Growing market of elderly arcade gamers

Game arcades in Japan are not just for the young, but also, for the young-at-heart. Photo / Thinkstock
Game arcades in Japan are not just for the young, but also, for the young-at-heart. Photo / Thinkstock

Once the preserve of rowdy teenagers, game arcades in Japan are rapidly becoming the hippest place to hang out for a whole new generation - their grandparents.

With plenty of time on their hands and cash in their pockets, well-behaved elderly customers make up a significant and growing number of those prepared to feed coins into machines for a few hours' entertainment.

The so-called "silver market" is increasingly important for industries in Japan, where a plunging birth rate and a long life expectancy is leaving society increasingly top-heavy.

And for the elderly themselves, arcades offer a chance to find fun and friendship away from the more traditional pursuits of old age.

Rather than the fast-paced shoot-em-ups or the hand-to-hand combat video games their grandchildren play, older gamers are more likely to splash their cash on "medal games", in which players drop coins into slots where they hope they will knock over other piles of coins.

Noboru Shiba, 68, said he began visiting the arcade at a shopping mall near his home in Kiba, Tokyo after he retired from his job as a taxi dispatcher seven years ago.

"I used to stay home, and just watch TV," he said.

"I would have gone senile if I had kept on doing that. I needed to get out of the house," he said, his eyes fixed on the jackpot of Bing Bing Pirates, a cross between coin-shunting and bingo.

Shiba says during his three- or four-hour visits he usually uses the piles of coins he has previously won, but has spent as much as 20,000 yen (NZ$326) some months.

"When my grandson comes to visit, I show him my bag of coins. I drop the bag on a table and it makes a really loud 'thud'. He gets a kick out of that," he said.

There are no official statistics for elderly game players, who occupy a minority share of an overall 500 billion yen Japanese arcade sector, a market still dominated by teens and pre-teens.

But industry professionals all agree that the number of customers in the autumn of their lives has been steadily increasing for the past five or so years.

With around 25 per cent of Japanese now aged 65 or over - a figure projected to rise to 40 per cent by 2050 - everything from karaoke clubs to stock brokerages are chasing the "silver yen".

Arcades, which have the advantage of being in places like shopping malls, where elderly people go regularly, are actively chasing older gamers, especially during the school day when younger players are - or at least should be - busy.

Yuji Takano, a spokesman for Namco, the creators of Pac-Man, a game that has been a global phenomenon for 30 years, said today's elderly have grown up around such entertainment and feel comfortable with it.

"In the 1980s, we saw an explosion of household video game consoles. Baby-boomers have seen that, and they are more familiar with games than the elderly of the past," he said.

"We are making our game arcades into places that engage a broad range of customers by using bright, pop decorations and setting up wide aisles for people to move around easily," he said.

Some arcades have installed more comfortable chairs to cater for those who cannot cope so well with hours on hard seats.

Others have instructed their staff to do regular rounds of the parlour and talk to elderly customers to make them feel welcome.

Developers tout the possible benefits of playing their products.

"Some customers say games force them to use their fingers and think strategically. That might help keep them in good health and lessen the impact of growing old," said Hiroyuki Tanaka, spokesman for game powerhouse Sega.

"We as a company are mulling ways to better attract the senior generation," he said.

In some cases, arcades have become a place to meet new people.

"Here, I see people from different towns and can talk honestly about the troubles in my life without worrying about it becoming neighbourhood gossip," said Mitsuko Nishino, 63, who visits a game arcade every other day.

"I don't think about anything when I am playing games. I am so focused, there is no stress," she said.

"I used to play tennis. But for that, you need to ask your friends, set a time and reserve a court. It was a pain to do all that," she said.

"I can play games whenever I want and not bother with other people. When my two sons were young, I always told them not to go to game arcades because they could be a bad influence. But now I come here two or three times a week and enjoy it. I talk to people. I spend the day just having fun."

- AFP

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