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 (US$250) 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 Japanese arcade sector, a market still dominated by teens and pre-teens.
However, 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 about 25 percent of Japanese now aged 65 or over — a figure projected to rise to 40 percent by 2050 — everything from karaoke clubs to stock brokerages are chasing the “silver yen.”
Arcades, which have the advantage of being in public 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. Babyboomers 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 added.
Some arcades have installed more comfortable chairs to cater to those who cannot cope so well with hours on hard seats.
Others have instructed their staff to do regular rounds of the parlor and talk to elderly customers to make them feel welcome and at home.
Developers tout the possible benefits of playing their products.