Over the last year or so, I’ve been pulled into attending a few birthday parties at Boondocks and Nickel Mania. If you find Boondocks and Nickel Mania unfamiliar, then perhaps you have a Chuck E. Cheese “Family Fun Center” in your neighborhood. If you do, that will give you a sense of what I’m about to discuss here. All of them are Vegas for kids. Games, tickets and prizes for tickets, combined with a certainty of spending money, and the uncertainty of winning a prize.
If you’re a parent, you know the drill. Bring your kids to a private room at a family fun center, and the kids enjoy something like pizza, cake and presents. After that, there is a large assortment of games and activities to choose from. Depending on the type and size of establishment, you may find go-carts, miniature golf, batting cages and bumper boats. The Vegas part is in the arcades where the games are.
With every game, video, physical skill or just pure chance, there is a slot where tickets emerge. At Nickel Mania, there are vintage 30 year old games like PacMan, DonkeyKong, Tempest and Defender. At most other places, you will find current, state of the art in video arcade fun. Skeeball, virtual shooting galleries, and basketball hoops, are also staple games of skill. Nickel Mania had the largest collection of pinball games I’ve ever seen. And every game was modified to spit out tickets.
At Boondocks, they give you a “credit card” that you fill up with your money and use to play on the machines in the arcade. At Nickel Mania, you get a bag of nickels and start playing, and they aren’t kidding about the “mania”. But at least it’s easy to say to the kids, “When you run out of nickels (or credits), it’s time to go home.” Yet, when the money is gone, the fun isn’t over yet.
After all the game play, you get to redeem your bundles of tickets for prizes that you could just as easily purchase at Target, on Amazon or some other big box store, for a fraction of the effort. Kids don’t really understand money, and I’m not so sure about most adults, too. And if kids don’t understand money, then I think it’s fair to say that humans haven’t evolved to adapt to money, yet.
Once you’re out of nickels or credits, then you take your tickets to a “ticket center” where you feed your tickets to the ticket redemption machine. This machine counts the tickets and then prints a receipt with a total of tickets. And if you have a lot of tickets, the process of feeding long ribbons of tickets to the machine and watching the numbers spool up in digits is mesmerizing. Once you have your receipts, it’s time to redeem them for a prize.
While redeeming tickets for prizes, parents are turned into exhausted salesmen, trying to close a deal for a young child on an exchange of tickets for a prize. First, we help the kids find something that they can afford with their winnings. And then we may find 2 or more things they could combine for their exchange of tickets for prizes. Oh, and don’t forget the sibling envy when one kid wins far more than the other on chance.
I really feel for the kids here. The parent is tired of standing and watching the kids and keeping them in sight if they’re young. The parent is thinking of doing something else, like going for a walk, reading a book, or watching something on Netflix. The parent may be tempted to apply pressure to the kids to make the exchange for something, anything(!) just to get out of there. and kids can feel that tension. Young kids don’t really have the skills to do this exchange and they need our help, not our pressure. So I just did the best I could while applying minimal pressure to get it done.
And then when they have their prize, kids have to make a decision to be happy with it on the way home. They have to endure jealousy and envy. They have to learn to share. Happily, my kids are learning to do that in strides. I saw them helping each other, the older one helping the younger one more so than vice versa. The entire experience is a lot of stimulation for young kids, even just for a few hours.
The best word I can find to sum up places like Boondocks is Vegas. From the games, to the constant flitting about from game to game, to the jackpots and the exchange of tickets for a prize, the similarities are difficult to overlook. The loud sounds, the blinking lights, and the constant state of distraction, it’s all there. But this Vegas is for kids.
Now I live in Utah, and gambling casinos are outlawed here. Yet, much to my surprise, the state of Utah permits arcades with many of the elements of Vegas within. Now I’m not suggesting that they be outlawed. But I think perhaps a bit more oversight is needed to put them on a leash. Mostly parental oversight, but a good chunk of legislative oversight is needed, with some guidelines that parents can follow.
I wonder how they figure out the ratio of tickets per “win”. Do they inspect the machines for accuracy in delivery of tickets per win? Do they inspect the ticket redemption machines for accuracy? What are the rules? What exactly is fair here? Are there any standards of fairness that parents can expect from these establishments?
I’m all up for some action with bumper boats, go-carts and miniature golf. That’s something that I can enjoy with my kids. But I have serious concerns about presenting a casino type environment to my kids, and that is something I’d prefer to avoid. I just went to a party last night and I have another party to attend to in a week. I will be giving a great deal more consideration as to how I will handle it next time. I want them to enjoy the birthday party, without all of the elements of Vegas.