The Family Arcade Holds On As The Arcade Industry Falters
Inside, game enthusiasts mill through the arcade cabinets as neon lights illuminate the vast space. There’s an equal mix of old and new at the establishment – college students huddle around popular games like Street Fighter 4, while middle-aged men hop from one pinball game to the next. In the small back room, a group of 20-somethings take turns at air hockey and try their hand at skee ball.
The arcade, which opened in early 1972 and used to be home to a billiards parlor called the Rack and Snack, saw the burgeoning popularity of what are now considered classic games – titles like Mrs. Pac-Man, Centipede and Tron – as well as a collapsing economy through the eyes of the small business where it rents out gaming machines.
“I come here four times a week just to hang out with friends,” says Leroy Pacas, 18, who studies at Los Angeles Community College across the street from the arcade.
Pacas says he and his friends have been coming to the arcade regularly for about six months.
“It’s a great way to socialize and just have a good time,” he says.
Harry Peck, 64, decided to open the arcade because he was unsatisfied with his job as a probation officer. One day, while visiting his brother-in-law, he went to an arcade in Upland, Calif. It was an old-fashioned entertainment center, complete with miniature golf and foosball, and it predated Pong.
“That evening, I had a thought that I would open an amusement arcade,” Peck says.
Pinball machines became legal in Los Angeles County the same year, overturning a ban dating back to 1939. The games were illegal because they were considered games of chance rather than skill – the first pinball machines had no flippers to keep the ball going.
The Peck family was at the arcade day and night when the entertainment center first opened.
At the time, the arcade had pinball machines and mechanical rides, along with a few shooting games. The ceiling and walls were covered with “cheesy” red, white and blue streamers that hung off brightly painted walls.
Peck remembers that first night, and the anxiety that came with it, vividly. He put out a spotlight in front of the shop for the first two weeks, hoping to draw attention to the new establishment.
He and his brother, David, were there with their wives, mother and a couple other relatives.
“It was raining, but people came in,” he recalled. “We didn’t know if it would be a bust or success.”
Each partner had $2,000 to start with. All the profits were put it back in the business for the first year, and they lived off their wives’ earnings.
The Family Arcade fills a niche in the neighborhood, providing old-school entertainment in the form of games long forgotten by multi-million dollar companies like Dave and Busters or Chuck E. Cheese.
Peck’s son, Robert, grew up immersed in the arcade industry. The 31-year-old says customers trickle in from the Los Feliz and Silver Lake areas more frequently; he wouldn’t have seen them in the arcade five years ago, he adds.
“It’s almost like it’s come full circle,” he says. “People come in because it’s something cool that’s not around.”
The arcade draws a surprising amount of celebrities as well. Two weeks ago, Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro stopped by to play pinball, Peck says.
The business also turns a modest profit by renting the space out as a studio for films and music videos.
Mick Jagger used the spot for a music video years ago, and investigative shows – like “CSI” or “Law & Order” – shoot on location.
“Lately we’ve had a lot of music videos though,” Peck says.
“Frank Ocean is tomorrow. Kid Cudi was here a while ago,” his son interjects. “He’s filmed two videos here already.”
“I don’t know who that is, really,” Peck says with a laugh. “I remember Fat Albert.”
The tone of conversation quickly shifts when they start talking about how the industry has changed dramatically.
In the 70s, 80s and early 90s, coin-operated games and arcades were a staple of the gaming industry. Youth would gather in malls, mom and pop pizza restaurants or college campuses – among other places – to feed quarters into the machines of their choice.
But as video game technology advanced and home gaming systems – beginning with the Nintendo Entertainment System and advancing to Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and the Nintendo Wii – became increasingly popular, the arcade industry began to falter, experts say.
According to census figures, the number of amusement arcades has been declining since 1997. The year 2002 saw a drop of nearly six percent in arcade businesses, with 2,571 stores open in total.
Some say arcades have dwindled because they have lost their allure as a vibrant social space.
“When [arcades] became a place for skee ball and tokens, it became kid-centric,” says Dmitri Williams, a video game industry and Internet communities researcher. “It used to be a melting pot for different races and ages and classes, but that changed. It’s been a long, slow death rattle.”
The Family Arcade survives, albeit barely, despite this.
The arcade’s heyday was the early 1990s, when titles like Street Fighter 2: Champion Edition and Mortal Kombat drew droves of fighting game aficionados to then-bustling businesses.
The transformation was alchemic – one day the arcades were thriving, the next they were shutting down across the country. Even video game industry giant Midway (creator of the Mortal Kombat franchise) went out of business.
It didn’t stop there.
Williams Electronics, a major arcade game and pinball manufacturer, saw the industry decay and switched its focus to the hotel business in the late 1990s. Williams is now a major manufacturer of slot machines.
Arcades continued to decline as the years went by, punctuated by these massive shifts by industry giants. Technology advanced, bringing popular MMORPGs, or massively multiplayer online roleplaying games, like World of Warcraft to the forefront.
“The arcade industry now is quasi-daycare,” Williams says. “It’s really a place where suburban moms can drop off kids while they shop.”
Amid all these changes, one event in particular left the Family Arcade wounded: the mortgage crisis.
A few months before the housing bubble burst in 2008, the arcade saw a significant drop in customers, Peck says.
Business has picked up within the past few months, but the arcade still struggles to break even, and often runs at a loss. It remains open through the funds the Peck family makes renting arcade games and jukeboxes.
Though, the rental business has had its ups and downs lately too.
“The last four years the recession has hit very hard,” Peck says. “The ma and pa restaurants close and we get our equipment back. We found a lot of that during the housing bust.”
Peck says that if he had to rely on the arcade for income, he would close it. It doesn’t pay the rent, the salaries or the power bill. At best, it breaks even on weekends. It has more sentimental value than a fiscal one.
“It’s kind of like our namesake,” he says.
There is no longer a game or series that draws in throngs of people the way Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat did for them in the 1990s. At that time, they had 32 Street Fighter cabinets in the arcade at all times, with signs posted outside boasting their lot.
“People would line up to play,” Peck recalls, as he flips through the notebook where he keeps track of all the release dates for such popular titles (the “good old days”).
Today, the technology in home computers far outweighs what’s in arcade cabinets. Peck says people come to the arcade to socialize more than to play. He often sees teenagers sitting on their iPhones, using the chirp of the machines, the music on the jukebox and the revving of simulated sports car engines as a backdrop for their mingling.
That was the case for Janyce Colon, 21, who was playing Jurassic Park with her friends. The group of girls stood around and chatted after shooting $5 worth of dinosaurs, content to joke about how shooting a T-Rex is “self-defense” while leaning on a “Simpsons” game cabinet.
If nothing else, Peck says, the arcade is a space that transcends age groups. People can throw on an oldie on the jukebox and have a go at a few rounds of pinball, or they can stop by between classes to pass the time.
“I get customers who say, ‘I bring my son here and I remember coming here in the 80s,’” Peck says. “It’s that nostalgia that brings them back.”