A party at the bowling alley became a common option by the late '80s, and I went to one today, so they're still at least somewhat common. Yet in 25 years a lot has changed, reflecting the larger social/cultural changes.
First, the guests are dropped off at the bowling alley itself — not at the birthday boy's house, where they'll pre-game before the host parents haul them off in a couple of mini-vans to the bowling alley. I've written a lot about the death of guest-host relationships during falling-crime / cocooning times. Each side is suspicious of the other — the hosts fear being over-run by and taken advantage of by guests, and the guests fear mistreatment (or whatever, I'm still not sure) by the hosts. It is primarily a guest-side change, just like the decline of trick-or-treating or hitch-hiking.
Now they have to meet in a third-party-supervised place like a bowling alley (or the mall / shopping district for trick-or-treating). Before, they would've met inside the host's home.
Then once the kids are dropped off, the parents will hang around to some degree before the event is over and they take their kid back. (Every kid today had a parent present.) Rather than drop them off, go do something for awhile, and either pick their kid up later or have them dropped off by the hosts. Again we see parents being so paranoid that they won't just leave their kids alone in the company of the hosts. Even if it's a bowling alley with only nuclear families present in a lily-white region and neighborhood, and during a Sunday afternoon.
(I can't emphasize often enough that, just because you live in a diverse shithole part of the country, doesn't mean that everyone else does. If parental paranoia is palpable in an all-white smallish town — if it is a national phenomenon — then it does not have to do with protecting kids against the dangers of a diverse megapolis.)
At least the parents won't hover directly over their child at a party, but the assembled grown-ups will form a ring around the kids, or form a side-group of chatting grown-ups next to the kids. Line-of-sight supervision remains unbroken. They can't trust their kid to use his own brain because he doesn't have one — intuition requires experience, and helicopter parenting blocks out experience from their kid's upbringing. It's more of a programming.
One of the kindergarten-aged guests politely declined eating a piece of birthday cake because it had "artificial frosting." He didn't know that (for all I know, it was made of natural poison). Still, as though if it were organic sugar, it wouldn't wind you up, put you in an insulin coma, rot your teeth, etc.
A lot of these brand-new food taboos that were wholly absent during the 1980s are just roundabout, rationalized ways to fragment the community. Sorry, my kid can't come to anyone's party because you'll have traces of peanuts in something and he'll die. So don't mind his absence from all celebrations that might bind a peer group together.
As for the actual bowling, you see both major societal influences at work — the self-esteem crap and the hyper-competitive crap. Quite a combination, eh? All of our kids are going to compete as though their lives depended on it, yet they're all going to enjoy the exact same rewards afterward.
The bumpers being up is not about self-esteem. That's just helping them learn, like riding a bike with training wheels at first. But everything else is. Like letting them cross the line as much as they want without penalizing them at all. Or cheering after any number of pins get knocked down — don't you think the kids can tell that they'll get praise no matter what they do? And hence they can just BS the whole thing and get full credit? Gee, I wonder if that'll pop up a little later in life...
The hyper-competitive stuff is way more visible and more offensive, though. If they knock down more than 5 pins, they're going to do some kind of victory dance, boys being worse than girls. Congratulations: it should've been a gutterball, but the bumpers let you knock down 7 whole pins. "Oh yeah! Uh-huh!"
And they're so eager to generally show off that they don't care how awful their technique is. Not like I'm even an amateur bowler, but I know that we're not doing the shotput here. The boys are again way worse than the girls on this one. (The winner today among four boys and two girls was one of the girls. She creamed the rest, not from being good, but from not crashing and burning in an attempt to show off.)
Have you guys seen kids throw a bowling ball lately? When I was their age, we stood with our legs wide apart, held the ball from behind with both hands, and rolled or lobbed it as close to the middle as possible. It's a granny-looking move, but when you're in kindergarten, you don't have the upper body strength to throw it in a more normal way. Heaven forbid you teach that lesson to kids these days, though. They're going to prove that they can do it. Only not.
They carry the ball with both hands near their chest, running up to the line with their left side forward (if right-handed), and then heaving or shotputting the ball with their right hand, turning their upper body to face the pins when they're near the line. This must be the worst way to release a bowling ball, and if the bumpers were not up, every one of these releases would go straight into the gutter. Not meander their way into the gutter — like, not even halfway down the lane, it's already sunk.
One kid did this with such enthusiasm that after shotputting the ball, his upper body carried itself forward over his feet, and he landed on his hands and knees — over the line, every time.
So, who cares if they're not trying to achieve the goal that the game assigns them? They're showing how eager they are to display intensity ("passion," later on), and that's all that matters in a dog-eat-dog world. The rules can be bent or changed on the fly, as long as the most intense person will win. After all, the parents aren't correcting or penalizing them.
One final odd but sadly not-too-surprising sight: the setting was a college student union, yet there were only two groups bowling, both family-and-kid-related. There were a handful of students playing pool for about 10 minutes, then that was it, no replacements. No students in the arcade area. On the other side of the rec area was the food court, which was closed on Sunday but which still had about a half-dozen students spread out.
Doing what? Why, surfing the web — what else? Most had a laptop out, one was on a school-provided terminal, and one girl was reading a textbook or doing homework with her back to everyone else.
If you haven't been on a college campus in awhile, you'd be shocked how utterly dead the unions are. Like, there are stronger signs of life in a gravestone showroom. Most of the students are locked in their rooms farting around on the internet / texting or video games. The few who venture out go to the library or the gym, where they can be around others and within the view of others, but still hide behind the expectation that you just don't go up and interact with people in those places. Unearned, risk-free ego validation — what's not to love for Millennials?