For Fun and Profit: Williams Electronics Ads, 1982

Exhibit / May 2, 2019

Object Name: Williams Electronics advertisements
Maker and Year: Williams Electronics, Inc., 1982
Object Type: Print advertisements
Image Source: The Arcade Flyer Archive
Description: (K.E. Roberts)

In 1982, video game cabinets could be found in almost every public business space that had room for them, and few sights were more prized by kids and young adults (provided quarters were handy). Home consoles were plentiful but not yet sophisticated enough in terms of gameplay and graphics, and they were still too expensive for many families; if you wanted to test the newest and the best, you had to get to the nearest arcade or liquor store and wait your turn.

These ads from Williams Electronics, makers of blockbusters Defender and Stargate (released in March and October of 1981, respectively), are a window into an industry that changed the very nature of entertainment and social interaction. Competition was fierce among game makers—revenue in quarters hit $8 billion in 1982, nearly three times the domestic gross of all American films combined—and small business owners had to weigh their options carefully: a lesser known game like Vanguard would cost you less to lease or own than Defender, but Defender would net you more quarters—until the next big thing (Zaxxon, Joust, Dig Dug) landed at the shop next door.

The first two ads are brilliantly hyperbolic, a panoply of life before and after video games. In the first, we see the crushing boredom and frustration of a family stuck in a drab hotel room with nothing but books and each other—a hell that is immediately relieved upon discovery of the fern-entrusted game room. In the second, staid yuppies discuss tax cuts and summer homes in the Hamptons, until the cocktail cabinets arrive and they begin to resemble good-natured human beings. The robotic barflies, bereft of video stimulation, have no choice but to resort to a more traditional method of sorrow-drowning.

The second pair of ads focuses on grocery stores, which, believe it or not, were once a kind of Xanadu for kids. Mom would not, however, have waited for the kids to play after the shopping was done. If you were lucky enough to have or procure quarters, you must be done long before the checkbook made an appearance at checkout. The last ad attempts to prove that video games “appeal to both children and grown-ups alike,” which wasn’t quite true, unless the game was Pac-Man. In 1982, adults did not insist on party-crashing every facet of the lives of their children, and thus kids had a culture all their own. A suit at a Tempest machine wasn’t unheard of; we just assumed he was a narc and steered clear. A discerning eye will spot the comics rack to the left of the cabinets, stocked with titles such as Arak: Son of Thunder, Captain America, and Master of Kung-Fu, each of them more interesting and more fun than the latest three-hour entry in the MCU.

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