The Chuck E. Cheese's chain of restaurants uses the slogan, "Where a kid can be a kid." But to one San Diego mother , the chain is really where a kid can develop a serious gambling habit.
Denise Keller, a real estate agent with two kids ages 3 and 5, is suing the Dallas-based restaurant chain for $5 million because she feels that many of the games intended for children at these locations are actually illegal gambling devices -- like slot machines and roulette wheels.
Although Keller is asking for a jury trial as well as damages and restitution totaling at least $5 million, her lawyer, Eric Binink told the San Diego Union Tribune that the money is a secondary issue.
Benink said the lawsuit's real purpose is to prevent Texas-based parent company CEC Entertainment Inc. from keeping the machines in its game rooms.
“We don’t think that children should be exposed to casino-style gambling devices at an arcade,” Benink said, adding that the games take only a few seconds to play and some of them feature a roulette-style wheel.
Many of the games at Chuck E. Cheese rely on 25 cent tokens, and, depending on the score, dispense tickets that can be redeemed for prizes. The higher the score, the greater the number of tickets. The more tickets, the better prize.
Chuck E. Cheese attorneys are moving for a dismissal of the lawsuit on the grounds that the games are legal and the California Legislature never intended to make operating a children’s arcade game a criminal act. They also contend that even if the games were illegal, then Keller would be an admitted participant in illegal gambling and therefore barred from seeking damages and restitution.
The attorneys have asked a federal judge to dismiss the case, but the judge has not yet issued a ruling.
Still, the suit does raise an interesting question: Does a child's desire to win a plastic pterodactyl by playing Wack-A-Mole really send the little nipper down the slippery slope to gambling addiction that ends with them betting their mortgage payment on red at the local Native American casino?
Gambling addiction expert Bob Cabiness, owns the Williamsville Wellness treatment center for compulsive gambling in Hanover, Virginia, isn't betting on it.
He sees a difference between a game that awards tickets and one that pays out cold hard cash.
"The thing about gambling is the chasing," he told AOL Weird News. "If you lose $10, you want to keep playing until you win it back. This is one step removed."
That doesn't mean he hasn't seen cases where games like the kind that are at Chuck E. Cheese -- such as "The Claw," where players try and pick up a prize using a metal clawed controlled by a joystick -- cause people to go crazy.
"I met one women in Gamblers Anonymous who was addicted to 'The Claw' and spent all her money on it," Cabiness said. "She'd win a teddy bear and just throw it away."
That's one person, but Cabiness still thinks Keller's chances of prevailing in court are a crapshoot at best.
"I don't think [Keller] has a case. If the mother feels there's gambling at Chuck E. Cheese, she shouldn't take the kids there."
On the other hand, mothers like Hollie Schultz feel Keller's pain.
She has three kids ages 2, 4 and 6 and says her daughter has an addiction to the dreaded "Claw."
"We have left Chuck E. Cheese's in her in tears begging for one more quarter," said Schultz, who has written about her own issues with "Claw Rage" at her website, BabyGizmo.com. "I've seen her going through my purse for quarters. It's devastating."
However, Schultz believes that Keller's lawsuit is a sucker's bet.
"I don't think she could win," she said. "With Chuck E. Cheese's, you know what you're getting into. It's when 'The Claw' is in the grocery store that bothers me."
Another mom who is bothered by the suit is San Diego blogger Morgan Quinn Benzian, who says Keller's suit is "mind boggling."
Benzian -- who has written love poems to the chain -- freely admits she's taught her daughter to play "The Claw" and claims the girl has, so far, not had any major meltdowns.
Benzian believes that instead of suing Chuck E. Cheese's, Keller should look at the restaurant as a godsend.
"Chuck E. Cheese's serves beer and pizza and they watch your kids for two hours," Benzian said, adding with a cackle, "[Keller] better not f--k it up for the rest of us."
UPDATE: On May 19, Keller decided to drop the lawsuit and asked that it be dismissed without prejudice. She plans to refile the case in state court.