Why I'll Never Stop Playing the Claw Machine

I can’t tell you how thrilling the sound of a plush toy dropping into the winner’s chute was for 10-year-old me. Strangely enough, it’s equally as thrilling for 31-year-old me.
Publish date:
October 26, 2012
games, claw machine

I was a little too happy to discover a beat-up Claw machine on the sidewalk near 105th Street, by my boyfriend's new apartment. When it came into view, I promptly imposed myself upon it, winning a white bear and a wolf cub in a matter of minutes. I returned the next day for a quick dose of fun and won a monkey. I have no idea what I’m going to do with these animals; I just knew I had to win them.

That's another reason why I love New York. You can be a well-dressed woman battling it out on a Claw machine in the middle of the day on 105th Street, stuffing plush animals in your purse like they're contraband, and no one will no one say anything.

As I got ready to leave my boyfriend’s place, stuffing the bear, the monkey and the wolf cub into my purse, I saw he’d displayed the Santa that I’d won him in a Claw machine in an East Village movie theater.

I can’t tell you how thrilling the sound of a plush toy dropping into the winner’s chute was for 10-year-old me. Strangely enough, it’s equally as thrilling for 31-year-old me.

It began at pizza chain called Little Caesar’s. They had a small arcade, plus a Claw machine -– you know, that Plexiglas box filled to the brim with stuffed animals, yours for the grabbing if you held that mixture of moxie, knowledge of angles, physics and luck. I had none of these, but I did have an obsession with stuffed animals and a knack for winning madcap games.

My mother saw the magic of the Claw, too, and soon, she was playing alongside me. She became my enabler. She’d take my sister and me to the restaurant to “eat” as a special treat.

And we began to win. Big time. It’s like Malcolm Gladwell said: You have to put in your 10,000 hours. We were a triple threat. Sometimes we’d win 10 animals between the three of us. Then it got bigger: 15, even close to 20 once. It was almost scary. We managed our booty responsibly, keeping what prizes we wanted, and donating sacks of stuffed animals to Goodwill.

We moved on, trying out other Claw machines -- at the Wal-Mart and Meijers -- but we always came back to Little Caesars, the place where our luck was best.

The Claw’s metal tentacles have grabbed their way into other areas of my life.

For example, as a writer, I have actually used the Claw machine as a way to express how I feel. In a 2007 blog post about the changing future of Coney Island’s Astroland, I ended the story with, “I tried to win a dirty stuffed clownfish from the Claw machine, and lost two quarters.” It was supposed to be a metaphor about the boardwalk’s gentrification.

I’ve delved into YouTube Claw videos -- especially the channel of this dude Matt who makes eerily relaxing videos of him playing games around the country.

I’ve studied Claw history -- in college, some friends and I visited Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum in Detroit, where we saw a vintage Claw machine -- called a “grab machine” back then. It came complete with old-fashioned stuffed animals inside and, if I remember correctly, a wooden claw. (My memory might be tricking me, but it was still marvelous.) The grab machine was too old to actually be played, but for me this exhibit was way better than "The Scream” at the MoMA.

I came away from this visit to the Museum with a bear plucked from a working Claw machine, somehow.

Last winter, I took a vacation to France. While spending a few days in Bordeaux, I met a charming French gentleman, Luc, at a café. He wanted to show me around, and I was excited because there was a carnival going on. Better yet, I could see they had Claw machines -- dozens of them, all different kinds!

As we got closer, I broke free and raced between the rows of Claw machines like a pinball, getting more manic by the second. Oh non! I didn’t know what denominations of Euros to use on the machines. I jumped up and down, wringing my hands. “Luc, help!”

“Oh, non,” Luc said, clearly embarrassed by my antics. “You are not really serious.” It was a statement/suggestion, not a question.

I stopped, suddenly aware of myself. Playing the Claw had always let me be joyfully unaware, like a kid.

“No,” I whispered. “I just think they’re funny, that’s all.” I snapped a few photos of the machines and stared at them wistfully, and then we left to go look at architecture.

It is one of my great regrets that I backed down so quickly, all to appear sophisticated to one random Frenchman.

From that moment on I decided to be honest. So listen up: I love playing the Claw machine -- a game for children and carnivals -- on the reg. And I’m pretty good at it. I will play in Laundromats or on the street. I like winning stuffed animals. It’s just part of who I am. Do you have any quarters?