Over the Christmas holiday, my son and I were talking about video game arcades. I spent so much time in them during junior high. That and at the roller rink, where I first played Pong, Missile Command, and Space Invaders. Good times, mostly with my brother. My son hasn’t been to one and really wants to go.
Last week Laura June at the Verge published a great piece on the rise and fall of the video arcade. It is a long and richly detailed piece that is worth every minute you’ll spend with it. It is full of excellent social history, but these bits really struck me:
Like shopping malls and roller skating rinks, they were safe, isolated areas where kids and teenagers could hang out, and, with a reasonable amount of money, spend hours without their parents. Bill Disney, a pinball enthusiast and owner of The Pinball Gallery in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, says of his younger years that “most parents, they basically didn’t know what their kids were doing any time of the day. They were on their bikes, out the whole day,” and “they didn’t care where they were.” This laid-back attitude varied by family, as well as by geography, but the relative autonomy of older children in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and early 1980s, was much greater than it would be moving into the ‘90s. Films of the early ‘80s such as E.T. and The Wizard show typical, American kids, left to their own devices, playing video games and capturing aliens with their friends while their parents are at work…
It’s shocking, of course, to realize that the “golden age” of video game arcades lasted just a few, short years, but if we tie it onto the turbulent history of pinball, we’re looking at a much longer, institutional part of our culture which, in the 1980s, began to pass away. Like roller skating rinks and other public spaces “for young people only,” our culture seems to have decided that kids are better off when they’re not alone with other kids, and worried parents have been victorious in their mission to rid us of these troublesome spaces for loitering, described by New York City in 1942 as a “menace to the health, safety, and general welfare of the people.”
And I thought that my wife and I were just overly romanticizing our childhoods when we waxed poetic about how different things are today! It is amazing how much freedom we had. My brother and I used to ride our bikes 3 miles to The Plaza in Kansas City to watch movies and play video games all the time. While absolutely fun, I do think I actually learned some important things from the experiences. I learned to save some money (“don’t use your last two quarters until you know mom is on the way to pick you up”), do basic maintenance and repair (“how does that bike chain go back on?”), and that you won’t die immediately from most play-related injuries (“how bad was that gash on my brother’s hand?”). My parents took risks letting us roam, but we were all rewarded for it.
Few parents these days, though, are happy to risk not knowing where their children are. I confess to being among them. I ended up living in Chicago for 14 years after college where I did crazy things like get mugged and almost get hit by stray bullets. Makes you worry a bit more, even when you know those are exceptions rather than the rule. I get fidgety letting my son go to 7-11 with his friend, even though it is only 3 blocks away and his friend is related to the owners! We live in a different world, after all.
But maybe it isn’t all that different. After the Newtown shooting, people are starting to talk about the bad effects of video games again. Hopefully, this time around there will be some good studies done on gaming so that our conversation can be based on facts rather than fear. I’m guessing, though, that the risks of gaming will be overplayed once again. Like my fear of 7-11 trips.
‘Cause I’m all in favor of protecting kids from real dangers. It is easy to fear the unknown, and technology gives us unknown in spades. But unreal dangers? You’d think that with all this connectivity, we could give our kids more freedom to risk, not less. Freedom to learn on their own, in their own way.