Arcade Culture and Law School

by Christopher Harbin

I spent the better part of my youth in arcades.  A latch-key kid with oodles of unsupervised time, I was lucky to find the allure of Galaga more appealing than beating a cat to death with a plastic golf club like my neighbor did.  Arcades kept me out of trouble but better yet taught me everything I needed to know about how to navigate law school.

Privilege and Pride

For those of you too old, too young, or too cool to have spent any serious time in arcades, the first thing you need to know about arcades is that arcade games were tough.  I’m not talking Ice World in Mario 3 hard; I’m talking repeatedly-and-relentlessly-pound-you-in-the-ass hard.

Arcades had two types of patrons:  rich kids and poor kids.  Rich kids plunked quarter after quarter after quarter into these hard-ass games and after forty continues and ten bucks, they’d beat it.  But the poor kids never continued.  First, we never had the money to mindlessly continue – we’d be out of money and beating animals with our neighbors before the sun went down.  But more importantly we didn’t continue on principle.  We lived on the one credit credo.  Only pussies continued.  We started every game from the beginning. Sure, it was a little more cash up front, but in the long run you’d spend a lot less to beat the game.  Arcade owners hated it.  And we loved that they hated it.

In the desperation of finals, you see the same patterns emerge.  I love to watch the lawschool listserv asplode as the kids with money to burn beg and plead for supplements three days before exams.  Sure supplements are useful at times, but when I see someone carry six or seven of them into an open book-exam along with a book of canned briefs and a commercial outline, I just can’t help but think of the kids spending ten dollars to beat Mortal Kombat II.


In law school, the curve, moot court, OCI, and about a hundred other things set up some forced competition.  Arcades were no different.  Multiplayer fighting games were and still are the arcade staple.  Single player games can be beaten and after the critical mass of ruffians learned to beat it, the machine was basically worthless to the arcade owner because the riff-raff wouldn’t play it anymore or they’d learned how to play damn near continuously on one credit.  But fighting games kept kids coming.

For those that don’t know, all two-player fighting games have a challenge system where the person playing can be challenged by someone else at the machine, and if the challenger wins, they get to keep on playing and the loser goes home.  Winner stays, loser pays.  So, while playing a fighting game, someone better than you can effectively take away your turn to play.

And because of this forced competition and twenty-five cent stakes, fighting games had a culture all their own.  You put your quarters up on the glass to mark your spot, when it was your turn to challenge, you didn’t speak to the competitor.  You just played.

When someone put his two quarters up on the glass of a Street Fighter 2 cabinet, it wasn’t a personal slight.  Arcade regulars took challenges in stride – they liked the challenge, even if they lost.  But the rich kids or non-regulars would be offended.  They’d scoff and curse and call you names.  Sometimes, you saw another tactic – I can’t count the number of times I watched some dickhead beg another kid to not challenge him.  It wasn’t even about the money – it’s just that they didn’t want to audience in the arcade to see them be beaten.

Again, in law school, you see people taking competition far too personally.  A dude in the library late is a gunner.  Someone who wants high grades is a striver.  Nasty glances at OCI.  People purposefully playing mind games with other students.  It’s all so ridiculous.  I’d far rather law students plunk their quarters on the glass and shut the fuck up.

As home consoles grow and arcades fade, I can’t help but wonder if the absence of the neighborhood arcade is the true catalyst behind the participation trophy, helicopter-parent crowd.  An entire generation brought up on free continues and endless lives.  I’m worried.

6 Responses to Arcade Culture and Law School

  1. Jay says:

    Ah, yes, those heady days of arcades and dozens of quarters lined up on the machine in the 80s and early 90s… You had to remember which quarter(s) was(were) yours, of course, and we did for the most part. We poor kids also learned fairly early on that most machines had a reset button on the back of the cabinet, and if you pressed it you might get a free play, depending on how the machine was configured. Some machines — usually the ones that worked on proprietary tokens — had dodgy coin slots, so a nickel spun into in the slot might get you a play as well. You had to make the system work for you.

    You could smoke in arcades back then, and nobody questioned if you were old enough so long as you kept putting quarters in the machines. It was all mostly civilized, a bastion of freedom for teens, and we poor geek gamers had a good run of it for years — until the gangs began to loiter in the arcade. If a gang member wanted to play, he didn’t put up his quarter, he just took someone else’s that had already been lined up. Those brave and foolish enough to complain about it were lucky to escape with a black eye or a broken nose. Those unlucky souls who beat a gang member at the game wouldn’t be allowed to keep playing. The rest of us, well, we just walked away and found a different game to play, or we left the arcade and went to a restaurant with unlimited coffee refills, where we smoked our cigarettes in peace and safety. Losing twenty-five to fifty cents is a fair trade-off for remaining healthy and alive. The games were tough, but the gangs were tougher.

    So, for a moment, imagine if law schools truly were like the arcades I knew and played in. Done? Good.

    Law school is easy — dare I say too easy? The real competition begins once you land a job, both within your firm and outside of it. That is, of course, if you can survive those early years: the endless paper shuffle, the drudgery, the dullness, the bullying, the hiring of the dumbest support staff you can find to keep costs down, and the general pointlessness of so many things that we do because they’ve always been done that way — and don’t you dare suggest an alternative to our long-standing legal traditions, you rabble-rouser, you cad!

    Pish. You know what’s a noble job, a career that makes a positive difference in everyone’s lives? Garbage collectors. That’s right — these men and women who pick up our unwanted shit are the greatest people on the planet. As far as I’m concerned, anyway.

    Oh, sorry about that … back on track. There are do-overs in life. There are continues, but not endless ones. They come to us rarely. You must seize them when you find them.

  2. Harry D. Mauron says:

    The modern sissified Halo-ish auto-save and endless lives were caused by the participation trophy crowd, not the other way around. IIRC, the early home console games (at least up to Donkey Kong) made you start over at the beginning. Even up through Wolfenstein/Doom you had to save at intermediate points and continue with the then-current state.

  3. Sean F. says:

    Continues are hardly “free” for the modern gamer.

    I’ve spent about $1,800 on my home consoles and over $1,300 on games for them. That’s a lot more than I’ve ever spent in arcades (and believe me, I’ve dropped at least $400 in fighting game machines alone).

    On another note, some games are more about the experience than the challenge. The more cinematic games fall into this category.
    Still, a lot of games today are balls-hard. Prinny: Can I Really be the Hero?, Muramasa (on hardest difficulty), Ace Combat (on “Ace” dificulty), and the Shin Megami Tensei series to name a few. You don’t play these unless you want to work your fingers and/or brain.

    • Harry D. Mauron says:

      To torture the analogy – “free” continues are free as in “free speech^h^h^h^h love” not as in “free beer”.

      • Sean F. says:

        Run that by me again.

        “I can’t help but wonder if the absence of the neighborhood arcade is the true catalyst behind the participation trophy, helicopter-parent crowd. An entire generation brought up on free continues and endless lives. I’m worried.”

        Unless I got the context wrong, he meant “free” as in “without cost.” I was just saying that buying the unlimited plan over the pay-as-you-go plan doesn’t necessarily make you soft.

        • Harry D. Mauron says:

          I guess you could swap out “free continues” in the original for “free games” without changing the meaning of the original much. ISTM, though, that most “bringing up” has happened long before the standard gamer can afford the $x00 for a console and $50+ for a current new release. Even if my Asteriods quarters ultimately came out of my dad’s pocket, each “continue” had an obvious cost.

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