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.
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.
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’.
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 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.
Arcade video games are coin-operated electronic games played on a screen set in an upright cabinet. Users stand in front of the cabinet and control the game with buttons and joysticks.
These games’ arrival in New Zealand in the 1970s heralded a new form of entertainment. They were housed in arcades such as Wizards, Doghouse, Fun City, Luna Park, Time Out and Timezone, as well as in dairies, fish and chip shops, movie theatres, camping grounds and other public places. The arcades were known as ‘spacie parlours’ after the popular early game Space Invaders. Each game could be played for 20 cents (equivalent to nearly a dollar in 2012).
As in the milk bars of the 1950s and 1960s, young people congregated in arcades for hours on end, leading older generations to view these places with suspicion, especially when kids truant from school ended up there.
Spacie parlours endured into the 1990s and some remained open in the early 2000s. However, home computers and gaming consoles slowly lured away their clientele.
In 2001 journalist Stephan Herrick wrote about the spacie parlours of his youth, and those who spent time in them: ‘Each arcade had its aces, the guys who had nicked enough milk money to become really good. When they walked in people stepped aside. If you were on their machine you either got off or got the bash. They could make 20c last for hours.’ 1
Sinclair and Atari computers were available in New Zealand by the early 1980s, as were gaming consoles like the Atari 2600 that connected to televisions. Some people even made their own simple games on home computers.
Before long, gaming was no longer the exclusive province of spacie parlours. New Zealanders continued to buy new computers and gaming consoles as they became available.
In the early 2000s people also played games on smartphones and on the internet, sometimes multi-player games that could include people from around the world.
In the early 1990s pinball machines made a comeback after gathering dust during the 1970s and 1980s. They had become vintage items – a novelty for young people of the 1990s and a trip down memory lane for older generations. In the early 2000s a number of companies hired out and maintained pinball machines in New Zealand, suggesting the pinball revival was long-lived.
New Zealand companies have made both games and consoles. Around 11 New Zealand-based companies made games for arcade machines in the late 1970s and 1980s. One leading company was Kitronix, which made the games Malzak and Panix. Early New Zealand-made consoles were the Sportronic, Tunix, Fountain and Videosport.
In 2012 New Zealand’s foremost gaming company was Sidhe, established in 1997. Sidhe and other New Zealand companies have developed games for international corporations as well as making their own. In 2010 the New Zealand games industry was valued at just over $150 million.
The violent nature of some games, and debates around gaming’s addictive qualities, has led some to express concerns about potential negative effects on users. These range from children leading more sedentary lives to acts of violence committed in the real world but based on games. Results of international studies on violent games and behaviour are mixed, with some studies finding links and others none. There is more evidence that games have the potential to influence the beliefs and views that people hold, rather than behaviour out in the real world.
New Zealand’s classification system acknowledges that violent or sexually explicit games may be harmful, particularly to children and young people. Since 1994, electronic games have come under the purview of the Office of Film and Literature Classification. The office has the power to restrict some games to certain age groups and ban games deemed objectionable. By 2012 seven games had been banned, meaning it was illegal to import, trade, possess or play them.
A 2012 study by the Interactive Games & Entertainment Association found that 93% of New Zealand households had a device used for playing games, and 58% of gamers played daily or every other day.
The average age of a gamer was 33, and 53% of gamers were male and 47% female. Most gamers played for between half an hour and one hour at a time. Only 3% played for five or more hours.
Barr, Pippin. How to play a video game. Wellington: Awa Press, 2011.
Public perceptions of a violent video game: X-Men origins: Wolverine. Wellington: Office of Film and Literature Classification, 2009.
Swalwell, Melanie. ‘1980s home coding: the art of amateur programming.’. In The Aotearoa digital arts reader, edited by Stella Brennan and Sy Ballard, 193–201. Auckland: Clouds, 2008.
Swalwell, Melanie. ‘Early games production in New Zealand.’ In Proceedings of DiGRA 2005 conference: changing views – worlds in play, 3–9. Vancouver: DiGRA, 2005.
From the Interactive Games & Entertainment Association, this report provides data on video and computer game use and attitudes in New Zealand households.
This New Zealand gaming website contains news, reviews and previews.
Melanie Swalwell is a scholar of digital media arts, cultures and histories. Her website contains links to articles she has written on New Zealand’s gaming history.
This is a repository of information on games and other software written and published in New Zealand during the 1980s and 1990s.
This website examines early digital games and hardware in New Zealand.