Jul 31, 2023

Charlotte 'fish game' arcades stay open despite police warnings, court ruling

Drive around Charlotte and you'll see neon-splashed, casino-like arcades advertising something called the "fish game" in shopping centers, many in low-income areas, across the city.

Some law enforcement agencies say they're illegal, and a recent court ruling reinforced that games of chance aren't allowed in North Carolina outside of a few locations on tribal land and the state lottery — even if their owners say some level of skill is required. Charlotte-Mecklenburg police have warned operators they might be breaking the law.

But none of that makes much difference for some local arcades around Charlotte that continue to operate as normal and openly advertise their games.

One such arcade boasted a big red "Arcade" sign over blacked-out windows inside a strip mall on North Tryon Street.

Inside, the arcade looked a lot like a mini casino. Lights flashed and bells rang above games that resembled slot machines.

Toward the back, two men sat at a long table above an embedded video screen. They slapped buttons in rapid sequence, "firing" bullets and lasers at fish, dragons and sea creatures on the screen.

A man shouted "Cash out!" and the arcade's manager, Rese Beasley, brought him a stack of money that he had won from playing.

"Everybody loves fish tables," Beasley said. "It seems like that's become the hottest thing now."

The man who won was Edwin Beasley, who puffed a cigarette as he counted his money.

"I came in with $20, so right now I got $145," he said.

The object of the game, he said, is simple. You feed money into the machine to buy "bullets," then used the bullets to shoot fish swimming across the screen. The bigger the fish or creature you kill, the more money you win. You can also higher amounts by buying more expensive bullets or lasers.

"The more you go up, the more money it be, the higher you play," Birch said.

To some law enforcement, that sounds a lot like gambling — which is illegal in North Carolina, with exceptions for the state lottery and on Native American lands.

But arcade operators insist the games are legal because they require the players to do more than just pull a slot-machine lever.

"It's basically all skill," said one employee who declined to give his name outside an arcade on Independence Boulevard.

North Carolina's gambling laws have a loophole for games that depend on skill and dexterity, rather than chance.

"It's a dexterity motion. You can get a reward off of what you decide you want to do as far as moving left, right, center up, down. That's all it is," the employee said.

He argued that exempts the games from North Carolina's ban on video sweepstakes machines.

But it's hard to know how much of a player's winnings are determined by skill, and how much is determined by game software, which ultimately controls which fish swim onto the screen and how many bullets it takes to kill them.

A ruling from the state Supreme Court in February found that games involving some skill or dexterity can still be illegal if they mostly depend on chance.

Even some players, like one who only gave his first name, Brandon, said the game can often feel like a game of chance.

"Sometimes you do good. Sometimes you do bad. You know what I'm saying? It's luck," he said.

The North Carolina Attorney General's Office hasn't clarified if the fish games are legal or not, and that's made enforcement tricky for local police.

Some North Carolina counties and towns — including Greensboro, Hickory and Concord — have tried to crack down with warnings and occasional arrests and machine seizures.

In Charlotte, police say they sent letters to 100 arcades in November, warning the games might violate state law. Some arcades appear to have closed since then. But many others have stayed open and continue to attract new players.

Those new players include a Charlotte construction worker who in December sheepishly walked up to an arcade that remained open on Independence Boulevard.

The man only gave his first name: Michael. He said he played for the first time the day before and didn't do well.

"I lose. Yeah, $500," he said.

Now he was back, hoping to win.

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