Mad staring eyes, unfocused mouths: these things signify insanity: lunacy, combat, sexual ecstasy, pharmaceuticals. They signify disembodiment, a severed connection with reality. The outer world recedes; the inner world engulfs.
What is happening to these people? What is going on outside the frame? Adrenaline surges, hearts race, glycogen mobilises, muscles tense, temperature rises, sweat bursts. These are bodies tensed for fight or flight, knights tilting at an imaginary adversary, warriors advancing, strategists huddling.
But this is not war: it is recreation. These people are having fun, poised before arcade-game screens on which - does it matter? - dragons roar, cars race, aliens attack, gunmen wait. It doesn't matter. The yoking of coarse narrative to finely tuned action is an end in itself. These people will, if they persist, acquire the reactions of fighter-pilots, tightrope- walkers, brain-surgeons; but unlike the baby knights jousting, they will never be required to take on the enemy against whom they battle. Many, in Brave New Britain, will never be required to do anything except turn up, sign on, try to keep going.
You could argue that the hairspring reactions, the coiled vigilance, are somehow stored, to be inopportunely discharged: road rage, the boot, the glass in the face. The persistent interior narrative of attack-and- survive ill-fits us for a society that prizes enterprise in the few and docility in the many. But still they pay money to stand before a radiating screen which rewards triumph with the chance to inscribe (not in marble but in light) the transient victor's name. Still they fill the microchip emptiness with imaginings of inarticulable complexity; still they assert their superiority and maintain their pride against an unworthy adversary that doesn't give a damn. Perhaps, after all, it's not such a bad training as the millennium turns and the badlands of pointlessness creep closer every day.
Mad for it
Even before the crowds arrive at Funland, you couldn't describe it as quiet. The beeps, explosions and gunfire coming from the arcade games merge into a rumble that is barely registered by the dozen attendants wandering around. By noon, kids, tourists, students and lunching office workers are in thrall to the machines, ignoring the fine day outside. Instead, they are attracted by the ever popular shooting, fighting and driving games that are placed in each entrance, with interchangeable names like Sonic Blast Man and Super Megalo 2. Funland is spread across three floors of the Trocadero in London, alongside rival Sega World, a Virgin cinema, cheap jewellery shops and fast-food restaurants. More than twice the size of the average arcade, it nonetheless feels claustrophobic, the semi-darkness barely brightened by neon signs and flashing lights. Inside, equal space is devoted to classics and novelties: fruit machines, shooting galleries, dodgems, virtual reality. Many arcades ban under-18s but here they are allowed in after school hours or all day if it's half-term or if they are tourists (the attendants say the tourists are easy to spot). Upstairs are the redemption games, where tickets are exchanged for prizes from soft toys to televisions, and the traditional games - the stuff of seaside piers - which now attract few but the youngest children. They alone can still glean enjoyment from watching a pile of small coins being aimlessly shunted to and fro, or trying to manoeuvre a flimsy crane in the hope of winning a dusty Ginger Spice doll (Geri's reincarnation is yet to make an impact here). Their older siblings join the adults playing the more frenetic games - from streetfighting to driving to shooting - smacking the buttons as if their lives depended on it and chewing their lips until they are raw.
Silent Scope is getting a lot of attention at the moment. Even the security guard has one eye on it - it attracts the kids who come in army gear. Brand new, Silent Scope is a first-person sniper game: you hold the replica automatic weapon and aim through the sight from concealed positions, minding the warning not to shoot innocent bystanders. Some of the games - martial arts game Tekken 3 and football simulator Super Megalo 2, for example - offer the chance for two players to compete with each other. But even these machines tend to have a solitary figure hunched over them; they prefer an electronic adversary to a human one. A near-identical look of concentration is on every face, lending gravity to the youngest and innocence to the oldest, until finally, age - and everything else outside the game - seems completely irrelevant. Many of the people here have a games console of their own at home, but it doesn't lessen the attraction of the arcade. Chris, a 17-year-old student, admits to spending most of his time and money here. He bought a PlayStation in an attempt to break the habit but it didn't work. "I realised it was the atmosphere at home that made me come. I don't want to be there all the time. When you're here, you don't think of anything, you just play," he says. Nearby, on Tekken 3, the wide eyes and tense jaw of a fellow addict barely register defeat or a win. Mark spends whole days playing on the machines: "My head's done in. It's bad for my eyes, I get really tired, and if I've been losing I take my frustration away with me. My wife gets angry with me, but then sometimes she plays too. We're just as bad as each other." KB
Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin's photographs of people playing arcade games will be on show at the Photographers Gallery, 5 Great Newport Street, London WC2 on 6-29 August.Reuse content