Nature always strives for balance. While at times it may be fragile, there are ecosystems all around us that are evidence of this fact. Even in our own lives, we naturally strive for a state of equilibrium. We’re tired, so we sleep. We’re hungry, so we eat. We’re stressed . . . so we play.
The past few years have certainly had their share of stresses, from civil unrest to economic woes and, oh yeah, a global pandemic. It’s more important than ever to have an escape and while, in a lot of ways, play is limited only by your imagination, it seems to have gotten increasingly harder to tune out the outside world.
Enter the arcade. For more than a century, these shrines of novelty and amusement have offered refuge to the weary for mere pocket change. First captivating the public in the boardwalks and penny arcades of the late 19th century, coin-operated games have taken many forms and left a lasting impact on generations of fans over the years. Still, for as rich and storied a history as they’ve had, the future seemed less than bright. Other forms of entertainment, from home gaming consoles to smart phones have been disrupting their business model for decades and it seemed like, at least in the early days, the COVID-19 lockdowns might be the final nail in the coffin.
As a documentary filmmaker who appreciates a good comeback story, the coin-op industry’s perseverance, amidst seemingly overwhelming odds, is an inspiring one. Recently I had the honor of receiving a fellowship to The Strong National Museum of Play, allowing me the chance to further explore this unique industry through their collection of exhibits, documents and artifacts related to the topic. Having not only the world’s largest collection of playthings but also historical materials, records and other documentation on the people who worked to create them, this was an opportunity that I certainly didn’t want to pass up.
Jeremy Saucier, Assistant Vice President for Interpretation and Electronic Games at The Strong, who I interviewed as part of the research for my project, encapsulated beautifully the significance of these machines, “What’s unique about coin-operated games is that, as opposed to things like board games, puzzles, or even home video games, they are a total package of marketing, of play,” Jeremy said. “You have all of the artwork, all of the gameplay, everything that is made to attract someone off the street, or entering an arcade, has to happen in that space.”
While the games themselves try to be transparent in their function, the work behind the scenes and the people who design, build, and service them are not nearly as visible. Impressive feats of engineering and promotion, it’s somewhat ironic that so little should be known about a device that begs for so much of our attention. The operators who place and service the machines remain virtually invisible and only recently have the manufacturers begun to allow the game’s designers to bask in the spotlight of their creations. All the more reason why the Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play located at The Strong is such a vital resource for researching this obscure information.
Innovative Concepts in Entertainment (ICE) Games, located outside of neighboring Buffalo, has been quietly making popular arcade games for decades and I was fortunate enough to be able to pay a visit to their facilities during my fellowship. Speaking to their CEO Joe Coppola, he commented on the nature of the industry, “I think everybody would agree it’s a niche market. It’s funny, I will still tell friends and acquaintances today that we’re in the game business and an awful lot of people say to me, boy, I didn’t even know that arcades still existed. . . Obviously our industry certainly faced a lot of concern and challenge most recently with COVID 19,” Joe says, “but I will say we’re coming off of two fantastic years where we see amazing growth.”
Growth and challenges are certainly something Joe’s father Ralph, co-founder of ICE, knew about. “The early days, absolutely very, very challenging, involved my father, his partner, their engineer driving to trade shows in the United States, driving to Chicago, driving wherever they had to go,” Joe said. “A lot of meetings at old Holiday Inns and little hotels along the way in different towns showing off the Super Chexx. And again, showing off a concept at the time that was very foreign to the arcade business. This was not a video, this was not a Pac-Man, it was very unlike anything really that the arcade industry had ever seen before.”
Personal correspondence to Ralph, which has been donated to The Strong, speaks to the early reception of the game. Glenn Grundtisch, an operator out of Buffalo wrote, “Over the last six weeks, your game has far outperformed any video or other coin-op game even on location here at Holiday Twin Rinks.” Glenn continued, “As you know the game was placed in a somewhat unsupervised location and has stood up incredibly well to the wear and tear that our type of location renders.” Joe continued to comment on his father’s vision for the company, “It was very important to him on all these different levels just getting to know people and spending time with customers, not just at trade shows but outside of the trade shows and getting to know their operations, getting to know their people. And so, I think it’s something that we’ve always excelled at, we’ve always made it a priority.”
Getting to know more about customers and their operations is a priority for me, too. Not only do I feel it’s one of the more underrepresented aspects of this story, but I know firsthand the dedication and commitment it takes to be successful in the arcade business. In 1981, my father Kent Tolliver and his friend/business partner Chuck Trowbridge, started T-N-T Entertainment. Building up a coin-op route from a single game and location, T-N-T would eventually service nearly every bowling alley, truck stop and laundromat in and around the Fort Wayne, Indiana area. “The operators are truly the front lines of the coin-op industry. And they’re out there placing games, fixing games, making sure that they work, and that people are having a good time,” says Saucier.
Being on the front lines, however, can be grueling, and Kent speaks to how, by 1985 the work was beginning to take its toll. “As the business grew, the time requirements grew, the stress grew. I had two young children at the time, and I wasn’t able or wasn’t willing to put the time, increased time that was needed. So, Chuck was doing most of the work and that wasn’t fair.” Kent would go on to sell his half of the business and eventually get out of the coin-op game all together.
Though I was only 6 or 7 years old when arcade games stopped being a daily part of our lives, I certainly had fond memories of that time, playing games in the warehouse and tagging along with my dad and Chuck while they ran their route. What I hadn’t realized until recently however, is that Chuck continues to run T-N-T to this day!
While the business has certainly changed over the past 40 years, the basic appeal of the games themselves have not. Jeremy Saucier comments on why the coin-op industry continues to remain relevant today, “We’re looking for these social experiences in public places where we can play and have fun together. And so these companies now are beginning to thrive once again. And they’re thriving in new ways, and expanding in new ways. And also new companies are coming in to create other types of games.” Jeremy continues, “We’re in a period where it’s really exciting to see what games are going to be coming out.”
Touring the ICE facility this fall and seeing some of the dozens of games they currently have in production, I was struck by the similarities to some of the games of the past that I’d reviewed while conducting my research at The Strong. Private collections donated to the library encompass nearly a century of advertisements for various amusement devices, each flier designed to convince operators of the need to cash in on the hottest new game or trend. Interestingly, a lot of the same concepts, from alley rollers to skill claws and carnival-type games are still being manufactured in one form or another today.
“One of the ways when we think about how the coin-op industry is going to remain relevant decades from now,” Saucier says, “it’s because they’re so good at drawing on what everyone in the culture is interested in. And also knowing their own history, being able to innovate and take these really foundational types of play, like shooting galleries, like strength testers and fortune tellers, and adapt them for new generations.”
The week spent researching in and around Rochester capped off almost three years of exploration into the world of coin-operated amusement devices. What started as a personal journey to reconnect with a part of my childhood quickly turned into an impassioned effort to document the people and places that continue to keep this unique pastime alive. The support and access I’ve received throughout this process so far has been incredible and the time spent chatting with the staff of The Strong and reviewing documents from Ralph Coppola, Millie McCarthy, Carol Kantor, and others has been both productive and inspiring.
Having reviewed more than a century of materials on the coin-op industry, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the phrase “the more things change, the more they stay the same.“ While it’s sometimes used in a negative connotation to denounce the status quo, I think it speaks to the bedrock of what’s driven this industry from the beginning. Gary Stern, who’s been in this business nearly his entire life, summed it up to me beautifully when I visited Stern Pinball last year, “Again, we’re not making jet planes, we’re not making heart-lung machines. We’re making games, and the most important thing is that we make them fun.”
While they may not always be held in the highest regard, they do offer us, if nothing else, the promise of play for relatively low stakes. From Pac-Man to pinball, jukeboxes, and claw machines, the amusements industry continues to find ways to connect and entertain us and those behind the machines, who’ve devoted their entire careers to their craft, deserve to be recognized and celebrated.
By Justin Tolliver, 2023 Strong Research Fellow