Trigger warnings: Sexual Harassment, Transphobia & Rape.
|That controller probably costs $300+|
In the golden age of the video arcade the biggest draw were the fighting games. These were titles wherein the player would control the actions of one particular character selected from a stable of fighters, who would be pitted against another fighter in a timed martial arts bout. The opponents would deliver and attempt to dodge or parry flurries of punches, kicks and more exotic techniques until one of the fighters was knocked unconscious twice in a best-of-three series. The most popular titles had a huge variety of playable characters, each with their own dizzying array of special “moves” that took considerable dexterity with the controls to master. Crowds would form around consoles where skilled players were going head to head, and if you were feeling brave you could signal “dibs” on the right to challenge the victor by placing your quarter on the edge of the arcade console - surreptitiously, so as not to disturb the match in progress, though cheering and jeering from the assembled spectators was common in some arcades. These games combined the thrill of gladiatorial blood sports with an element of gambling; to challenge a player you had to feed quarters into the machine, but the winner could continue playing without paying additional money, monetarily rewarding skill and punishing ineptitude. Many men - and no small number of women - from my generation have fond childhood memories of watching these games being played by the best among us. Those lucky enough to have lived in cities with financially successful arcades might have gotten a chance to witness a sponsored fighting game tournament with cash prizes! Nothing brings the competitive spirit to the fight quite like a little moola. The arcades that hosted these typically sold overpriced pizza, hotdogs and popcorn, if you are wondering what the business model looked like. I didn't think about that when I was 12, I just forked over my allowance and considered it money well spent.
Like most video games from that era, all of the best fighting games came from Japan. The Japanese had huge arcades, we were told, with weekly tournaments paying out thousands of dollars. Everybody lived within walking distance of an arcade in Japan and everybody played; their skill was legendary. None of us could have imagined a future where people made a living playing arcade games and scrappy Americans would compete with the Japanese legends in tournaments that would not just determine who was the best player in the mall, but the best in the whole world! Yet here we are living in that future... and people have the gall to complain about a lack of flying cars. Also, we have smartphones so...
The arcades are dying, by the way. Video arcades, I mean. Modern arcades aren't really the same thing. They are full of ticket redemption scams, claw machines and prop based games that have no immersion value. In the few places that people are fighting to save them, they are fighting to save the Fighting Games. Yeah, they have an antique Galaga and Centipede in the corner, and maybe a collection of pinball machines, but it is the Fighting Games they want to preserve. It's a community.
We need to be careful about looking back on that era with rose tinted glasses, because it was far from perfect (it only seemed great in comparison to the 80s). Looking back with the perspective I have now, highlighted by recent events, I remember a sinister side to what went on in those arcades. Girls were an uncommon sight in the arcades of yore, and those that were present were frequently the girlfriend of one of the older boys, crassly displayed as a trophy, as though he had traded in an absurd number of ski-ball tickets for her. Some amount of gawking and staring was inevitable in that environment, I suppose, but outright harassment was uncommon... unless, one of the girls had the audacity to place a quarter on the console. This would always create a stir among the the milling onlookers, and could scarcely pass without comment. She would be permitted to play, "dibs" was a sacred trust, and those who violated it were banished. I'm not being melodramatic, at a lot of places the management had official policies about it; you could get kicked out for disregarding a token. Even if that particular crowd had been silently observing previous matches, commentary from the peanut gallery always accompanied a female competitor. Players who normally concentrated silently on the game would start talking shit. The ones that already did that as a matter of course would become coarser. This, incidentally, is how I first learned the words cunt and twat, though divining their exact definitions would have to wait another 5 years or so for the invention of the internet (thanks, Al). If the girl lost, she would be told to go back to her boyfriend, or shoe shopping, or playing with dollies or whatever stereotypically gendered activity the hecklers imagined was most funny to mock her with. Making us sandwiches was not yet a thing we said. I guess misogynistic humor wasn't yet that advanced in the 90's, or perhaps men still remembered how to make their own sandwiches back then. They were different times.
I did not see it at the time as an obvious double standard, but if she won, her male opponent would be the victim of mocking – losing to a girl?! The shame! Better go buy a dress, pussy, etc... I realize now the true victim of this mocking was still the girl. Not only did we mock either loser with "girly" things, but her prowess with the controls was being dismissed; her victory was always attributed to a shameful lack of skill on her opponent's part. If she lost, all girls sucked. If she won, just one guy sucked, temporarily. Her defeated opponent would feel he had no choice but to pay for a re-match, to prove she "got lucky" (in a genre where there are no random gameplay elements). If she defeated him into token bankruptcy - often feigned after two or three defeats to save face, I imagine - she might be punished with the further insult of facing no additional challengers. Who would risk the shame of being beaten by a girl? The “real players” would shuffle over to the second most popular game in the arcade, disgruntled at the disruption of our play by this interloper and pretending we weren't cowards. She would be left to battle computer controlled opponents in solitude, or worse, be forced to play while simultaneously fending off the creepy advances of (often disturbingly older) suitors whom, I am ashamed to admit, I usually thought were incredibly suave for having "the balls" to pursue her. The girls never stayed in the arcade as long as the boys.