Karen Collins

Karen Collins is Canada Research Chair in Interactive Audio at the University of Waterloo. She focuses primarily on sound and music in games, and explores how new technologies impact our audio experience. She has published four books on game audio; Game Sound (MIT Press 2008), From Pac-Man to Pop Music (Ashgate 2008), Playing With Sound (MIT Press 2013) and the Oxford Handbook of Interactive Audio. She is currently working on a documentary film and book project about the history of game sound. Contact information: collinsk at uwaterloo dot ca

Game Sound in the Mechanical Arcades: An Audio Archaeology

by Karen Collins


This paper provides an “audio archaeology” of the penny arcades, exploring the uses of sound in the electro-mechanical era of games. An investigation into where, how and why different types of sound (voice, sound effects and music) were used from the inception of mechanical coin-operated machines up until about 1940 is presented. It is argued that other media at the time influenced the design of early games, and created an expectation of sound use and quality by the 1930s, but that sound in games also went on to influence other media forms. A comparison is then made to today’s games, illustrating how concepts introduced in the penny arcade era have been carried through to today’s games.

Keywords: audio, mechanical, Victorian, archeology, sound, music


In 1939, Fred E. Kunkel, writing in Automatic Age (p. 71), warned arcade operators that: “Patrons of coin operated phonographs are sound conscious, brought about by the tremendous developments in the motion picture industry, and the fact that the public is beginning to recognize a loud speaker as an instrument to convey sound. They are quick to criticise any sound installation which shows traces of the slightest imperfections.” Although specifically related to phonographs, we could easily extrapolate this idea to cover all coin-operated amusements at the time. At the quotation’s core are several important observations about the contemporary audience for coin-operated amusements: First, that there was an increasing awareness of the importance of sound; second, that there was an increasing demand for higher-fidelity auditory experiences; and finally, that there was a new set of auditory cultural expectations brought about by the rise of motion pictures. Each of these points suggest that by the late 1930s audiences were arriving at a media awareness and sophistication that spanned different media forms of the time.

Sound’s development in both coin-operated phonographs and in the early motion picture industry have been well documented elsewhere (e.g. Altman, 2007; Kenney, 2003). However, the auditory experience of the other coin-operated devices during the era of the penny arcades and nickelodeons has been remarkably absent from the discussion. If audiences had achieved an auditory sophistication and set of expectations based on the early motion picture experience and carried that expectation to coin-operated phonographs, it stands to reason that they would also have brought that expectation to other coin-operated machines, like games. What were these machines, and how did they use sound? What types of sound were used, and what roles did sound play in the experience of penny arcades? What influence did these early uses of sound have on later developments of arcade and video games? These are the questions that I seek to answer here.

Archaeologies of antique and “dead” media have become a subject of recent interest for academics, who draw parallels with old technologies and our own rhetoric around so-called “new” media technologies (Hutahmo, 2005; Zielinski, 2006). Recent attempts to excavate media’s history in a framework of understanding digital media include the work of, for instance, Gitelman (2006), and Thorburn and Jenkins (2004). Media archaeology can be understood as a “rediscovery of cultural and technological layers of previous media”, a way of “analyzing and presenting aspects of media that would otherwise escape the discourse of cultural history” (Ernst, 2011, pp. 239-240). Such an approach allows us to not only revisit current media objects and texts within a new framework, but also allow us to revisit the histories and chronicles of our media, questioning the methods of the “crytophistorians” (Huhtamo, 2005, p. 15) who often assemble these histories with their own agendas and canons.

Most importantly, however, as Huhtamo and Parikka describe, “studies of new media often share a disregard for the past” (2011, p. 1). Game studies, for instance, has often disregarded the non-digital games that influenced game design and game history (exceptions do exist, such as Parikka and Suominen, 2006). Understanding the cultural history of games is an important part of understanding games today. Media archaeological approaches to games argue that “…the gamer can never fully escape the fact that gaming is rooted in discursive formations and shared codes that are cultural and historical. They inform the experience, whether the gamer is aware of it or not” (Hutahmo, 2012, p. 30). Moreover, historical approaches to game sound (including my own--Collins 2008) have previously only begun with video games, ignoring the important role of their mechanical and electro-mechanical predecessors in shaping design and function and setting aesthetic parameters.

Here, I provide the first “audio archaeology” of the beginnings of coin-operated amusement technologies from about 1890 to 1940. Sound offers particular challenges for media archaeologists: Unlike the flyers, advertisements, articles, photographs, patents, and other documents that remain and tell us what a particular machine looked like, how it was advertised, and what the mechanics were, the auditory aspects of coin-operated machines are harder to unearth. Descriptions of sound in contemporary media are rare, beyond references to noise complaints in newspapers and trade magazines. Advertising for the games occasionally tells us what sounds were used, but usually not how they used sounds, or what they actually sounded like. Likewise, any books chronicling the history of mechanical games rarely discuss the role of sound, and at best mention a few unique innovations, while ignoring sound as an auditory phenomenon beyond novelty (e.g. King, 1964; Nasaw, 1993). While some modern videos exist online of some of the early arcade machines, these are not always of adequate auditory quality to truly explore and understand the ways that the machines used to sound. Moreover, there are evidently no preserved contemporary recordings of the sounds in the environment, if these were ever made. And, as far as I am aware, there have been no attempts to date to professionally document and record the sound of the machines. As such, my descriptions here rely on several different means: patent descriptions of inventions relating to the production of sound in the machines; first-hand visits to museums that contain some historical machines (such as the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda, CA, Playland Not At the Beach in Berkeley, CA and the Musée Mechanique in San Francisco); video recordings on the Internet; advertising flyers; trade magazine articles and other print media. While I could in some instances see, hear and document for myself the sounds of particular machines, there is a clear limitation in that the machines available were not necessarily the models that I describe here, although they often offered a similar technological approach to their sound-making.

In sifting through all of the available material, my focus was on any mention of sound (which was few and far between). What interested me was not just descriptions of the games themselves, but also descriptions of how players used them, how the machines were advertised and sold, and what we might infer from these other textual cultural remnants. For instance, advertising flyers can indicate what the game’s manufacturer believed would be important to the player, based on their own previous experiences of game players. Patents can describe how the technology functioned, and may tell us something about purpose or intent, but often do not tell us why they believed the technology was useful or the experiences of audiences. Regardless of what the object of study was--whether flyer, patent, game or other material--there are clear limitations, then, in what we can infer from historical material, particularly when it comes to an auditory phenomenon. Furthermore, the availability of material is often skewed to what someone else thought were the most important games or most important aspects of a game (typically, whatever was the most novel part). As such, where possible, a combination of material was sought out in order to try to gain a deeper understanding of the games described. In comparing these games with their more recent incarnations in the early days of the video game arcades, I also conducted interviews with several sound designers and composers who had worked on early video arcade games, as well as more recent games (most notably with Brad Fuller, audio director at Atari’s coin-op division, and David Thiel, sound designer/composer for Gottlieb and others). These interviews could provide a perspective on the importance of various features in the early days of video games, which as will be shown, were significantly influenced by their electro-mechanical predecessors.

This article first introduces a historic overview of the different types of sound-emitting coin-operated machines common to the penny arcades, dime museums, saloons and nickelodeons at the turn of the last century. Some of the machines here were notably popular, but others are obscure, and represent interesting anomalies that introduced new ideas into the realm of coin-operated sound. As outlined above, where possible I have used examples which I have witnessed first-hand, or very similar machines. In order to understand the various uses of sound in coin-ops, I then deal separately with voice, sound effects and music below. Before delving into this history, however, it is necessary first to describe and contextualize the audience and the environment of the era to provide a background on the growth of the arcade industry.

Background: The Rise of Coin-Operated Entertainmen

There were several factors that gave rise to the coin-operated amusement industry in the late 19th century. First was the massive increase in urbanization related to immigration, transportation and the American Industrial Revolution. The US population more than tripled in the last fifty years of the 19th Century, with the bulk of these immigrants settling in the cities. The electrification of the cities--notably, the introduction of incandescent outdoor lights--meant that the cities at night became safer, and more urbanites ventured out at night seeking entertainment (see Nasaw, 1993). At the same time as the immigration and urbanization, the American Industrial Revolution gave rise to a shorter workweek and vacation time, as well as disposable income for leisure. Cheap variety theatres, dime museums, penny arcades, saloons and vaudeville would dominate the entertainment landscape as entrepreneurs capitalized on the urbanites’ expendable income and desire for entertainment.

The 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago was the first time for many of America’s new immigrants and urban masses to experience coin-operated amusements. An estimated 27 million people attended the fair that year. The Midway Plaisance, the mile-long strip of restaurants, shops and rides between two of the significant areas of the fair that housed the coin-operated machines, was so popular that since that time such an amusement strip has been known as a “midway”. Dozens of booths featuring the latest coin-operated amusement machines like camera obscuras, zoopraxiscopes, and Edison’s talking machines became the prototype for travelling fairs, amusement parks, penny arcades and dime museums.

The Fair brought together not just showmen, but the inventors and entrepreneurs who would go on to found many of the major important film, music and amusement companies in America. In his history of the carnival, Joe McKennon describes, “Had it not been for the great Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, the collective amusement industry as it now operated, probably would not have developed” (1971, p. 25). Amusement parks capitalized on the Midway’s success, but similar smaller collections of amusements could also be found in dime museums. The most famous of these dime museums was that of PT Barnum, who had opened his American Museum in 1841 in New York City, decades before his life in the circus. It has been suggested that Barnum’s museum “is now seen as a pivotal institution in the development of American forms of popular culture. It could lay claim, in its heyday, to be the nation’s premiere entertainment showplace … [a] multitiered palace of amusements” (Springhall, 2008, p. 13). Barnum was a classic showman, and drew people into the museum by having a live band playing outside, a trick that continued into the fairs, as well as into the era of the penny arcades and nickelodeons. By 1903, shops devoted solely to coin-operated machines were common in the US and UK.

Although the entertainment and amusement industries have often been segregated in terms of academic discourse, carnivals, amusement parks, dime museums and the early film and music industries were all closely allied in the late 19th century until about the 1930s. Indeed, it can be argued that it was these amusement arcades that gave rise to the film, music and game industries: The Victor Talking Machine Company grew from the coin-op phonographs on the Midway. In New York, the Automatic Vaudeville Company gave birth to Loews Cineplex, Metro-Goldwyn Mayer and Famous Players (later Paramount). And the early video game companies like Bally and Midway were even named after this important historical lineage. As described in the quotation introducing this article, simultaneous developments in entertainment media influenced the audiences as well as the designers of coin-ops in the early part of the 20th century. Audiences developed a media literacy, sophistication, and set of expectations through the co-location of these amusement machines.

The use of sound effects and music as one of the attractors to draw patrons into amusement locales was well known by the time the coin-op industry developed. Showmen who performed as barkers or “ballyhoos” outside an amusement used various forms of noise to attract audiences by making noise, playing music, or “with some uncomplicated spiel, a line of chatter designed to get attention and sell the wonders of the show within” (McKennon, 1971, p. 23). Music played by the machines themselves would serve a similar purpose. A guide on how to run a penny arcade describes the importance of using sound to attract people: “Have the picture machines, phonographs and illustrated song machines in groups near the entrance... It is very essential to have good music, as it always attracts and holds a crowd. Place the music in front near the door, so that it can be heard from the outside” (Mills Novelty Company, 1907). As the rise of amusement parlours grew in cities and neighbouring arcades and nickelodeons competed with each other, so did the noise, and there are many records of noise complaints in the entertainment districts relating to the penny arcades (e.g. “When Music is a Nuisance” 1907). The carnivalesque atmosphere and sound of early penny arcades and nickelodeons were critical components of attracting patrons. It is unsurprising, then, that the machines themselves would call out to their patrons, a mechanical ballyhoo that would draw in customers with sound effects, music, and even voice. Although all three types of sonification were used to draw customers, it is worth treating these separately here to discuss their unique approaches to sound.

Recorded Voice

While music played outside the arcades to attract patrons inside, a few coin-operated amusements attempted to recreate the ballyhoo spieler indoors. Perhaps the most common use of voice was in talking fortune teller machines. In 1908, Chicago-based Mills Novelty Co. released a Novelty Talking Fortune Teller that used two wax phonographs for speech. After inserting their nickel, a patron would hear their fortune read aloud. The concept was also detailed in a 1938 article on Rock-Ola’s Talkie Horoscope, emphasizing the importance of the ballyhoo aspect: “A fascinating feature of the innovation is the announcer who speaks to the crowd every three or four minutes, inviting them to ‘Step closer and listen to what I have to say’. Like a sideshow announcer at a fair, this spieler is constantly plugging the machine and drawing patrons closer” ( Automatic Age 14/9 April 1938, p. 87). Professor James M. Harvey, “famed astrologer” [1], was hired by Rock-Ola to record the voice, and said of the machine, “It’s not difficult to understand why this new type of machine should receive such a rousing welcome. I’ll predict--and I’ve even been predicting for a good may years--that Talkie Horoscopes should go over like wild-fire on location” (Automatic Age 14/7 February 1938, p. 72). Aside from the clear desire to attract patrons using voice, it is notable that it is not just any voice being used by the 1930s, but a clear attempt to combine “celebrity” (loosely defined in this instance) and the machines for an additional layer of attraction.

Coin-operated vending machines were common amusements in corner stores and saloons. Always seeking ways to entice customers, the machines experimented with various sonic and musical attachments. In the 1929 vending machine boom, a cigarette machine by the Consolidated Automatic Merchandising Corporation (CAMCO) would deliver a package of cigarettes with a “thank you” along with the brand’s slogan. The inventor described:

We developed a machine and put it into a cigar store at 33rd Street and Broadway, New York City. I was in there one day to see how it would operate, when one of the. customers in the store, a stranger to me, said: ‘I suppose that will pass out the cigarettes all right, but I will miss the “Thank you” that the clerk always says when he gives me my change …That was what was needed, a machine which could not only sell, but talk. We set to work on the machine and with the aid of one of the best known manufacturers in the country we developed an apparatus which would say “Thank you” and repeat the slogan of the particular brand of cigarette every time a sale was made. Thus, if you dropped 15 cents in the proper slot for a pack age of Lucky Strikes, a voice would say: “Thank you, they’re toasted;” or if your choice was Chester fields, it would say: “Thank you, they satisfy.” (Wright and Schermack, 1929, p. 25)

CAMCO reportedly had plans for speeches recorded by celebrities for talking vending machines, but the Edison company--upon whom they depended for recordings--got out of the recording business in 1929, and the vision was never realized [2]. The patent describes a machine that would use an Edison phonograph with an automaton to vend items: “The general object of the invention is to provide a vending machine which will talk, during its vending operation, on any suitable subject, such as the merits of the vended goods, whereby the goods maybe advertised” (Kenyon, 1932). While the granting of a patent suggests novelty in the idea of talking vendors, there are several letters written to Edison prior to 1929’s machines that suggested talking vendors, including an 1890 letter from an R. Barrett of London that suggested automatic machines for grip strength could be fitted to emit a sound as near as possible to words “thank you” upon the introduction of a coin (in Welch et al., 1994, p. 25).

Novelty, and the ability to attract passersby with that novelty, was clearly the driving factor in the inclusion of voice in early machines. It appears that once the novelty value of voice wore off, vendors abandoned the use of voice for at least a few decades. Nevertheless, the novelty and attract role of sound continued to be carried through the following decades in the use of sound effects.

Electro-Mechanical Sound Effects

In addition to voice, at least one vending machine also used sound effects: chocolate manufacturer Stollwerck’s Clucking Hen distributed chocolate in the 1920s along with a clucking sound. But sound effects were much more commonly used in other forms of amusements. Mechanical sports games--particularly shooting games--used sound for a slightly different purpose: Aiming to recreate the excitement of shooting real guns. For instance, an advertisement for Exhibit Supply Company’s Shoot-A-Lite describes, “realism is a headline feature of Shoot-A-LiteShoot-A-Lite presents the spectacle of ducks when hit actually dropping to earth in a natural gravity fall and realistic sound effects” (Automatic Age 13/5 December 1936, p. 50). The guns’ sounds were mechanically created, usually with a solenoid clapper striking a metal plate, which would have created a bang loud enough to both excite the player and attract other patrons.

Strength testers that would test grip, punching, lifting ability, pain resistance, or lung strength were also common at fairs before the era of coin-ops but also quickly found a home in coin-operated arcades. Most of these types of games used large bells that would ring if the player achieved a certain feat, to attract people to the machines and reward the player with attention. Less commonly, other sound effects were used in these types of games, such as Mills’ Lion Head Lung Tester of 1904, which required the participant to blow as hard as possible into a pneumatic tube in order to cause the lion to “roar”. In this instance, a wooden stick would be run up and down the inside of a tambourine to cause the roaring sound. A similar effect was used in Exhibit’s Braying Jackass (1925 onwards) and their Tiger Tail Puller (1928), where the game’s main objective--to create sound--was clearly marked on the front of the cabinet: “The more you lift, the louder he brays” and, “Pull tiger’s tail. Make him roar”. As with the bells, the way to win these games was to make a loud sound, attracting the attention of others in the space. It could be argued, then, that the primary purpose of the sound in this instance was to encourage the self-esteem, or ego, of the player through spectatorship. It is certainly possible that, given the relative novelty of the sound effects in these machines, the sounds themselves would have added a sense of amusement and wonder as people sought to determine what made the lion/tiger “roar”.

As with strength machines, bells were used throughout the early 20th century in gambling slot machines. An advertisement for Mills’ Owl (1897) for instance described, “Automatic bell announces amount won … Bell attracts attention to machine and stimulates play--a feature not found on imitation machines” (Mills, 1910, p. 18). Similarly, Mills’ Improved Special (1896 on) “Is the machine that gets the boys into your place and then gets the dollars into your till. It is entirely automatic; takes care of itself; rings a bell when a prize is won”.

The bell ringing wasn’t only used to attract the attention of other patrons: It also signalled to the operator of the store or arcade that a payout was to be made or warned the operator that the patron was trying to cheat, triggering the “tilt” mechanism. For instance, Mills’ Pilot (1900) was advertised as: “Bell rings when player wins, so proprietor always knows when a check is paid out” (Mills, 1910, p. 39). The bell would have been particularly important when there were groups of these machines in one location, since the machines made so much noise through the mechanical clanking and clacking of their workings inside the cast iron casings (by the 1930s, the iron was substituted with wood, and the machines were made much quieter).

Even though gambling machines used bells to signal wins throughout the first few decades, even when bells were not used, the sound of the machines themselves maintained a critical importance both to elicit attention and no doubt to trigger a Pavlovian response in the player. A 1939 advertisement in Automatic Age for Mills’ 4-Bells (1939) machine describes: “4-Bells has been designed so that each chute pays out individually. The action is timed so that the payout on one chute is just about completed when the next payout unit goes into action. The sound produced conveys the impression of a tremendous number of coins dropping at close intervals. As one operator remarked: ‘It sounds like the mint tipped over!’” (Automatic Age 16/4 November 1939, p. 32). As the 1930s advanced, more bells were added to the machines. A 1936 advertisement for Rock-Ola’s Queen Mary pay table, for instance, describes: “Operators, too, are pleased at Queen Mary’s new anti-tilt device that rings a warning bell for location owners. Speaking of bell [sic], every time a ball rolls over one of the score-increasing switches, the player is treated to the cheerful notes of Queen Mary’s interesting new bell sound effects” (Automatic Age 13/3 October 1936, p. 83). While we can clearly surmise that bells were used for winners and cheaters, it is unclear if there was any difference in the sound of a winning or cheating bell ring.

While bells were by far the most common sound effect, they were not the only sounds used in slots. Stoner Manufacturing’s 5-ball pay table Latonia of 1937 for instance featured “The clatter of horses’ hoofs beating out a thrilling rat-a-tat that means money in the coin box for you.” And Bally’s Prospector of 1935 likewise had “machine gun sound effects” announcing payouts and promising to get “instant attention anywhere” [3]. Both of these machines likely used the same mechanism to ring a bell: a solenoid-driven rod, which instead of striking a bell, in these instances would strike a metal or wooden plate. But these sound effects games were not just straight slot machines: they crossed over into the realm of “pin games”.

Pinball had evolved from earlier, much larger table ball games, notably the 18th Century French game of Bagatelle, related to billiards. Montague Redgrave’s Parlor Bagatelle, based on his patent Improvements in Bagatelle (1871) had one or more bells situated in the tabletop that would be struck by the marbles as they fell. The Parlor Bagatelle was perhaps the first example of a sound effect being specifically designed into a game for purely amusement purposes. The bell returned to pin games in 1933, with Harry Williams’ Contact game. The impact of the addition of the bell, not announcing a “win”, but announcing “success” nonetheless, was not to be underestimated. It was reported that: “he set up one Contact with a bell in a playing area next to one without. Then he sat back to see what would happen. The machine with the bell collected twice as many nickels and Harrry Williams knew he had a new feature” (in Trapunski, 1979, p. 26).

A second bell was soon added to the pin machines, with one signalling 10,000 points and the second, pitched higher, at 100,000. The bell became a standard score indicator in pin games until it was replaced by three chimes in the 1960s. But, as indicated by the pay-table pin games, bells were not the only sounds that were used in pin games of the era, the sound that would define pinball [4]. Solenoid-driven sound effects (including pinball’s infamous “knockers” to indicate a free replay) would be used in a variety of games throughout the 1930s.Battle (1935) by Bally for instance was described in an advertisement: “Bombs burst before your eyes in a blaze of light! Two big tanks lead the ‘drive’ to high scores--’shells’ shot from a cannon register 1,000 at every volley. And the rat-tat-tat of the machine gun sound effect completes the illusion” (Automatic Age 12/4 November 1935, p. 105).

This sound effect innovation seemed to occur almost simultaneously across the different types of coin-op games in the arcades. Bally was not the only company to lay claim to the introduction of sound effects in 1935. Despite Rock-Ola’s claims for novelty and a successful patent application, the novelty of sound effects in amusement machines by 1935 is questionable, although it is certainly possible that the year marked the first use of non-bell sound effects in pinball games. The sound introduced by Rock-Ola could be defined as an early version of the pinball knocker: a dashpot, much like a solenoid, drives a hammer to strike a plate three times [5]. The patent describes:

Another object of the present invention is to provide a device for use in conjunction with game apparatus of the so-called pin and marble game. type and by means of which an audible signal and a visible signal may be simultaneously actuated by a played ball in such a manner as to represent or simulate a hunter shooting game, that is, the visible signal represents the light which is incidental to the discharge of a gun and the audible signal represents the report or sound made by the discharge of the gun (Rockola, 1937).

The advertising of the machine plays up the sound effect as the most important element of the game’s design:

Of course, the big reason back ofBig Game’s success is ‘sound effects’! At the very moment when a player hits a winner, the entire playing field becomes alive with action. Lights flash and guns fire away in a spectacular blaze! A clever new arrangement in the machine magically reproduces the actual sound of gun shots (Automatic Age 12/2 September 1935, p. 5).

Perhaps even more notable than the use of sound effects is the over-the-top rhetoric used to describe the importance of sound: “Life is worth living, after all. Especially when you have a game like Big Game. A game with the powerful idea of sound effects.” (Automatic Age 12/2 September 1935, p. 5). Another suggested that “The incorporation of sound in Big Game is one of those million dollar ideas that you come across only once in a lifetime” (Automatic Age 12/1 August 1935, p. 5).

Other persuasion techniques used a different tack: One advertisement in Automatic Age claimed, “Big Game’s sound effects idea is doing for pin games what the talkies did for moving pictures--making them more popular and more profitable” (12/2 September 1935, p.5). A similar ad in the same issue (p. 94) describes, “Rock-Ola’s new game--Big Game’s--has brought sound effects to pin-game playing America. Just as Warner Bros. brought the same idea to motion pictures and to a receptive world a few years ago”. It is interesting that the advertising for the machine frequently draws parallels to the motion picture industry, which by this time had moved out of the penny arcades and into larger theatres and enormous economic success. It is clear that the intentional parallels between the games and the motion picture industry here is an attempt by the game companies to suggest that adding sound to the games will make the games as successful as the movies.

Another important element to the game’s advertising is the attention paid to the added realism of sound effects. Given that there is little visually on the machine to sustain any kind of illusion of actual hunting, the attempted realism is created mostly through sound, and not just sound created by the machine, but sounds that are described as seeming to be heard by the player’s imagination:

Big Game’s brings to you, for the first time, the heart-pounding thrill of sound effects. Big Game’s lets you hear the staccato bark of rifle fire. The sharp report of a gun breaking through the stillness of night. At the very moment when the player hits a winner, the entire playing field becomes alive with action. Lights flash and guns fire away in a spectacular blaze! A clever new arrangement inside the machine magically reproduces the actual sound of gunshots... Big Game’s draws you irresistibly into all the mystery and all the adventure of the African jungle. So real and so lifelike is the sensation that you seem to hear the distant beat of native tom-toms and the eerie cries of wild beasts (Automatic Age July 1936, p. 5).

Realism is, of course, subjective, and what was determined to be realistic in 1935 is certainly not what would be heard as realistic today. In this context, realism appears to be concerned not only with the “real-life” reproduction of sounds that would be heard on a hunt, but also a concern with how we might imagine a hunt to sound: this latter point is important in that it reflects today’s sound design concerns not only with high fidelity to real-life sound, but audience expectations and what I’ve previously called the “cine-real”, an imagined realism created by previous experiences of cinema and other media forms more than any real-life experience. For instance, we have no real reference of outer space sound, but we have expectations of what it might sound like based on our experiences from watching television and movies, and modern video games reflect that “real” rather than, for instance, the physical reality of there being no sound in space. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note the industry’s recognition of the importance of what is today referred to as the immersive quality of games--that is, to take the player out of “real life” and immerse them into the magic circle of the game space [6]. Even without any real narrative for these games, it is alleged by the manufacturer that the sound helps to immerse us into the machine’s world--“Big Game’s draws you irresistibly into all the mystery and all the adventure of the African jungle”. Sound was clearly viewed by the manufacturer as a key component in creating this immersive space for the player.

Sound effects in the mechanical era clearly served several key functions:

  1. Sound attracted people to the machines in the arcade space. The role of spectatorship is particularly valuable when considering sound in arcade machines, since the visual field is fairly narrow, but sound can fill a much larger space, and thus many players would likely hear the machine before they would ever see it.
  2. Sound was used to reward the player. Not only would sound attract other spectators to the machine, thus giving the player a kind of reward through social approval, but the sound of a bell ringing associated with winning would very quickly become a source of positive feedback in and of itself.
  3. Sound was used to create an immersive experience through its attempts at realism.
  4. Sound was used to drive sales. The advertisements used the inclusion of sound as a key selling point to vendors who would buy the machines.
  5. Sound was used by operators to acknowledge wins or cheaters.

While one would expect that these same functions would carry over to music, as we will see, music’s primary function in early game machines was for an entirely different reason.

Mechanical and Recorded Music

Pinball games, of the sort described above, in their early incarnations often had payouts based on the player’s success, and thus were often classified as gambling machines. There were, however, some distinct design differences between pin games and gambling machines: introducing too much skill was counterproductive to gambling, since a good player could cash out the machine. Visually, however, gambling machines looked similar to pinball machines, but gambling games were designed to be much faster: “While it takes two to three minutes to play a game on an amusement machine... a gambling pinball game can be accomplished in a few seconds” (King, 1964, p. 203). The distinction between pin games and gambling slots was important, because gambling was banned in many jurisdictions (including the main manufacturing base of pin games, Chicago). A 1909 law in San Francisco made slot machines illegal in their own place of birth, but it was the Prohibition Act of 1919 that dealt a significant blow to the machines, since it basically banned most slot machines, along with some of their most common venues. Games of pure chance were deemed illegal, and thus elements of skill had to be included in machines. As each new legislation was introduced, however, design changes were made to the machines.

Most popular gambling machine manufacturers like Mills and Caille produced two versions of their machine: one a regular gambling machine for jurisdictions that would allow them, and one with a musical attachment that would convert the gambling machine into a music machine. The Mills Owl of 1897 for instance described in its catalogue: “Similar in every way to the regular Owl except that it has a high grade musical attachment which plays a tune every time a nickel goes in to machine. Frequently where the plain machines are not permitted, the musicals are not disturbed”. A similar explanation was provided for the Mills Dewey Musical (1899): “the same as the Dewey except that it has a musical attachment, with eight to twelve tunes playing one for each nickel. This musical feature makes machines unobjectionable in many places where they are otherwise barred out.” Mills was making mechanical coin-op musical machines at the time, including for instance the Violano-Virtuoso, patented in 1899 and sold to Mills about 1903, along with automatic phonographs, illustrated song machines, and so it was an easy fix for Mills to add music to the games.

Unlike the bell sound effects, rather than being used to attract people to the machines (although undoubtedly this was a desirable side effect), the reason for the inclusion of music was clearly a means to circumvent anti-gambling laws. Mills even furnished a sign which could quickly be attached should police arrive to raid the venue, whose catalogue hints at its function: “It can be attached or detached in a moment’s notice” (in Bowers, 1972, p. 92). The sign read: “This is not a gaming device. Any person desiring to gamble must not put any money in this machine. As a consideration for the use of this music machine and the music furnished, it is expressly agreed that all for the nickels which come out of the cup below must and shall be played back into the machine, thereby giving more music” (in Bowers, 1972, p. 92, my emphasis).

Most of the music devices inside these machines were cylinder movements (although a handful used discs), usually of Swiss make, although by no means anywhere near as complex as the dedicated coin-operated music machines of the time. In his Encyclopedia of Automatic Musical Instruments, Bowers (1972, p. 92) writes of the gambling machines, “As musical instruments they are not of consequence: in fact, the movements are the same as those sold in cheap $1 to $5 musical toys of the period.” Each cylinder would have contained one or more songs, and either the song would be played upon a winning spin, or would play every time a coin was inserted. The lever used to spin the reels would be pushed and the music box would start playing. Some would play a full song and then stop, and others would just play as long as the winding mechanism dictated, meaning it would sometimes start or stop in the middle of a song (again, suggesting that music was really a secondary element of these machines).

Musical components were not strictly for legislative wrangling, however, as they also found their way into vending machines and trade stimulators. Upon inserting a coin the player could pull a lever and win a cigar, cigarette, gum or candy, and where equipped, they could also hear a tune. For instance, a Regina music box was included with a Pepsin gum vendor about 1900. Likewise, other amusements included music at times: John Dennison’s Musical Fairy Fortune Teller (1885) for instance had a music box accompaniment.

Aside from these mechanically generated music box devices, the other major coin-operated musical device at the turn of the century were of course phonographs. There isn’t space here to do justice to the history of the machine, and it has been well covered elsewhere (see e.g. Gitelman, 1999), however it is worth pointing out that phonographs were (less commonly than their mechanical counterparts) included as musical components inside other amusement machines, particularly to replicate voice, rather than music, as discussed above.

The Mechanical Game’s Sonic Influence on Video Games

As shown, the use of voice, sound effects and music in coin-operated games served many purposes, from creating novelty, attracting attention, creating a sense of realism or immersion, overcoming legal boundaries, as reward, and to alert others not playing as to the state of the game (win, high score, etc.). These same uses of sound carried through the electro-mechanical era into the early days of video games and to today. Many of the same companies who had operated in the electro-mechanical era became the early creators of video games: Bally, Midway, Gottlieb, Williams, Sega and others were all active in the arcades before the rise of video games. It’s no surprise, then, that the lessons learned during the electro-mechanical era were carried forward into the analog and digital video game era.

The mere presence of sound could be said to be a form of amusement in and of itself in the earliest days of the coin-operated amusement industry. The machines were given a preternatural character: There were, for instance, efforts to use the phonograph to record the voices of the dead and other fantastical ideas. Talking vending machines were frequently described in the press as “robots”, evoking images of not only the height of modernism, but a utopian optimism captured by the rhetoric around technology at the time (e.g Tisdale 1929). The elevation of sound recording and emitting devices to the realm of the supernatural was to some extent driven by a lack of understanding of this new technology on the part of the public. It is easy, today, to underestimate the impact that being able to record and play back sound had on the entertainment world at the turn of the last century.

But even when recorded sound became a much more commonplace presence in society, novelty continued to be a key part of arcade games, according to Atari’s Coin-Operated Division Audio Director Brad Fuller:

So every game was created new because the focus was to create novelty in the arcade. The focus with arcade games is to create novelty, so hardware is different, the controls are different. The cabinet is different. When the player comes into the arcade, and they have a quarter in their pocket, we want them to drop the quarter in one of our games. We don’t want the quarter dropped in another game, so there’s a lot of attention paid to graphics on the outside of the cabinet, a lot of attention to the attract mode, which is a cyclical mode that goes through to attract the player to the game. The controls needed to be a little different than the rest of the controls of the competitors. All that plus gameplay, of course, and graphics and audio, help to make it a novel product to drop that quarter (Brad Fuller, 2015).

But the use of the latest technology as novelty continues through to today. Games continue to be sold with attention to any novel aspect that the game might introduce. The recently successful No Man’s Sky (Hello Games, 2016) for instance used innovations in audio--its procedurally generated soundtrack--to help to sell the game to players. Articles about its use of procedural music appeared more than a year before the game had even been released (e.g. Mumford, 2015). Indeed, the disappointment of players in the game has perhaps been caused by this over-hyping of the game prior to its release (e.g. Martin, 2016). The latest in VR and AR gaming likewise use audio innovation to help to sell new products and ideas (e.g. Lalwani, 2016). While Triple-A games themselves may frequently rely on successful successors and past hits for their gameplay or story design, innovation remains a driving force in the game industry as an important component of pre-release sales and media campaigns.

Advertising for games has obviously changed over the years. While most game sales in the early arcade days occurred through flyers that clearly could not establish what a game would actually sound like, the inclusion of descriptions of sound along with innovations in sound on flyers illustrate that sound was known to be an important selling point. Sound could interrupt and attract patrons in a way that visuals could not. Players of other games in a venue would notice a particularly innovative or loud game nearby, and sound effects used to draw attention to a winner would encourage onlookers to play, or even enter the venue from outside. The nature of the early arcade games as cabinets that were visually closed off to many spectators highlights the importance of audio in these environments to attract players. I asked Brad Fuller how audio was used to attract players in the early Atari days, and his response was simple: “With volume [laughs]. We had a mode that was called the “silent mode” that allowed the operator to turn off the audio if they wanted. However, we tried to make it an incentive for them to keep the audio on, so we had music from the game, or special voices from the game, to attract the player to the game.”

The attract function of sound carried on into the video game arcade era, and attracting people to the machines was an important early function of video games. Although with games moving into more personalized devices attracting players to games with sound is far less common, spectatorship still plays an important role in video game play, and those games that do still maintain some form of public presence usually still encourage spectatorship (such as slot machines, for instance, which still have “hand pays” where the operator walks to the player and counts out the cash) (see Dixon et al., 2013). By its nature, the auditory has spectatorship and performance elements (Godøy, Haga and Jensenius, 2006), and games built around sound, like rhythm-action games (such as Guitar Hero, Harmonix 2005), often encourage performative play (see Miller 2009). But even when games are played in the home, there are spectatorship aspects worked into many games, with leader boards, Let’s Play videos and online play still encouraging performative aspects.

The reward of spectatorship may be delayed in many more recent genres of games, but reward sounds continue to be very important to many genres of games--notably gambling games (see Dixon et al., 2013), but also particularly found in casual games. PopCap’s sound designer and audio director Becky Allen describes:

Yeah we have a lot more bling bling. A lot more shiny sounds. A lot more “yay yay yay” type moments, feel good type moments. We are always running out of those shiny sounds bleedlydoop, bleedlydopp those kinds of things and we’re constantly needing to record more of those kinds of things because your experiences are shorter loops, shorter timespans to get to those reward moments so yes, I would say our content needs might be slightly different [than Triple-A games] (Becky Allen, 2015).

Dren McDonald, a freelance sound designer and composer who has worked on many casual games, elaborates: “If you’re doing a game, say, like a Bejeweled type of game, everything in that game is to reward you and make you feel like you’re really accomplishing something by doing your matches. It’s the same with Candy Crush or any of those match-three games. It’s all about rewarding the player, making them feel great about what they’re doing” (Dren McDonald, 2015).

Reward sounds are just one type of auditory feedback given to the player, and sound continues to play an important informative role in games. While sound no longer cues operators to the player’s cheating, audio of course signals important changes to the player in nearly all video games: a number of points were received, the state of their character’s health, the number of enemies on-screen, the objects picked up were good or bad, and so on. Pinball and video game sound designer David Thiel explains, Pinball--and I’ve done a lot of video games, so I can speak with a certain amount of authority on the relationship to the two... A pinball player is almost functionally blind, relative to the machine. There’s displays and all this stuff going on, but he’s basically looking at the bottom third of the playfield trying to keep the ball alive. So if you’re trying to talk to him through his eyes, tell him things, you know, “things have changed, shoot for this, do this, do that”, you can’t count on delivering that message through his eyes... So the sound on the other hand is perfect for that, because this is an eyes-busy, hands-busy task. Here, we’ll use a sound channel, and it’s a very important channel for conveying important things: “Things have changed. You’re now trying to do this. You have just done that and gotten wonderful amounts of points.” All those messages can be conveyed with considerable reliability in the audio channel (David Thiel, 2015).

A tremendous amount of information is now conveyed through sound--so much so, that even some visually impaired gamers can successfully play these games through sound alone (see, e.g. Schreier, 2011). Improvements in technology have meant additional aspects of sound can convey information when compared to early games--the spatialized presentation of sound, more nuanced frequency and timbre changes, digital signal processing effects like reverbs, for instance--but the basic function of providing important information to a busy player remains.

Of course, other aspects of sound have changed significantly over the decades, and the technological advances in sound recording and reproduction technologies mean voice, sound effects and music have become very specialized roles at game companies today. However, the general functions remain, and as in the early days of the arcades, audiences continue to bring expectations from other media to games. Many game companies thus often strive for a auditory “cinematic” quality, particularly when it comes to sound.


Along with the novelty effect that arrived with the coming of sound recording technologies, came changing notions of “realism” in media: The wonder of auditory reproduction and sound-making rapidly gave way to changed expectations, and a drive for higher fidelity that continues to this day. With each evolution in game technology, “last year’s technology” becomes no longer “realistic” and expectations rise. New technologies in games have often introduced new possibilities for sound. It was difficult to make sounds in electromechanical games: the nature of mechanically generated sounds meant that for the most part sounds were limited to percussion, notably striking and scraping. But nevertheless, game companies were able to leverage the sounds in a variety of imaginative ways, suggesting gunshots, explosions, animals and more. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that once a sound mechanism was in place, some games adapted design aspects to incorporate the sounds. Then limited percussive sound effects thus perhaps influenced a rise of shooting games in which such sounds would make sense.

Early video games likewise tended to have a sci-fi/space setting, we may speculate that this was in part due to the limited types of sounds that they could produce at the time, for example. Attempts at producing any kind of realistic sounds would have failed, and thus “giving in” to the otherworldly nature of the analog or square wave sounds available and designing games that would “make sense” with the sound effects available was one way to create a sense of realism. Understanding media such as games in purely visual terms or metaphors thus misses out on the influence that other sensory information may have had on the design of that media.

Today there are no such limitations on the sounds, but the drive towards ever more realistic sound remains, with VR games exploring personalized audio parameters shaped to our own ears, and using the latest in binaural/ three-dimensional audio techniques. But technology has not been the only aspect to shape the design of games as a media form, as shown. It’s certainly probable that games would have evolved with music--given that their counterpart entertainment in cinema was doing the same--but the anti-gambling legislation of the early period of the century, along with prohibition in the US, certainly accelerated this aspect at a time when even sound effects were rare.

Many of the game sound ideas introduced during coin-op gaming’s first few decades were rapidly adopted by other games along with those of their competitors, and crossed over into other types of games: a shooting game sound mechanic would be adopted for use in a pinball game, and so on. It is worth re-iterating the idea of the cross-pollination between coin-operated machines in terms of their design and aesthetic. Many of the coin-op machines, whether music devices, early forms of moving picture and cinema, sporting machines, vending machines, gambling games and amusements were created by the same companies, who undoubtedly would have had the same people designing the games, or at least were sharing ideas across coin-op genres within the company. This co-existence of the games, music and film industries has largely been written out of or ignored in the histories of media. There is, of course, a more recent convergence (although “re-convergence” might be more accurate) of the major areas in the entertainment industry, giving rise to a new cross-pollination between the media forms today.

The addition of sound effects to games, along with music, differed significantly from the use of sound and music in film. In film, sound effects (in the early days, played live by a “traps” person) served first and foremost to reinforce the scene that was shown. Music was primarily used to drive the emotion of the audience (although certainly played other purposes), contrary to the use of music in games. This distinction between early games and films has since become much more blurred, as cinema and games increasingly resemble each other in their sonic aesthetic (at least, in Triple-A games that tend to aspire to realism). Today, we see a much more sophisticated approach to both sound and music in film and games, as both can offer information about the scene and induce or reveal emotional aspects of the story. It is perhaps the increasingly story-driven aspect of games that has been one of the most important factors in this change, although technological advances certainly play an important role.

But not only were the industries effectively the same at the turn of the last century, sharing ideas and technologies, audiences were also the same, consuming the media in the same physical locations, side by side in the penny arcades and dime museums, and later nickelodeons. An expectation created in one media form, as seen in the quote at the beginning of this article, led to a similar expectation being applied to other media: the introduction of sound in film led to an awareness of what sound could bring to an experience, and clear parallels were drawn between games and film in advertising at the time. We could argue, therefore, that the Victorian penny arcades were the beginning of a new cultural auditory awareness and aesthetic expectation for the media that followed.


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(Full transcripts of interviews are available in Collins (2016)).

Brad Fuller, March 2015, San Jose, California

Brian Schmidt, May 2015, Seattle, Washington

David Thiel, May 2015, Seattle, Washington

Becky Allen, May 2015, Seattle, Washington

Dren McDonald, March 2015, Alameda, California




[1] Harvey was author of “Essays on Astrology: Expository and Apologetic” published in 1906, but it’s unclear just how “famed” he was, as there is very little information about him that I have been able to uncover.

[2] Talking vending machines have returned periodically since their appearance in the 1920s. For instance, in 1981 Coca-Cola released a speech synthesizer vending machine, and allowed the distributors to insert and play their own chosen background music using different computer chips.

[3] Coin Machine journal ad: http://www.ipdb.org/showpic.pl?id=1872&picno=24401

[4] The sound has become such a cliché that today’s pinball sounds are often swapped out to use the chime as a pinball signifier in TV and movies. Said Brian Schmidt, “As a pinball sound designer, it’s rather annoying because sometimes you’ll be watching a TV show and you’ll see a game you worked on, on the TV show and somebody will be playing it, and instead of the actual sounds that you did for that pinball machine, some sound editor has dubbed in ding ding ding ding even though it’s a game from 2009 or something like that.”

[5] Some Internet databases, including the Internet Pinball Database (IPDB.org) mistakenly describe this game as having “synthesized” sound.

[6] There is no space here to reiterate the long discussion of definitions of immersion or flow in games. For more on the subject, see for instance Cheng and Cairns 2005; Jennett et al 2008; Brown and Cairns 2004. Here I use immersion as the involvement and focus of the player on the game-world to such an extent that the external “real world” fades.  For more on the magic circle, see Huizinga 1955; Juul 2005.

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