Essay: Melanie Swalwell

Essay: Melanie Swalwell  Comments  Photographs

Growing up digital

If you were a child of the 1970s or 80s, growing up in a major centre in New Zealand, names like Wizards, the Doghouse, Fun City, Luna Park, Time Out, and Timezone probably still resonate for you. Arcades such as these housed videogame machines – or ‘Spacies’ as they were more commonly known. Within and beyond the cities, the machines took up residence across the country in fish and chip shops, dairies, burger bars, transport hubs, cinemas, and holiday camps. Everywhere had at least one place to play. While digital games also quickly entered domestic space in the 1970s and 80s – in the form of television consoles, handheld games, and microcomputers – it was the video arcade machines that made the biggest splash.

Games were the latest craze. Everyone within a certain age range – including some adults – had to have a go. Others sat up and took notice, perhaps sensing that it was the beginning of something significant. In Tokyo, ‘Space Invaders’ famously resulted in a shortage of 100 yen coins. In New Zealand, there was seldom any change from the fish and chips and milk money may have gone astray a little more frequently.

Games generated a remarkable intensity of response, and not only from those who played them. The excitement youngsters felt upon their arrival is palpable in accounts such as that of journalist Stefan Herrick, recalling the moment when ‘Space Invaders’ arrived in his small town:

The invasion happened on a Friday afternoon in 1980. A van rolled up outside Snowdon's milk bar and takeaway in the main street of Takaka. The invader lurked in the back under a sheet.


The beast was wheeled into the shop and placed between Computer Breakout and the 10c Cascade. Off came the sheet. In went the plug. The invasion had begun.

The kids stopped licking [their icecreams] and stared. Instinctively, they knew this was something amazing and that the world would never be the same again. (Herrick)

Though electro-mechanical amusements had partly paved the way, digital videogames were different from their antecedents. They offered the experience of having images on the screen respond to a player’s input (Wilson). 

Early digital games were both a novelty and a craze, but they were also more than that – much more. Games existed in a wider social and popular cultural field: uncovering the traces of this period offers insights into both the subculture of gaming, and wider society at the time.

The games ‘scene’ was both spectacular and everyday. It had its own emergent culture and mores, where skill, tactics, and virtuosic play were recognised and applauded. Gaming was both participatory and a spectator sport, and the arcades offered a space for teenagers and even younger kids to ‘hang out’. This is remarkable from a contemporary vantage point, as a state of near hysteria over child protection has led some parents to (want to) keep their children closer. I suspect that the children in some of the photographs enjoyed a greater degree of freedom to go out unaccompanied than children today. 

Games were widely accessible: in the early days, the princely sum of twenty cents would buy the player a game. And when their pockets were empty, it was still permissible to watch others play, perhaps picking up a tactic or two along the way. 

In an era of uncertainty about computerisation (Beardon), early digital games allowed people to develop a familiarity with the information processing routines that would be in demand in the not too distant future. While writing and playing computer games was one of the most readily accepted ways to make use of the capabilities suddenly offered by new home computers, this was not enough for some. Computers were plagued by questions such as “what does it do, apart from play games?”. In contrast to their smaller computer siblings, arcade games didn’t have to live up to expectations that they would be useful. Entertainment did not need an excuse in the arcades; play was the raison d'être.

Games were also a business, and they were big business. Arcade machines are supposed to have been extraordinarily profitable, provided (I am reliably informed) the location and signage were right. That ex-operators for the most part remain tight-lipped about the profits they made means these are still the stuff of myth. For instance, I have heard stories of an operator’s vehicle that literally groaned under the weight of coinage. In Christchurch, readers of The Press got glimpses of what was at stake as Wizards and the Doghouse fought a very public legal battle over market share. 

Videogames served as a lightning rod for a range of individual and social anxieties. The visibility of the machines – and the youth who played them – drew the ire of some. Disputes over these literal space invaders ensued, such as that between Colin and Beverley Holden, the proprietors of a Riccarton dairy who had sited arcade machines in a lean to, and the Riccarton Borough Council. Arcades frequently attracted complaints from neighbouring businesses, and there were concerns about ‘delinquents’ and students who should have been at school. I suspect that the moral panic over games tells us as much about society’s fascination with ‘deviance’ as anything else, and our inclination to simultaneously fear and celebrate this. 

Newspapers had a long love affair with videogames, judging by the column inches they received. Typically, they celebrated games’ novelty value and reported on their suspected ‘effects’. However, it is also interesting to consider what is absent from journalistic accounts. One issue that was never mentioned in newspapers was the suspected involvement of a harder criminal element in the games business. These things are still only whispered about. On the balance of probabilities it seems reasonable to assume that such an element was involved, given the suitability of cash businesses for money laundering. In contrast to the dim outlines of such activity, teenage exuberance was visible, and so was perceived as far more of a ‘real’ threat. 

The exhibition 

In general, few people seem to have recorded their activities with and around digital games in the 1980s. This is quite understandable, given how all-consuming games can be. Potentially, however, this could mean we are without a record of this important historical moment. Thankfully, some photographers did chronicle the period, creating images of games, gamers and gameplay in the moment when these were novel. More than a Craze presents a selection of photographs which have been uncovered in the course of my research into New Zealand’s digital game history, over the last six years. The present exhibition of forty-six photographs combines the work of some of New Zealand’s best known documentary photographers – Ans Westra, Christopher Matthews, Robin Morrison – with images from the archives of Wellington’s Evening Post and Auckland’s Fairfax newspapers. Due to these photographers’ commitment to documenting the present, and the archives in keeping it, we have a visual historical record of the early years of gaming. 

The status of the images

In an age of digital photography, we have become accustomed to disbelieving photographic images, aware of the constructedness of even apparently documentary images. As a media theorist and researcher of early games, I find myself in a paradoxical situation when regarding these images, whose evidentiary capacity I want to believe in.

The imperatives of news photography require dramatic images, and so we might want to consider the role of press photographers in creating images. To what degree did they actively arrange and invent these images (stand here, do this)? For instance, is it possible that people actually held hands while playing ‘Space Invaders’, as is shown in one Evening Post photograph? To what degree are news photographers documenting an extant social reality? As theorists of photography have argued, these need not be mutually exclusive positions, and many of these photographs provide a little bit of each.

Despite their representational contingencies, the photographs in this exhibition are documents from the 80s, and as such, they offer valuable insight into the historical phenomena of 1980s gaming and the period more generally. The images allow the researcher of gaming to discern what games were available to play in particular spaces, at particular moments. The newspaper images – published in a particular day’s newspaper, adjacent to current news stories, often with informative captions – are an especial gift for the researcher, not only going some way to compensating for a lack of other records, but also providing a sometimes witty, sometimes whimsical commentary on the possible meanings and significance of digital games in 1980s New Zealand. 

What the images tell us

While the exhibition brings together images from quite different photographic registers – portraiture, news photography, art, and social documentary – our curatorial decision to present these together allows, I think, a number of resonances and themes to emerge, which I’ll briefly discuss. 

The photographs span a rough period from 1978 to the mid to late 1980s – at the crossover of electro-mechanical to video games. Many show the spaces in which people played games. This includes a rare image of domestic gameplay, presumed to be taken by the unnamed father of William and Tom, to accompany his reflections on their play, which were published in the Fairfax 8 O’Clock edition: 

My two sons don’t smoke or drink or take drugs. But they are victims of an addiction just as powerful and insidious… My sons, William (12) and Tom (13) and thousands of other youngsters all over the world, are mainliners, hooked on electronic games. It’s the craze of the 80s. Against it, all other teenage activities pale into insignificance. (1982)

The majority of the images are taken inside arcades, allowing us to revisit this space and to remember what it was like. Given that most remaining arcades have been incorporated into larger retail premises (cinemas, shopping malls, theme parks), these photographs recall a moment when the arcade was a destination in its own right. It is little wonder that the arcades were so eagerly embraced by the public (who, after all, didn’t yet have XBoxes or Playstations in their homes): it was in the arcades that new games first appeared, and arcade versions were technically far superior to home versions.

A number of photographs record the spatial layouts of early arcades, demonstrating the great breadth of environments in which people played. Clearly, some were more salubrious than others. Of course, ‘Spacies’ were not only found in arcades, but in burger bars, swimming pools and dairies. The photos show us what some of the environments were like – from the futuristic themed to the grimy – and the other items games shared space with (cigarette machines, pool tables). “There’s no real arcades in Christchurch anymore”, a game collector once lamented in response to my request for information. What were ‘real’ arcades like? What makes an arcade a ‘real’ arcade? 

Several of the photographs attest to the fact that the transition from electro-mechanical to digital entertainments was neither neat nor immediate. The earlier machines were not simply displaced by video games, but continued to be played, with pinball enjoying a resurgence in New Zealand as late as the mid 1990s.

Quite a few photographs focus on the patrons of arcades. Some are regulars, like the people we see in Christopher Matthews’ photographs, which were taken in and around a single arcade, Christchurch’s famous Doghouse. Matthews spent time getting to know his subjects in the winter of 1978 (just prior to the arrival of hit titles such as ‘Space Invaders’ in New Zealand, in about 1980). By contrast, Ans Westra’s peripatetic eye and camera roam across numerous sites and environments. 

In many of her photographs we see groups of people whom we assume to be friends, simply ‘hanging out’. Others are portraits of individuals playing, flirting, or simply relaxing. 

The images show how people played games and what they did in these spaces when they weren’t playing games. They remind us just how much of a spectator sport gaming was in the 80s. Others show people waiting for arcades to open, or playing whilst they were waiting for something else to happen. They give us an idea of what people actually wore to the arcade: it is street fashion rather than the idealised fashion found in studio or magazine shots.

Some images study the affectations of youth more than game culture. Some young subjects in Westra’s images play up to the camera, clearly having a good time. I regard a number of these images as important in that they provide evidence that young women and girls were players and participants – not simply onlookers – involved in playing games in public spaces (cf. Guins). These girls and women were clearly a presence in the arcade: whether they were congregating, playing, watching while their friends played, or gazing at things we can’t see in the photographer’s frame. 

In the thirty plus years since some of these images were taken, digital games have become entrenched as a mainstream entertainment option. They are an undeniably important part of popular culture. The Nintendo Wii has even been embraced as a useful innovation for older people seeking to stay mobile, in recreational programmes in retirement villages and nursing homes. The sheer size of the industry and its economic importance requires that it be taken seriously. Having an understanding of the history of digital games ought to be a part of our attempts to ‘come to terms’ with this global phenomenon. It is the longest running craze, ever. 

Works cited

Beardon, Colin, Computer Culture: The Information Revolution in New Zealand, Auckland, Reed Methuen, 1985.

Guins, Raiford, “‘Intruder Alert! Intruder Alert!’: Video games in space”, Journal of Visual Culture, vol. 3, no. 2, 2004, pp. 195-211.

Herrick, Stefan, “Space Invaders”, Evening Post, 21 March, 2001, p. 19. No author given, “Games cause ‘war’”, The Press, 23 December, 1981, p. 1.

van Rooyen-McLeay, Karen J. “Adolescent Video-game Playing”, Unpublished MA thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, 1985.

Wilson, Jason, “Games, Video Art, Abstraction and the Problem of Attention”, Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, vol. 10, no. 3, 2004, pp. 84–101.


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