The Little Arcade Game That Could, and Did, But Shouldn’t Have
Summary. The sociopolitical implications of miniature golf and a broken arcade game redistributes the wealth.
It’s two weeks before the new year and we’re burning through our coupon book for the Santa Cruz beach boardwalk. You see, every year we get a year pass, and with that pass comes a coupon book. Unfortunately most of the book is 2 for 1 offers for hot dogs, soda, and various forms of deep-fried death on a stick, but mixed in the bunch are gems like 2 for 1 miniature golf and laser tag. My daughter doesn’t like to play laser tag but she’s into miniature golf. And, lucky us, December is also 2 for 1 tokens. For every $20.00 in tokens you buy, they give you $20 more for free. So I buy sixty bucks in tokens. She needed to break open a money bag with a security lock on it to fulfill such a large request. They hand me twelve ten-dollar rolls. Four hundred and eighty tokens in total.
“Uh, do you have a bag for these?”
“No. We don’t have anything. Sorry.”
I can’t hold them all, so split them up with my daughter and we take them to the car. I throw an old shirt on top and scatter some trash around to make it as uninviting as possible.
“OK, let’s go play some miniature golf.”
My buddy is also joining us with his six-year-old daughter.
I pay for our golf first. I use my coupon.
“You should use a coupon too. They expire at the end of the month.”
“Shoot, I don’t have my coupon book. Wait let me check the car.”
He comes back two minutes later and hands a coupon to the girl at the counter.
“I’m sorry sir, but this is from 2008? Do you have this years?”
“Shoot, it must be at home. Can you just go with it?”
“No I can’t, sorry.”
“He has the same booklet as me, we buy our passes every year. He just doesn’t have it with him. It’s almost to the end of the year.”
“Sorry, I can’t.”
My buddy takes the coupon and rips the date off the corner and hands it back to her.
“Oh no, what date it is? Ah heck ,who knows? Might as well just accept it, I’m sure it’s good.”
“I’m sorry, all the text and colors are different too. We change the look every year. If I accept this I’ll get in trouble. See, here’s the stack of coupons I turn in. Tell you what, I’ll give you both a dollar off.”
“Ok, that’s better than nothing. Thanks.”
There’s something I’ve noticed with miniature gold and that it’s the world’s great equalizer. If you wanted to see a socialist paradise in action, miniature golf would be it.
I’m older than my daughter by thirty-seven years, and a much better player. I plan my shots, have good form, and take my time.
My daughter, with a whole life experience of seven and half years, hardly aims, switches from left to right handed stance at random, has a grip that can best be described as “creative”, and more or less just whacks it.
Still, she makes par from time to time and even occasionally beats me on a hole. No matter how hard I try I can’t shoot under par and most people don’t shoot much over.
The brilliance of the game is that it makes bad players good and good players bad. Since everyone meets in the middle it’s nearly impossible to feel inadequate. So children can play adults and the adults don’t have to hold back because the geometry of the course preordains a roughly equal outcome regardless of skill.
For Ayn Rand and the Republican party, miniature golf is truly a sign of the apocalypse.
We knock out a game of miniature golf and then head over to the arcades.
My daughter goes over to her favorite game and puts in a token.
“Hold on now, we are not going to spend a lot of money on this game. We’re not here to win prizes today. I want to focus on entertainment games like skee ball and air hockey, ok?
The game in question is mostly a game of chance. There’s a little bit of skill involved in deciding when to drop the ball, but after it drops physics takes over. What hole it ultimately goes in is anybody’s guess.
“It’s not doing anything! I pushed the button and nothing happened!”
“Did you put in a token?”
“Hmmm, it says zero credits. Put in another one.”
“It says one credit now!”
“Great now…huh, that’s weird, it went back to zero. This game is obviously broken. Stay here while I go get someone to fix it.”
So I walk up to one of the staff people – a wonderfully geeky guy around eighteen years old.
“We have a broken game over here, can you come fix it?”
He comes over and pulls a huge ring of keys out of his pocket. He fiddles with several of them, but none of them fit.
“I’m sorry I don’t have the proper master-key to reset this machine. I’ll have to go get my supervisor.”
I wait for a long time, almost enough time to think we’ve been forgotten, but then a few minutes later the supervisor comes over.
“The machine is frozen. I put in a token but it won’t give me a credit.”
He puts in a token and it immediately shows one credit. He gives me a quick glance and flashes a subtle but unmistakable “thanks or wasting my time” look and then beats a hasty retreat and disappears into the darkness.
We start to hit the red button and the credit disappears again so I flag down the original guy.
“Sorry, but it’s still not working.”
He leaves to go get the supervisor once again.
Then all by itself the machine starts running. The conveyor belt starts bringing balls up to the top and dropping them down onto the rotating platform. One drops down, bounces around, and falls into the number eight hole. Then another one drops, and then another.
The conveyor belt is not running completely smooth and kind of jams and backs up to correct itself over and over again.
“Awesome, the machine’s playing itself. Don’t touch anything.”
Just then the supervisor comes over with a clear “not you two again” look.
“Uh…thanks but it’s all working fine now” I say is I pretend to operate the buttons. Relieved, he quickly leaves to go attend to more pressing matters.
“OK so here’s the deal. Let’s keep some money on top of the machine and you just keep your hand near the red button so it looks like you’re playing. But don’t actually touch the red button because I’m afraid it might stop the machine”
The machine just keeps spitting out tickets. We get a lot of eights, threes, ones and a few twenty fives. We are probably around 150 tickets when the conveyor belt stops. Figuring it just needs a little help, I reach over to the side and give it a few love taps. Sure enough to conveyor belt starts working again.
It isn’t long before we hit the jackpot which is good for an easy 100 tickets.
A few people walk by here and there and notice the huge pile tickets that’s building on the floor. I reach over and act like I’m hitting the button and putting tokens in the machine. Seeing we’re not done yet, they leave.
By now our pile’s well over 500 tickets and a young girl and her mom walk over. I been noticing them cruising our isle, and they’ve clearly taken an interest in this game that seems to pay out so much. I suspect have realized that something is not quite right. Since we’ve won so many tickets, and it’s clear they’re waiting their turn to play, I tell my daughter it’s time to wrap it up and turn the machine over somebody else.
I lean over to the mom.
“So here’s the deal. This machine is playing itself. If it jams up just give it a little tap on the left side to get it moving again. Stay close and pretend like you’re playing. We’ve gotten more than our fair share so enjoy.”
The mother and daughter take over and we leave to go find my buddy and his daughter. He’s just a few games over
See that machine over there? It’s broken and just keeps spitting out balls all by itself. I didn’t know where you were so I turned it over to this other woman and her daughter. After they’ve had it for a while, you should go get it.”
So after about 10 minutes are so my buddy and our kids walk over to the machine. The girl has a huge fistful of tickets and has clearly landed in the big-ticket holes many times.
“Looks like you scored. When you’re done my buddy wants to give it a go with his daughter.”
They play for another minute and then turn the machine over. My buddy racks up a good 1000 tickets over the next 15 minutes or so. Then I give it a go again and get another 150.
“So, I think we’re done now” I say to my buddy.
“Yeah, let’s turn these in and get some prizes and then jam. We still got some errands to do.”
By this time on another parent has noticed the game and his little boy is eager to play. The boy’s been watching for a while and I can tell by the puzzled a look on his face that he knows something’s up, but doesn’t know exactly what it is.
I lean over to the dad.
“OK, here’s the deal. The machine is playing itself. When it jams up give it a little tap on the left by the conveyor belt to get working again. Have fun.”
They take over and we head to ticket counting machines.
We feed our tickets into the counter. I start with my “earned” winnings and it comes to about 310 points. Then we feed the massive pile of “found” tickets and it rings up an impressive 737 for a total of 1047 points.
My buddy spent a lot more playing the other games plus he racked up a huge amount on the broken machine. His total is just shy of 2000. Yippee!
I look over and the dad is still playing the broken machine but his kid is doing something else. I walk over.
“So how’s it going?”
“Good. My kid got bored, but I’m still working it.”
Which I think makes total sense. To a kid, a self playing machine is booooring! To an adult it means less money they have to spend to get some junk for their kid. It’s also a bit like stealing, which is bad, but feels good. Not stealing per say, but getting away with something you shouldn’t. And for an adult with a mortgage, kids, a job and a mountain of other responsibilities that must be tended to, that’s a welcome relief. We’re stickin’ it to the man at the arcade!
I walk over to the counter and start the long and painful process of trying to pick out prizes with a child that can’t compute three figure totals in their head.
“Can I have that blue monkey?”
“Yes. That will leave about 300 points.”
“How much is that bear?”
“That one’s 750.”
“Can I get that one too.”
“No, you only have 300 after the blue monkey.”
“Awww. How about the horse?”
“No, that’s 1500 which is more than we have to spend.”
“What if we put the monkey back?”
“No, we only have 1047, that is less than 1500, which is how much the horse costs.”
” Ummm…then I want the bear.”
“Look, you can have the bear or the monkey. They are both 750 points. You can’t have both of them.”
“Ok, I’ll have the blue monkey.”
“Ok. What else?”
“Can I get the bear too?”
Shoot me now, please. After about ten more minutes of negotiations we get the blue monkey and this crazy bird stuffed animal thing. They both have this angora type looping “fur” and its starts shedding right away.
“Oh boy, mom’s going to love this. She just cleaned the house too.”
We have fifty points left and I don’t want to bring anymore junk home. I see a dad with his little boy who’s maybe three and the boy’s figuring out what he’s going to get with his 12 tickets.
“Want to donate the rest of these?’
“Yeah, let’s give them away.”
I tell the girl behind the counter to roll our remaining points over to the dad.
“I’ve donated my last 50 points to your total. Enjoy.”
“Thanks. Look, they gave us 50 more tickets. Isn’t that great?”
It’s become a tradition. Give way the remaining tickets. We do these redemption games so often that we don’t need any more little trinkets around the house, so after we get a one or two big-ticket items we donate the rest to whomever needs it the most.
One time there were three girls, around nine years old, all trying to figure out what they could get with 150 tickets total. The conclusion was “not much” so we donated our last 250 tickets to them which put them in a bracket where they could a each get something half way decent rather than share one bracelet and a plastic frog between them.
It’s also a good exercise for my daughter. I want to condition her early to view excess as something to share rather than horde. After the point of saturation, having more of the same thing doesn’t do you any good. But to someone who has little, access to your surplus makes a huge difference.
As we’re walking away with our prizes I notice the original mother and daughter team that got a shot at the broken machine after us. The girl has two big stuffed animals.
“Wow, you must be really good at playing these games too.”
They acknowledge our secret with a knowing smile and walk out the door.
Just as predicted, the blue monkey starts dropping fur all the way to the car and the entire next week around the house. I think it’s done finally, but next time we’re only getting the short-haired animals.
File Under: The Politics of Miniature Golf and The Ethics of Accepting Tickets from a Broken Arcade Game That Plays Itself