I saw it the first time I went inside the new convenience store that opened up close to my house. A Ghosts ‘n Goblins arcade machine rose out from between the racks of potato chips and magazines.
At the time, the only video games I’d seen were at my friend Carl’s house. He had an Atari 2600 with Pac-Man and Space Invaders. This machine promised a million times more fun. Knights, zombies, and banshees filled a screen that I had to stand on tip-toes to see.
I had a problem, though. I didn’t have any money. And neither did my parents — although, to be more accurate, the issue was that they didn’t have any disposable income that they were willing to pass along to me. No allowance. Toys only on Christmas and birthdays, and educational ones at that. Never cash.
So I asked good ‘ol mom and dad what I might do to earn some dough to play this game. Their big ideas centered around using me as child labor. My mom created this chart that mapped specific chores to a number of quarters I’d earn upon completion. Taking out the garbage? One quarter. Picking up all of the twigs in the yard so that my dad could more easily mow? Two quarters. Washing the kitchen floor on hands and knees with a wooden handled scrub brush? Four.
The following Saturday found me excitedly working through the list of tasks. When I was done I had exactly ten quarters — two dollars and fifty cents.
In those days parents didn’t seem to worry about child abduction the way they do now, and my mom let me run down to the store, a half a mile away, to do as I liked. I can still remember my hands shaking as I nervously dropped my first quarter into the machine, unsure if I was even doing it right. Sure enough, nothing happened at first. I must have started to hit the joystick and make an angry ruckus, because the clerk eventually came over to give me a hand. He explained that after you put in a coin you had to hit a white button in the upper left hand corner of the control dashboard to make it start. I was in business.
On the first attempt, it took all of three minutes for me to lose all of my guys. I had no idea what I was doing, after all. This was a side-scrolling action game, completely unlike anything I’d ever played before, and I lacked basic skills to compete at the level required to get anywhere. Forty five minutes later all of my money was gone, dumped into the machine.
And yet, I wasn’t bothered by the spending. No, on my walk home, as I thought things through, I came to the conclusion that my problems centered around earning. It took me all morning of slaving away to make enough to play for less than an hour. Even at age eight, this seemed like a pretty lousy trade. And even if I were willing to do it again, there were no more chores for me to do that day.
Still, for the next year or so, I went through this routine every Saturday. I couldn’t help myself. I was eight, and powerless to resist the awesomeness. Fortunately, over time, I got better at making the money last. My skills at the game improved, allowing me to live longer, get past the first couple of levels, stretch the quarters out. And I started to let kids play before me, that is if there was anyone else in the store that wanted to get on the action. This decision had two tangible benefits: 1) time was killed watching someone else play and 2) I learned new strategies from them which made me a better player when it came time for me to drop my own money into the machine. Looking back, I realize I was figuring out how to get more out of my limited resources, i.e. how to maximize utility.
But I was still a complete sucker, living week to week, blowing everything I made within a few hours of collecting my pay. And my parents didn’t seem to care. Why should they, after all? My behavior was completely normal. Like every other kid my age, I was simply learning to spend.