Not Cheating, Just Leveling the Playing Field – Morals, Children, and The Politics of Arcade Redemption Games

Summary: Is it cheating when you bend the rules of a system that is inherently unfair? The politics and economics of arcade redemption games and a couple’s differing opinion on the ethics of manipulation.

Bounce-a-Rama in San Jose. The bounce houses are totally killer and one of the best values for your buck anywhere. However, the redemption games will bleed you dry.

Bounce-a-Rama in San Jose. The bounce houses are totally killer and one of the best values for your buck anywhere. However, the redemption games will bleed you dry.

It’s a Saturday afternoon and we’re playing the Skee-Ball machines at Bounce-A-Rama.

My daughter has yet to figure out how to roll the ball up the ramp. She understands the basic kinetics, but her style is frighteningly awkward.

She picks up the ball and then locks out her right arm so it’s perfectly straight. Then she curls her wrist tightly inward as she clutches the ball. For good measure she raises her shoulder up next to her ear, arm tight against her body and rounds her shoulders and tilts her head to the right

She looks like a hunchback with cerebral palsy.

She swings back and then slams the ball into the ramp. It makes a couple of bounces, gently rolls halfway up the 12 inch slope, then back down towards us.

She picks up the ball and tries again. Bam! Bounce! And a gentle roll up the ramp. This time it has just enough momentum to get over the top, only to drop straight down into the gutter. Zero points.

We go through 8 balls and she gets one ticket. The cheapest prize at the redemption counter is a five ticket piece of bite size Tootsie Roll. At this rate it’s going to cost a buck twenty-five to win that 3 cent piece of candy. Totally unacceptable.

Now if this was all about the experience and the process I wouldn’t mind dropping some cash on this routine. However, the main reason my daughter is playing these games is to get prizes. Except for air hockey, she’s simply not interested in them enough without the promise of a payoff.

In my mind this changes the everything. The process is now subservient to the goal. I don’t care for this paradigm with young children, but then again,  there’s nothing “normal” or “natural” about playing arcade games for prizes anyway. We’re in it to win it.

Now, I know a little bit about the family entertainment business and the standard payout formula is roughly 25%. Meaning for every dollar I spend on a redemption game, I should receive 25 cents worth of prizes. Now this 25 cents is the total wholesale cost of the prize. So my perceived value is quite high because as a consumer I don’t think in wholesale costs, I think in retail. So a little plastic dinosaur I see in the store for one dollar may actually only carry a wholesale cost of 25 cents. So when I go to redeem my tickets I should walk away with a handful of prizes that feels like about what I would have to spend to buy them in a store. Since I also received entertainment value from playing the game themselves, I should feel like I got a good deal.

Bounce-A-Rama’s payouts are just terrible. I bet it’s under 10%. Their prizes are equally uninspired. You just feel ripped off. Add the fact that my daughter sucks at most of the games and it’s a loosing formula.

So we move on to some other games and this time I’m going to make sure we get some tickets.

The first one is this stomping dance game. Little plastic disc shaped domes light up and you need to stomp on them when they do. Trouble is the game is way too wide for my 6 year old daughter. So we split up the chores. I take one half and she takes the other. She still gets the excitement of stomping on the lights and my contribution makes sure we get a decent score. The game spits out a few tickets. Not great, but better than the Skee-Ball fiasco.

The next game is a ‘whack-a-mole’ type game except they aren’t moles, perhaps frogs, I can’t remember. Same thing, we split the playing field. Only a few tickets spit out, but more than the stomping game. Now we’re getting somewhere.

We continue through and play nearly every game and build on our little pile of tickets.

Then I notice this basketball game. A few kids are playing it. Every time the miniature basketball goes through the hoop it racks up two points. These kids are older and pretty good, so they leave with a decent pile of tickets.

“Let’s try the basketball game. I think we can get a bunch of tickets”


So I’m examining the game’s mechanics to figure out how it keeps score, and at the back of the hoop I notice a red laser beam. I extend my arm and it turns out I can easily reach inside the hoop and pass my hand in front of the beam. Bingo!

So I put in a quarter and the timer starts counting down. My daughter is frantically tossing the ball into the hoop and getting most of them in. I casually hold my arm out and wave my hand back and forth across the beam. 2,4,6,8,10…it’s going really fast. We turn over the scoreboard and ring up another 42 points before the game ends.

Tickets just pour out of the machine.

“Oh my god, look how many tickets I got!”

“Wow, good job! Want to play again?”


So we play a few more times and it’s just beautiful. She gets to play the game and I discretely drive up the scoreboard in between baskets. We end up with a fistful of tickets and go to the redemption counter.

Now like I said, their pay-offs are terrible. The games generate a low number of tickets per win and the prizes are over priced. So even after jacking up the payouts on the basketball game, seven dollars worth of game play only got us a couple of  little plastic dinosaurs, a couple of green army men and a little Tootsie roll. Perhaps a buck worth of wholesale merchandise at best. Still my daughter was stoked.

So we get home and my daughter tells mom all about the day we had. I tell her about the basketball game and she just flips.

“That’s cheating!  It’s wrong and I don’t want our daughter learning that it’s OK to cheat and be dishonest!”

“What, are you serious?  It’s not cheating.  They set up a system where it’s basically impossible to get a decent payout.  I spend $10.00 at the boardwalk and she comes home with a six-inch metal replica model of a Hummer, and some little plastic airplanes and dinosaurs. Drop ten bucks a Bounce-A-Rama and you’d be lucky to get a rubber spider.  I was simply adjusting the payout to make it fairer and closer to industry standards.”

“You’re just trying to justify your actions because you know they’re wrong.”

“No, I’m not justifying, I’m explaining the theory behind it, and no, I don’t think what I did was wrong.”

“Don’t do it again. I don’t want her growing up thinking this behavior is OK.”

Now this is a real redemption game prize. ten buckat the boardwalk gets you a metal replica of a Hummer plus sa bunch of little trinkets

Now this is a real redemption game prize! Drop ten bucks at the boardwalk and you walk away with a metal replica of a Hummer plus a bunch of little trinkets.

If you haven’t noticed, my partner is a moral absolutist. There are no shades of gray in anything, especially ethics. Rules are rules and should be followed. There is a right way and wrong way to do everything. End of discussion.

I, on the other hand, am more of a relativist.  My moral compass is just a strong and clearly aligned as my partner’s, but I also understand  that every situation is different and rules and laws should be adjusted for those realities. And oddly enough, the law, which my partner holds as an absolute, pretty much agrees with me.

If you ask anyone on the street “is killing another human being wrong?”, and you will get 100% compliance on the answer.  Everyone will say yes.

However ask them if killing another person in self-defense is wrong and the answers change substantially. How immediate is the danger? Are there any other options? What type of weapon do they have? People immediately want to know the circumstances of the situation as they are very relevant to determining whether it’s right or wrong to use deadly force.

We in turn have codified these nuances into our laws.

First degree murder is a premeditated, intentional killing and it carries the harshest of punishments.

Second degree murder is a non-premeditated killing, resulting from an assault in which the death of the victim was a distinct possibility. It will carry a lesser punishment than first-degree murder.

Manslaughter is defined as reckless killing or one done in the heat of the moment. We also created two categories for manslaughter: voluntary and involuntary. The punishment will vary depending on the circumstances and the feelings of the jury toward both the victim and the accused.

Self defense, or in the defense of others, is largely excused. So is killing a fetus before the second trimester, if it’s your own. Killing someone else’s fetus is murder, unless you are a doctor. Euthanizing your pet is always OK, but letting them starve to death is not. Killing and eating a cow is encouraged . However, killing a dog and eating it is considered profoundly wrong no matter how well you treated the dog, how humanely you killed it, or how nutritious and delicious it may taste. But, if you are no longer capable of taking care of your dog, or your new apartment is just too small, it’s perfectly OK to euthanize it. Just don’t eat it afterwards. Because that’s wrong.

So if we can make distinctions of degree and circumstance in the taking of another human being’s life, or the life of another animal, surely we can apply the same critical thinking in something as harmless as racking up some extra points in an arcade basketball game so my daughter can walk away with a couple of pieces of future landfill, uhhh, I mean “prizes”.

“That’s irrelevant, she’s too young to understand your justifications. All she sees is daddy cheating. So don’t do it again.”

It’s been said that most of what a long-term couple argues about is unsolvable. The easy stuff gets taken care of early on, what’s left are core differences of  how you view the world,  personal quirks and random baggage.

I’d say that’s true. On technical grounds my partner is right – I am kind of teaching her to cheat. Philosophically though, I really don’t consider what I did cheating nor do I feel bad about. I just can’t feel guilty about ensure my daughter gets a few trinkets from a rigged system and I would definitely do it again.

Personally, I think we are both right, but right for different reasons. However there’s no way that will fly with my partner and I don’t see either one of us changing our minds anytime soon.

That’s it for now.

Fill Under: Children and Rules – Instilling Morals – Children and Values – Kids and Cheating – Learning Laws and Rules – Parenting Differences – Moral Relativism Versus Moral Absolutes – Parenting Conflicts – Ethical Discussions in Parenting – Ethics and Economics- Unsolvable Parenting Conflicts and Differences of Opinion

3 Responses to “Not Cheating, Just Leveling the Playing Field – Morals, Children, and The Politics of Arcade Redemption Games”

  • Sarah Tena Says:

    This was wonderful, I absolutely agree. And you made wonderful arguements-very practical.


  • Karen Says:

    Sorry to tell you, but she’s right, it’s dishonest. Your reasoning is fundamentally flawed that it’s ok simply because you get less than what you would ordinarily pay for if. If that was the case, than instead of playing, you should have gone to the store and bought her inexpensive toys for the same price. But you didn’t because there was more that you were paying for (or supposed to be) – the games. If there was a better value of games-prizes, you should have gone to a different arcade. If you see an item in a store that you previously saw cheaper at another store, does that mean it’s not dishonest to take it and leave the exact amount you saw for the other store and walk out?


  • Nephi Says:

    I’d have to agree with both of you. Yes, it’s dishonest to cheat at a game, so your wife is right. Yes, arcades are a ripoff and it probably was not included in the rules of the arcade that you could not use your hand to trip the sensor, so you are right too.


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