Story: Arcade, computer and video games

Page 1. Arcade games: 19th century to 1960s

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Shooting galleries and skittle alleys

From the mid-19th century – along with pub-based games like billiards and darts – shooting galleries and skittle alleys provided simple forms of entertainment outside the home.

Skittles was an early version of tenpin bowling, and skittle alleys were often part of a pub. Shooting galleries tended to be standalone enterprises. Both were also found at skating rinks, racecourses and community fairs and shows, as well as in pleasure gardens and tea gardens like the Vauxhall Gardens in Dunedin.

These games, played mainly by men, were generally harmless forms of entertainment. Occasionally though, shooting galleries could be dangerous places, particularly for those watching or standing nearby. In 1891 a boy was killed and others wounded when a bullet passed through the wooden walls of a shooting gallery at a community sports day in Oamaru. Newspapers continued to report accidental deaths at shooting galleries in succeeding decades.

Amusement arcades

The earliest amusement arcades in New Zealand, places where people could play novelty games for a small fee, were sideshow entertainments at 19th-century agricultural and pastoral (A & P) shows, community carnivals and church bazaars.

The games were diverse. Toodle-em-buck (sometimes called doodle-em buck or other similar names) required players to either throw marbles or balls into a hole in a stand, or knock a button off the top of a stick. Another common game was the wheel of fortune, where punters spun a wheel that was divided into sections representing different prizes. In the 1870s an electrical machine which administered shocks on payment regularly appeared at Canterbury A & P shows.

Amusement or penny arcades did not exist in New Zealand on the same large scale as they did in Australia, America and Britain. Possibly the earliest American-style penny arcade in New Zealand was at the New Zealand International Exhibition of Arts and Industries, held in Christchurch between 1906 and 1907. This consisted of 150 coin-operated amusement machines, each of which could be played for one penny.

Generally, however, New Zealand penny arcades were much smaller – such as those at Wonderland pleasure gardens and the Colosseum building in Christchurch in the early 1900s.

Coin-operated machines were part of the entertainment on offer at Auckland’s Luna Park in the late 1920s.

Indecent peeps

Peep shows were supposed to consist of edifying scenes of landscapes, industries and other innocent subjects, but viewers were sometimes treated to more risqué images, as this newspaper report on the attractions at a church bazaar in 1899 in Wellington suggests: ‘“Views of Paris” were on exhibition in a ‘penny-in-the-slot’ peep show, and no doubt many boys and young men enjoyed a peep. But instead of landscapes or street scenes, the most of the views consisted of indecent pictures which no Wellington shop-keeper would dare exhibit in his window’.1 In later times, most people assumed peep shows would be ‘indecent’.

Peep shows

Some New Zealand towns and cities had peep shows – photographs viewed through a hole or magnifying lens. In the early 1900s mutoscope parlours housed coin-operated devices called mutoscopes that offered an early form of motion picture, viewable by only one person at a time.

Pinball machines

Pinball machines evolved from a billiards-like game called bagatelle in which players used a cue to hit balls from a side alley on a large board, up into the remainder of the board, which was covered in metal pins and holes assigned different scores.

Coin-operated, bagatelle-style pinball machines were made in New Zealand around the 1920s and American machines were imported.

Some paid out money and were a form of gambling. Others sat in amusement arcades alongside gambling slot machines. Later innovations included electrification and the addition of flippers to propel balls around the playfield.

Until the 1970s pinball machines were a mainstay of arcade-style entertainment. They were found at pubs and milk bars alongside jukeboxes and coin-operated games such as ‘fortune tellers’ (which were also in fish-and-chip shops).

However, the flashing lights and whizz-bang sounds were no match for video games, which arrived on the scene that decade.

  1. Press, 10 May 1899, p. 5. Back
How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Arcade, computer and video games - Arcade games: 19th century to 1960s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 May 2022)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 5 Sep 2013