Colloquium delivered online in the Summer of 2022 and is an expansion of those ideas and an exploration of some preliminary research about leisure and arcades spaces in 1970s and 1980s Southern California that is part of a larger digital history project that Jeffrey Lawler (see “Lacking for Leisure” in this issue) and I are currently working on. Like much of video game history, the history of the arcade and its cultural meanings have until recently been the domain of gaming journalists, gaming magazines, and enthusiasts who have treated these histories through the lens of nostalgia, remembrance, and celebration. Informed by the work of Carly Kocurek, who explores masculinity and masculine identities in arcade spaces and gaming and by the work of Kishonna Gray, and Aaron Trammell who explore racism in contemporary digital spaces and in play, the project attempts to historicize the arcade, explore the evolution of gamer identities, and look at the arcade’s positionality in Southern California geography and cultural landscape. Thus far we have concentrated on mapping arcade spaces from 1978–1983 and to date, we have built a database of more than five hundred gaming spaces throughout Los Angeles and Orange Counties. Our data and preliminary maps suggest a connection between arcade/gaming spaces, segregation, popular notions of who were allowed to play in and occupy those spaces.

As we worked with the data from the 1970s and 1980s, I was struck by a consistency in how leisure spaces in Los Angeles have historically been policed, racialized, and made safe for white residences while criminalizing and racially othering those deemed unsafe by popular culture and racist traditions in the city. Thus, the first part of this paper attempts to align our findings with that history and explain the creation and legacy of Southern California’s popular image, explore the origins of the segregation and the ghettoization of LA’s minoritized communities, and examine the racial controls over leisure spaces in Los Angeles and Southern California that impacted the evolution of arcades or gaming spaces in the city and the attitudes of LA residents to them. This history reveals a long-held animosity towards gaming spaces rooted in notions of criminality and racism in the public’s perception of gaming parlours. A perception that would come to inform where arcades in the 1970s and 80s were constructed and how they were segregated, policed, and viewed by the broader public. The second half of this paper returns the reader to the 1970s and 1980s and reflects the project's first maps and the conclusions we have drawn from them. These initial maps reveal that gaming spaces were consistent with Los Angeles' suburbanization and segregation of space along economic and racial lines. As a result, gaming in the arcades of the 1980s continues already developed patterns as it was culturally defined as white, suburban, and middle-class. A definition that found expression in a variety of popular media, in the legal restrictions faced by arcade operators in minority communities, and the overall racist attitudes that Angelinos took towards arcades.1

As Los Angeles’s population swelled in the 1920s and 1930s, LA officials, civic boosters, realtors, developers and concerned citizens conspired to maintain a fantasy of whiteness under a Mediterranean sun sold to Midwestern migrants who flocked to the region. Known now as the Spanish Fantasy Past, a term coined by historian Carey McWilliams in the 1940s and refined more recently by William Deverell and Phoebe S K Young (née Phoebe S Kropp) that describes Southern California’s promotion as a rewriting of Los Angeles’ past “with a singularly beguiling vision of romance” (Kropp xvi). A romantic image that elevated European whiteness, celebrated Western Civilization, and denigrated Mexican and Native American cultures to dirty anachronisms. Promoters of the region reimagined the city’s past as a European golden age of “pious padres and placid Indians, dashing caballeros and sultry senoritas, harmony and moonlit patios” (Kropp 1). What boosters, city politicians, and developers delivered was a fantasy that crafted a brand of Jim Crow policies unique to Los Angeles, and core to its urban and suburban development. A set of explicit and subtle racist ideals buried in the idyllic that hid their segregationist core.

Both LA’s Mexican and Black communities came under attack and the cities leisure spaces became an epicentre of racial tension. Sold an image of European purity and progress, midwestern migrants and other Anglo residents supported laws and restrictions on city spaces that protected their racial expectations throughout the city, local councils, realtor, and developers drafted and adopted a series of racially restrictive covenants that barred African American and other ethnic minorities by deed from living in the houses and neighbourhoods deemed “White.” In those parts of the city leisure spaces, parks, playgrounds, pools, and pleasure piers (and the early penny arcades featured there) became as Lawrence Culver has suggested subject to a growing number of laws that “limited nonwhite access to some of the most popular forms of recreation in the city” (Culver 69). Where redlining laws, covenants, contracts, and restrictions failed, the Klan and other concerned citizens took up the charge and in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, bombings, cross burnings, drive by shootings and other acts of domestic terror reinforced “whites only” neighbourhoods and leisure spaces in growing frequency. As Culver writes, “local police, homeowners’ groups, and average citizens could take on the role of self-appointed enforces of white sentiment [and] [i]t seems highly unlikely the LAPD, whether in the 1920s or in the 1950s, would actively discourage these with arbiters of racial space” (Culver 74). Exceedingly, Los Angeles leaders both official and unofficial were responsible for legal ghettoization that isolated LA’s Black and Brown communities into undesirable areas of the city away from the white communities and set the stage for further racial tension in the county’s leisure spaces.

In parts of the city already deemed white either by law or custom where African Americans already owned or occupied space, municipalities stepped in using eminent domain to seize and raze the property of African Americans and other ethnic minorities. Leisure spaces were not immune to this seizure and displacement. In the late 1920s the city of Manhattan Beach seized the property of several dozen Black families who had settled in the African American owned beach resort Bruce’s Beach, the only Southern California beach that offered coastal access to LA’s Black population. After a protracted lawsuit that left many of the families bankrupt and without funds for relocating, the beach, resort property and homes were put into the control of the city, and it was officially listed as a private white only space (Culver 71–73). The seizure of Bruce’s Beach and the racial restriction at other seaside venues was further evidence of an attempt to define these spaces of leisure and entertainment as uniquely Southern Californian, picturesque, sublime, timeless and white.

Indeed, across Southern California, the beach was an intrinsic feature of the tourism landscape. As early as the turn of the twentieth century developers, and boosters building and promoting the pleasure piers, beachside promenades, and other coastal attractions to encourage tourism, to sell midwestern migrants on the luxury of spending leisure time at the beach, and to deepen the Mediterranean myth of the Spanish Fantasy. Between 1900 and 1925 more than forty pleasure piers, saltwater bath houses, pavilions, and beach side promenades were constructed along Southern California’s coast (Krintz vii). Los Angeles County was host to more than 20 of these entertainment zones. Core to these attractions were gaming rooms, bowling alleys, and billiards halls that also featured early coin operated entertainments like kinetoscopes, grip strength testers, shooting galleries, and other pin and ball-based games that were the predecessors to pinball machines. The amusements and diversions were elevated by association and designed to suggest an air of respectability and morality. Tightly controlled, monitored, and policed, many of them like the Pike in Long Beach dry, and deeply segregated these spaces of leisure reaffirmed white Angeleno superiority and their control over “undesirables” across the city. A 1921 advertisement for Long Beach Pleasure Pier (a.k.a. the Pike) suggested it was home to “clean amusements,” including an “African Dip,” known on the midway as “Drowning the [N-word]” (“Clean Amusements”). A dunking booth game in which players tried to dunk a caged white man in Blackface makeup. Despite the NAACP appealing to the city of Long Beach in 1919 to remove it, the game remained at the Pike into the 1950s (Pignataro). In “Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements,” David Nasaw argues that in commercial amusements, “[r]acial segregation and racist parody[…] became constituent elements in commercial amusements because they were already endemic in the larger society and because they provided a heterogeneous white audience with a unifying point of reference and visible and constant reminders of its privileged status” (Nasaw 47). Here on the West Coast, that meaning was made even more explicit by the European fantasies used to sell Southern California and extended not only to the African American residents of LA but also to Mexican Americans in the city. The largest of these beachside entertainment zones remained popular attractions until the depression and World War II when public perceptions about these spaces and their clientele shifted.

Rather than exclusive enclaves for white tourists or well to do Angelinos escaping the heat of the city, the beachside amusement parks made way for a new economic reality as the ports that surrounded many of them expanded. Dockworkers, teens from the East Los Angeles Barrios or from the African American ghettos around Central Avenue, and—as World War II drew nearer—the sailors and marines on shore leave crowded in and competed with one another in these now contested spaces. The nature of these amusement parks shifted: the dance halls and theatres remained but the chaste entertainments gave way to burlesque dancers, freak shows, pornographic films, tattoo parlours, and bars. The coin operated amusements remained, but the homogeneous crowds were replaced by a racially and economically diverse one. These amusement parks became the centre of racial violence. In May of 1942, a fight between sailors and Mexican youth broke out on the Venice Beach Pleasure Pier. A week prior to the outbreak of citywide rioting, several Mexican Americans dancing at the Aragon Ballroom at Lick’s Pier (Ocean Park Pier) in Santa Monica were attacked by a mob of sailors and bystanders after rumors spread that a sailor had been stabbed. A Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officer later said that “the only thing we could do to break it up was arrest the Mexican kids” (Bruns xvi). To white Angelenos reading about these events in newspapers (stories which themselves were written with deep racial bias) the Black and Mexican teens who clashed with white members of the military and onlookers were seen as gangsters or terrorist and these spaces of amusement and the activities including gaming took on a more sinister tone. It was in this way that the piers, promenades and beachside arcades and amusement centres in general increasingly fell out of favour with white middle class Angelenos. Deindustrialization and the rise of the suburbs finished them off. By the 1960s and 1970s most of the pleasure piers and coastal amusement parks were shuttered. Nostalgic stories of their heydays peppered the local papers but were punctuated by racist tales of warning and hopes for renewal and redevelopment.

Post-war suburbanization accelerated the pace of leisure space segregation in an already segregated Southern California. If the Spanish Fantasy sold Los Angeles’ ethnic minorities as idyllic, dirty anachronisms to white authority and a white future for Southern California, the suburbs created a privatized space where secure in their homes, shopping malls, new spaces of leisure, and segregated neighbourhoods white Angelenos reimagined themselves as white, well ordered, and modern. Following the “Lakewood Plan,” an incorporation plan devised by the developers of the city of Lakewood (1954) that lowered the cost and political red tape of incorporation by contracting with the county of Los Angeles for police, fire, and other essential services, a wave of suburbanization swept over LA County. Between 1954 and 1960 twenty-eight new self-contained suburban cities all with their own racial restrictions and customs of racism emerged, denuding the economic and political power of the city, and seeing property tax dollars and improvements move to the white periphery of the city (Ethington 205) In selling these new cities in the post-war LA suburbs, boosters and realtors emphasized their newness, their racial restrictions, and imagined control and order. Racial diversity was equated to crime and deviance and assigned to the urban core. As Eric Avila argues in “Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight,” “[w]ithin the discourse of the real estate industry at midcentury, race and deviance went hand in hand. In their marketing of a suburban alternative to urban blight” (Avila 9). Deviance thus became urban and a canker on the suburban imagination of modernity, order, and efficiency. Those who challenged suburban notions of respectability and whiteness and their forms of leisure were made suspect.

The downtown core of Los Angeles and the surrounding older communities suffered tremendous economic losses from white flight to these new cities. The once vibrant shopping and theatre districts, and the beachside amusement parks experienced further decline home to pornographic theatres, pool halls and dilapidated amusement centres. In 1976 a Los Angeles Times staff writer described the Santa Monica Pier as a “creaky anachronism,” where “two skinny 12-year-old boys with long hair smoke cigarettes manfully as they try to jiggle a pinball machine for a higher score.” Further down the pier, “[t]hree Black hippies in wide brimmed leather hats, high on themselves and possibly something more potent, sit down to play chess at the edge of the Fiesta Autoscooters[…]” (Caruthers WS1). The once vibrant middle-class destination was now home to communities of colour, alcoholic anglers, and youthful culture that did not fit with the splashy images of suburban beach culture that had once defined Southern California. Pinball made legal in the state in 1974 was still suspect and linked with urban decline and criminality.

Suburban cities fought back against the legalization, finding loopholes in vagrancy laws and in local tax codes keeping the games from proliferating in suburban leisure spaces. Expensive rents and the prohibitive cost of real estate in suburban shopping centres also kept potential arcade spaces from gaining a foothold, instead pinball parlours popped up in areas where they had once been popular in downtown locations (bars, poolhalls, laundromats) and in the dilapidated beach parks and piers. Here pinball parlours were positioned alongside massage parlours, adult bookstores, pornographic theatres, and dive bars. For most in the public there was a direct correlation between pinball and these more sordid entertainments. In fact, in the months following the legalization of the game the Times ran dozens of articles about pinball, each one associating the game with violence and crime of the urban core and marginalized populations of the city. An article about child prostitution and teen runaways, associated Hollywood Blvd. pinball parlours with the trade writing, “the “meat rack” extends in both directions along Hollywood Blvd. Boys from the ages of 11 to 18 parade in and out of one restaurant, playing pinball machines and mingling with men who sit in orange-coloured imitation leather boots” (Booth). In another article, Real estate developer Donald Tronstein testifying in a case against a fortune telling business operating in Beverly Hills suggested, “amusement-like centers such as fortune telling stores, massage parlors and pinball arcades would seriously lower property values in Beverly Hills” (“Fortune-Tellers” c4). The city’s first Pachinko parlour (Japanese style pinball) in the Little Tokyo neighbourhood of Downtown Los Angeles was raided by vice officers only a month after the permitted store front arcade opened (“Police Raid” A4). The closure and seizure of the machines was clearly racially motivated as the Times a month later wrote a piece celebrating the opening of a pachinko and pinball parlour in wealthy suburban Balboa Beach south of Los Angeles in Orange County (“Fun Zone” oc18). Despite the suburban unease the popularity of pinball and the number of pinball parlours grew throughout the 1970s.

Popular culture also gravitated towards the past time suggesting its growing popularity. Pinball machines and pinball parlours featured in several major motion pictures. Most famously the Who’s rock opera Tommy (1975), which featured a psychedelic, counter cultural fever dream of a pinball tournament that pitted Roger Daltry’s Tommy against Elton John’s “Champ” who is defeated, and Tommy crowned the “Pinball Wizard.” The film was a box office hit and helped make pinball a youth culture phenomenon (Lewis P34). Following the success of Tommy, several other pinball centred films were released suggesting its popularity. In fact, a young Brooke Shields was elevated to stardom in Tilt (1979). Tilt, follows Brenda “Tilt” Davenport (Shields) a fourteen-year-old runaway, pinball hustler from and abusive home who bounces from bar to bar in Hollywood hustling adult patrons. The film centres on her pinball expertise which is exploited by a twenty something would-be country music star who convinces her to travel with him from Los Angeles hustling pinball along the way to the dilapidated pleasure piers of Corpus Christi (filmed on the Santa Monica Pier and in Santa Cruz, California’s beachside promenade) where he hopes that she will be able to avenge his earlier pinball loses and “score big.” The film was a critical bomb, but it resonated with young audiences, hitting director Rudy Durand’s target audience, “[p]inball arcades have sprouted around town like weeds [and] are found in locations from fast-food markets and laundromats to beer bars and liquor stores. There’s going to be an even bigger pinball craze after this movie comes out” (Grant). Rather than celebrate pinball these films highlight the dangerous nature of pinball elevating it to a kind of outsider or counter cultural cool, suggesting its growing popularity with teens and young adults, but also suggesting that pinballers were deviant counter cultural, and placed in often exploitative and criminal situations. In dozens of other 1970s films set designers, directors, referenced pinball parlours or pinball machines in places where straight populations dared to enter. Pinball machines decorate late night dingy cafes, diners, juke joints, dive bars and pool halls. All these spaces home to criminal activity, hustling, sexuality that challenged contemporary standards, and violence. To most in America the world of pinball was a criminal one and those often racialized others who played and the places they played in were equally suspect.

The election of Ronald Reagan to President in 1980 reaffirmed a cultural desire to return to the suburban ideals of white supremacy and conservative values of 1950s. Tired of the liberalism that many saw as responsible for the growing problems of the United States faced in the late 1960s and 1970s, California and Los Angeles County voted overwhelming (as they had for his gubernatorial election in 1967 and again in 1971) for its native son and his reimagined America that would rehabilitate and revive the image of the suburbs and of suburban youth culture. An image culturally tarnished by the counterculture, racial violence and tension in the city and state and a general disappointment in the generation who was born to the suburbs as witnessed in the way teen culture was vilified in films and other media in the late 1960s and 70s, and in America’s attitudes toward teen leisure spaces like arcades.

Carly Kocurek’s work on the regulation of the gaming industry, suggests an attempt to curtail youth culture and regulate teen rights, but in Los Angeles with its broader history of segregation and racial violence associated with gaming spaces, the restrictions took on a more menacing meaning (Kocurek 59–60). Of course, some of the animosity towards arcades in Los Angeles County were like many cities in the United States. Levelled at increased juvenile delinquency, and a history in the city that tied coin operated amusements to criminality. In Los Angelese’s suburbs however, the fear was rooted in not just the criminality and deviance associated with gaming spaces but also in both implicit and explicit racism that throughout the 1980s increasingly excused the behaviour of middle class and wealthy suburban white teens while casting a disparaging eye on communities of colour who were coming into suburban neighbourhoods, malls, and other leisure spaces to play games.

When community leaders and city busybodies in Los Angeles County complained about the construction of video game arcades in their neighbourhoods the primary complaint was about outsiders, especially minoritized teens, coming into their suburban neighbourhoods. In Los Angeles’ heavily segregated geography this was barely veiled form of racism. For many residents the Watts uprisings, the Chicano school protests, Wattstax, Tom Bradley’s replacement of Sam Yorty as the first Black mayor of Los Angeles, and the perceived attacks on the LAPD by communities of colour were recent and bitter memories. Buoyed by even deeper racial fears in the 1980s as the crack epidemic spread and gang violence in the city seemingly became pervasive, suburban neighbourhoods and their wealthy populations maintained a siege mentality and outsiders especially people of colour or those marked as somehow outside of the mainstream were mistrusted. Here it was not the coin-op industries’ criminality that was in question, nor was it a notion that video games would be a corrupting force (Kocurek 91–92), but instead those who fought against arcades and leisure spaces that featured video games racially profiled and questioned the morality and criminality of those who would come from the outside to play games. In a Los Angeles Times article about the city of Gardena opening a city operated and regulated arcade space, to in the words of the council member who proposed it, “we could put in one huge arcade[...] in in good taste and with good supervision. It would eliminate the innuendo that they are hotbeds of dope and what-not.” The opposition however to this space argued that it was not just the “dope and what-not" that was a concern, “I think,” said the city’s planning administrator, “there was an underlying concern about undesirable elements from different areas coming in and causing problems” (Connell B16). To combat single purpose arcade spaces many suburban municipalities restricted their permitting to shopping malls and other easier to police spaces.

When a popular and well-regarded Arcade “Captain Video” was forced to move a few blocks east out of a shopping district and closer to the well to do neighbourhood of Cheviot Hills, sixty residents came to the zoning hearing to protest the move. In testimony they admitted that they had no issue with the arcade or its business practices, and they all acknowledged the good its owners had done for the community at its former location, but they were adamant that moving it closer to the residential area would invite trouble from outside the exclusive enclave. As one resident who lived on the street adjacent to the proposed site suggested, “You’d have more purse snatching because they’d need money to play those darn things.” The they in that sentence is clear, it is not our children or teens but those from the outside. Ironically, the arcade owners testified that its customers average age was twenty-eight, mostly young professionals from the area who frequented neighboring businesses and visited the arcade to blow off steam during their lunch break or after work (Ogasawara WS4). The fear that communities of colour would invade was enough to overrule rational arguments and evidence. After a round of appeals, Captain Video won their case and the arcade opened albeit with additional security and regulation of their operating hours.

This incident reveals the geographic realities that are reflected in our mapping project. The preponderance of official arcade spaces, those purpose built as arcades or adjacent to other culturally sanctioned leisure spaces were built in or adjacent to suburban middle class white neighbourhoods in areas of Los Angeles County with decades long histories of racism and racial tension. If urban youth wanted to partake in arcade games, they had no choice (assuming they had the means) to travel to the periphery of LAs urban areas and into the suburbs where they were viewed with suspicion or outright hatred. Anthony Davis a football player at the University of Southern California in the mid to late 1970s remembers that period as a time fraught with racial tension that restricted the mobility of African Americans, “[...] if you were a young, Black male, you weren’t going over to this particular part of [the city]. You weren’t going to Glendale, to the south, without risking being pulled over. You weren’t going to Arleta, three miles southwest. Same for Sylmar, to the northwest. At best you could roll through Granada Hills, Reseda, and Chatsworth, but you risked being stopped and harassed by the police[…].” (Davis and Rosenberg 259) Within suburban neighbourhoods and especially in leisure spaces like arcades, teens of colour were made even more visible, their presence in a predominately white space would be instantly noticed, and their behaviour scrutinized and policed.

Thus denied, inner-city video gamers turned to alternative play spaces, laundromats, skating rinks, liquor stores, convenience marts, barbershops, and the like. These alternative play spaces (street spaces in industry parlance) were like the pinball parlours before them subject to even more regulatory scrutiny, policing, community, and industry complaints. These spaces, unlike the neon lit suburban arcades, suggested a threat to social order. The LAPD maintained constant vigilance on these spaces and when the local press presented stories about the dangers of video games and racial delinquency it was frequently these small venues that were the targets of complaint, community anger, and even police raids. Those same stories barely veil the racism and classism levelled at those who played in these alternative venues. To curb teenagers from these traditionally Hispanic and Black neighbourhoods from congregating in these spaces, local municipalities passed or enforced long-forgotten vagrancy or loitering laws in these areas from earlier decades aimed at pinball.

The industry too was less than supportive of these alternative arcade spaces. Where Play Meter and other industry magazines celebrated the possibility of placing a game cabinet in a suburban grocery store or convenience mart, they frequently complained about these alternative venues as dens of illicit activity home to bootleg cabinets and years old systems that were built on pirated technology. Much like other institutions and industries, the video game distributors seemed ready to abandon the central city for the thriving market in the suburbs. While there is no doubt these small venues traded in these cabinets and games they did so because they were forced to. In many cases, traditional game distributors avoided the inner city, and the demand for play spaces in these ignored areas led to an underground economy of bootlegged machines and arcades that skirted regulatory attempts.

And yet, suburban arcades and the growing video game phenomenon attached to them were ever more popular and celebrated especially if they were in suburban neighbourhoods. To convince parents and other concerned citizens of the safety of their children in these spaces the industry (the arcades, manufacturers, and distributors, as well as the popular gaming press) embarked on a campaign to manufacture a clean image of these space. Play Meter magazine featured near monthly articles about how to maintain a wholesome arcade environment. In an article titled “Passive Vandalism Sounds Tame but It Can Hurt You,” the author suggests having “regular patrols” in the “game room,” to “make certain that players aren’t rowdy[...]and generally to just establish the presence of a watchful eye” (Brohaugh 83). Alan Saffron, an arcade operator from Venice Beach, CA turned consultant and arcade designer for Pizza Time Theatres, when asked about planning an arcade or buying one, replied that “location, location, location, is key” (“Coin Man Interview” 43–44). While trite and cliched, what he is suggesting is to be careful where one places or buy their arcade. He warns that one should first check with the city and local police department to check the crime statistics and reputation of the neighbourhood and suggests in a not so veiled way that the suburbs and suburban malls offer the best environments with a clientele with the best reputation (“Coin Man Interview” 43–44).

The industry, at least in Play Meter’s annual survey issues to maintain the wholesome images of traditional arcade spaces and small game rooms attached to other businesses (go karts, mini golf, pizza parlours, etc.) came down hard on grey area games, conversion kits, and other bootleg or illegal machines, that broke industry copyright and were most frequently found in “street arcades” or even smaller locations like convenience stores, liquor stores, laundromats, and the like. The 1983 operator survey saw an increase of these game cabinets and game spaces in smaller venues where games were available and where policing behaviour was difficult. Play Meter’s editors warn its readers, “the legislative and other problems associated with these games could be significantly magnified if gray area games start appearing in large numbers in arcades where the clientele is mainly children with parents carefully scrutinizing their activities” (“Poll Tracks” 52). In other words, if you want to maintain your clean environment and the right clientele, you will toe the industry line and maintain new equipment built by the industry regulars. Ironically, the pages of Play Meter are chock-full of advertisements for conversion kits, speed up kits, used boards and ROMs, and other potentially illegal games. Many operators who responded to the comments section of the surveys also suggested a robust business in these games and kits that were more associated with arcade spaces with one or two games and in much smaller businesses than larger arcades that had better access to legitimate arcade cabinets.

Popular media and the early gaming press reinforced these sentiments too, establishing a normative arcade culture in teen films and in the pages of gaming magazines, a culture that was primarily white, middle class or wealthy. LA’s arcades became, like so many other leisure spaces in LA’s history, a fantasy, a twentieth century modern playground, built on idealism and in many ways like Spanish fantasy images of Los Angeles’ past, a purified utopia built on notions of racial purity and sold to a mostly white audience. The arcade in popular culture like Los Angeles itself became a place of self-creation and recreation for youth culture. Movies featuring arcades in the 1980s often featured bright neon-coloured spaces filled with gaming cabinets and other amusements where teenagers frolicked in innocent play. Midnight Madness (1980), Tron (1982), Joysticks (1983), War Games (1983), and The Last Star Fighter (1984) for instance, all centre their stories around plucky white suburban teens whose gaming expertise lends them both a respectability, a new form of techno masculinity, and a pathway, for some, to popularity and local fame (Kocurek 115–123). The arcades in these films reflect a national image of these spaces as white and suburban. Rare are the games found in inner city locations or in deviant social spaces. In most of these films, the arcade is in a suburban shopping mall or amusement centre linked to teen-aged consumer culture and parent-sanctioned dating. Like the Southern California beach movies of the 1960s, these teen arcade movies reassured parents that suburban arcade spaces were racially pure, safe, clean spaces where teens could practice community-sanctioned heteronormative behaviour.

If people of colour were featured in these films, it was most often as comic relief or in sidekick style supporting roles. People of colour in Los Angeles once again found themselves on the periphery where they had been placed for a hundred years in popular culture that promoted the city. Race and privilege were constructed alongside the built environment and made part of the city's culture and expectations through popular promotion. In this way, these films reinforced the notion that there was no place for minority populations in the LA arcade. The movies did show us alternative gaming spaces but often in ways that reinforced them as illicit and violent. Mimicking the real-life segregation of these spaces, many of the gang films of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Juice (1992), Boyz in the Hood (1991), and Colors (1988) for instance, feature video game cabinets in liquor stores, barbershops, and other inner-city venues where drive-by shootings are planned, drugs are sold or bought, and guns are traded. The message was clear, and the notion of who belonged in an arcade and who was a threat danced across the silver screen.

The people and places featured in stories, arcade reviews, and the advertisements for games and arcades are all white and suburban. Reaffirming the primary customers and suggesting a homogeneity, order, and control over the arcade, salving any misgivings American parents had about the danger of these increasingly popular spaces. While video games and gaming spaces may have been available to a diverse population of players, even those in the inner city, these urban spaces were not sanctioned by the industry, or by popular culture and suggest that a rigid form of racism and segregation familiar to Los Angeles was also ever present in its arcade culture.

Communities of colour, punks, and other misfits broke the mould of what popular culture had already begun to establish as a gamer identity as Kocurek points out, “where the games attracted specific youth or precipitated certain youth behaviors, these policies imply that the emerging fan base for video games[…] sometimes ‘videoits’[…] are a distinct group of youth with their own social codes and values” (Kocurek 109). These gamers were defined further by most forms of popular culture as white, suburban, and middle class. Movies, the ads in magazines, the photos of arcade spaces in the trade press, and even in the celebratory stories about arcades in the mainstream media, suggested that gamers were safe because they were white, middle class, and suburban. If people of colour were represented in arcade culture it was at best as token characters in movies or at worst as thugs and criminals who dirtied the arcades.

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