It was the mid-1980’s, and the madness all started in the northwest corner of the Townhouse
on Main Post. The Townhouse was an unbranded cafeteria across from the Post Exchange and
was a popular spot to grab chicken and mashed potatoes or just loiter and see who else
wandered in. This particular corner of the building had a large room, hundreds of square feet.
The facility managers decided to setup a game arcade and lined both sides of this narrow
room with the large, upright video game cabinets and the new generation of pinball machines
coming onto the market.
To say the room was popular with the younger soldiers would be an understatement. They
flocked there by the hundreds with fistfuls of quarters. The room was sizable, and the
machines might have numbered over fifty. The problem was that the room was incredibly long,
but quite narrow. With people standing on both sides of the room facing their respective
machines along with a gaggle of friends standing behind to cheer them on, the center aisle to
the back of the room was completely clogged. Looking for an empty game meant shouldering
through the crowd and dodging ankles on the left and right.
The overhead lights were a dim yellow with most of the illumination coming from the video
game screens. Pinball machines, some capped with strobe lights, shot glittering beams all over
the room. The noise was deafening. People hooted and yelled, early MIDI synth music
screamed out of cabinet speakers, faux machine guns roared, and pinball machines popped
and jingled. Above it all, rang out the consoles with early recorded audio technology. A voice
artist yelling out in a cheeseball surfer inflection, “Power up DUUUuuuuuuude! You’re TOTALLY
As if the overcrowding, spastic lighting, and sound weren’t enough, this was the eighties and
every third person held a cigarette. Dozens of lit cigarettes trailed smoke upwards, filling the
room with choking clouds of nicotine and converting the light into visible beams that shot out
of the machines and around the necks and ears of the players.
The scene was overwhelming to the senses: a glowing, throbbing, deafening, claustrophobic,
seizure-inducing, choking, hellish, Dante’s disco inferno. All the same, to the seven-year-old
boy I was, it was also magical.
My parents weren’t at all ready to let their younger children slither into a packed room of
cussing adults to waste some money and come back smelling like an ashtray. But where there
is a will, there is a way. It was inevitable that in the Townhouse my father would suddenly run
into an important person related to his job as a civil engineer. As soon as this person ambled
over and said, “Say, Bill, I saw you over at the salad bar,” a special five-second window of
opportunity opened up. I would interject, “Daddy, can I have two quarters for the game room?”
and my father would rattle in his pocket for loose change. Suddenly, his children leaving the
conversation and disappearing into Dante’s for twenty minutes seemed like an excellent idea.
Those running the facility must have quickly discovered the golden ratio. That is, soldiers
multiplied by game rooms equals a whole lot of gold. Soon, a number of smaller
venues popped up all over the garrison.
There was one occasion that I was waiting in a bus station when the video game maintenance
technician, a middle-aged Korean gentleman, showed up to check the machines. He
methodically worked his way from cabinet to cabinet. A couple of teenagers approached him
to complain that a machine had just eaten five quarters. He waved them away to the service
counter without a second glance. I was probably about eight at this time and followed him like
a little shadow. He lifted the game fields of pinball machines to reveal their zoos of wires and
solenoids underneath. A pair of electric voltage meter leads were clutched in his right hand as
he manipulated them like chopsticks. Simultaneously, his left index finger traced down a paper
schematic as he checked off the working components. He crouched down to unlock the coin
door and check the cash validator mechanism. I crouched down too, a respectful distance
away, to get a look inside. He moved down the rows of machines, noticing me occasionally
from the corner of his eye. On the last machine, he slipped his pinky finger under the coin
validator and jogged the mechanism that detects a falling coin. “Here, free game,” he smiled at
me and strode out of the building. I stepped up for a complimentary round of “Jungle Lord”.
We had formed a bond that bridged age and culture. A solid gesture of respect from one
component electronics nerd to another.
In later years, when I was a teenager, the Dragon Hill Lodge added a few games at an
otherwise unused space under a stairwell. It wasn’t long before they also discovered the
golden ratio and decided to dedicate an entire front shopping area to a new arcade, complete
with plush carpets and brand-new game cabinets. I can’t really say with certainty how the
money from the game machines was appropriated or if in fact the facility managers were in a
certain amount of competition with each other, but it sure seemed that this new game center at
the DHL was perceived as a direct threat by the facility operators that ran the previous game
centers. Judging from what happened next, they took it as a shot across the bow intruding on
their quarter-collecting operations.
A certain madness set in. Suddenly, nine games were pulled out of an existing arcade to make
way for a massive new machine about the size of a walk-in freezer that simulated ski jumps.
The machines that lost their place weren’t carted off to storage; instead, they were jammed into
hallways and every available corner. Whole new arcades sprung up like daises in May. The
back wall that ran the length of a bowling alley became “the game arcade that ran the length of
a bowling alley.”
Ancient games that must have been sent to storage years ago were pulled out and made to
earn a little retirement income. A green, vinyl sofa with cigarette burns that had sat respectably
at the back entrance of the Moyer Rec Center for decades was abruptly thrown to the curb
along with its matching side table. In its place, upright consoles of “Galaga” and “Ms. Pacman”
appeared. The trend continued to the point that even chairs and tables next to snack stands
were being pulled out to make room for more machines. Teenagers perched in the bucket
seats of racing games to eat their nachos, for lack of an open table.
The noise and den of Townhouse suddenly spread to every common space of the post, but
soldiers and the younger crowd took to the game arcade “arms race” quite favorably. In fact,
when walking across Yongsan, I walked in the front door of every public building along the way
and then out the back, just to see who was hanging out at which arcade. Then, at the height of
all this mayhem, I moved away from Korea and eventually off to college.
Returning to visit a solid two decades later, I found an eerie quiet across the post. All the
games had disappeared like they had never been there. No longer could I swing from one
arcade to another like Tarzan reaching for his next vine. Home game consoles and
depopulation of the post had apparently taken their toll, and now, only the silence was
It may have been a slow decline, but as I stood there looking up and down the now empty and
open hallways, it felt like such an abrupt change. Double Dragon, Cruisin’ USA, Skate or Die,
Time Traveler, and Primal Rage? Gone, gone, gone, gone, and gone. It was as if every building
decided, in a single moment, to stub out their Marlboros and take a vow of silence.
By M. Granderson