March 3, 2009

Home video game consoles did not kill the arcade

While we're on the topic of debunking pop sociology dogma, here's another thing I read about whenever the the history of video games comes up: arcades declined in the 1990s because the home consoles offered a similar experience and were cheaper.

Of course, this idea makes no sense -- why didn't the arcade game developers produce a new round of games that the home consoles could not so successfully copy? When a parasite species becomes adapted to sapping a host species, the host species adapts in turn to evade parasitism, and the cycle begins all over again.

Aside from that, it's just not true that playing Final Fight or Street Fighter on your Super Nintendo was the same experience -- the graphics and sound were not as good, and you weren't out and about, doing something somewhat social, surrounded by a boisterous crowd of your peers.

Video games have started to receive attention from academics, and most of it is the typical sterile lit-crit faggotry about analyzing the subtext of video games, how their characters reinforce the hegemonic cultural script, bla bla bla. However, there's a good social history that includes actual data and -- gasp! -- a graph. The author is Dmitri Williams, and the article is available for free. [1] I've redrawn the relevant graph, since it looks like a mess in the original:

The "home consoles parasitizing the arcades" view may explain the data of the late 1970s through 1986, where the rise of home console sales predicts a slowing down and fall in arcade sales. However, from 1991 to 1996, home consoles went into a decline, and that should have allowed the arcades to thrive again. Instead, arcade sales began declining after 1988, regardless of how home consoles were selling.

I have more to say about why arcades were abandoned, as it seems part of a larger pattern of public spaces for young people evaporating during the 1980s and '90s -- roller rinks, mini golf courses, swimming pools, malls geared toward teenagers rather than 20-somethings and up with lots of disposable income, and so on. A Bowling Alone pattern among young people. The key point for now is that home consoles did not kill off the arcade.

[1] Williams, D. (2006) A (Brief) Social History of Video Games. In Vorderer, P & Bryant, J. (Eds.) Playing Computer Games: Motives, Responses, and Consequences. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.


  1. The irony is of course that after the various incarnations of the Atari (2600, 5200, 7800) and its cousins, one of the big selling points of the early 8-bit consoles was that you could in fact play the same games at home that you did at the arcade; console capabilities had finally caught up with cabinet technology.

    An alternative point to consider that console games quickly moved away from arcade copies to more involved games that couldn't be played in arcades such as the Final Fantasy and Zelda series.

  2. Console capabilities were never the same as the arcades. Pac-Man or anything else on Atari stinks compared to playing the arcade version. Same for Nintendo games (Rush 'n Attack, Double Dragon, etc. -- fun as they were on the NES).

    You're right that home consoles started to specialize in more in-depth games, which the arcades couldn't offer. But that only says that they would specialize in different niches -- there should have been even less competition, and so an even more flourishing arcade scene.

  3. this isn't arcade vs home console, but it's interesting.

  4. Commercial landlords may not have been particularly enamored with arcades because of the youthful patrons they attracted. Even if unruly crowds weren't an issue, arcade-goers aren't the sort to do a lot of spending at other stores in the mall or plaza, and landlords therefore would prefer other tenants.

    I don't know if there's any way to prove whether landlords discouraged arcades from locating or remaining in their properties.


  5. If these goods are substitutes for each other, then the coincident decline from 91-96 could be due to less demand for that type of good in general.

  6. If they're substitutes, then arcades should have surged after 1996, just as home consoles did.

    The main pattern is that in the late '80s, arcades decline steadily, and independently of whether home consoles are increasing or decreasing.

  7. After Super NES was released in 1991, there was a dearth of consoles--the next successful system was Playstation, released in 1995.

    Also during this time, game prices relative to console prices were dropping steadily. 8-bit Nintendo games retailed for $40-$70, while the system went for $200 with Super Mario Bros included (that's without any accounting for inflation). Today, the leading systems go solo for $300-$500, while games are in the $30-$60 range.

    Another thing to consider might be PC sales. They began to increase rapidly in 1993 and had doubled by 1996 (here's a data-rich page), at a time when such a purchase ate up a lot of discretionary income. Our first 8MB PB cost over $1000. But PC unit sales kept on relentlessly after that point in time and console sales picked back up as well, so I'm not sure how explanatory it is.

    I can hardly even take an educated guess as to why arcades declined in popularity, but to the extent that home consoles hurt them (if at all), the rapidly increasing cost-per-minute advantage of the consoles, really starting with Super NES (the 8-bit NES games that had memory storage were not geared toward people under 20--rpgs, the epitome of memory utilization, 'mainstreamed' with Final Fantasy 2 (now 4) on Super NES, which is probably why SquareEnix has released it a hundred times since). Your parents could buy Final Fantasy 2 for $40 and you could play it through at $1 an hour and Street Fighter II for even longer than that (without requiring transportation). At the arcade, a couple of hours could easily cost over $10

    Relatedly, Super NES and Genesis could at least stand in the same arena as the fare offered in arcades. I'm sure you played the TMNT arcade game. The NES 'clones' were nowhere near the arcade experience, but Turtles in Time for the Super NES comes fairly close.

    Great post. Eagerly awaiting the next!

  8. A.E. is showing his youth -- there was an explosion of consoles around 1991. The Nintendo was still going strong, Super Nintendo was out, Sega Genesis, Turbo Grafx 16, and the rarer Neo Geo, not to mention the Gameboy, Sega Gamegear, and Atari Lynx handhelds.

    I do think that video game quality thrives when there's a monopoly, though. Nintendo games had a much higher success rate than any other console, and they were the only game in town for awhile. It was like the monopoly-era Bell Labs.

    16-bit games like Turtles in Time could not have hurt arcade sales. Arcades begin to decline in the late '80s, when only a handful of crappy Genesis games were out. It wasn't until about 3 years later that you saw decent 16-bit arcade ports.

  9. Agnostic,

    All of these systems were released in '91 or before. They were part of the resurgence following the 'near death' of video gaming in the mid-eighties. That was my point. Genesis and NES had been out for years by then. C'mon, Atari Lynx? That only sold a few hundred thousand units worldwide. It never caught on. Neo Geo was rich niche--I was never getting there on a $5/week allowance. Gamegear was a bomb, too (tangentially, I'd love to read a good account of why Nintendo dominated Sega--graphically, Sega's port consoles and handhelds were way ahead of Nintendo's; with Gamegear, battery life was a big problem).

  10. Re: monopoly and thriving, I suspect a thorough write up on the console wars would lead to just that--Nintendo tied up all kinds of 3rd party contracts, so 'timeless' franchises like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest (that's my rpg bias showing, but the pattern extends to many genres) became Nintendo's, even though Nintendo didn't make them.

  11. Well, it wasn't until the mid-'90s that new consoles came out, but it wasn't as though the NES, SNES, etc. etc. weren't common and still really popular after 1991.

    And back in the pre-1983 days, there were really only 3 big consoles too -- Atari, Colecovision, and Intellivision -- with a smattering of others.

  12. Yes, the popularity of the Super NES and to a lesser extent some of those other systems continued, but each console's sales presumably declined year after year while game sales increased. Once you have the console, you don't have to buy it year and after year, and the product life of the Super NES is at least five years--mine still works without issue, and I've had it since 1992.

    Not that this is a definitive explanation, but it at least seems plausible to me.

  13. AFAICT, arcades did not decline in Japan, where there is no shortage of console systems.

  14. Jason -- good point about Japan.

    A.E. -- if that were true, it would apply after the NES came out in 1986, but sales don't decline until 6 years later. Same for the N64 and Playstation era -- at least up through 2002, there was no decline.

    So it doesn't look like there's a predictable slump a few years after a new round of consoles come out.

  15. I agree that it probably has to do partly with social places for young people closing down and perhaps also the move towards computers for socializing. I know a lot of my socializing moved towards BBS's back in 1994 and soon after IRC and all the messaging programs. I'm not sure if the root cause was not enough business, rising costs, or lack of interest though. I know I lost interest pretty quick when games jumped up past the 25cent per play mark. I didn't have a lot of money to spend in arcades at the time and 50cents or $1 was just too much.

  16. I think it did not, still there are places where you can see arcades despite of several gaming console has been releases.. it's just that the use of arcades has been decreases vs the new modern ideas. Like the zombie shooting games that I regularly play online have its arcade version.


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