What with all the flashing screens, dinging bells, and glazed-over customers absorbed in the games at hand, a Chuck E. Cheese arcade bears quite a resemblance to the slot machine section of a casino. Are kids, in fact, gambling in between their pizza and soda?
Thanks to new legislation in Florida targeting Internet café sweepstake gambling operations, there’s an argument to be made that some Chuck E. Cheese games involve gambling and are therefore illegal. Since kids are the chain’s main clientele, that’s a problem for more reason than one.
Many states have cracked down on Internet café gambling in recent years. Last summer, the Wall Street Journal reported on the efforts in places such as Ohio, South Carolina, and Michigan to shut down—or at least regulate—these cafes, which are filled with simulated slot-machine games and often operate totally out in the open in strip mall locations. While the games vary, most involve plastic swipe cards that are purchased by customers and give users a certain number of “sweepstakes” entries in games of chance played on video screens. The games, which offer cash prizes, have been especially popular among the elderly. “It has become my world,” one 70-year-old woman told the WSJ while inside her neighborhood gambling café in Ohio.
Such Internet cafes began appearing in Massachusetts in large numbers around 2009, and in the summer of 2011, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley affirmed that these operations were illegal. “This kind of activity, gambling, is not allowed under Massachusetts law,” Coakley said at the time, according to the Boston Globe. “They are totally unregulated, there’s no oversight, and there is no protection for the consumer.”
Business owners have argued that the games are legal sweepstakes because they allow anyone to participate for a few rounds without spending any money. “It’s not gambling,” the lawyer for one Internet parlor in western Massachusetts explained to the Springfield Republican. “It’s really paying for computer time.”
Nonetheless, two of the largest such Internet cafes in the state agreed to pay fines of $750,000 total in July 2012.
Last month, Florida passed new legislation specifically outlawing the video gambling machines, as well as small coin-operated games of chance often installed in blue-collar restaurants, prompting law enforcement officers to hit strip malls all over the state “like the Untouchables, seizing dozens of machines from mom-and-pop stores and cafes and arresting their owners,” according to the Miami Herald.
And yet, one very well-known restaurant-entertainment chain that caters to kids has escaped the attention of the authorities. The Herald reported that while some of the games inside Chuck E. Cheese locations could also be construed as illegal according to the new law, authorities are doing nothing to shut them down. “It’s just discrimination,” said one café owner, who was threatened with being arrested or fined if she refused to turn off her 100 simulated slot machines, according to the Herald:
“How can the machines be bad for my customers, who are adults spending their own money, but not for kids? This is something you expect in a country like Cuba, not the United States.”
This isn’t the first time that the Chuck E. Cheese chain has been discussed in the same breath as gambling. In 2011, a mom in San Diego sued the company for $5 million because the “casino-style gambling devices” could put children on the road to gambling addiction.
The Miami Herald article states that the authorities throughout Florida are simply looking the other way at the seemingly illegal games inside Chuck E. Cheese, as well as popular restaurant-gaming chains such as Dave & Buster’s and Boomers. The law stipulates that for machines to be legal, they must be coin-operated (no dollar bills or swipe cards), they must involve some skill (not just be games of pure chance), and they cannot award cash or gift cards as prizes. The only prizes allowed are merchandise, and the maximum value of prizes is a mere 75¢. Some of the prizes for Chuck E. Cheese boardwalk-type games of chance are worth around $20, which would seem to make them illegal. Dave and Buster’s games also offer prizes worth well over 75¢, and the games aren’t operated by coins, but smart cards that customers swipe.
Some are arguing that the lack of enforcement concerning these chains is because the law isn’t meant to target restaurant and entertainment companies, though it’s unclear exactly why certain businesses get a free pass. The Naples News quoted Gale Fontaine, president of the Florida Arcade Association, who described the targeting of adult arcades as an “abuse of police power.” A lawsuit was filed in April claiming that the new law is unconstitutional. Plaintiffs say that the legislation is “arbitrary” and “irrational,” and “is therefore void for vagueness and leaves open the possibility of enforcement despite the lack of standards.”
For now, per the Herald, the one thing that’s clear is that no local authorities want to use the new law for the purposes of putting a beloved cartoon character behind bars:
“I’m not going to go arrest Chuck E. Cheese in front of a bunch of 6-year-olds,” said Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez, whose city, on the day the law took effect, confiscated 72 machines from cafes and arcades that cater to the elderly. “If the governor and the Legislature want that, they can come and do it themselves.”