Game Sound in the Mechanical Arcades: An Audio Archaeology
by Karen Collins
In this article, Collins discusses the history surrounding the use of audio in penny arcade machines (between 1930 and 1940) in order to fill a knowledge gap, as little is recorded about sound in these spaces. Collins refers to the article as providing “audio archaeology,” where she draws conclusions about the historical context of sounds in machines from her interviews, academic research, and personal experiences. Collins clearly defines some questions to be answered in the article:
What were these [penny arcades], and how did they use sound? What types of sound were used, and what roles did sound play in the experience of penny arcades? What influence did these early uses of sound have on later developments of arcade and video games? These are the questions that I seek to answer here.
To begin, Collins establishes the context of audio surrounding the turn of the 19th century:
…there was an increasing awareness of the importance of sound; second, that there was an increasing demand for higher-fidelity auditory experiences; and finally, that there was a new set of auditory cultural expectations brought about by the rise of motion pictures. Each of these points suggest that by the late 1930s audiences were arriving at a media awareness and sophistication that spanned different media forms of the time.
In the 19th century, urbanization, increased immigration, outdoor electric lighting in cities, and the Industrial Revolution all played parts in creating a class with disposable income, hungry for entertainment and amusement. She explains vendors sprung up, and to attract business they used plenty of sound techniques – live bands, ballyhoos, and, importantly, music phonographs.
We also see the recording and playback of voices being used during this time period. Examples include fortune telling-machines and a cigarette vending machine that would say “thank you” plus the brand slogan upon purchasing. The novelty of voiced machinery wore off, but the role that sound played in user attraction remained.
We see many instances of electro-mechanical sound effects in early entertainment machinery as well. Most notably, the use of bells dominated. In a game such us the classic strength test, the sound of the bell rewarded the winner with attention from passers-by. Not only this, but it attracted people to engage in playing as well which is good for the owner of the machine. We also see bells in gambling machines to announce a winner, but also to announce tilting of a machine or other cheating. The use of bells carried over into the first pinball machines, which is where our topic meets its context.
With early pinball machines, as a player’s score increased, the bells of the machine would rings higher-pitched. Other sound cues followed, such as wooden-sounding noises for a free replay, and the symbolic or representative nature of sounds within games started to take hold. There were other types of games built on mechanically-based sounds. A notable one is Big Game, a hunting-shooter simulator that patented mechanical techniques that represented the sound of guns firing and other noises that were claimed to be realistic. Collins explains that sound is used to create an immersive experience, which is why patrons keep coming back to play.
Eventually, around prohibition times, gambling was widely outlawed. Players could receive payouts based on their pinball score, so this machine was outlawed, but manufactures found a loophole. They introduced music to the pinball machines, and storekeepers could have them in their establishments as long as they played it off like the machine was only used for its music.
Soon after, the creators of all the different mechanical gaming machines took what they learned and came around to produce the first video games of their generation. The focus of these games were on novelty. Create new games, with new video, and new sounds to capture the player.
As all this technological change was occurring, it’s interesting to note that the way people talked about machines changed over time as well:
Talking vending machines were frequently described in the press as “robots”, evoking images of not only the height of modernism, but a utopian optimism captured by the rhetoric around technology at the time
The strive for novelty is still around in video games today. Collins references No Man’s Sky as a game that spouted its novelty – a procedural generated soundtrack (as well as its physical world). And another crucial impact of the time of penny arcade machines is the coexistence of the game, music, and film industries which now a part of our everyday life.
A topic thought caught my interest is that of talking machines. Talking machines are being utilized today after a short disappearance. For example, some of us talk to Siri on a daily basis. We go to self-checkout lines and receive verbal instructions from the machines, some crosswalk buttons will inform you to “wait” upon pressing, and there are realistic chat-bots that people can socialize with online. We want human interaction, but mechanical efficiency – perhaps the Turing test will be passed in my lifetime?
Collins, Karen. “Game Sound in the Mechanical Arcades: An Audio Archaeology.” Game Studies, vol. 16, no. 1, Oct. 2016, gamestudies.org/1601/articles/collins.