I will always remember the first time I stepped into Blipsy Bar on N. Western Avenue, in Los Angeles’ Koreatown. I felt like an ’80s teenager, here to escape the mundanity of the Hollywood crowd. I settled into the moody, retro atmosphere, watching people buying cheap drinks and nostalgically looking at the arcade games on offer: Ms. Pac-Man, Gun Fight, Track & Field, Paperboy.
The wall was lined with stuffed animals, the bar full of vintage gadgets and toys. There was a dance floor and a disco light. In a sense, the people around me had come here to escape reality, to immerse themselves in a digital alternative – and yet it all felt authentic.
For me it was the start of a project that would become an obsession. I grabbed my little Leica and started shooting in the dark with the aperture wide open. I took a few shots before the bartender caught me.
“Hi. No more pictures,” he said.
Although I grew up in France, I have long had an interest in the arcade cultures in both Japan and America.
My fascination is partly a result of seeing these places in popular movies, from “Jaws” and “Terminator 2” to “Back to the Future Part II” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”. But arcades also remind me of my own childhood experiences – especially during my teenage years, when, alone or with my friends, I went hunting down a Street Fighter or Pac-Man arcade, or lost myself on a home console: Atari , Nintendo, Sega.
When I first arrived in Los Angeles in 2018, I found the city difficult to understand, difficult to navigate. I had never spent time in a place so vast. Visiting and documenting the city’s arcades gave me a framework to explore – first within the confines of the city itself, then into the beach towns and desert oases of Orange and Riverside counties.
Part of my goal was to create contemporary photos that could just as well have been taken in the 80s or 90s.
I was also attracted by the diversity of the people and the environments. Each arcade attracts a slightly different crowd, from beachgoers and bar hoppers to seriously engaged gamers. The atmospheres also vary – some bright, pristine, orderly; somewhat dark, moody, hidden.
Arcades and other gaming spaces have a long and complicated history in Los Angeles. In 1939, the city banned many of them, including pinball and claw games, declaring them a nuisance in public places. Archive photos show some games being destroyed by city officials.
It wasn’t until 1974, when the California Supreme Court ruled that pinball was more of a game of skill than chance, that the ban was lifted.
Today, arcades are pressured by other pressures. Vintage games can be difficult to maintain and expensive to repair. When a newer game breaks or needs maintenance, arcade owners can often contact the manufacturer for technical support. Older games, on the other hand, often require owners to troubleshoot through Facebook groups and online forums.
For avid gamers, however, these practical concerns don’t matter much. Arcades make us dream – but they also place us inside the dream. They take us out of reality. And lately, that pull feels as powerful as ever.
Frank Bobot is a photographer based in Los Angeles. You can follow his work Instagram and on his website.