Newly Surfaced Arcade Documents from the 1970s Predicted a Wild Future for Video Games
Atari executives thought we'd replace roller coasters with arcade machines.
Image: Carl Mydans/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Over the weekend, a pair of curious documents were uploaded to the Internet Archive, shedding some light on the inner workings and aspirations of an arcade gaming industry in its infancy.
The first is a 1973 employee manual from the arcade inside Frontier Village Amusement Park in San Jose, California. The manual’s 80 pages of typewritten information include everything you need to know to be a “Hostess” in an early ‘70s arcade, a position so bizarrely, explicitly gendered that the official literature refers to them as “Change Girls” on multiple occasions.
Many sections of the document are the exact sort of thing you’d expect from an employee manual of any era, from benign procedural explanations of how to count out change for people, to the patronizing manager-speak that anyone who’s ever worked a service sector job will be intimately familiar with; the words “IF THERE IS TIME TO LEAN, THEN THERE IS TIME TO CLEAN” are featured prominently in the section on employee duties.
More interestingly, the manual later gets into more specifics about the actual hardware populating the Frontier Village arcade back in the early ‘70s. At the time, “video games” of the type we associate with arcades today were only just beginning their rise to prominence, and a lot of arcades were still full of pinball machines, novelty slot machines, and a variety of other mostly-mechanical games of skill and/or chance.
Since the “hostesses” were responsible for much of the troubleshooting of these complicated contraptions, the manual contains a bunch of charming hand-drawn diagrams of some of the more issue-prone sections of the machines.
The second document, uploaded a day later by the same Internet Archive user, is even more fascinating. It’s an enormous, 388-page transcription of all the speeches, panels, etc. at the 1976 IAAPA Convention, an industry event for those in the business of operating amusement parks.
Buried in the middle of the document, after dozens of interminable pages about the science of selling hot dogs and the benefits of making deals with bus tour companies, is a panel discussion about arcade games. A handful of arcade operators and distributors make up the bulk of the panel participants, but they’re joined by then-President of Atari Joe Keenan. Remarkably, the panel was originally supposed to include the legendary Nolan Bushnell instead of Keenan, but he was evidently away on business at the time of the convention.
Much of the panel transcript consists of the same type of dry business logistics as the rest of this document, but Keenan eventually steers the discussion into far more amusing territory. As part of his remarks to the assembled industry luminaries, Keenan pitches them on his vision of the future of the arcade machine, which apparently consists mostly of ...imitating roller coasters.
He elaborates on this idea later in his remarks, envisioning future arcade machines as some sort of bizarre eight-passenger tram with a big screen at the front, seemingly based on the logic that because the machines were getting more complicated and expensive, the solution would be to cram as many people into each machine as possible. Keenan believed that the future of gaming was to emulate Disney World’s “Space Mountain” in malls and other arcades.
For better or worse, Keenan’s vision of the arcade-game-as-amusement-ride never came to fruition, and the meteoric rise of Atari that was underway when he made these lofty remarks was to be somewhat short-lived.
Keenan wasn’t the only member of the panel who engaged in some speculation about the arcade’s future as part of this panel, however. A guy named Allan Bruck, billed as a big-time distributor of arcade hardware in America, made a comment that predicted the direction arcades would head in far more accurately than Keenan.
One wonders if Bruck smugly reminisced about these remarks over a decade later, while his company was selling an ungodly number of Street Fighter II machines to every arcade, pizza shop, bowling alley and movie theatre in America.