31 Images That Capture The Height Of Arcade Culture Of The ’70s And ’80s

Published December 5, 2022
Updated December 10, 2022

These vintage photos will take you back to a time when Pac-Man and Donkey Kong were the absolute pinnacle of gaming technology.

Maybe you can predict the moves of those shifty Pac-Man ghosts, smell the metallic odor of the tokens, or hear the symphony of sound effects ringing in your ears. But even if you rarely set foot inside an arcade yourself, you can still appreciate the cool, neon-flashing, vintage arcade aesthetic. (Let’s face it, the carpeting was always epic.)

Whether you grew up playing pinball and video games at the arcade or you just enjoy looking at some of the most popular hangout spots of years past, these photos will definitely hit that retro-gaming sweet spot.

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31 Images That Capture The Height Of Arcade Culture Of The ’70s And ’80s
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Looking back in time, it's incredible how much gaming has evolved since the 1970s and 1980s. It's nearly impossible to believe that arcades once thrived with simple games like Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and Donkey Kong.

But some may argue that simpler times were better times.

In some respects, this era was truly the golden age of gaming in the United States. This was especially true for pinball, as the game's controversial past had finally turned into a reluctant validity by the mid-1970s. Before then, pinball was actually outlawed in some major American cities.

For decades, authorities and educators had been concerned that pinball was corrupting the morals of American youths. While the older population's moral panic would soon transfer to video games, that certainly didn't stop kids, teens, and even some adults from enjoying these pastimes at arcades. And before long, a pop-culture obsession with arcades was born.

Inside The Surprisingly Sordid History Of Pinball

Pinball In 1935

FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesMen playing pinball in an American arcade. Circa 1935.

Inspired by sports like bocce, lawn bowling, and billiards, Western Europeans created one of the first versions of pinball between 1750 and 1770. This game, dubbed "Japanese billiards," used metal "pins" instead of wooden ones, and a coiled spring with a plunger rather than a cue. A similar mechanism is still used in modern pinball machines today, according to The Beacon.

Pinball arguably came of age a couple of centuries later during the Great Depression, especially in the United States. But as soon as coin-operated machines debuted in 1931, officials branded them a menace to society. They likened their use for entertainment in businesses to gambling.

And in a way, pinball was connected to gambling at first. Before the introduction of flippers in 1947, pinball was largely a game of chance, not skill. Some players gambled on pinball games, and some business operators handed out prizes to the winners. Because of this, several U.S. cities like Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, and New Orleans banned pinball entirely.

In New York City alone, police confiscated and destroyed over 2,000 pinball machines in the early 1940s, with Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia leading the charge. Like many authorities of the era, LaGuardia feared the game had moral and criminal consequences like other forms of gambling often did.

Meanwhile, churches across America also decried pinball, preaching that the games caused juvenile delinquency. Many religious leaders believed that children's morals were being corrupted by the game.

Pinball's bad reputation continued in the country for decades. However, by the mid-1970s, things were looking up. In 1974, the California Supreme Court ended its prohibition of pinball. A couple of years later, the city council in New York City saw a compelling demonstration by pinball star Roger Sharpe, who showed authorities how pinball had become a game of skill.

Soon, the pinball ban in New York City was lifted, and other cities across America followed suit. Others stopped enforcing their bans. But it didn't take long before there was another "threat" on the horizon: video games.

The Rise Of Video Games In American Arcades

ShowBiz Pizza

losttulsa/FlickrShowBiz Pizza was a family entertainment center that combined a pizza restaurant with an arcade in the 1980s.

Though pinball remained a common sight in arcades across America, video games had largely stolen the spotlight by the 1980s. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the older population soon expressed concerns about these new machines.

Many politicians, educators, and even medical experts worried about the potential negative effects of playing video games, from physical ailments to violent urges to flat-out addiction.

But in reality, much of it had to do with regulating the behavior of America's youths, whose perpetual presence at local malls annoyed many adults.

Despite the moral panic, countless kids, teenagers, and even some adults flocked to video game arcades for fun. Whether they were in a standalone building, in the mall, or inside family entertainment centers like Chuck E. Cheese or ShowBiz Pizza, a trip to the arcade was truly a phenomenon.

On the flip side, some social scientists of the time saw the potential benefits of video games. Interacting with this cutting-edge technology, they thought, could help the younger generation ease into the greater electronic shift that was already occurring in America — from the factory to the office. It was a form of early training, the optimistic among them promised.

Data today shows that video games don't cause aggressive behavior or harm us psychologically. Sure, there may be some eye strain or the occasional stiff wrist, but in the big picture, the games probably helped foster technological education and made kids more creative to boot.

While many arcades have closed in recent years, especially with the ever-rising popularity of home video game consoles, it's always fascinating to take a look back at vintage arcade photos to see how far technology has come since then. And of course, a little nostalgia never hurts.

After looking through these retro arcade photos, discover more vintage images from the 1980s. Then, check out the Internet K-Hole, a revealing look at what life was really like in the 1970s and 1980s.

Erin Kelly
An All That's Interesting writer since 2013, Erin Kelly focuses on historic places, natural wonders, environmental issues, and the world of science. Her work has also been featured in Smithsonian and she's designed several book covers in her career as a graphic artist.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.
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Kelly, Erin. "31 Images That Capture The Height Of Arcade Culture Of The ’70s And ’80s." AllThatsInteresting.com, December 5, 2022, https://allthatsinteresting.com/vintage-arcades. Accessed May 23, 2024.