I Spent 13.5 Hours in Dave & Buster's. Here's What Happened.
Considering there's a hipster arcade bar doing booming business in every metro area across the country, it might be a shock that Dave & Busters -- a concept from the '80s devoid of any hipster cred -- is still alive and thriving. Despite the fact that they don't have original Qbert arcade cabinets and craft beer, D&B offers a unique gaming and dining experience that plenty of Americans find alluring.
But is anyone actually having fun in there? Is drinking sugary cocktails and playing Pop-A-Shot someone's idea of a great Friday night? I played, ate, drank, was offered drugs, and made new best friends at a Dave & Buster's after sitting in one from when it opened at 11:30am until it closed at 1am. Some names and details have been changed to protect the guilty. Everything you need to know about D&B can be learned through these five experiences I had in my 13.5 hours there.
I discover D&B is like a casino, but with more coffee mugs2:12pm. I'm barely four hours in and I've already had a beer and D&B-brand chicken fingers strangely named after the weirdest James Bond theme song -- Octopussyfingers. Just kidding, they're called Legendary Goldfingers.
I'm in the hole $32. More accurately, Thrillist is, as I'm gonna expense the shit out of this when I get home. Granted, that $32 also got me a Power Card, which has credits on it so I can play video games. But still! That's serious money for some chicken fingers, a beer, and a few video game plays. You don't use cash here, which reminds me of how casinos force you to play with chips. And like many casinos, D&B is listed on a major stock exchange, and has a market cap of $1.45 billion. To put that in perspective, Caesers, an actual casino, only has a market cap of $947 million dollars.
At this point, the "casino" floor has about 50 people in it, a mix of kids running around, and strangely, adults. Like a casino, this place is full of people who look like your grandparents. Unlike a casino, no one is holding a drink and kids are everywhere.
I sit down at a game next to a couple with a ton of tickets in front of them. The woman tells me that they "bought" a Wii with all the tickets they won. I estimate it would take a few months and hundreds of dollars worth of gameplay to get enough tickets to win that Wii.
These tickets are are a huge part of why people come back to D&B. They can be cashed in for prizes at The Winners Circle "store." A PS4 must take months to earn. I meet one woman later who tells me she knew a regular with 100,000 tickets on his card, and he'd let his kids buy whatever they wanted at the store. I'm not gonna make 100k in a day, but there are coffee mugs with the D&B logo that I covet instantly.
I lie a lot and get offered drugs and strippers9:25pm. The liquefied Laffy Taffy (watermelon pucker, coconut rum, cherry vodka, blue curacao, Sprite, pomegranate syrup) I drank during happy hour wore off hours ago and I'm hungry. I don't know where the time went, but I do know I put another $60 on my Power Card. I forgot how much I've spent already. It's not completely unlike walking around a casino and playing slots and blackjack, and then losing track of how much money you've lost.
I sit down at the packed bar and order the teriyaki steak for dinner with mashed potatoes, potato strings, and a side of mac & cheese. The bartender says the steak's popular. I'm scared to eat it, considering the chicken fingers earlier weren't my speed.
The steak is... delicious? I don't know if it's because I'm hungry or it's actually good, and I don't care. I ravenously devour the food like I'm in that video game where Pac-Man eats pellets made of teriyaki steak. My brain is mush at this point after absorbing flashing lights for the last 10 hours.
A couple sits down next to me. Both in their 30s. Guy's a little lubricated. Otherwise, they blend in. He ignores his girlfriend and tries to size me up.
“You come up here a lot?” he asks.
“I come here every once in a while," I say. I'm chatty immediately, probably because I've barely spoken to people all day. I start rambling about how I love playing the Pop-a-Shot game.
“You smoke pot?” Damn, this guy is not into segues.
“No, not really. Do you?”
“Yeah you do!” I laugh uncontrollably after I say this because I'm accusing this guy I don't know of being a smoker, and I am delirious. “You live in Colorado, how can you not?” I laugh more, trying to paper over my nervousness.
He's stonefaced. He shakes his head no.
“I got it though, if you need it,” he says.
“Oh, good. Thanks man,” I say. DON'T GET HIGH ON YOUR OWN SUPPLY, THEY SAY. In the next breath, he tells me he grows weed at home, which isn't actually illegal in Colorado.
“Where do you work?” he asks.
“I do boring computer shit,” I say. I'm not lying. Some of what I do for Thrillist can be considered boring (99.9% of it is fun!), and it is on my computer. Also, I wasn't about to tell some stranger about what I was doing there all day, because I wanted him to treat me like a regular person, and not like the Important Journalist I am. Also, because I think he might be a cop.
“I.T.?” he asks.
“Like, project managing. Dude, it's so boring.” I laugh hard here. I'm lying, too. There is nothing funny about project managing, but remember that I'm losing my mind.
“Caregiving sounds like more fun,” I say. People who grow it and then sell to other people legally are called caregivers.
“That ain't my primary income, though,” he says. “I work construction.”
Cool. I know nothing about construction, so I say nothing.
“What else you do, man?” he asks.
“I'm boring, I play a lot of pinball.” I add, “I'm really fucking boring.” Not a lie.
Fifteen seconds pass, neither of us says anything. Then, out of nowhere...
“You know where I can get any white girl?”
Let's analyze this for a second. I just told him that I play pinball and don't smoke, and he's asking me where I can get cocaine? If I had never listened to Jeezy, I wouldn't even know what he was talking about. THANKS JEEZY!
Wait, is this dude an undercover cop trying to get me to buy from him? At a Dave & Buster's on a Friday night in the suburbs?
“I don't do anything, really. I'm boring as hell, dude.” I laugh and laugh and laugh and hope he doesn't ask me if I've got meth.
“So what do you manage?” he asks.
“Developers write code, and they need someone to tell them to do. Dude, I fall asleep talking about it.” I am lying I am lying I am lying.
“Where at do you do it?” Ok, he's definitely a cop.
“It's kinda everywhere. I work for a big company.”
“What is that big company?”
“Umm,” I cough. “They're not based out of here.” I realize where this is going, and that I'm going to have to make up a company name.
“What is it called?”
“Concentric, you probably never heard of them.” Probably because I made that shit up.
Later I googled Concentric and found out there's a real company that goes by that name. Damn, I'm good.
“What is it, Concentric what?”
“Yes,” I say, not confidently.
Minutes pass. He tries to make a joke with the bartender, “I heard the next one's on you.”
The bartender's heard this one before, “That's just a rumor,” she says. “A vicious, vicious rumor.”
“Just playing,” he says. “I probably don't need another.” He pays his tab.
“Nice meeting you guys.”
He's not done trying to be my drug dealer and entertainment for the night.
“Let me know if you want to party with some strippers.”
“From where?” WHY DID I ASK HIM THAT?
“From [name of a popular, local strip club].”
“No, never been there!”
“What's your number?”
“I'm good, thanks buddy!”
“Cool.” He and his girlfriend go out into the night, trying to trick someone else into selling him coke.
I get smacked in the head with a "back massager"12.10am. I'm sitting next to a girl in her 20s with short blonde hair. Her boyfriend hovers over her and then walks away. She and I are both playing one of those games where you try to knock the coins off of a ledge to win tickets. She seems to have both a strategy and a lot more tickets than me. I talk to her casually about how she used to visit D&B every Wednesday for a year.
A mess of a woman in her late-40s with greasy-looking hair pokes me in the head with a "back massager." I turn around to see why my head got poked, and she and her friends are laughing at me.
“What was that?” I ask, not wanting to know the answer.
“It was a massager, but tell me it didn't screw with you!” she says, acting as if this were the funniest prank she's ever played.
“I was very afraid of what was going to happen next,” I say. I guess I'm afraid she'll give me a massage, the thought of which still gives me chills as I type this.
“I'm sorry! I couldn't help myself!" she says, weirdly. "This bitch was like, 'I'll kill you.' And you were like, 'Please save me!'"
The woman who assaults strangers with a vibrator walks away. Friendship is often forged when you go through stressful experiences together. I just become the friend of the girl sitting next to me.
“Can you watch my tickets?” she asks.
That's what friends are for! I nod.
I wonder where everyone's parents are12:15am. A kid no older than eight approaches me while my new friend's gone. I don't think I stayed up past midnight until I was 12.
“Are these your tickets?”
“No, these aren't mine. I'm holding them for a friend!”
He's asking me about the nuances of the game. He asks how many swipes it takes to get the tickets. I tell him it's not a great game. I wonder where his parents are. Probably around somewhere. Earlier, a bartender tells me, "I've seen parents have newborns here until closing time at 1am.”
I learn what it's like to be a "WINNER"12:41am. I walk into The Winner's Circle store with all the prizes to try to figure out what to "buy" myself.
I see the boyfriend of my female friend from earlier. We had spoken briefly, so I feel comfortable enough to walk up to him and tell him my plan. "I have 1,900 tickets and I'm trying to get 2,000. What do you want?” I asked.
“I don't play soccer or volleyball, but I want this ball. So that's what we're gonna get. What do you have your eyes on?”
I look around and see a shirt that says WINNER on it, and immediately know I want it.
“I want the WINNER shirt. I need that positive reinforcement, like, so when I look in the mirror, I'll see it. But maybe I'll internalize it, right? I'll feel it.”
“Monday morning comes around, you're going to look at it. You're gonna kill it. You're gonna get a raise, you're gonna get promoted," he replies.
“How often do you feel like a winner?” I ask.
“Not often,” he says.
“Right? Not often!”
“Tonight's been a helluva night of being very loserish," he says. "I won't tell you the story because it's too long and dramatic and not winnerish. But we're here now! That's why we came here. I have two friends here who are literally homeless -- both of them separately happened to be homeless in the last 48 hours. And I'm putting them up at my house.”
“You're a saint,” I say.
“And then, my girl -- me and her had a crazy night. And it's good to be here to have food and have a good time.”
I nod in agreement, though I've been alone most of the time, and it hasn't been super-duper fun.
“What're you guys up to?” he asks me.
“It's just me.”
I've been alone all day, and this is the first time anyone -- a server, a bartender, a gamer -- asked me if I was alone. Everyone comes here with someone else; it's expected.
“Hang with us then," he says.
I want to cry tears of happiness. I only have a half hour left, and this guy's going to carry me across the finish line in his arms.
“Wanna hear something crazy?” I ask. "So, this is no joke. I've been here since 11:30am.”
“To win 1,900 tickets?” You can hear the disappointment dripping off of him. “You need that WINNER shirt. What were you doing all day? Did you drink?”
“Yeah, a little bit.”
“You play a bunch of games?” he asks.
Yep. He says he needs a cigarette, so I join him outside.
12:45am. He's telling me about his work history. He's not a dumb guy.
“I got a software engineering degree. I did a lot of game engine programming and C++, that kind of shit. Then I met a lot of smart people at school and learned how to build websites, and then I realized I wanted to build my own shit.”
I swear to you that “Lose Yourself” is blasting over the outdoor speakers as he's saying all this to me.
“I started inventing products and trying shit out. One hit, and it was amazing. And then I stopped being a developer, and started doing my own ventures. Tried to sustain my life, because it's up and down. Making money, broke as fuck. It's a roller coaster.”
“My psyche couldn't handle that shit. That's rough. Do you develop stuff for the app store?” I ask.
He tells me he can't code for mobile, but that he makes consumer products. He's got one in development now that sounds amazing, but I don't think he has a patent for it, and I don't want to share his amazing idea with the world. He says he develops stuff all the time, and that his last product almost got him on Shark Tank.
He says we need to play some multiplayer games. So we do. We play basketball. Multiplayer Pac-Man. A game that simulates being on an ATV. It's the first time I have fun all day.
12:55am. I go into the Winners Circle. There are five minutes left in the day, and I need a reward for being here.
I grab my WINNER shirt. The cashier scans my card. I have enough tickets to buy it.
“You have 86 tickets left," the cashier says.
They make an announcement that it's 1am and Dave & Buster's is closing.
I tell the group I'm leaving. The girl and I exchange numbers.
“Let's be friends!” she says.
“Absolutely!” I reply.
She texts me later, but I never text her back. If I never text her back, the last half-hour of this night can stay perfect in my memory.
“Nice meeting you guys!”
As I'm walking out, I hear the guy shout, “Hey Lee, you get the shirt?”
I turn around. I say nothing. I take the WINNER shirt out of the bag and hold it up. I haven't smiled like that all day.
I'm a goddamn WINNER.
What I learned from being in a Dave & Buster's for 13.5 hoursThe same things that made my D&B experience suffocating for 13.5 straight hours are the exact reasons people go there. When my new friend had an awful day, D&B offered an escape. You play games, you drink, and you even get to go home with a new ball.
But it's not about the ball, obviously. It's what the ball represents -- and it represents being focused on a meaningless goal for a night. To get that ball. To scrape together enough tickets. To forget that the world outside getting that ball exists. It's the same in a casino. All that matters is that next spin, that next card coming out of the deck.
Sure, if you break it down, I spent about $200 on two meals, three drinks, video gameplay, a t-shirt, and a mug. Was it a good value? Hell no. D&B didn't become a $1 billion dollar company by offering bargains. But I got my money's worth. And it had nothing to do with the games, the food, or the drinks.
It was the people -- for a few hours I got to forget about my own life, and be in an environment that naturally brings people together. It's probably why I was miserable for 12 of the 13.5 hours I was there -- I was alone. The games and the drinks help bring people together, whether it's you and the girl you took out on a date, or some guy you just met who almost got on Shark Tank.
And sometimes you even get to walk out a winner.
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