MARSHFIELD — The 1980s finally ended in Marshfield on Thursday afternoon, with two boys standing in front of a Centipede game yelling for quarters.
Kristin Croft was happy to give her two sons a big handful from the register at the Roadhouse, the dive bar she owns a few blocks from the beach in this South Shore town, because it was a historic moment, the first time anyone had legally put quarters into an arcade game in Marshfield since Croft was a teenager in high school in 1982.
That year, the town elders made national news by standing up to what they saw as a menace that was corrupting America’s youth — video games.
A group led by Tom Jackson, the head of the town’s vandalism committee, persuaded voters to pass a bylaw that banned coin-operated arcade games. “I’m a former narcotics officer, I’ve seen what these machines do to kids,” Jackson told the Globe at the time.
And for 32 years that ban held, surviving several legal challenges from local business owners that finally ended when the US Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal. It has since weathered two town meeting votes — one as recently as 2011 — and a million cries from children who think it’s lame.
Croft knows this story all too well, because many of those banned games ended up in her basement. Her father, George Andrews, who owned the Roadhouse at the time, ran a side business as a distributor of arcade machines, including many of the 80 video and pinball games in Marshfield businesses when the ban went into effect. “We had about 20 games ringing three sides of our basement,” Croft said. “My brother and I never got our homework done.”
So when the ban was finally overturned last month, with a 203-to-175 vote at Town Meeting, Croft wanted to be the first to install them again. She called her father’s old partner, John Maguire, and had him dust off two of the old games. It took him a while to clean the gunk out of the trackball on Centipede.
On Thursday, when her sons Jack, 9, and Sean, 6, got home from school and stopped into the Roadhouse, they took on the machines, immediately blew through the quarters, and then yelled for more.
Sitting at the bar watching was Ian Edgin, who was a child when the ban went into effect, and can remember when the games disappeared. “Your parents would give you a couple quarters while they had a beer at the bar, then one day they were gone. We said, ‘Why?’ And the answer was, ‘It’s a bad influence. It corrupts kids.’ It felt like those movies they show in school where someone smokes weed and then starts howling at the moon. It was ridiculous.”
Edgin said all it meant was that kids went to neighboring towns to play Space Invaders and Donkey Kong. There were arcades in Hanover and Weymouth, and Nantasket Beach down the coast was a huge amusement center then. Or they could drive just across the Pembroke line to Poopsies, the famed pizza place where Edgin said there would be a line to play Ms. Pac-Man.
As the ’80s became the ’90s and the rise of Nintendo moved video games into the living room, the loss of arcade games in town was not as big a deal, said Michelle Poirier, a 27-year-old bartender at the Roadhouse. “My generation played games at home, but arcade games were a social way to play games,” she said, “and that was just missing sitting on your couch.”
Indeed, with the advent of smartphones and pocket gaming – Croft’s kids are big into the game Minecraft, though they can only play for an hour a day “because it rots our brains,” Sean said, quoting his mother — targeting arcade games feels very 1980s-quaint. More than a few people have compared the ban to “Footloose,” the 1984 Kevin Bacon movie about a town that bans dancing.
As Croft’s children played the new arcade games, which join Keno and pool as ways for the Roadhouse to separate customers from their money, they got coaching from their mother. “That’s a bomb right there,” Kristin Croft shouted excitedly. “You have to shoot that!” Jack eventually got the hang of Centipede to the point where he ran into something unfamiliar: a high score screen.
“What do I do?” he asked as the letter “A” flashed in front of him on the screen. His mother explained that this was the screen where he could enter his name, “but you can only use three letters.”
Jack thought about it for a second, and ultimately decided to go with JAK, carefully scrolling through the alphabet to find each letter.
When that was done, he took a moment to admire his name on the screen. Then he asked for more quarters so he could try to beat his high score.
Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.