Video Game Audio 102. The Analog Arcade.

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This is part II of my article series on video game sound. If you haven’t already, I recommend you start with Part I: Video Game Audio 101. Fiction or Interface. An Introduction.

Okay, so how where did the history of video games and video game audio begin?

They began in the analog world of the penny arcade with pinball and slot machines, which I’ll explore further in this article.

Let’s start with a quote by video game audio researcher Karen Collins in her excellent book Game Sound (2008) (link to Amazon), which I highly recommend:

“If video games had parents, one would be the spectacled academic world of computer-science and the other would be the flamboyant and fun penny arcade, with a close cousin in Las Vegas.”

Karen Collins in Game Sound, p. 7.

Collins means that video games are the natural descendant of the early computer years, where a computer took up a whole room and was used by scientists, plus early analog games such as pinball machines.

As computer technology began to shrink and become available to the general public, these two technologies melted together.

One example of an early “pinball machine” was the popular table game Bagatelle, which was popular in France all the way back in the 1700s.

Ballyhoo adopted this concept in 1931-32 and developed the game to have bells and buzz sounds within a couple of years.

The pinball machines quickly became popular and more advanced.

Just look at this beautiful MARS pinball machine from Chicago Coin Amusement Manufacturing Co. from 1937 – a mere seven years later:

A similar development of cash-grabbing fun machines is the one-armed bandit, aka slot machines, fruit machines, or poker machines.

One of the earliest one-armed bandits is Mills Liberty Bell from 1907. I couldn’t find a video of the 1907 version, but here’s one from 1910:

The one-armed bandit gave off a bell sound when you won, which is still the case today.

The importance of sound in penny arcade machines

The manufacturers of the early pinball and slot machines quickly realized the importance of sound to draw people to the machines.

A machine might not draw much attention if it’s standing in a corner, but if it can make a lot of noise, new potential customers will be drawn toward it.

As I wrote in part I, sound needs air to travel. And while you can close your eyes or choose not to focus on the machine, you can’t close your ears.

So by making sounds, the machines can take up a lot larger (mental) space than their physical body.

This is similar to the strategy used by stores that play loud music to draw people’s attention and spill out onto the mall floor beyond the physical limits of their designated floor area.

So pinball and slot machines made a lot of noise early on – especially if someone won something.

Slot machines influence video games and vice versa

The focus was on the winning sounds, not when someone didn’t win. This strategy continues to this day.

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A satisfying winning sound can keep the player emotionally engaged for longer and draw other people’s attention. Hey, who knows, maybe you could be the next winner?

This satisfying winning sound is prominent in video games today. Fx, I love the sounds of destroying stuff and picking up the studs in the LEGO games.

Today’s pinball and slot machines might have lost the last arm. But they’ve not lost their enticing sounds.

Today one-armed bandits are mostly digital. Some don’t even use coins. But they all make sounds. Some even play pop music and have fancy computer graphics.

And different from their earlier ancestors, they make sounds even when nobody is playing to get your attention, keep you invested, and, in the end, steal your money.

Sound designers who make sound bites for slot machines often make sounds for video games too.

And slot machines have adopted many elements from video games, such as cut scenes and bonus rounds.

So there’s a cross-pollination going on to this day between video games and arcade machines.

If you’re interested in reading more about this, I recommend the article Sound in Electronic Gambling Machines: A Review of the literature and its relevance to Game Sound by Collins et. al, in Game Sound, Technology and Player Interaction (2011) by Mark Grimshaw.

In the next article, I’ll look at the first video games and how sound slowly got introduced.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Jan has played video games since the early 1980s. He loves getting immersed in video games as a way to take his mind off stuff when the outside world gets too scary. A lifelong gamer, the big interest led to a job as a lecturer on game sound at the University of Copenhagen and several written articles on video games for magazines.

Read more on the About Page.