Grandma got game: More elderly patronizing arcades

September 7th, 2011 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Not-so-heavy medals

A recently released report by the Japan Productivity Center noted a steady decrease in leisure expenditures. In 2010, the Japanese public spent ¥67.97 trillion on recreation, a 2.1 percent decrease from the previous year and the second year in a row that statistic registered a deficit. Certain activities, however, have posted increases. Driving and eating out remain the most popular things people spend money on during their free time. They also spent about 1 percent more on theatrical films, tourism and amusement parks in 2010; and expenditures for activities “promoted on television” saw a 6.2 percent increase. The pastimes that contributed to the minus figure were mainly sports (except for bicycling and running) and goraku (distractions), a euphemism for what are generally considered non-constructive pleasures, such as gambling, pachinko and computer or arcade games.

Spending on goraku, in fact, was down by a whopping 4.7 percent, a reality that has prodded the arcade industry, both operators and game producers, to concentrate promotion on a demographic that they previously ignored: the elderly. As reported in this space last year, pachinko has become more popular in recent years among retired people who have nothing better to do and few opportunities for social interaction. However, the majority of older folks are on fixed incomes, and pachinko can be expensive. According to the Asahi Shimbun many are now turning to game arcades, or “game centers” in the Japanese parlance, and the arcades themselves are bending over backwards to accommodate them.

The Asahi visited a number of arcades in Tokyo and interviewed older people who said that they patronized game centers due to boredom and in order to “make new friends.” The manager of an arcade in Katsushika Ward told the newspaper that he noticed an increase in the number of elderly patrons about two years ago, and that now “between 80 and 90 percent” of the visitors during weekday mornings and afternoons are older folks.

The most popular arcade games among the elderly are so-called “medal games,” which reward good eye-hand coordination skills with tokens called “medals.” Unlike pachinko balls these medals cannot be exchanged for premiums which in turn can be exchanged for cash, but they can be used to play more games, which explains their popularity: Older folks can spend more time at the arcade, where they chat with friends, drink tea and munch on snacks for hours on end. The Japan Amusement Machinery Manufacturers Association reports that revenues have decreased by almost 20 percent since 2005, so arcades are actively catering to these customers with more medal games as well as special areas with tatami-covered platforms for relaxing and eating.

Game maker and arcade operator Namco is reportedly developing new games and attractions specially for the older set, including a campaign wherein seniors who bring friends to arcades get medal tokens for free. One arcade offers double medal prizes to seniors on Thursdays, and a few have even installed massage chairs for customers who may exert themselves too much in front of the game machines, as well as blankets. Some game centers even offer free refreshments to patrons over 65 and Konami’s newest arcade games come with instructions in larger type so that people with older eyes can read them. That may not be necessary, though, since many game arcades stock “senior eyeglasses,” which they loan out to patrons for free.

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