Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Play places

I just got back from a birthday party. It was held at a local "play place", a small-time version of Chuck E. Cheese.

When I was a kid we had play places like this. There was a franchise of something like Chuck E. Cheese when I was in my early teens, and there was a local chain called Top Dog which specialized in 29-cent hamburgers and hot dogs. Both also had plenty of video arcade games, back in the days when the state of the art in home video game consoles was the Atari 2600. No ball pits, no bouncing castles, no obstacle courses. I recall that these were fairly dark places lit by dim neon lights and the glaring screens of dozens of video games.

Not anymore. It now seems that these places are generally painted white and brightly lit by fluorescent tubes. This is probably for increased safety and visibility. Parents and guardians can keep an eye on their children more easily in a brightly-lit place than in a place that was lit like a dance club.

But the bright lighting also shows up the general squalor of these places in a way that dim lighting helped to conceal. There is something unsettling, off-putting, and vaguely disgusting about these places, as though a thin film of grease has been deposited on everything and then generously highlighted with drops of mucus and dotted with flyspecks - which is pretty much what, in fact, has happened.

But there's something else. It's as if all the fun has been taken out of these places, as if the soul has been sucked from them and all that has been left behind is an undead husk, still moving, still breathing, but devoid of any warmth and life. Kids play overpriced games in the hope of winning a few tickets that, if they are lucky or determined enough, they can collect and redeem for the sort of prizes that used to come free in a box of Cracker Jacks, dispensed by either bored carney types or lovesick teenagers. (Our party was being served by two teenagers who couldn't stop flirting with each other. How cute. Now, can I please have some forks?)

I went into one of the last Top Dogs a few years ago, shortly before it closed and was replaced by a Japanese restaurant. The burgers and hot dogs had shot up in price to 39 cents - this was around 1999 or so - and were worth every penny. But the video games had been replaced. Gone were Q-Bert and Tempest and Galaga. In their place stood what looked like Joker Poker machines and other video games of the sort you find in bars, particularly the seedier bars. And instead of families having birthday parties and kids running all over, the place was filled with the skeevy types of characters you would want to keep as far away from children as possible.

Maybe this is the way these places have always been. Maybe I just never noticed when I was a kid. It seemed like they were a lot more fun and a lot less scuzzy back then, but maybe my focus was on the games and not on the facilities themselves. Still, I can't shake the feeling that kids these days are getting cheated in this experience.

And maybe that's a good thing. As Calvin - or was it Hobbes? - once said, it's a magical world. There's a lot more magic to be found outside of these play places than there is within them.

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

About 10 years ago, my cousin got married in Virginia, near Washington, DC. For various reasons, I wasn't all that excited about going. Any entusiasm I had went away when I found out that the rehearsal dinner was going to be held at a Chuck E. Cheese. I whined to a friend who suggested that I call there and ask if they served beer. So, I did, and they did! So, beer and a few tokens to play skee-ball made the whole thing bearable.