A nostalgic lens on ailing businesses in The Lost Arcade (2015)
The Lost Arcade is a well made, nostalgia-steeped 2015 documentary about New York videogame arcades. It charts the rise, but mostly the decline of arcade culture through to the mid-2010s. The people and themes it looks at are a much more ambitious and frankly, much better done, form of what we at Very Very Gaming were interested in with our blog posts about game stores in the UK. As a film it looks at the histories, the people, the stories, the owners and their passions in and around New York’s arcade scene.
The most engaging question in the documentary to me is: what drives people to invest their livelihoods in the ever-changing, volatile business that is videogame retail? And while I suspect that subject would always have interested me, it is doubly interesting in recent years when brick and mortar stores and the high street in general are constantly struggling to make ends meet. It seems wrong, somehow, that arcades should die (or perhaps more generously survive on life-support) when the overall videogame industry continues to grow, with more people playing games than ever and making record amounts of money.
The film is shot through with reflections on the golden years where arcades were the lifeblood of the industry. At the same time, it’s very much a story about the recent past and the attempts by some to revive different aspects of arcade culture. It’s a wistful, even romantic story, about how arcades can create and strengthen communities; even, in one case, the “lost” arcade of the title, Chinatown Fair, practically saved someone’s life. That moving story, placed alongside the arcade’s struggle to stay in business today, is what gives this documentary its heart.
There are some great quotes throughout. “This used to be a place where you’d come to see the best fighting game players. Now people come to spin the big wheel” – said in reference to the re-opening of a arcade with a new focus on family friendly amusement machines. Then there’s perhaps my favourite moment, when two rival arcade owners meet. One says: “the worst thing you can do is open something that you love, because you don’t know when it’s time to close the doors”. The same guy mentions enjoying the arcade business “back in the 90s” and the other guy responds: “Well, you’ve got to get back to enjoying it – if you enjoy it then you never work a day in your life”. Personal passions, pet projects, work-life balance, community relations – these are highly complicated and oftentimes personal subjects.
If you’re curious about the history side or are have pangs of nostalgia for a time when gaming at home was secondary to arcades, it’s definitely worth checking this out.
The Lost Arcade is available on Amazon Prime Video and Kanopy (public library/university users only)
I have not seen this documentary or have much experience of arcades, as most of the arcade machines I have played on were found in leisure centres and bowling alleys. I remember watching an interesting video on YouTube about the urban legend of the Polybius game that mentioned some aspects of the history of arcades. Part of the story about Polybius was that mysterious men would collect data from the machine that played the Polybius game and it has been speculated that these people worked for the US government. An interesting idea suggested by the creator of the video was that these men were real and were actually FBI agents. The narrator mentioned that a lot of arcades were owned by organised crime gangs and were used to launder money, including one arcade that was suggested to be the location for the Polybius game, which was raided by the police during the 1980’s because it was used for this activity.
Why did people invest in arcades? Did the documentary give a reason why arcades were closing while the video game industry became more lucrative? What were the people and themes discussed in the film?