Chicago-Area Coin-Op Archive

The Chicago-Area Coin-Op Archive

An Introduction

Since the 19th century people have put coins in machines for purposes of public amusement. This may have been to watch “moving pictures” via Edison’s Kinetscope, test one’s strength or luck at love, win a jackpot, have a fortune told, ride a mechanical horse, listen to music, challenge one’s skills to win an extra ball, or to put one’s initials on a cathode-ray tube screen after achieving a high-score on Asteroids. Mechanical, electromechanical, transistor-transistor logic and computerized games have redefined our public spaces, putting coin-operated machines at the heart of many everyday social experiences. Bowling alleys, shopping malls, bus stations, cinemas, amusement parks, airports, convenient stores, laundry-mattes, bars, restaurants, and even dentist’s offices have included coin-operated machines within their facilities while dedicated spaces like amusement arcades, game rooms, and casinos have built entire businesses around the action (and enjoyment) of inserting a coin to play. As British writer, Martin Amis, observed of the mass popularity of science fiction themed video games in 1982, “The Space Invaders have Invaded.”

While many of these machines live on as residents at museums, or are stored in garages and basements, up for auction on eBay, or left in ruin and neglect we actually know very little about the history of the coin-op industry let alone have produced a reliable record of the social experience of this form of historical play. Having surviving machines is only half of the story so to speak. They tell us little about the meanings, practices, and interactions that they helped to shape when in service and at their diverse locations. What was it like to play Asteroids in 1979 in a crowded arcade within Chicago’s loop, or New York’s Times Square? How did Gottlieb pinball operators learn to maintain and service their machines to maximize profits on their routes? What was it like to actually manufacture a videogame at Williams? How did one become a “stuffer” of the game’s electronic components? Why did coin-op machines become synonymous with moral panics, if not organized crime? What is the relation between the industrial design of a coin-operated machine and its game content? Who are the artists responsible for the amazing backglass of pinball and the sideart, bezel, and marquees of videogames?

Nostalgia and personal memory will not help document the history of coin-op machines unless our feelings, reflections, and experiences with these machines – whether a player, arcade owner, manufacturer, operator, game developer, industrial designer, or graphic artist – are committed to the historic record. Oral histories are an important means to help document the history of coin-operated machines: they allow those with direct experience to pass on their personal encounters so that one’s memory becomes a testimony to social memory and history. And Chicago is where we must start. Stanford University and The Strong of Rochester, NY house invaluable materials to help document and preserve the history of Atari’s coin-op division. However Chicago based coin-op companies like Bally Mfg Co., Chicago Coin, Genco, Gottlieb, Midway Mfg Co., Williams Electronics Inc., and Stern Electronics Inc, with some companies having roots in the industry stretching back to the 1930s, have not benefited from the long-term preservation that such institutional protection supports. Many Chicago area companies no longer exist. Also, it is doubtful whether company documents remain or, if so, whether such documents will find their way into a cultural institution for purposes of posterity. Such uncertainty further demonstrates the importance of conducting oral histories now before the means to document the rich history of the Chicago coin-op industry is lost forever.

--Raiford Guins

Raiford Guins is Associate Professor of Culture and Technology, Stony Brook University and a Founding Principal Editor with the Journal of Visual Culture. He is also Curator of the William A. Higinbotham Game Studies Collection with Kristen J. Nyitray, Head of Special Collections and University Archives. Guins has written several books including most recently Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife (MIT Press, 2014), and has written about video games for outlets including the Journal of Visual Culture, Game Studies, Design Issues, Design and Culture, Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture, and Cabinet.

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