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Insert Token — A Most Unique Look at Arcade Culture

There is a very talented photographer in Los Angeles by the name of Joel Kropinski. Joel has released a new book of his work and this one has some appeal to arcade lovers.

The book is called Insert Token. It is entirely made up of photos taken inside of arcades. But even more uniquely, it mostly displays viewpoints of people inside the arcades. Individuals playing games, exchanging tickets for prizes, getting tokens, and such.

The book takes you on a journey through the arcades of Los Angeles in a way I have never seen before

This book is huge and weighs in at nearly 4 pounds!.  If you have a sturdy coffee table with some available space, this book might be just what you need.

Joel was nice enough to talk with us about his book and give us some more background and insights on the making of Insert Token.

You say in the forward that you are not a gamer. So why make a book focusing on arcades? Where did the genesis for the idea come from?

The genesis for this book actually came when I was working on my previous photography book, In Dreams. For that project, I was capturing these shots of my subject around the Santa Monica Pier at night, which created this really great contrast between the blacks and the spinning neon from the Ferris Wheel or this kind of illusory glow from the game vendor booths. We eventually found ourselves in the arcade and I fell in love with a couple of the shots that I took there – some close ups of the joystick and buttons on a cabinet being furiously jostled or my subject handling an arcade gun.

I was shooting that project in 35mm black and white, though, so I lost all of the bright colors, the neons, cabinet glows, and excitement of the arcade. They’re really quite unique places, almost sensory overload.

Ever since I finished that book, I held onto the thought of returning to not only that arcade, but as many as I could find around Los Angeles to start photographing the types of people that inhabited these local haunts and to find what made these places so compelling…this time in color.

You purposely used an older camera so the pictures would be somewhat pixelated when blown up. Can you tell me more about your thinking there?

Yeah, I ended up using a 2003 Canon Rebel DSLR with that exact intention. I liked the thought that when really blown up, from far away you would see these distinct, lucid images and when you approached them, expecting to find detail, you would only find the pixelated imperfections in the image. A bit like an impressionist painting.

The thought behind it all was that I found the arcade to be like an outpost, a merger between our realities and the digital reality. I mean, here are these places where people go out to play with another person across the room and not really interact with them personally, but are able to annihilate them in Street Fighter or some Capcom fighter digitally.

They could even be playing against somebody in another city or country, for that matter. The point being that these gamers go out and interact with each other through dancing pixels on a screen and I thought that’s how I would try to represent this merging point in my images.

I think if I were to do it again, though, or revisit the experience, I would shoot it with a 35mm color stock – just so the colors would pop that much more.

Did you have to coach people at all to have their pictures taken? Or were they simply so into playing that they did not even notice you shooting them?

Not really. It was more just a process of getting people comfortable with my presence so that I could capture those moments where they were totally absorbed into the games they were playing. I didn’t want to capture anything that looked aware or disingenuous. Every so often, though, I would notice that some people, especially in the case of this one group of men who were playing a punching bag game, would play harder to try and impress the camera. Which, I thought was funny because then the relationship between my subjects became less observational and more like a sporting event.

Where there any surprising insights about arcade culture that you learned?

Even though I’ve been talking about a sort of disconnect at arcades, I equally found the opposite true as well. I think at first glance it seems as if people who frequent arcades are merely escaping into another dimension, a virtual one. But I found more and more common, especially at the real hard-core gaming outposts like Family Fun Time or Denjin Arcade, that gamers went out to socialize with their friends, like meeting up at the “hang-out” after school. Rather than sitting at home and gaming online…alone, these guys went out to socialize with their good gaming buddies and compete in tournaments — perhaps some with an eye towards greater gaming aspirations.

In talking with a few of these guys, I feel that this mentality lies at the heart of most gamers. The only problem is that in most places, the only way to game is at home. Equally, when they asked me what I was up to, they were glad to hear it, because they felt that soon enough, there wouldn’t be this place known as an arcade — save for a few novelty amusement-types. Every so often somebody would recommend another arcade for me to check out, but then all too quickly remembered that it had just recently shut down. So, in a sense, I think that arcade culture, in America at least — because I’ve had the greatest desire to continue this project in Japan shooting those arcades with escalators in them — is becoming a relic.

Not to mention the fact that these places seem to ooze some quality of cool.

Well I am glad you captured what you did before all the arcades are gone. All we will have left soon are our personal game rooms it seems.

Yeah, the actual notion of capturing something that may disappear didn’t really cross my mind until I started talking to the different gamers. And, that made the exploration even more interesting. Being in these arcades for a couple of months I saw just how cool it is that we have games in our lives for everyone — from the touristy arcade on a pier to a barren gaming den in Simi Valley.

If there’s one thing I wish that I could’ve done, though, was to somehow record the sounds of the arcades as well, in a sort of visual/aural experience. Because, really, half of what makes an arcade so attractive is all of that plinking noise. Regardless, thanks for finding the book.

Yes you are right. The sounds are easily half of the experience. Hard to capture that in a book though. Thanks Joel for your time to tell us about your great book!

Insert Token is available for sale on Blurb.com.