Chuck E. Cheese’s—the pizzeria-slash-video-game-arcade that bills itself as the place “where a kid can be a kid”—has been making some changes of late aimed at appealing to millennial moms and dads. Thin-crust and gluten-free pizza have been added to the menu, along with wraps and an expanded beer and wine selection. Some locations have free Wi-Fi. Chuck himself, the chain’s guitar-playing mascot, has even grown up a little, exchanging his skater look for a pair of well-fitted jeans.
Its most sweeping change is yet on the horizon: After 39 years, it’s phasing out tokens in favor of rewards cards. Christelle Dupont, a spokeswoman for the restaurant’s parent company, CEC Entertainment, says the cards “will be easier for everyone.” Easier, of course, for Chuck E. Cheese’s to collect data on customers’ gaming habits and easier for gamers to track their scores and recover points if they lose their cards. Don’t worry: Dupont says the raffle-style tickets the basketball arcade games spit out—the ones you need to claim stuffed animals and other prizes—aren’t going anywhere.
The company’s decision could roil the Chuck E. Cheese’s currency market—which, yes, is a thing. Collecting arcade tokens is a “relatively new phenomenon,” says Rich Hartzog, who runs World Exonumia, an online marketplace and information resource for collectors of exonumia, or nonmoney money such as casino chips. A wave of nostalgia has powered pop culture in recent years, and because Chuck E. Cheese’s is one of the biggest and oldest arcade chains operating in the U.S., its tokens dominate the ersatz coin trade.
For collectors, the influx of new tokens could cause the low end of the market to collapse. Billions of Chuck E. Cheese’s tokens have been distributed over the years. At least 75 million more are about to become collectors’ items, estimating conservatively, as the company says each of its 598 stores has about 125,000 on hand, with some of the larger locations carrying as many as 160,000. “The common bulk tokens will decrease greatly in value,” Hartzog says. “It isn’t the normal supply-vs.-demand situation, as the collectible Chuck E. Cheese tokens are already the obsolete ones,” and now there will just be more obsolete tokens. (For dedicated Skee ballers who buy bulk tokens to shave a few cents off the price per game, doing so is still a value proposition; each token will be transferable to the cards at face value, 25¢.)
Rarer tokens such as the ones imprinted with the location of the restaurant they were destined for—standard practice until 1982—or with an image of Chuck or the tokens’ original motto, “In Pizza We Trust,” can go for about $25 and are unlikely to diminish in value. Those printed with the chain’s original name, Pizza Time Theatre, are even more valuable. There’s also the famous set of tokens created for a store in Santa Ana, Calif., in the late 1970s that arrived defective and had to be sent back to the company mint in Cincinnati: The location never opened, and only nine coins were spared from the melting pot. Hartzog says those can go for $1,000 each.
Matt Rivera, the in-house currency historian at CEC Entertainment, has a personal collection of 4,000 tokens that’s worth about $1,000—essentially face value. “I’m a huge Chuck E. Cheese fan,” he says. “It’s like baseball cards; it’s a hobby.” Fortunately for Rivera, he also works in customer service, so it’s not just a hobby—it’s still a job.