It was no use. The police cars were getting closer. Adam Whitmore, a Good Counsel High School student, was driving fast but running out places to turn. That's when he wheeled around and headed straight into the path of an oncoming squad car.
"I can't believe it!" a voice shouted from a radio speaker. "The Thief has turned around and he's coming at you, Car 8!"
A flash, an explosion, and the images disappeared. Not a bad dream. Not a bad game, either.
"This is the best machine I've seen in a while," Whitmore said, digging for another quarter. And video games such as Thief may be the best new source of local revenue municipalities have seen in a long while.
Last year, according to state officials, College Park's local tax on coin-operated machines covered $11,7l8 of its $2.3 million budget. In the same way, Rockville picked up $37,100. As video games proliferate,, more and more municipalities are passing tax legislation that allows them to take up to 10 percent of the money put into coin-operated games within their borders.
In fiscal 1974, the first full year Maryland allowed cities, towns and counties to collect what was then chiefly a pinball-machine tax, the industry was grossing $15.4 million statewide, according to Marvin Bond, assistant to the state comptroller. But with the recent explosion in video games, he said, the coin-operated entertainment business in Maryland pushed the total to $50 million last year--up 37 percent from the year before.
Although the legions of videoid invaders and earthling defenders continue to grow, game operators say the glittering piles of countless quarters local officials dream of may vanish if the taxing trend isn't reversed.
"All these local municipalities think they've found a whipping boy with these machines that they think they can squeeze money out of," said Mike Lester, vice president of Hunter Vending Company, an Arlington firm that operates machines in Maryland. "But in the end they're going to find there's nothing left to tax."
Hunter Vending and five other companies recently formed the Amusement Machine Operators Association (now 28 members strong) with two major goals in mind: to fight the trend toward high local taxes and to improve the tarnished image of the games and the arcades that house them.
Game machine owners say that what looks like an easy-money venture is actually a highly competitive and expensive operation, despite the skyrocketing number of customers.
Bond said that when a machine first hits the market and is at the height of its popularity, its average take is $300 a week. After the novelty begins to fade, a good machine in a good location still will bring in around $200 weekly.
Machine owners say they usually must pay 50 percent of this income to the owners of the establishments where the machines are located. From what remains must come the costs of overhead, wages and maintenance.
The average video game costs $3,000 and wears out in two years, according to Lester. Thus operators who want to stay in business beyond that time must set aside money for replacements.
After expenses are covered, Lester said, the profit margin is sometimes as little as 6 percent.
Montgomery County levies a 7 percent tax and Prince George's has a 2 percent amusement-machine tax in areas not affected by any city tax on game machines. In fiscal 1981, Montgomery collected $165,512 from these taxes and Prince George's received $90,114.
Some local governments, such as College Park's City Council, are considering raising their taxes on video machines from modest levels--in the College Park case 4 1/2 percent--to the 10 percent maximum allowed by state law. Others, including Greenbelt and New Carrollton, already have brought their amusement machine taxes up to the limit.
The machine operators find it difficult to fight local tax ordinances on so many different fronts, Lester said. What they hope to do, he added, is persuade the state legislature to eliminate coin-operated games from the current amusement tax and substitute a lower tax based on "awareness that we are not able to pass along a consumer tax, and that the tax comes directly from the operators' profits."
In addition to the increased revenue, municipal officials offered other reasons for passing coin-game taxes. Some, such as College Park's city administrator, Leon Shore, said that, unlike property taxes, game-machine taxes charge those who have extra money to spend on entertainment.
The machine owners, however, said the tax never reaches the players, and instead burdens the operators.
"This was supposed to be a consumer tax, but that's not the way it's turning out," said Dick Colt, president of Bell Coin Machine Company in Mount Rainier. "There's no way we can pass along the tax. . . . You can't make it 30 cents a play instead of a quarter."
Other municipal officials say the tax on video games and pinball machines helps pay for stepped-up police surveillance of arcades and other establishments with machines when they become hangouts for "undesirables."
Prince George's County police, however, have reported "no problems at all," according to spokesman Robert Law. Montgomery County Police spokesman Phil Caswell agreed, saying that the "establishments police themselves."
Law said the notion that video games promote societal decadence is unfounded, and added, "Good God! Some of the grocery stores have video games now.
"As far as them becoming a hangout, that's what they're there for," he continued. Juveniles "are better off playing with the machines than they are out doing vandalism when they have nothing to do."
Law said managers of restaurants and convenience stores have no trouble maintaining order among video game patrons, and in case of trouble they could " just pull the plug on the machine."
Lester, who is also chairman of the operators' association, said the belief that game machines attract hoodlums is common but "patently untrue." He said surveys taken at area arcades found that the average patron is "a 30-year-old, white, male, suburban professional. But if you ask someone who plays pinball, they'll tell you he's a 14-year-old with emotional problems and a police record."
To improve their image, Lester said, association members are planning to establish an information office, send representatives to municipal governments and sponsor more contests for charity.
"We run a tight ship here," said Jim (Pops) Vines, a retired Metrobus driver who works as a game room attendant at Mall Recreation in Greenbelt's Beltway Plaza. "There's no rough stuff going on. There ain't no abusive language. Parents know their kids'll be treated right in here."
Vines said arcade operators are sensitive to parents' concern that children might be tempted to skip school to play video games. He pointed out that Mall Recreation does not admit children under 16 during school hours unless they are accompanied by a parent.
"And we don't allow loitering, drinking or smoking," said Vines' colleague, Sam Hatcher, drawing deep on a filter cigarette. "Uh--'cept myself."