Chuck E. Cheese’s in Retrospect

It was late November in 1982 and I was turning 7 years old. I had invited my friend Joel Hernley over to spend the night because my parents were taking us to Chuck E. Cheese’s to celebrate. See at this point in time, there was nothing cooler to my friends and I as an arcade. You couple that with a sweet mascot and pizza and you’ve got the happiest kid in the world on your hands. The place was a maze of stand-up arcade machines. The sounds of pinball machines, the unmistakable ‘wock-a, wock-a, wock-a” of a feeding Pacman, the increasing pace of Space Invaders as the aliens moved row by row down the screen and of course the inspiring intro music of Galaga. Layer all of that with the performance of the animatronic band onstage and you’ve got the ultimate soundtrack to mark a 7th birthday party. We jumped into the great big pit off plastic balls (germs, what germs?!), climbed through plastic tunnels, slid down slides, and ran around screaming at the top of our lungs in a small, wall-to-wall carpeted room lit only with seizure inducing strobe lights and few mirrors. It was like we were running, but in slow motion. Whoa. Chuck E. Cheese’s might just of surpassed Disney World on this seven-year-old fun-o-meter. Bless you Nolan Bushnell.

Imagine my excitement when I found out that my family and I would be attending our nieces 3rd birthday party at a local Chuck E. Cheese’s. This would be my first visit in over 25 years.

One thing that Chuck E. Cheese had going for it was that adults could have almost as much fun as the kids. In the early 1980’s, your child’s favorite game might just be yours as well. Such was the case with my dad and I. However, as I walked in, I scanned the area to see what I might be playing for the evening and it dawned on me that there would be very little in the way of video games that appeal to multiple generations. Now I’m not so naive as to expect to find many current, or even a decade old, stand-ups in the place. Much of what has been released in recent years involves graphic violence that I totally understand is not appropriate for their target audience, but I did expect to see some classic cabinets or re-issues such as the Namco Ms. Pacman/Galaga unit that’s been pretty popular the last few years. While at first I thought arcade companies must have over-looked this young age group, I started to recall a lot of “newer” games that would be perfectly appropriate for the entire family. Suffice to say, it’s a shame that there no longer exists that shared experience for parents and their kids.

So who is to blame for current state of Chuck E. Cheese? Ultimately I believe there has been a change in our thinking as Americans. Specifically in regard to competition and the feelings of our children. For instance, in the place of a Dig-Dug or Asteroids, there are now sit-down style cabinets with beautifully rendered graphics where the child does next to nothing as a “game” plays on the screen before them. Most of these games offered little interaction or very little coordination requirements. Other games are really just dressed up ticket dispensers that guaranteed at least a few will be dispensed even if no progress was made. One could think that this is good. It allows a child to be entertained without having to lose, or worse, not earn any tickets to take up to the prize counter, but I argue that these aren’t positives.

Games, and specifically an evening at Chuck E. Cheese’s, are intended to be first and foremost, fun. It appeared that most kids were having some amount of fun. However, something tells me that it could of been better for everyone of all ages. Not only do these custom tailored “games” that dispense prize tickets remove any sense of accomplishment from the child, but it’s boring for the parent and removes the chance for a shared experience. In addition, don’t games (whether video arcade, or sports in the backyard) teach us to win and lose graciously? Instead, everyone is equally rewarded in the form of tickets where the parents pocketbook determines who can collect the biggest prize. It reminds me a bit of our local youth soccer league where the teams don’t keep score. Sure, no one feels bad at the end of the game, but where is the incentive to try harder than the next kid and how do you feel the exuberance of winning or how to deal with a loss at some level. Thank goodness ski-ball is still the same. Well…

Perhaps the most disappointing thing I witnessed was the cheating at the ski-ball lanes by a half dozen children. They were literally running up the lanes and dropping the ball into the bulls-eye. The parents seemed indifferent, or even in one case, encouraged it! How does the kid who’s trying to earn their prize tickets based on their skill (and luck too) feel when in the next lane over, you have a kid cheating to get the maximum output of tickets. Well, I can tell you it probably feels about the same as when you’re trying to sell crafted items in World of Warcraft only find out that people just pay a little bit real world cash to a gold farmer in exchange for more in-game gold than I could earn in a year. On second thought, maybe some of our children are learning important life lessons at Chuck E. Cheese’s. To bad it’s only child with integrity that is being taught the tough lesson.

I should point out that I’m not against the modernized Chuck E. Cheese’s. The place is probably a lot safer for kids today. The staff was on top of who was coming in and out of the place. As a parent, that was reassuring. I also appreciate that it still exists, there aren’t many options in our area for unique destination birthday parties. However, I think the franchise has allowed it to be shaped by our culture that wants to over protect the psyche of our children to a fault. While a I’m glad there are people who want to create video games for children that are very safe, I feel the pendulum is swinging to far in the other direction making places like Chuck E. Cheese’s a watered down experience that lack the entertainment and social values that it had 30 years ago.


About Michael "Tebroc" Corbett

According to Mike's memory banks, his first experience with video games happened in 1981 on his brother Jim's Atari VCS - CX2600. (Mike is unsure of whether or not it was a Sunnyvale Edition.) Asteroids and Defender were his favorite games. Fast-forward 20 some years and he has gone on to save the princess but not any money. He never learned to read but now writes articles using speech-to-text technology. Awesome.