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Rise and Fall of Amusement Arcades: Dens of Iniquity or Harmless Fun?

03/06/2013 12:03 BST | Updated 31/07/2013 10:12 BST

I've always liked Great Yarmouth. It's not a resort that will ever make it into any of those Sunday supplement lists of seaside resorts to go before you die - this is a town where Manchester United are still sponsored by Sharp - but it has a very real feel of how the seaside used to be.

My sister lives abroad now, and when she came to visit me for a few days in Norwich we decided to go to Great Yarmouth, half an hour away on the train. This was the closest I'd come to the widely regarded dirty seaside town: out of season, raining and deserted, it was a line-up of pub, amusement arcade, pub, arcade, pub, and barely a person in any. Walking down the Golden Mile we passed the once great Empire Theatre, now a nightclub premises to let. Then, after a row of steak houses and cafés, we hit the amusement arcades.

In recent years a combination of the decline of the British seaside holiday and the development in home gaming consoles means that arcades aren't making anything like the amount of money they did in the 1970s and 80s. Some say perhaps this decline is a good thing; seaside amusement arcades should die out, they would be no loss, they breed gambling and greed and they are unpleasant places for children to spend their time. Away from where Karen and I had been playing the penny pusher machines sat the more sinister part of the amusement arcade. Roped off with a different coloured carpet, this was where the fruit machines stand proud, with people playing on them with the concentration of surgeons. These people weren't here for fun.

Arcades are often perceived as glamorising gambling to children, it's what gives them their first taste of the potential of prizes, and from that moment on a habit can be formed. However, there is also another view. There are others who say that arcades are the perfect antidote to gambling and that they have positive effects on the psyche of children, who go in there at a young age to grab a stuffed Eeyore on the claw machine or to play on the Bob the Builder and Thomas the Tank Engine rides. At an early age the noises of the arcade and an understanding of winning and losing become indoctrinated into the brain.

Of course, there are similarities with the high-end casinos; the mesmerising flow of the arcades, the music jingling like dollar signs, the sense of every machine about to pay out, a cash win imminent. But these 2p pushers could almost be said to epitomise the right way to gamble. Only putting in what you can afford to lose, never walking away with a big dent in your wallet; a good way to put children off the idea of gambling, that the certainty that the 'house' always wins is as engrained a rule as that your pet rabbit will die. Deal with it.

In case the general decline of seaside towns and the rise in home gaming wasn't enough, government proposals have threatened to make life even tougher, replacing VAT with Machine Games Duty. In 2011, Derek Petrie of BACTA, which represents the British Amusement Industry, said, 'We have seen over 200 amusement arcades close in the past two years, many of them small family-run businesses. While the Government is busy promoting UK seaside tourism with one hand, the Treasury seems intent on taking it away with the other.' The smoking ban hasn't helped either, and all in all the future is not too promising. There are around 500 amusement arcades left in the UK, and most of them are living on the edge.

Karen and I didn't stay in Yarmouth for long after we left the arcades. The pier was closed and even some chip shops had shut up for the winter. The previous year the Yarmouth amusement arcades had been put up for sale but were saved after being bought by a specialist restructuring, recovery and insolvency firm. Ah, the romance of the seaside.