an afternoon at the musée mécanique


Back in 2015, I wrote an article about arcades becoming archaic, based on thoughts on a visit to Dave and Buster’s. I thought it was time to revisit, or perhaps reimagine the topic, with thoughts on a recent visit to an arcade of a different sort. The Musée Mécanique at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf not only embraces being archaic, but thrives on it. Nestled at the end of Pier 45, this tourist attraction houses more than two hundred “mechanical musical instruments and antique arcade machines”1, is free to enter, and draws in crowds of visitors from the nearby wharf.

The popularity of the Musée Mécanique, which was full to bursting at the time of my visit on a sunny Sunday afternoon, made me think about what makes such a venue marketable to vacation goers in the 21st century. Certainly, going to the Musée Mécanique is an outing, much like going to Dave and Buster’s was, but there’s something about the former that makes it more special, and I think it boils down to the fact that the Musée Mécanique taps into three core human interests that arcades don’t cater to very well.

The Musée’s pride is Laffing Sal, originally from the Funhouse at San Francisco’s Playland at the Beach. Made from gears, cams, springs and paper mache in the 1930s, this doll (and a counterpart, Laffing Sam,) was popular in funhouses across the US in the 1930s and 40s.

A photo from the side to show the scale and size of Laffing Sal. Pretty huge, for a laughing automaton!

1. Novelty

Featuring machines up to a hundred years old (or more), the Musée Mécanique turns ancient contraptions into novelties. The games work in a way different from any modern machine, mostly featuring mechanical parts, such as flipping a lever to shoot tiny basketballs, spinning a wheel to move a ball into corresponding pockets worth different scores, or dragging a metal loop over a rod without the two touching in order to complete the game. Because these machines are like nothing we see today, it’s interesting to play them for the first time, and many people appreciate the novelty factor.

2. Curiosity

Not all machines are games, and there are plenty of attractions where you pay a quarter to see something happen, or something move. A famous one is Laffing Sal, a creepy doll from the now closed Playland at the Beach, which simply laughs. Then there is the mechanical carnival in the centre of the room, with more than a hundred moving pieces, pianos that play themselves, and moving toothpick structures built (so they say) by prisoners at Alcatraz2. There are fortune teller automatons, machines where you pay money to “buy Dan a drink”, and a ballroom set with models of tiny dancing couples.

Upon inserting a quarter to buy the man a drink, he mimes pouring from the bottle into the glass and lifts the glass to his mouth, then resets for the next kind stranger.

It is curiosity that makes us want to spend our money in these situations, just to see what would happen. In one case there was a model of a house before us, and we inserted our quarter only to see the door swing open, a priest perform the last rites, and a man get hanged, all in the span of ten seconds. As if that wasn’t enough, we spent a second quarter at another house to see a “French execution”, which lasted even shorter, as a tiny guillotine chopped off a tiny head. Apparently, morbid curiosity spurs us onward.

We also came across a box with figurines on an open plain in it, labelled “Song of the Prairie”, that stated clearly on the front, “If you are easily offended do not play this machine”. Of course, curiosity and intrigue got the better of us, and we spent our money to witness about 20 seconds of moving figures and, get this, fart noises.

Not for the faint of heart, this machine emits some ridiculous noises.

3. History

Like most museums, there’s an undeniable historical aspect to the Musée Mécanique, which piques our interest and appeals to our sense of nostalgia. Plenty of attractions had visitors paying a quarter to look through goggles (much like old-fashioned VR headsets) at flipbooks or stereographs depicting historical events like D-Day or the San Francisco fire and earthquake of 1906, providing historical insight not only through their content but through the method of delivery as well. Near the back of the space were comparatively more modern arcade machines, including Centipede, Space Invaders and Skee-ball, where older visitors could reminisce and younger visitors could get a taste of their parents’ childhood games. Travelling back in time through interaction is appealing to us because it allows us to experience novelties and to satiate our curiosity about the past.

This piano plays itself, if you feed it a coin, of course.

These three qualities are by no means required for a great gaming experience, and that’s the beauty of the Musée Mécanique’s design. The location is advertised as a tourist attraction, a museum, not an arcade, which means that it can focus on things not specifically related to “player” engagement, but on “human” engagement instead. The blend of museum, where visitors expect to see interesting things, and arcade, which implies a level of interaction, is what makes the Musée Mécanique a unique and successful entertainment location.

Designing appealing gaming venues

While arcades don’t need, and shouldn’t try, to fit into the same model as the Musée Mécanique, there are several lessons from the Musée’s design that I think can be applied to creating more effective and popular venues for play.

1. Design the space, not the games, to attract visitors

The allure of individual attractions at the Musée Mécanique was linked to how interesting the contraptions looked, not necessarily how good the games or experiences were. Anything outlandish, funny, oversized, brightly coloured or weird drew crowds, and the way the location was set up had these bigger attractions spread out at focal points, with smaller machines in between that visitors would walk by and perhaps stop at on the way to the fancier looking attractions. Additionally, the retro arcade games were located at the very back of the warehouse, so anyone who wanted to get to those had to walk through the entire venue, and maybe see something they liked along the way. This made me think that the games themselves don’t have to be fun, just eye-catching, and our natural curiosity will get us to put a quarter in and see what happens. Like a carnival, arcades thrive on initial attraction of players rather than prolonged engagement, so it is more advantageous to design the space to optimally draw visitors to specific machines, without worrying about specific game design to keep them at one machine for ages, so other patrons can have a go.

Delighted and surprised to find one of my favourite arcade games as a kid in the very back of the venue.

2. Arcades should not be aimed at “gamers”

In the past, I’ve written about the importance of designing for a target audience, but in the case of arcades, it seems that the target audience is not solely “gamers” in the fanatic sense. In fact, while maybe one out of ten people at arcades may consider themselves a “gamer”, the people who go to arcades are often friends who just want a night out. While self-proclaimed gamers are a small percentage of the population, everyone plays games at some point and has a sense of play and intrigue. Catering arcades to a wider target audience rather than narrowly focusing on what the latest and greatest games are requires design for different human interests, as exemplified by the Musée Mécanique.

3. Fun is timeless

To add to my point of not worrying about fun so much, I learned at the Musée Mécanique that our sense of fun carries on through the ages. No matter how silly or pointless the old attractions were, there was always a little spark of enjoyment that made these mechanical contraptions once popular, and even a century later, a puppet dancing, or a flipbook turning, or a piano playing itself, still delights. For the most part, the Musée lets its machines do the heavy lifting of entertaining guests, trusting in their continued appeal.  Though years have passed since 1933, when 11-year old Edward Zelinsky started the collection of curiosities that would end up becoming the Musée Mécanique, our idea of fun has not changed so much to be lost, and we need to look for it and head towards it in everything we create for a playful audience.

We can still have fun playing this tiny mechanical baseball game, as we can still have fun playing baseball, though both were developed ages ago.

References Cited

  1. Dan Zelinsky. “Musée Mécanique.” Musée Mécanique. Musée Mécanique, 2015. Web. 19 July 2017.
  2. Mike Bison. “Musée Mécanique.” The Atlas. Atlas Obscura, 20 March 2010. Web. 19 July 2017.
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