When you were young, someone cradled a controller in your palms and wrapped their hands around yours, showing you how to hold it. Their thumbs over your own, they lifted your hands up to eye level so you could see the TV screen and controller at the same time. “When you press this button, he jumps! When you press this one he moves.”
You spent your early childhood days running in the fields, picking up sticks and pretending they were swords, hiding in the tall grass from imagined beasts. After it got dark you picked up the controller and slew them.
Your legs firmly beneath you now, you entered the arcade with the four quarters that your dad had slid into your palm. “I’ll be back in 15 minutes,” he said, tussling your hair and giving you a gentle push into the dim, black-carpeted cave at the mall. You stood in front of rows upon rows of arcade machines, their demos flashing across the screens, blinking letters imploring you to insert coin.
You ran your thumb across the smooth surface of the quarter as you slowly walked up and down the aisles, wondering where you should start. Teenagers crowded around some of the machines, their pockets jangled with change, their broad shoulders blocking your view.
Finally, Bubble Bobble drew you in, colorful and inviting with its jaunty, bouncy soundtrack and little dinosaurs jumping on bubbles. You slipped your quarter into the slot and flexed your hand, feeling the lightness of it as the coin tumbled through the metal innards and landed with a satisfying clatter somewhere deep inside.
You played the game not knowing the controls or the goal, but you understood moving and jumping well enough to survive for a minute. The first time you tried to jump on an enemy like you would at home, you lost a life. It taught you through your failures as it ate your quarters.
The game-over screen appeared again and you jammed your hand into your pocket and found it empty. You still had five minutes to kill, so after fruitlessly checking a few coin slots, you stood behind a teenage boy on your tiptoes, catching the occasional glimpse of a fireball shooting across the screen.
From then on you got four quarters every Friday and your dad promised there was more where that came from, but only if you did extra chores. Eventually you earned enough to rent a game for your Nintendo at home, and the math took on a whole new meaning. Three bucks on Friday is twelve quarters at the arcade, which usually means thirty minutes or less. Renting a game is all weekend; it’s practically cheating. You got one new game every year at Christmas. That was four months' worth of allowance in a single shot.
The sword in the tall grass was slowly forgotten. Arcades were given up as bad business.
In your 20’s, time was in endless supply while more money was always just around the corner. You found your stride, worked full-time and got on with being an adult.
It wasn’t everything you thought it would be. Your grandparents died. You lost a friend in a car accident. You fell behind on rent. Games seemed to grow up right alongside you, offering longer and deeper companionship as adult concerns piled up. Ten bucks a month wasn’t so bad; if you’d still thought in quarters you’d have been over the moon.
Time marched on, and you got married. After busy workdays you sat at your desk and blearily scrolled through your Steam games library, wondering when you might find the time for them. This arcade seemed endless; it would take an airport hangar to house arcade cabinets for each one. You could walk among them as if your pockets overflowed with quarters, and all the teens with their broad shoulders were gone.
Unlike the old arcade games, these ones wanted to give you everything – not all at once, but they found a way to feed their own quarters into you. They didn’t want to discourage; they wanted you to win. "No matter how tough it gets out there," they seemed to say, "you could win here. Take all the time you need."
You blink, rubbing your eyes and waking up from your daydream. It’s Saturday morning. You’re staring at the store page inside the game you bought for 240 quarters (if you still counted that way) and an orc merchant stares back at you. Grim and wizened, he seems old as far as orcs go. He rubs his hands together with nary a smile and stares vaguely in the direction of the gold chests on the side of the screen. He twitches anxiously, seeming to feel the passage of time even more distinctly than you do. “We’re brothers in arms,” his eyes seem to say, “both holding on by the skin of our teeth, eh? Feed me some gold and we can get on with it.”
With inflation, one golden chest will cost about a week's worth of allowance. Your younger self runs the math. What's the upshot of a couple orcs and a weapon? How many minutes of game-time are we talking here?
You realize the math has changed. Now it's about saving time, not extending it. Instead of another thirty minutes of fun, chests offer the same promise you felt sliding a quarter across the counter at the mom and pop store for a plain, brown goodie bag. You had no idea what you were going to get, and that was the whole point. The moment when you plucked the staple out of the thin paper and opened the bag was everything. Eating the candy was almost secondary.
You glance away from the screen and see the neighbour kids playing at the edge of the yard. Shouting wordlessly, they wave sticks at each other and dive into the tall grass to hide. You wonder how they’ll learn about the preciousness of time now that a quarter is so unnecessary and games just want to give and give until you can’t imagine doing anything else.
Games and their designers grew up with us, after all, and they’ve always known the score. Time is the real currency; we’d all pay and pay if we thought we could truly have more.
Leaving the orc merchant, you gulp down the rest of your coffee and step outside into the morning sunlight. The kids recognize you and sink further into the grass, giggling. You smile. It’s easy to forget the warm feeling of the sun on your skin, the smell of weeds and dirt when you’re low to the ground and hiding from beasts both real and imagined.
You roar and charge into the long grass, the children scatter like the wind.