My eldest niece celebrated her 10th birthday this past weekend. We feted her with a small party at a large amusement emporium, a combination Laser Tag/bounce house/ball pit/arcade facility that is not generally the sort of place where I spend my Saturday nights. The children had a ball and the adults alternated between participating and sitting on the sidelines lamenting the noise level. At one point, we were in the arcade and my niece had run out of tokens and ran up to me for more money. This usually well-behaved child darted across a crowded space and wordlessly stuck her hand in my purse. When I gave her a very Adult “Excuuuuuse me…” she looked up at me with a face I don’t think I’d seen on her before. She was wild-eyed and barely managed to hyperventilate out a breathless “Auntie Pia may I have some more money?” Birthday or not, I’m a stickler for manners, so I shot back the age-old “… may I have some more money what?” She barely remained standing as an unholy sound burst forth from her throat that sounded like PLEASSSEEEE. I forked over the cash and watched her run away.
Children enjoy games and sugar highs are real, so none of this was too bizarre, but what struck me is that about six minutes later, the exact same thing happened again. The running, the hand in the purse, the unholy “please,” all of it. And then again, about four minutes after that.
She was running back to the same game, an electronic table where you use a ball with one hand to control the movement of a boat while pressing a button with the other hand to shoot arrows or laser beams or something at approaching fish and assorted sea creatures with cartoonish eyes and fedoras and bowties. I watched as she pumped in her four tokens and hit the start button with excitement that read as unnecessary force, eyes trained on an approaching flounder or octopus to obliterate. In a flash of loud noises and blinking lights, the round was over and the game urged her to INSERT 4 COINS as though she hadn’t been doing that over and over for about twenty minutes.
Upon completion of a round, the machine crudely spit out a strip of tickets at her, which she collected and methodically rolled up before dashing off to start the cycle again. One round, while watching her blast away at the video sea life, I leaned in to cheer her on. It was like I wasn’t even there. She was focused intently on this thing, and in a space with copious distractions. If only she had ever looked at her homework or a dinner plate like that.
I looked over to my younger niece, who was walking slowly amidst the fast-paced chaos, meandering through the flashing lights looking wide-eyed and forlorn. I asked her what was wrong and she clutched her little bucket of tickets to her chest and said “… so much to do … I don’t know which to play next …”
Another child darted by my knees and stuck his hand into the return coin slot of the machine I was standing next to. I watched as he made the rounds of the room, hunched over and scavenging for possible tokens and tickets left behind in any of the machines. All around me, children were screaming and mindlessly feeding tokens into machines and pulling levers or pushing buttons and all at once I realized what it looked like: Vegas.
These tiny gamblers were enacting all of the stereotypes I’ve seen at the casinos. The die-hard player devoted to getting everything they can out of their “hot” machine, the misguided person who thinks they can get one over on the casino and somehow prosper, the person walking around shell-shocked and dazed deciding where to throw their money next, as though walking away isn’t an option.
I happen to enjoy a bit of gambling, and I think it can be great fun in moderation and when all of the factors come together to create ideal circumstances. I suppose that qualifier can be added to almost anything, but I think the experience of gambling is more greatly affected by the factors involved than most things. When gambling for money, one needs to have the money to spare. I’m grateful that of my many dysfunctions, I have a healthy viewpoint toward gambling, because I do have an addictive personality and it’s so easy to see the lure.
Money can be won or lost in an instant, and if you lose a hand or a round or a pull on the lever, it’s easy to think that you could just as quickly win a hand or a round or a pull on the lever. The seduction of hope has ruined people. That nagging what if, often a positive impetus to take action or live life with hope and purpose in other contexts, becomes a demon for many who are trying to walk away from a slot machine or a roulette wheel.
Watching the little ones also brought to mind how wide the gambling spectrum is. There were the flashy interactive vehicle games where you climb inside and insert a dozen tokens to play, and there were the two-token slots where you get one quick yank to make your grapes line up with your cherries.
My first exposure to both Las Vegas and Atlantic City was through glamorous events; concerts and parties that included a well-dressed stop at a high-rollers’ table or two on the way to the show. As I visited more often, I learned how huge and sprawling casinos can be, with artificial daylight and no clocks and smells pumped in to make you mindlessly spend as much time there as possible.
Watching upscale people having a good time gambling money they can afford to lose has absolutely nothing to do with watching someone in sweatpants stare dead-eyed at a machine that they want to give them a jackpot as it refuses to comply. Or watching someone trying to get a loved one to get up from a table and leave.
Thankfully, we adults could use the BECAUSE I SAID SO reasoning when we were met with extreme protestations at the end of my niece’s birthday party. They screamed, one cried, and they objected so loudly that tearing them away was in danger of becoming the enduring memory of the night.
We went to the checkout area and they exchanged their tickets for “prizes” like stuffed animals, candy bracelets, and press-on tattoos. We had spent a relatively large sum of money on the tokens to play the games to get the tickets, and the prizes totaled maybe ten dollars max. We could have just decided to go to a store and buy nicer treats and toys, or to use that money for a dedicated, sensible reason and gotten so much more for it.
But where’s the fun in that?