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The Coevolution of Arcade Games, Gamers, and Interfaces


GG Vol. 

23. 2. 10.

Arcade Machines as Retro Games

The term “retro games” generally refers to old and classic games. With the recent resurgence of interest in retro games, the arcade games of the past can now be seen all the more frequently. Arcade games, met with immense popularity since their emergence in the 1970s, are treated more or less as forgotten media (at least in academia) despite their prominence as the first form of digital mainstream pop culture. The reason is likely due to the stereotype that arcade games are a mainstream culture, primarily targeted toward young children and teenagers. Arcade culture, which is consistently treated as youth culture and a subculture of the public, continues to receive widespread interest in terms of the destructive and antisocial impact it can leave on teenagers. However, from the perspective that arcade games were ‘absorbed by and replaced with digital video games since the 1990s,’ what little interest there is dissipates.

Then, what exactly are these video games considered to have absorbed and replaced arcade games? Gonzalo Frasca defines video games as “including any forms of computer-based entertainment software, either textual or image-based, using any electronic platform such as personal computers or consoles and involving… [games] in a physical or networked environment.” If we go by Frasca’s definition, arcade games quite literally fit the description of video games. Then, what do we really mean by the arcade games that have been rendered extinct?

In truth, arcade venues (or amusement arcades) are still thriving—just comprised of different components and conditions. Small, damp arcades became large-scale, and these spaces have become filled mainly by virtual reality games, rhythm action games, and hands-on games with imitative interfaces.

The arcade games considered to be extinct are likely of a different kind compared to those at the current-day amusement arcade. As part of the arcade game generation, we have at least a handful of memories where we enjoyed arcade games. However, the memories brought up of such games are different for each individual. To one person, their memory of an arcade is made up of shooting games such as “Space Invaders” or “Galaga.” Another might recall claw machines where you grab plushies or prizes, while another might think of fighting games such as the “Street Fighter” and “Tekken” series or rhythm games such as “DDR” and “Pump It Up.” Otherwise, it may be a memory of using the coin-operated karaoke machine located in the corner of the arcade to relieve stress. These arcades are represented by one word but can mean many different physical spaces depending on each individual.


What’s interesting is that the arcade games shown in media as retro games appear more frequently in the form of arcade cabinets as opposed to actual games. With this representation, rather than defining them as hailing from a specific genre or period, couldn’t we regard arcade games as a “form of game experience itself” that can be interacted with by using a unique interface, the joystick?

*Inside the “Put your Hands Up” game arcade at Lotte World Tower. 
(Source: Eun-ki Jeon)

The Misunderstanding about Game Interfaces


What are the elements that make up a game? Geoff Howland (1998) distinguishes these factors as 1) ‘Graphics’ - the images that are displayed with any effects performed on them, and 2) ‘Sound’ - the music or sound effects that are played during the game; 3) ‘Interface’ - anything that the player has to use or have direct contact with in order to play the game; 4) ‘Gameplay’ - how fun and immersive a game is, and 5) Story - information learned by the player as the game progresses, such as the game’s backstory.

Although it is one of the components of a game, the interface is oft neglected from discussion despite the fact that games interact with gamers in ways that require the body (usually the hands). If any game is not connected to the body using some sort of controller, the game is reduced to nothing more than a set of deactivated codes. We can consider the moment on screen made possible by controllers that achieve harmony with the body’s experience, allowing the sensibility and knowledge engraved within gamers  to work together. As such, the interface that mediates the interaction between games and gamers goes beyond simply transmitting signals. In other words, the interface is hardware that allows gamers to feel the experiences provided by the game's software, and at the same time, serves as a “bodily extension" for gamers.

Accordingly, changes in games have caused the interface to change continuously as well. However, there are some inaccurate beliefs about interfaces. In sum, James Newman (2007, p. 260) states that “[in] concentrating only on change, progress and technological advancement, it is tempting to overlook some of the constancies that a consideration of retrogaming reveals. Perhaps the most immediately obvious element that has remained largely unaltered is the videogame controller.” Thus, Newman claims that the gaming interface has not undergone much fundamental change since being attached to the old consoles of the 1980s—only tweaked to provide a slightly more comfortable grip and placement changes without much fundamental change otherwise, and only advancing for more accurate input.

Below, using the joystick of arcade machines as an example, we’ll examine why his argument that the interface has not fundamentally changed is wrong, and why it may be false to claim the technological advancements were for the purpose of more accurate input to meet design demands.

Social Reconstruction of Imported Technology


It is easy to understand why the joystick interface has continuously been advanced when we examine what kinds of games they are currently used for. Currently, mice, keyboards, or directional pads are predominantly used as game interfaces, for combat games, shooting games, and etc., joysticks are the primary interface. Unlike input devices such as directional pads, which mainly use cross-shaped keys that are designed to register up-down-left-right, joysticks are used for 360° directional input, especially for diagonal input which would require simultaneous input of one of the up and down directional keys with one of the left and right directional keys. Thus, nearly every arcade game’s joystick—except for those of Korea—come equipped with square-shaped guides limiting the movement of the lever in order to facilitate diagonal input.


However, only in Korea do we see a different sort of joystick being used. We can safely assume that the joystick equipped with a circular base, commonly referred to as the mu-gak lever (or, the Korean bat stick), is only used in Korea. This is because the technology that is the joystick was newly reconstructed after being imported from Japan and used in Korea due to Korea’s technological environment at the time.

Presently, games have grown into one of the most popular industries, but arcade games were not an industry that were promoted by the government nor paved by large companies.3) Consequently, the small businesses in the Cheonggyecheon Electronics Shopping Center near the electronics industry led the charge in manufacturing, importing, and distributing arcade games. When these businesses imported arcade machines from Japan, they imported them separately as parts, not as final products, in order to reduce tariffs. Then, these parts were reassembled and the products were distributed around the Cheonggyecheon area. Around this time, products that could be produced domestically began being manufactured in South Korea. However, the issue lied in a lack of understanding by producers in the gaming parts market as to why each part was designed a particular way. Thus, the design for diagonal input was glossed over, and products with good up-down-left-right drive values were produced, reassembled, and distributed. Japan's joystick also used spring elasticity to return the stick to neutral position after command input, but in Korea, the spring was replaced with rubber because the production of springs with uniform elasticity required high technical skill and production cost.

Gamers Adapting to the Reconstructed Joystick

In this way, the joystick interface has changed not only under Korea’s political, economic, and technical environment, but also by the physical environment of the arcade. It’s true that as consumables, joysticks must be regularly managed and replaced. However, according to the owner of the now-closed-down green arcade in Daelim-dong, Seoul, very few business owners were aware of such practices in the early days of the arcade.

“In the early days of the arcade, there was no concept of it being a specialty store. No one cared about the accuracy of [joystick] inputs. Think back to those days. All the owners did was sit in the room and give you change.”

-        Kyung-sik Yoon, Male, 68, owner of amusement arcade

“Consumables have a long shelf life with business owners that offer games or parts makers and so on. But there was no maintenance done for these. When these consumables that aren’t very durable are used for years on end past their time, the looseness becomes severe. But that’s how Koreans learned to play games, so of course the area of command becomes broader. You couldn’t help but move your hands around all the time.”

-        Kyung-sik Yoon, Male, 68, owner of amusement arcade


South Korean arcade regulars grew used to the loose joysticks that became loose due to the poor management. Unlike gamers of different countries who can control the input with just their fingers, Korean gamers have grown accustomed to manipulating joysticks by moving not only their wrists, but their whole arms. The joystick, a mechanical object, was transformed by gamers who adapted it as their own tool. Going further, it transformed gamers to utilize their own selves and make this apparatus conform to them.

Gamers who had adapted to the changed interface also enjoyed playing games in different ways.  Rather than use precise diagonal input, they enjoyed using the circular base to rotate the stick. And rather than use play that required quick reflexes using dynamic vision, they would quickly manipulate the loose joystick to engage in their own psychological warfare. We can even largely attribute the differences in play style, compared to players of different countries, to the joystick, especially when it comes to fighting games like Tekken.

The Evolution of the Joystick

In Korea, the joystick evolved not by how fine and accurate the input was reproduced within a game, but by how it related to the gamer that adapted to the joystick.

“The lever has to be dumber in Korea. Why? Because you can’t use it if it’s too sensitive. If you move it little by little, you mess up the command. There has to be a margin of error so that it won’t register even if you move it a certain amount. If there isn’t, you can’t use the lever. Electronic equipment doesn’t lie. But the people who produce levers don’t think that way. They don’t think about the margin of error they should consider, and just keep making them sensitive.

-        Kyung-sik Yoon, Male, 68, owner of amusement arcade

The circular base guide that was created in the context of Korea, and the joystick connected to the gamers who adapted to the looseness due to lack of maintenance, have continued to change into a form that requires less maintenance and has a certain margin of error. This is because a sensitive and accurate joystick would directly reproduce the mistakes made by these Korean gamers with dynamic hand movements in command inputs, which would render the joystick unusable.

Thus, the joystick changed not in the direction of delivering more accurate input, but rather considering “how consistently dull it could remain.” In order to prevent bending or melding of the copper contact, a rubber part was added between the copper plates, and has been recently transformed to use a switch, along with a more durable silicon that returns the joystick to neutral using the elastic rubber. (See Figure 2, Figure 3, and Figure 4.)

* Earliest joystick. (Source: Eun-ki Jeon)

* Former joystick. (Source: Eun-ki Jeon)

* Latest joystick. (Source: Eun-ki Jeon)

That being said, we cannot fully regard the latest joystick as having improved and progressed linearly from the earliest joystick. The interface is also faced with the possibility of change due to ever-changing factors surrounding the game and the gamer, such as a switch from the physical location of the arcade to a gamer’s private space, and other factors. For example, early joysticks are still being produced faithfully to this day; while the price does play an important part, there exist people who prefer to stay away from the sounds made by switches. The demand for the original joysticks continues steadily as the number of gamers who wish to stay away from the noisy arcade and opt for the comfort of their homes increases. Suppose a culture where gamers develop a greater zeal and steadily manage their interfaces as a “bodily extension” becomes widespread. In that case, copper contact joysticks—which hold the advantage in that they make less noise—will become the main kind of joystick and create a new trend of change.

As such, interfaces may evolve to accurately construct the ideals projected on the design, but that design can easily change based on coincidental chance. The modified interface also brings about transformation to one’s gameplay itself, and this change in gameplay can change the experience provided by the game, thus bringing about an effect that makes the game itself feel different. Therefore, the interface is not merely a simple input device nor a factor that does not bring any fundamental changes to the game, but rather is the very hardware that constitutes the game and simultaneously the “physicalized” mechanical object connected to the gamer. The interface does not evolve or progress according to the game’s design; it lies in the process of ever-changing co-evolution while interacting with the game, the gamer, and all environments tied to the self.

1) Frasca, G. (2008). Videogames of the Oppressed. Communication Books. Translated by Gyeom-sup Kim.

2) Howland, G. (1998). Game Desine: the Essence of Computer Games. Newman, J. (2008). Videogames (p. 14). Routledge.

3) Jo, D. W. (2019). An Early History of Digital Culture: East Asia-wide Translocal Practices of Copying of Electronic Entertainment Machine and Personal Computer. (98th ed., pp. 153-178). Korean Association For Communication and Information Studies



(Tech-cultural researcher)

He majored in cultural anthropology and cultural research, and is currently working as a researcher at the Cheonggyecheon Technology and Culture Research Institute and Hanyang University Global Multicultural Research Institute.



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