Sunday, July 28, 2013

The End of My Token Friendship

And where an adult can be a bankrupt adult.
I've been in a casual relationship for about five years — and this was after a break of about 20 years. Like most relationships I've had, sometimes I hated it, and sometimes I was thankful for it. Other times, I didn't think about it.

But now I'm aware that it's going to be over very soon. It won't end with any speeches, nor will it end abruptly; it will, like some relationships I've had, just fade away.

I'm talking about my relationship with Chuck E. Cheese.

I was a big video game fan, so when a Chuck E. Cheese arcade opened in my town while I was in sixth grade, it was the equivalent of putting a liquor store within walking distance of my house today. Or, for some of the kids in my sixth grade class, it was like putting in a liquor store.

Back then...

...Chuck E. Cheese was an arcade with games primarily for teens and adults, with one wall reserved for skee ball lanes and a small area with games for little kids, and the place served the pizza-like "food" and presented animatronic "entertainment" for which the brand is infamous. My father used to wait for us to burn through our allowance in an ersatz lounge area featuring a robotic leonine Elvis impersonator.

At the original Chuck E. Cheese, I blew many a token
on Q*bert, all the while forgetting that I hated playing Q*bert.
Within a few years, the shiny neighborhood mecca of coin-operated escapism became a rundown hangout that was sold to Nathan's, then further devolved into a generically branded dump with a name like "Fun Palace," during the area where every video game was a clone of Street Fighter 2 or Mortal Kombat.

The building changed ownership a few more times over the years, its most recent incarnation a Chinese/Japanese sushi buffet thingy. It is currently vacant, and has been for a couple of years.

Sometime during my adult years before I had kids, Chuck E. Cheese was rebranded as more of a kid-friendly place — like 12 and under, eliminating the teen riffraff element — and a new venue opened up in a building about a mile east of the old dump.

When my son turned 3, I stepped into a Chuck E. Cheese for the first time and was disappointed by the branding shift: I'd expected to enjoy some old-school pinball but there was nothing there for an old man to play. (Skee ball was there, but I would rather have swept the floors than rolled nine balls into holes not much larger than the balls themselves.)

As my son got older and his sister came into existence, every weekend (and some weekdays) they would pester me to take them to Chuck E. Cheese, which, when they were at the age where you have to hover above or nearby them so they don't walk into the kitchen or the wrong-gender restroom, was a difficult task for one parent when they invariably separated at every moment. (This usually disqualified this option as a "get the kids out of their mom's hair while she cleans the house and pays the bills" activity.)

But on the days we did hit Chuck E. Cheese, either when the wife joined us or if I was able to dump the daughter with my parents and take the boy there myself, the experience felt like life in a salt mine. 

Life at Chuck E. Cheese (how depressing it is just to type "Life at Chuck E. Cheese") began to improve, incrementally. Here are some of the small victories:
  • When my son realized it was more efficient to keep intact long strips of tickets awarded from several consecutive plays on the same machine, rather than separate them into individual tickets, because it's less of a pain in the ass to feed the receipt-dispensing ticket-eating machine with, say, a few groups of 20 tickets than a hundred individual tickets.
  • Likewise, when he discovered that it's much easier for everyone involved (him, me, the harried teenager behind the prize counter) if you wait to press the receipt-dispensing button once, at the end, rather than after each ticket is entered, because the actual point of the ticket-eating machine is so you don't have to dump a bunch of tickets at the prize counter, and showing up with a hundred one-ticket receipts kind of defeats the purpose of that.
  • When Mr. Cheese finally put in a couple of games that someone over the age of 7 would be interested in playing. (I learned that, based on my skills with the arcade version of the game show, I would do very poorly on Deal or No Deal: NO DEAL...EVER!)
  • When my son realized that it made sense to actually save his tickets over the course of several visits, to he could seek greater rewards than a Fun Dip and a couple of lollipops.
  • When my kids were finally old enough that I could just sit at a table and play games on my phone until they ran out of tokens.
I knew my days at Chuck E. Cheese were numbered after our last visit, shortly before the kids began their month in Florida. "Y'know, Dad," my son said after we returned home with some redeemed-for-tokens candy and made-in-China "toys" that would find their way to the between-the-seats purgatory of my car, "I'll probably go back to Chuck E. Cheese if [my sister] is going, too, but I don't think I'll be going back just by myself."

I figured it was time for him to graduate to Dave & Buster's. And just in time, because while they were in Florida, that exact Chuck E. Cheese location was the site of a brawl that further lowered the bar for responsible human behavior:

It begins.
One early Saturday afternoon, after dropping off his sister for a play date, the boy and I went to a nearby Dave & Buster's, which was mostly deserted because people generally don't patronize these places on a sunny summer day.

Unlike Chuck E. Cheese, where natural light shines through large windows (windows through which someone could have been tossed during the brawl described above, but anyway), Dave & Buster's resembles a casino: vast, brightly lit, loud, and lacking windows and clocks.

Before we tried out the games we grabbed some lunch, the menu for which forced to the surface my decision-making problems:
  • Do I order the salad that looks rather edible, at least according to the professionally photographed representation in the menu, OR
  • Do I instead select from the choices that I'm not very interested in but I could consume, and which would award me a bonus game card?
I chose the latter and was further convinced by the waitress to pay a little more to upgrade the card, a result of a mathematical formula that seemed to make sense at the time but moments after the waitress left our table made me feel like I just ordered the five-year Best Buy warranty on an alarm clock.

My food was satisfactory. The boy approved of his grilled shrimp. We hit the games.

Like at Chuck E. Cheese, the amusements fall into two categories: ticket-dispensing games of chance, and fun-for-the-sake-of-fun arcade action. My son is particularly fond of a large wheel that you "spin" (actually you push a lever down) and it lands on a random number which corresponds to the number of tickets it spits out.

It's usually a low number.

I used to complain much more loudly about Chuck E. Cheese until I attended other Cheese-like arcade venue and realized that I took for granted that every game at the former costs only a token, while the competitors charge various quantities for different games.

That was bad enough. Figuring out how the Dave & Buster's "points" system works requires an advanced degree in mathematics. Or a degree in advanced mathematics. Or you have to be like really really good with numbers, because the system is designed to be more confusing than learning baccarat while blindfolded.

The "Power Card" I received for ordering a meal I barely tolerated would have cost 20 bucks. It was worth 100 "chips." I thought this was an error — I assumed 200 would make more sense — but the waitress confirmed that I had the correct amount. According to a helpful but possibly outdated unofficial guide to the franchise:
For instance, $10 gives  you 48 chips, $20 gives you 100 chips, $75 gets you 550 chips, and $100 gets you 750 chips
Already, you can see how this can be confusing. Why not use tokens or cash? Well, D&B is apparently doing me a favor:
Who wants to fumble with cash and coins to play awesome games? Not you! 
Not me? Do you even know me? Can't I at least have the opportunity to fumble, so I can determine whether I no longer want to fumble?

The chip-to-dollar ratio is the easy part. The hard part arrives once you start playing the games. I can understand that some machines would require more chips than others, just like some amusement park rides cost more tickets than others if you're not sporting the pay-one-price bracelet. But if I need to jump on the bumper car ride with my daughter because she's not tall enough to pilot herself, I'll need five tickets, not four-point-seven tickets or five-point-one tickets.

But Dave & Buster's works in decimals. Why they didn't just multiply the chip allowances and the game prices by 10 so we could work with whole numbers is beyond me, but likely has something to do with confusing the customer. And it worked, because, well, I was confused.

We finally exhausted our supply of virtual chips (after refilling the card a couple more times). We actually had some leftover value on the card but we couldn't find any games that would run on .712373 chips.

It was time to cash out. Instead of feeding tickets into a machine, they weigh the tickets with must a scale worthy of a Breaking Bad meth lab and add the value to your card. The points or whatever they're called can then be spent on stuff ranging from candy to an iPad.

And here's where the funny math comes in again. At Chuck E. Cheese, the value of a point is a penny, but at D&B, trying to figure out the value of a point was making my brain hurt. My son had about 300 points. He bought a Fun Dip. Did it cost a simple number, like 100 points? Nope...283 points. Because that makes sense.

When we opened the heavy entrance doors and returned to the parking lot, the sun's warmth and light hit me as if I'd been in a club all night. (If only.)

I've accepted that we'll be saying goodbye to Chuck E. Cheese. I don't expect us to visit Dave & Buster's as often, but I know it's the future — however limited — for our games-of-chance.

At least until they're old enough to join me at the craps table.

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