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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.

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