The usher pulls back the rope, and I step into a world alive with the flashing of lights and the clamor of excitement. An electric band is playing in the back. People of all kinds crisscross the floor, eating and drinking, exchanging money, playing games. At every station and stall someone stares, transfixed. The squeals of the big winners punctuate the music. Even the losers walk away undaunted. Everyone is loving it. Some are here for the thrill, some play to win, and some have their sights on higher prizes, but they all just need to pull that lever, see where the wheel stops, wait for the ball to drop, one more time. Except for me. I’m just here for my daughter’s birthday party.
Nothing quite compares to that childhood excitement of going to Chuck E. Cheese. The Arcade still holds a special place in my imagination, though it’s been years since I felt that thrill. Nowadays, of course, you can get every possible game on your phone, but that doesn’t diminish the electricity in the atmosphere of a real arcade, all of the other revelers, the big screens and spinning lights, the sound of a slotted token (now the swipe of a card), the feel of a joystick in the palm, the joy of tickets spilling out. As a kid, it’s always ultimately about those tickets, that wall of prizes, pressing your nose against the glass case to choose. That’s the best part of the night. It was no different for my daughter and her friends. If anything, it was more about the prizes for them than it ever was for me, because the games have changed. They’ve doubled down on what kids (and adults) love best, the reward, and stripped out all the effort. Now nearly every game asks you to push a button in order to get a random number of tickets based on where the light stops or the ball falls or the coin rolls. It’s easy, exciting, and addicting, a shortcut to a little dopamine burst. Sound familiar?
The games I remember most fondly required, if not skill, then at least action. Think of pop-a-shot, ski ball, racing simulators, those on-rails shooting games with the huge plastic guns. Those games are still available, in various states of neglect, but all the kids clustered around the newer offerings, chasing after the jackpots. It’s not that kids don’t like to play. My kids love games, both on the iPad and IRL. It’s that they are like the rest of us. When we’re presented with an easy path to get what we want, we take it. When we’re rewarded, we come back for more. It’s more than the design of our games. It’s the structure of our world, where everything is streamlined for maximum efficiency, maximum output, maximum pleasure. If we can, why wouldn’t we?
If a game like Candy Crush can make billions using what amounts to a psychological trap, why bother making an original or challenging game people may not like? Why bother making interesting, creative shows when idiots playing with toys can get a million views on Youtube? Why bother writing long, thoughtful articles when everyone wants to read a quick hit of partisanship? Why bother telling the truth when lies get all the clicks? The ones who try, who put up effort and take on risk, who are stuck in the past, are the real suckers. We play our games and take our two tickets when we could have pushed a button and gotten twenty.