Consider the Lobster Claw: Why a Twist on an Arcade Classic Delights and Disturbs Us

The joystick is seized. The claw is positioned within the lobster tank. It descends on your command. Are you sure you want to claim your prize?  the claw.pngArizona resident Nate Ferra loves liberating prizes from arcade claw machines. He's quite adept at it too. Once at a Toys R Us, it took him less than three minutes to snatch a Mexican Betty Boop doll, a Japanese Betty Boop doll, and a brown bear with a blue nose from the inviting glass case. Occasionally he has less luck in his sporadic YouTube series, "Claw Machine Winning Around Town." The joysticks on those machines don't afford a huge amount of precision. Still, there is only one published video in which he finishes an outing without at least one prize. And on that autumn night in 2011, empty-handed in a Tempe parking lot, he felt... relief.

His uncharacteristic reaction is explained by the contents of that night's claw machine: live lobster. Confronting that twist on a classic game, his aficionado's impulse was to appreciate its novelty. Can you blame him? There's something irresistible about deploying the claw against a lobster, of all things. Pondering the prospect for the first time, it seems impossibly fitting and obvious. How did we have the claw and the restaurant lobster tank for so long without marrying them?

But as he stood, joy stick in hand, claw descending toward the lobster, Ferra began to feel conflicted. The prize was resisting! At first, it wasn't enough to dissuade him from further attempts. This man is a born claw machine operator. One doesn't acquire his skill leaving empty-handed. But at $2 a try, he soon told himself it was time to stop, a prelude to his parking lot reckoning. "I don't know what to say," he confessed to the camera. "My heart started racing. And I was like, Oh my God. I started to realize -- I thought they were docile or whatever, I didn't know they moved so fast and stuff. And it was kind of like fighting the claw, which would be cool if they didn't tape it up so it had a fair chance. It would be able to fight the claw. All I can say is that I'm glad I didn't win anything. And I'll probably never play that thing again. Because it's just creepy is what it is. It's really freaky and creepy. All right, I mean, it was an experience for sure."

Watching that moral confusion, I couldn't help but think of David Foster Wallace's essay "Consider the Lobster," published in August 2004 after the late, great novelist was sent by Gourmet to cover the Maine Lobster Festival. "Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?" he asked. "If you're tilting it from a container into the steaming kettle, the lobster will sometimes try to cling to the container's sides or even to hook its claws over the kettle's rim like a person trying to keep from going over the edge of a roof. And worse is when the lobster's fully immersed. Even if you cover the kettle and turn away, you can usually hear the cover rattling and clanking as the lobster tries to push it off... The lobster, in other words, behaves very much as you or I would behave if we were plunged into boiling water."  
He adds that the spectacle causes some cooks "to leave the kitchen altogether and to take one of those little lightweight plastic oven timers with them into another room and wait until the whole process is over." Compared to all that, grasping the lobster in a claw unlikely to hurt it and dropping it into a chute seems downright humane. So it is interesting that playing the claw game is enough to make us uncomfortably aware of the lobster's sentience in a way a mere lobster tank isn't.

That's my experience anyway.

I wasn't aware of these lobster machines, which have popped up in various United States locations in recent years, until last week, when I came across one at The Bear Flag Fish Company in Newport Beach, California. I go there for the fish tacos and the scallop burrito, itself a noteworthy innovation. Afforded those options, there is no situation in which I'd want to eat lobster.

But when I saw the game I had to play it:

lobster zone full.png


It's hard to articulate. If you came upon a BB gun in a field, then spied a tree stump 20 yards away with a tin can atop it, would you feel compelled to shoot? Can people skip stones in your presence without your wanting to join? Does something about the game Hungry Hungry Hippos delight you? Do you have a desire to hunt that is totally divorced from a desire to kill animals? Either you understand the impulses I'm grasping to explain or you don't possess them.

So I stood at the machine, trying my best to guide the claw over a lobster... but as it descended harmlessly, grasping nothing (I am nowhere near as adept at the claw as our friend from Arizona) I felt... relief. This despite the fact that I would experience no discomfort eating a lobster burrito right now, and that I would much rather kill a lobster than a swordfish (blackened on nachos they're divine) let alone the cows made into my In N Out burgers or the pigs in my bacon.

There are, to be sure, people for whom victory in the lobster tank claw game brings uncomplicated bliss:

As a commenter on one YouTube video suggested, this woman's attitude toward the lobsters, whatever you think of it, makes a lot more sense than the reaction of people like me who feel bad trying to catch a lobster but go about guilelessly consuming, for example, carne asada enchiladas: "This is way more humane than our factory farms and commercial slaughter houses...and I bet most of you don't think twice about eating a commercially produced meat...hypocrites."

Said Foster Wallace:     

If a tank of food lobsters is out in the sunlight or a store's fluorescence, the lobsters will always congregate in whatever part is darkest. Fairly solitary in the ocean, they also clearly dislike the crowding that's part of their captivity in tanks, since one reason why lobsters' claws are banded on capture is to keep them from attacking one another under the stress of close-quarter storage.

For that reason, the lobster claw game propaganda below is actually convincing when it argues that the relatively roomy tanks the lobsters inhabit are more humane than typical supermarket tanks:

The video's assertion that the typical "claw game" lobster has a fighting chance to return to the ocean is self-evidently absurd, but I admit I'd rather live in the claw game than the supermarket tank.

So what gives?

"The lobsters are about to get eaten... why does the claw machine aspect matter?" another You Tuber asks, responding to a series of comments about the alleged cruelty on display in the game. What was it that made me decide, mid-game, that I didn't really want to catch it? When I got home and started Googling around, why was it so easy to find a guy like Nate Ferra who surprised himself when he began playing the game and felt a moral intuition that something was amiss?

Perhaps it's just that, like boiling lobsters, operating a claw as they scamper around forces us to confront brutal realities about eating animals as food that modern society typically lets us evade.

That has always affected some people more than others. 
But I think there's something more.

Watching cows being slaughtered is quite brutal. But imagining them walking unknowingly towards their own deaths, whether you find it horrific or neutral, isn't something with which we can identify.

We wouldn't experience it as they seem to...

A claw descending to snatch us away? It isn't as if that ever happens. Yet we can imagine it happening. And the lobsters don't react to the claw like the tiny aliens in Toy Story. They scamper away as if terrified of a cruel, mechanized doom that we'd associate with a descending claw. "The truth is that if you, the Festival attendee, permit yourself to think that lobsters can suffer and would rather not," Foster Wallace wrote, "the Maine Lobster Festival can begin to take on aspects of something like a Roman circus or medieval torture-fest." But not nearly so much as the claw game, since boiling lobsters is integral to eating them, while the claw game is mere diversion and entertainment. It may be no coincidence that Ferra, who was more disturbed by the lobster game than any other player I've encountered, is also the man who is most invested in and delighted by claw games generally as amusement. Perhaps it isn't the notion of catching a reluctant lobster that bothers us so much as the notion of doing so for kicks.