Thursday, June 30, 2011

Boardwalk Lessons: Con to Casino

I remember going to Ocean City as a kid and playing the arcade and carnival games. I don’t remember doing it much - not because I’ve forgotten, but because I was so very bad that I got discouraged. The stuffed animals and toys offered as prizes were far beyond my reach and I got no pleasure from trying. But even my best friend growing up, who was a terrific natural athlete, never won. That was the point of these games, they taught valuable life lessons about disappointment and not being gullible. This toughened up most kids, made them streetwise, teaching them that sure bets are always bad bets.

It made me withdrawn and sullen (not a long journey by any means.)

Now, decades later I take my kids to the amusement parks and arcades of Ocean City and things are different. At a game at Jolly Roger Amusement Park my daughter misses all three shots and gets a small stuffed animal just for playing. My son makes one of three baskets and wins her the larger stuffed animal she really wanted. (She is obsessed with stuffed animals and could fill Noah’s Ark with her cloth menagerie, and yet she always wants more.)

At the arcade, the little Goofs play games, win tickets and cash those tickets in for prizes. They will leave with enormous amounts of swag. I cannot help but think that this is yet another manifestation of Chinese influence. As I’ve noted before, Panda Claus has made toys unbelievably cheap so that a business model of giving away toys to keep the marks playing works better then the old cons.
(This picture comes from another good Daddy Blog, A Family Runs Through It.)

The new model is no longer that of the con, but rather that of the casino. As you play, you win enough to keep playing and there is the chance of a big payoff, but – as I kept telling the kids – the house always wins. In fact, there were actually slot machines in which you pump in quarters and receive tickets to be redeemed for toys. No matter what you spin, you will win at least one ticket and possibly dozens. I forbid the kids to play this as a matter of principle.

I still wonder if the cheap toys are part of a devious Oriental plot to decimate American values and weaken us psychologically. Instead of learning about craft and guile, players learn to mindlessly pump money in – always believing that there will be a big payoff – they are awarded just for playing. This contradicts the primary tenet of parental wisdom/clichés: the world doesn’t owe you a living.

When it was over the kids were still disappointed, but it was a different quality of disappointment from what I remember. They had won hundreds of tickets, but not enough for what they really wanted, so they sulked and whined. Tired and hungry, I withdrew from the discussion and let MamaGoof negotiate it (I wanted to rip up all the tickets as an object lesson.) I kept telling them this just proves, “The house always wins.”

“Stop saying that Dad! What does that even mean!” they shrieked.

I amused myself by calculating whether or not this was true. There were some electronics prizes that went for over 10,000 tickets. So I gamed it out: an excellent skeeball player would probably average about 10 tickets a game and each game costs a quarter. Ten thousand tickets would cost $250, and 1000 games of skeeball. Conceivably one could play that many games of skeeball over the summer so, for an iPod touch, that just about works out. Of curse playing 1000 games of skeeball would take (at 2 minutes a game) over 30 hours (which at minimum wage is worth another $225 – balanced by the joy of playing hours of skeeball.) Add in the hours of practice needed to obtain this level of proficiency and, well, the house always wins.


Steve Callahan said...

Hey, I’m with you. I’ve often felt like I was the lone voice of sanity in an insane world.

Toys have gotten so cheap that they’ve lost value. My kids are 4 and 2 and each now has more toys than I had collectively my entire childhood. And my wife and I are conservative about buying for them compared to other parents we know. The toys just seem to multiply on their own. The kids get spoiled by relatives on holidays and birthdays (even getting presents on their sibling’s birthday. When did this tradition start?). They get overstuffed grab bags at every party. Visitors to the house feel compelled to bring along presents. I’m dismissed as a crank when I tell people to stop buying toys for my kids. As you say, it’s hard to teach your kids that the world doesn’t owe them anything when the world keeps giving them stuff.

One result of this is that the toys themselves have little value. Not monetary value, mind you, but they stop being treasures for the kids. We have a basement full of unused toys that I would have dreamed of owning when I was small.

We have a cheap disposable society. I don’t blame the Chinese, they’re just the pushers. We’re the ones on a consumerism high.

Father Goof said...

Great to hear from you.

We send out birthday invites saying "no presents necessary." Half the people bring presents anyway, but at least it reduces the take.

We also have a community clothing center which also takes toys.

Still, I blame the Chinese - I need a good scapegoat for all of this.

Seriously, sounds like you are bemoaning the next generation for being spoiled. I'm just jealous!