We are not amused

As I walked along the seafront I noticed a couple hurrying into an amusement arcade. She clutched her handbag tightly along with her husband’s arm as they entered the almost empty funhouse. They wore desperate faces and shabby clothes and not in a chic way. It was mid-summer. Where was everyone else?

I glanced deeper in from a safe distance and saw a handful of living bodies pumping coins into slots. Why are these establishments called Amusement arcades? No one appeared to be having any fun. I wondered whether I should call the trade descriptions police.

Amusement arcades have been part of the English seaside for as long as I can remember. As a child I wiled away the hours on holiday deftly slotting 1p and 2p coins into shove ha’penny (or Penny Falls dependent upon your preference) hoping that my coin would be the catalyst to push hundreds of others from their precarious ledge and into my tray.


That was amusement, and maybe it’s because I was younger and less aware, but the places bustled and everyone seemed to be having fun. I checked with my mother and she thinks enjoyment at arcades is age dependent! Apparently my parents used to ‘enjoy’ watching me having fun but didn’t enjoy the noise, heat, flashing lights and claustrophobia. Mum averred that enjoyment dissipates with increasing years.

The entire front of the buildings are always wall less to provide maximum entry opportunities, and to entice customers with bright flashing lights, electronic beeps and sometimes if you’re lucky the Grease Megamix blasting at you.

As I grew into my childhood I loved the holiday arcades more. I am not sure my parents appreciated the constant request for money. The digital age was moving forward apace, and I wanted to play Asteriods, Pacland, and Star Wars costing more per turn that the penny arcades. I remember climbing into an X wing fighter with Obi Wan Kenobi telling me to ‘Use the Force Luke’. I didn’t really pay attention to the fruit or slot machines. The only slot I played was with my parents. The house rarely won and I often hit the jackpot!

Awareness increases with age and maturity and I started to see another side, perhaps the more sinister one. People were alive, but acted as zombies as they hit the ‘spin’ button to win the elusive jackpot. Rarely did their clothing or demeanour say they had the spare funds to commit so much to chance. Their faces yearned and willed the win. Would it release their trancelike state?

Is there a sinister element? I am not sure but I still feel something odd when I approach and enter.

In every arcade without fail is a change booth. This booth, often caged, is invariably staffed by an unhappy looking employee who hadn’t yet been on a customer service course, and didn’t yet deal in pleasantries.

A request would be made. ‘50ps worth of 2s please.’

The cashier would push keys on their till and 25 2p pieces excitedly hurtled down the slide into the tray at the front. The sound was remarkably like a jackpot hitting the winnings tray. Anticipation raised. Clever marketing really.

As I grew, so did the depth of my own pockets and the available funds to travel. Norfolk was humbled and I was off to Las Vegas. The glitz, the glamour and promises of fortunes surrounded by big name shows, elite shops and trendy pumping bars and clubs.

And there you find casinos rather than amusement arcades. But are they really that different? There are rows of cashiers rather than a single change booth employee but they wear the same expression and exude the same attitude. And yes of course some of the patrons are dripping in diamonds (and that’s just the men) plunging the craps dice down the silky felt of the table, but look a little further out to the sides and rows of fruit machines. There you will find shabby zombies pushing their plastic cups loaded with quarters into the slots. These slots equally promise life changing jackpots.

In Vegas however you can spot the same individuals at the machines when you go to bed as when you get up. They wear the same clothes and expressions. Vegas is happy to help you spend twenty four seven.

I am not sure if it’s just the Boulevardier outside his comfort zone or whether these sinister establishments prey on the weak willed. This applies equally to the multimillion Vegas casinos and shabby seaside arcades…

Either way the house always wins.