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The Stack of Quarters

There is a book that Martin Amis doesn’t always like to admit he’s written. His flutter through the arcade subculture of the 1970s is recorded in an awesome slab of a book, Invasion of the Space Invaders. It’s somewhere between homage to and warning about the addictive, one-more-credit, hi-score-seeking lifestyle of those early quarter-jockeys. It mixes the unmistakeable Amis nonfiction style with tips on how to play Space Invaders and occasional hilarious photos of the man himself ready to go one more round with the Galaxians. It can’t quite shake the tone of someone who knows they should be reading Nabokov, but still has a fistful of quarters to get through. Even on the cover, The End of Days itself is fumbling its way through the dark behind the cathode-ray tubes and this time there’s no ray-gun to put it off for another round.

I grew up playing computer games, though never in the arcade. By the time I was old enough to know that arcades lingered on outside the struggling, straggling South Wales village where I grew up, they were already on the wane. The SNES was out there, plugged into television screens, the Game Gear was in the hands of the lucky few at school. Outside the magical land that was the Grand Pier at Weston-Super-Mare, the arcades shrank, and dwindled. That staple of children at a loose end everywhere, gore-and-guns shlockfest House of the Dead, became something you could play with your partner’s parents on a Wii. The arcades’ noise, their tang of small change and sweat, became something I walked past with a slight sadness on the way to the toilets at motorway service stations.

Like many writers before him, what Amis didn’t quite foresee was how changing technology could change a culture. He points to the home computer systems of the 80s as a bourgeois world away from the sharp, seedy world of the arcade. Now, thirty years on, computer games have diversified into a plethora of species. They range between quietly artistic or savagely cerebral games you can play on your home computer, through to extended interactive trips to a Hollywood blockbuster you can slot into the console of your choice. There are hundreds of development teams hunting for a niche in the market, looking for any kind of toehold where they can cling on long enough to sell some games. The technology, its costs, and how it delivers its payload of fun to the backside of your brain have all transformed the thing being delivered. And new technology means new niches. Ten, heck, even five years ago, the iPhone gaming market didn’t exist. Now it’s worth (at a conservative estimate) about $1 billion a year.

This might sound like it has nothing to do with a new magazine printed on remarkably undigital paper by a small, not-for-profit press. But technology has a longstanding relationship with the media of literary culture, too. Printing technology has been changing what we read and how we read it for centuries, and as reading slips back and forth between page and screen it will continue to change. Poetry has readers both in print and on an ever-increasing variety of screens. They will almost certainly be generous enough to reward imaginative ways of making a space for poetry in those two different but increasingly convergent places.

Amis saw the arcade and the outside world as two very different places destined to invade and be zapped by one another in neat rows forever. Yet all that happened was that the soul of the arcade came into our living rooms and bedrooms. The worlds of book and screen are already colliding. Their slow, continental drift into one another is driving a change that writers and publishers will feel as much as any space-invader, Koopa Troopa or pixellated zombie. In poetry publishing, we are lucky that there are plenty of people still out there with their coins neatly piled, ready to buy another round on the old, familiar machines. But there are kids out there who haven’t seen the arcades we grew up in, and will one day ask us what we’re doing with our stack of quarters. Better have an answer ready.

Posted 8 years ago

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