Florida's recent ban on Internet cafes, which employ sweepstakes prizes as an incentive for buying online computer time (read here), resurrected an issue that has been tugging at the minds of politicians for years: if gambling outside of government-approved casinos is illegal, perhaps it should also be illegal for kids to wager tokens on Chuck E. Cheese arcade games. Chuck E. Cheese isn't the only company that offers games of chance to its patrons, either. McDonald's customers receive an entry to win with every purchase of select items during Monopoly season. Coca Cola is currently running a sweepstakes in which customers earn points toward free gifts or contest entries. The Mars company, maker of M&Ms, is offering $100,000 to the person who finds the bag of all-black candies, as well as a host of other rewards to those who spend their dollars trying to find the bag. With all of these businesses offering customers the chance to win prizes, it's no wonder that critics are debating the legality of the issue. The simple question is whether or not these companies are using illegal tactics to advance their businesses. The answer, however, is not so cut and dried.
Some people think these companies are breaking the law by offering sweepstakes and arcade games; others say the businesses are well within their right to do so. Different theories offer different points of view on this controversial subject. In the end, the right answer may be a matter of personal ethics.
Theory One: Businesses Are Breaking the Law
Proponents of this theory say that if gambling is forbidden unless sanctioned by the government, then companies who offer sweepstakes and arcade games are breaking the law. The assumption here is that sweepstakes and arcade game participation is the same thing as gambling.
When a child guest at Chuck E. Cheese wagers tokens on a roulette-style wheel or a game of skill like Skee Ball, he is doing so with the hope of winning tickets. These tickets can be exchanged for inexpensive trinkets and prizes like stickers, candy, inflatable guitars, and water guns. According to supporters of Theory One, the child is literally gambling to win a prize. Also according to these supporters, it is the surrounding adults' responsibility to shield the child from activities that could lead him to possible gambling addiction.
When a person buys a soda or Big Mac at McDonald's and receives a Monopoly entry, he has just gambled a small amount of his money for the chance to win a prize. When a person adds Coke to his grocery cart at the store, he is buying himself the chance earn points which might lead to a fabulous cash prize. When a person spends three dollars on a specially marked bag of M&Ms at the grocery store, he has just wagered his pocket change on the chance to win $100,000. In short, when a person enters into a sale which may or may not earn him a prize, he is gambling, according to supporters of this theory.
Theory Two: Businesses are Not Breaking the Law
Proponents of Theory Two say that gambling at a casino and participation in sweepstakes and arcades game have no legitimate basis of comparison. While gambling is the wagering of money for a chance at a prize, sweepstakes defenders are quick to point out that Coke, McDonald's and Mars will give free entries when asked; no purchase is necessary to participate in these contests. The “no purchase necessary” clause might appear in fine print, but the fact that people can enter for free makes sweepstakes a legitimate entity that is separate from gambling.
Proponents of this theory also say that customers at Chuck E. Cheese and other arcades are not gambling; they are simply paying for the chance to play games and have fun. This is partially because arcade games do not pose the high financial stakes that are found at a casinos. Also, the prizes at Chuck E. Cheese and other arcades are of nominal value; they are not large cash jackpots.
Legal Suit Against Chuck E. Cheese Never Made it to Court
In 2011, Debbie Keller of San Diego filed suit against CEC Entertainment, the parent company of Chuck E. Cheese, for promoting gambling amongst children. A mother herself, Keller had taken her two children to the restaurant and allowed them to play the arcade games. After noticing how similar some of the games are to slot machines and roulette, Keller filed a $5 million suit against the company. She claimed the money was secondary to her main objective, which was to bring the issue of casino games in children's restaurants to light and take a stand against Chuck E. Cheese.
Keller voluntarily dropped her suit against CEC Entertainment less than three months later. The company told the press they hadn't felt the least bit threatened by Keller's suit because all of the gaming equipment at Chuck E. Cheese restaurants is legal. Even though she didn't go through with it, Keller did succeed in calling attention to this interesting ethical dilemma.
A Matter of Personal Ethics
This issue has no definite answer. Whether or not sweepstakes and arcade games are illegal, seems to be a matter of personal ethics. People who find these game sources harmful and unethical, like Keller, think they should be illegal. People who think these game sources are harmless and entirely different than casino gambling believe they should be allowed to continue.
Decision Up to Individual States
Individual states can decide for themselves which way they lean on this issue. In Florida, Internet cafes and other arcades are now illegal; the critics have won. In other states, the battle has yet to begin.