Bayou-Picayune Podcast, S02 EP26: A Confession: My role in last century’s tulipomania
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This is, I guess, a confession of sorts about the role I played in last century’s video game fad. The years in question were 1978-1981.
Everyone today still knows the names of those incredible Four Horsemen of the video game apocalypse — Space Invaders, Asteroids, Pac-Man and Donkey Kong.
No, I was not in any way responsible for the design and engineering of those coin-op wonders. That was the work of young computer whizzes who mastered their programming skills by toying with video game technology.
And they succeeded, largely by creating games that actually got better as the player got better.
At the time, I was the editor of Play Meter Magazine, a now-defunct national business publication for the now-nearly-defunct coin-operated amusement industry.
Our readers were the ones who owned and operated those games. Prior to the coin-op video game apocalypse, operators would visit their many locations maybe once a week to collect the quarters in their games and split the proceeds (usually 50/50) with each location owner.
But, with the advent of the Four Horsemen, many operators were having to empty their machines twice, even three times a week because of how quickly quarters filled their cash boxes.
The news got out, of course, about the quick return on video games, and that attracted even more people to the business. Video games started appearing in places they had never been before — restaurants, convenience stores, even launderettes.
That was how I came to play a role in the video game fad.
As the editor of the leading magazine in the field, I was sought out by mainstream media for facts, comments and observations about this new national obsession. I became a shill for the industry, providing reporters with good copy, punchy quotes.
I had a favorite metaphor to describe the thrill of playing these challenging new games. I compared a player’s video game experience of being attacked by an ever-growing enemy to Mickey Mouse as the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in the movie Fantasia where Mickey finds himself overwhelmed by more and more brooms carrying more and more buckets of water.
Like I said, it was good copy for newspaper reporters and magazine writers.
Then I came up with the bright idea of publishing a semimonthly equipment poll.
My publisher okayed the idea. So, we proceeded to poll our many operators by asking them to check off their average weekly collections for each game — “over $350,” “$350-$300,” “$299-$250,” “$249-$200,” etc.
This produced national averages for each game, which operators used when deciding which games to buy.
There was, however, something that didn’t occur to me because, apparently, I didn’t have larceny in my heart. And it didn’t occur to my boss or our readers either because, I suppose, they didn’t think the IRS would read Play Meter Magazine.
You see, with coin-operated amusement games, all that was being sold was playing time — air. To the IRS, that meant video game collections represented unreceipted cash earnings.
Using the national averages in our Play Meter equipment poll, the IRS cracked down on the business, claiming video game operators were under-reporting their earnings.
On top of that, players learned how to beat the games, and, in the end, the video game boom (like all other fads since Holland’s tulipomania) became a bust with many people who had over-invested in the games going bankrupt.
Now you know how I came up with the idea of a vengeful elementary school teacher who was hellbent on bringing down a sitting U.S. President in And Lead Us Not. Imagine the bitterness and resentment of Hilda Strassel, who taught the young entrepreneur and future President, Wally Zeringue.
In her mind, Wally just sat in his desk in the sixth grade, did nothing in class and made a lot more money than she, his hard-working teacher!