Jaakko Suominen

Jaakko Suominen received his PhD in cultural history and is a professor of Digital Culture at University of Turku, Finland. With a focus on cultural history of media and information technologies, he has studied computers and popular media, Internet, social media, digital games and theoretical and methodological aspects of the study of digital culture. Lately he has studied also game cultures in Finland in the early 20th Century

Contact information:
jaasuo at utu.fi

Review: Arcade Britannia

by Jaakko Suominen

In the recent years, there has been an increasing number of academic studies on arcade gaming. One of the most notable examples is Carly Kocurek’s (2015) Coin-Operated Americans: Rebooting Boyhood at the Video Game Arcade. The book uncovers the cultural history of US arcades, discussing also relevant social issues such as gender roles and masculinity. However, arcade history is still far less studied than history of home computer gaming and console video gaming. Furthermore, game historical research was so far predominantly interested in the era of digital gaming and has dealt with history of classic board games separately. Arcade Britannia by Alan Meades is an important addition to game historical research that addresses British unique characteristics of arcade games, gaming industry and game cultures.

In his book, Meades takes a chronological approach to British arcade gaming. Although the main focus is on developments, evolutions, changes and ruptures of the last 60 years, it is delightful to see that the author is also interested in a much longer timespan. His research goes as far back as to the times of William the Conqueror and the early roots of entertainment and amusements at medieval traveling fairs. 

Meades describes how during the industrialization era -- when new and large, steam-driven attractions such as steam-powered roundabouts were coming into use -- smaller amusements were needed for customers queueing to see the bigger machines. In that scenario, smaller attractions were introduced to maximized income and provide extra jobs, as people needed to be hired for moving, erecting and dismantling the fair amusement machinery. Meades sums: “It was this pattern of technological adoption and side stalls that created the seeds of the modern British arcade.” (p. 41) This kind of long durée approach is quite exceptional and needed in game historical research, and hopefully gives a good example for future works in the field as well.

One particularly interesting theme in the book is the rise and fall of British seaside resorts and their close connections to arcade activities. For example, traveling fair operators (mainly a cultural minority called showfolk) established resort arcades in the age of the emergence of domestic tourism. The seaside arcades flourished especially in the holiday season, but they also attracted local crowds during the wintertime when entire families were visiting. Meades describes these cultural practices, as well as their decline, caused among other factors by cheap international flights and shift in tourism patterns. Because of the significant drop in the number of visitors, arcade entrepreneurs did not invest in the new games anymore and stuck with old machines. 

In the book’s preface, Meades goes back to his own personal experiences as an arcade local, a kid spending a lot of time around the arcades. His personal, even nostalgic, reminiscence resurfaces occasionally also in other parts of the book, but never takes over the study, only adding a certain autobiographical flavour to it. Perhaps this personal attachment to the research topic could have been reflected upon in a more systematic way, for example in the methodology section. 

The book is subtitled: A Social History of the British Amusement Arcade, and the author did address the issues related to the experiences of players and player communities. However, it seems that in practice the games themselves, as well as the developments in the arcade gaming industry and involved businesses, played a bigger role in the book than players. Therefore, exploring such player communities further might offer a good opportunity for future study.

According to Meades, the main turning points that affected British arcade gaming were related to legislative activities. For example, the author suggests that the 1960 Gaming Act “radically expanded the British arcade and machine manufacture and distribution” (p. xi). This led to counter movements, as the government and some public actors became concerned of unwanted consequences, such as overexpansion of gambling or organized crime’s interest in the arcades. Some chapters follow how public debate and media concerns worked alongside game industry lobbying efforts to affect legislation. Later on, in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, there was a discussion on copyright issues particularly regarding videogame products.

In the Arcade Britannia book, Meades uses a wide range of sources, starting from previous research and popular literature on the topic and expanding to interviews with players, arcade entrepreneurs, representatives of the game industry and other relevant actors. He also studies popular arcade magazines. The interviews play a substantial role in certain chapters. Though these sources provide many previously unknown insights, the interviews could have been used more critically and comparatively.

The book is well structured and engagingly written. Meads tends to begin each chapter with a story that not only increases reader’s interest, but also their scholarly appetite. Even though the book is academic in nature, it is still quite easy to read for a reader who is less interested in methodological details. The volume includes a rich variety of historical photos and other illustrations of gaming activities, games itself and gaming advertisements. Finally, yet importantly, a comprehensive index highly improves the book’s usability.

Even though Arcade Britannia focuses on British arcade cultures, the author has also engaged with a wider international context, especially when writing about the import and export of games. One can see a trend where US imports were at least partially replaced by Japanese machines and components in the age of video gaming. The book also covers the emergence of British domestic game industry, and the historical shift from gambling machines towards arcade video gaming. This cultural change involved many uniquely British developments, but also some derivative products that copied popular themes and ideas from elsewhere. 

Concentration on the British arcade cultures is a practical and successful choice, yet there could have been more comparisons to other countries. However, as mentioned before, so far there have not been that many studies on cultural or social history of the arcades, so this kind of comparative approach might be more suitable in the future.

The core theme of the book is how British arcades differ from a general archetypical idea of an arcade that Meades calls the mythic arcade. With that, he refers mainly to American concept and even more specifically, how it was represented in classic movies like Tron (1982). In the British model, it has been typical to locate both money games (such as fruit games, slot machines and penny pushers) and amusement games (such as video games) in the same arcade premises. For that reason, Meades handles both in his book, even if in separate chapters. 

Overall, Arcade Britannia is an excellent and very much needed addition to the contemporary landscape of Western game historical research.

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