Chuck E. Cheese’s 1984: Where a kid can fight off teenagers to play arcade video games

For my 9th birthday in 1984, my parents took me to an establishment new to the Pittsburgh area that had plenty of games for kids and plenty of pizza for kids to eat.  Chuck E. Cheese’s was my funhouse as a child, and it looks nothing like the place I knew growing up over thirty years ago.

Each location in Pittsburgh had different activities for kids, and I appreciated the location west of town near Bridgeville.  Sure, they had an awesome ball pit and they had a cool and scary twisty slide (It would have been deemed unsafe in 2017, that’s for sure), but the real draw for me was that the Bridgeville Chuck E. Cheese’s had the best selection of arcade games to play under one roof.

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My favorite arcade game

The original Chuck E. Cheese’s had the same types of games that are found in today’s locations–skee-ball, whack-a-mole, wheel of fortune and other games where the object is to earn tickets which are then redeemed for cheap toys.  Toys that might cost a few dollars elsewhere, but at Chuck’s they could be obtained with the tickets earned from $10 worth of skee-ball games.  Today’s locations have many more of the “ticket games” than actual arcade games.

At my old age, I was curious as to why the old Chuck’s had so many cool arcade games.  I discovered that Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari, Inc. was actually one of the original owners, and wanted the video game arcade to showcase many of the titles that Atari and its parent companies released.  What transpired in the arcade section of Chuck’s in the mid-1980’s was wonderful chaos.  In a place that was marketed to children ages 3 to 12, teenagers and college kids were lining up to play video games.

The arcade section was set up the same as other arcades in the 1980’s.  They were usually found at malls and amusement parks all across America.  Token machines were stationed throughout Chuck’s.  One token was worth twenty-five cents, and the majority of people playing the arcade games at Chuck’s would simply walk in, bypass all of the pizza and dinner theatre themed areas for the kids and spend $10 to $20 on the thirty to forty arcade games lined up in a U along the walls on one side of the main play area.  Some of the bigger cockpit-style video games were in the center of the floor, including two (TWO!!!) Pole Position games.

All of the games were not Atari games.  It seemed that Bushnell wanted whatever was hot to increase traffic and boot profits.  Many of the companies I remembered were very big names in the video game industry then and well represented at the Bridgeville Chuck’s.  In addition to Atari, they had Nintendo, Data East, Midway, Konami, Sega, Namco and Gottlieb.  Gottlieb was the video game equivalent of a “one hit wonder”, being responsible for the legendary game Q*Bert, which is pictured above.

By 1986 traffic declined at Chuck’s due to the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).  Previous home systems were mostly crude  versions of the arcade games, but the NES combined fun games with better graphics.  Teenagers and college kids could buy an NES, play games at home all day and not have to worry about running out of money to play the machines at an arcade.  Even though there were less people playing the games, for a few years the machines stayed at Chuck’s.  Toward the end of the 1980’s, the Bridgeville Chuck’s had the following games in one location:

Donkey Kong, BurgerTime, Bump ‘N’ Jump, Rampage, Defender, Joust, Gauntlet, Space Invaders, Ms. Pac-Man, Pac-Man, Galaxian, Galaga, Dig Dug, Pole Position, Q*Bert, Frogger, Centipede, Paperboy, Marble Madness, Zaxxon, Out Run, Mario Bros. (The original, not Super Mario Bros.)

Chuck’s had other arcade games besides these, but I remembered these games well.  They were fun to play and I even enjoyed watching the older kids play them because I would learn the game before spending my money.  The 13-25 age group that hogged most of the games taught me which ones were the best to play so I could spend my $5 a little more wiser than I would have.  And sometimes, the older kids let me in on the action.

At my brother’s 8th birthday party in 1986, the Bridgeville Chuck’s got a multi-player Gauntlet machine.  It would allow for up to four players to run the game at once and team up to beat the enemies on each level.  I was 10 at the time and while I was walking through the arcade, a teenage boy about 15 years-old asked me to be player four on Gauntlet.  I agreed even though I had no idea what I was doing.  The two other players with us were his friends, also around high school age.  During the game he taught me how to use the buttons and what areas to focus on attacking.  By the time we completed the game (We got about halfway through the game before we all ran out of money), there were a few other teenagers watching us run through the beginning levels.  Before the next batch of guys tried the new game, they were asking my new acquaintance and I about the game play features.  Not him and his friends–him and I.  Me, all of age 10.

The Gauntlet experience at Chuck E. Cheese’s taught me not to be afraid of unfamiliar environments.  Sometimes the people that seem intimidating end up being helpful, kind and welcoming.  If I would have said, “No, I don’t know how to play”, an early shred of confidence gained would have been missed out on, and it would have affected me going forward in life.

That fall, my friends at school wanted me to go out for the basketball team.  I never played before, but I remembered playing Gauntlet with the older kids, finding my place on a team and learning that new experiences didn’t have to be scary, unappealing situations.  I tried out for the team, made the team, and by the end of the year had become one of the better players.

So as you can see reader of this post, there is a lot to be learned from playing video games.  Happy 40th birthday Chuck E. Cheese’s, and thanks for the awesome place to learn the meaning of confidence.

On The Grid/Off The Grid

Even though I’m now in my 40’s, I consider myself an above-average observer of social media and how it has changed our way of communicating with each other.  I remember our pre-cable TV world, our pre-Internet world and a world where our version of social media was logging into a chat room on America Online.  Over the short span of about 20 years, the ability for us to allow our family, current circle of friends, past friends, co-workers and even celebrities into our lives has never been easier.  That is, if we want them to be in our lives.

I’ve always been ahead of the curve when it comes to technology.  In 1998, I had a clunky Motorola cell phone that I kept in my car for emergency purposes, and that was it!  It was just a phone, nothing else.  It was too big to carry around since the size was comparable to stacking three current Android model phones on top of one another.  When I upgraded to a Samsung flip phone in 2003 it had a color screen display and I paid $10 a month for Internet access.  My friends thought the color screen was cool enough; the Internet access was otherworldly at the time.  I had text message capability, but it was too costly to use it (10 cents per incoming/outgoing text).

I would have joined Facebook from the beginning if I could have.  I jumped into that in early 2008 when it was just gaining popularity outside of the college campuses.  It was cool at first when I would have people from another time in my life come back into my consciousness on a daily basis without having to physically meet with them or actually having to pick up a phone to catch up on the X amount of time apart from one another.  Looking at their family photos, personal triumphs and daily posts drew me closer to them without being any closer to them prior to the Facebook experience.

I never got into Twitter or any other type of social media at the time because the amount of time I was spending on Facebook was enough for my interest in it.  I would estimate that I would spend between 2-4 hours a week on Facebook and my friend list was a modest 450 since I didn’t go out of my way to “Friend Request” people.  As I grew more comfortable with having Facebook in my life, I also developed a hatred for it that grew more intense over time.

The “tipping point” concerning my love/hate social media relationship slid to the hate side in 2012.  The early 2010’s were a very busy time in my life, and my wife and I were spending the greater portion of our time searching for a home to buy.  We were saving money any way we could, so we put off getting smart phones until we determined our budget with the new home.  Once we found a home, we of course spent many days getting the home ready for us to live in, which made checking our social media accounts less of a priority.  When our son was born, stuff like Facebook was not even thought about for days.  When we would log in after a few days, we would discover news from friends via social media that was not shared with us via cell phone or even text messages.  We would see that people would post things like, “We are going to ABC bar tonight around 8, then hit XYZ when the drink special is over at ABC.”  2 days after said post was put up, my wife or I would get a message saying, “Hey, we see you didn’t reply to us going out on the weekend.  Is everything all right?  We missed you guys!”

This happened a lot starting in 2012.  Another trend I noticed in the same year was how much useless crap my Facebook friends were posting on there.  I don’t know if I was blind to it the first 4 years I used the site, but I like to think I wasn’t.  I found myself on average wasting a good 45 Facebook minutes a day filtering through the drama, politics and other agendas I constantly tried to escape from in everyday life.  Also, my responsibilities in life were about to be increased by 100% with the birth of our son, and I didn’t want his photos plastered all over the Internet.  So I deleted my Facebook account in early 2013 after a good 5 year run.

In July 2013, my wife and I attended the wedding reception of a friend of mine who I’ve went on a couple of road trips with in the 2000’s.  When we arrived at the banquet facility, I noticed there was a memorial table set up with two pictures, one of which was a recent photo.  The recent photo was my friend’s father, who unexpectedly died a few months before his wedding.  Can you guess how the news went out that his Dad died?  That’s right, Facebook.  No text message or a call from anybody about what happened, and I deleted my account already.  I told my friend that I didn’t know what happened to his Dad, and certainly if I did, I would have attended at least the visitation at the funeral home.

Fast-forward to the present, and I still do not miss having a Facebook account.  Yes, I do not interact with my old buddies like I used to, but even if I would have a Facebook account, I wouldn’t see them anyway.  I have a toddler that keeps me busy, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  I also noticed in 2016 that the majority of people and businesses who are in the entertainment and recreation industries use social media to promote events and their brands more than other traditional forms of Internet-based interaction (Company websites, e-mail and fan club websites to name a few examples).  I got a Twitter account right after the new year.

So I’m off the grid.  Sort of.