I got my first taste when I was in elementary school, before I knew what I was doing. It wasn’t until high school that I got hooked.
It was my cousin’s birthday. I was maybe 16 years old. We thought we’d re-live our childhoods by going to the local arcade to celebrate. Imagine Chuck E. Cheese’s without the colorful mascots and located in a rundown building that was likely converted from an old warehouse. It was dirty and dilapidated and sad. An appropriate backdrop to the scene of my downfall.
I walked the floor, tokens jangling in my pocket, scanning the available games for one that would show me a good time. The entire building was poorly lit, but that didn’t take away my awareness that I was walking in the shadow of the arcade’s strange indoor Ferris wheel (which I refused to ride as it seemed to me to be a death trap). Through the darkness, a swirling light called to me like a siren’s song. I stood before the game, enrapt by its hypnotic, ever-circling light.
I pulled a bronze-colored token from the pocket of my blue jeans and dropped it into the machine with a satisfying *clunk.* The light traveling around and around the ring of small bulbs suddenly switched directions. The game had begun.
The objective was simple: the player must hit the button when the lightbulb directly in front of her is lit. If she misses, she gets a certain amount of tickets depending on how close she was to center, and the jackpot total increases. No one must have won on this particular machine for months. The jackpot was in the thousands. I placed my fingers gingerly over the large plastic button and waited. My heart raced as the light made its way around the circle. I twitched as the light passed me by. Not yet, I told myself. I took a breath and waited for the light to come back around.
*Clack!* I hit the button and the light stopped two bulbs away from the center bulb in front of me. The machine spat out eight tickets. Not good enough, I thought to myself, and popped in another token. The light resumed its hypnotic twirl. *Clack!* One bulb away this time. Ten tickets whirred out at me; in response, I inserted another token. Again!
*Clack!* Eight tickets. *Clack!* Eight tickets. *Clack!* Ten tickets.
So close. Every single time, I was so close! It was frustrating. I burned through token after token. Sure, I was getting a decent amount of tickets with each play, but the jackpot dangled in front of me like a carrot on a stick. I should have given up at some point. Should have, but didn’t. Which was good. Because in the end, it was just another press of the button: *Clack!*
Lights flashed, the console sounded an alarm. I had done it! I won the jackpot! As I whooped in celebration, those playing games nearby turned to congratulate me. In my mind, I wasn’t just some teenager in a grungy arcade. I had conquered Cyclone, and would thereafter be known as a legend!
By the end of the day, I had some two thousand tickets, largely in part to my jackpot win. I redeemed them for an inflatable penguin — an inflatable penguin which, when placed near the doorway in my bedroom, terrified the family dog. So in the end, I deflated the penguin and packed it away. It’s still somewhere in my childhood bedroom. But you know what? The inflatable penguin may have been the physical prize, but what I had truly gained that day was pride. Arguably unconscionable, but deep pride, nonetheless.
The years went by, and whenever I went to an arcade, I would regale my epic victory to my companions. “You know, I once won the jackpot at Cyclone…” Gripping stuff.
Fast forward to January 2015. As a group Christmas present, one generous aunt offered to pay for a day of laser tag for all of the kids. And by kids, I mean a group of twenty- and thirty-somethings. It was a blast. (You can never go wrong with laser tag.) But more important to the narrative at hand was the fact that inside the laser tag joint was an arcade. And what to my wondering eyes should appear, but the swirling, twirling light of a game of Cyclone.
I walked over to it with a smile. It was like being reacquainted an old friend.
“78 ticket jackpot? Not worth it,” my sister said. She was right. It wasn’t worth it. But that didn’t stop me. I inserted a token into the machine.
*Clunk.* I hit the plastic button. *Clack!* Ten tickets.
I kept at it all day. “I’ve done it before. I can do it again,” I muttered to myself as I played game after game after game. Eight tickets. Ten tickets. Seven tickets.
When I ran out of tokens, I ran back to our table, grabbed my purse, and rustled up the money needed to buy more.
“How much money have you spent so far on that game?” my aunt asked, a touch bewildered and concerned.
“Erm…” I didn’t really answer; I just gave her a guilty, noncommittal smile and quickly shuffled back to the Cyclone console. This is an addiction. I am an addict, I thought to myself as I burned through more tokens.
Now, I am not a gambling person. The idea of slot machines and Las Vegas seems pointless and wasteful to me. But in that moment, I could completely identify with those who love it. The thrill! The hopeful tension! But this isn’t gambling, I convinced myself. This is a game of skill, and I can win it.
*Clack!* Seven tickets. *Clack!* Ten tickets. *Clack!* Eight tickets.
Spoiler alert: I never won the jackpot that day. And I spent a lot of actual money on tokens. A total lose/lose situation. What I did gain, however, was the realization that I could definitely succumb to a gambling addiction… That, and a giant, green foam die that I bought at the ticket redemption booth.
This, I solemnly swear — someday we will meet again, Cyclone. And I will defeat you once more.