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Video game centers becoming social hubs for Japan’s elderly

Kyodo

In contrast to their heyday, video game arcades in cities are turning into social hubs for the nation’s elderly, replacing traditional community centers and day care facilities.

Experts say the trend reflects the fact that elderly people are increasingly bored with activities at traditional facilities, such as shogi chess and origami art, and are looking for new pastimes.

Kazuko Matsuo, 84, is one of them. “I’m usually here on days when I don’t have to go to hospital,” Matsuo said recently, as she skillfully played computer games at the Rakuichi Rakuza arcade in the city of Chikushino, Fukuoka Prefecture, which has more than 200 game machines. “I enjoy giving out the prizes I win to my neighbors.”

She lives with her husband, along with her son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren in the neighboring town of Nakagawa. She used to play gateball, but stopped when she hurt her back more than 10 years ago.

While she was looking for an activity to kill time, she stumbled across the game arcade. She now commutes to the game center by car, driving 40 minutes or so one way, four days a week. She at times stays from around noon until the store closes at 9 p.m.

Rakuichi Rakuza started seeing more elderly customers in groups around five years ago. Clusters of senior citizens in front of the store before it opens at 9 a.m., sharing home-made pickles as they wait, are a common sight.

Such elderly customers have created a business boon for an industry that has long been in decline.

The number of game arcades stood at 5,400 nationwide in 2014, one fifth of the peak in 1986, at 26,500, according to National Police Agency statistics. An official at the All Nippon Amusement Machine Operators’ Union, an industry body of game machine centers, attributed the downtrend to a decline in the number of children, who once formed the traditional customer base for such outlets, and the proliferation of smartphone games.

The game industry is keen to tap the emerging demand among the elderly. At Rakuichi Rakuza in Tsukushino, game prizes used to be stuffed toys and sweets; they now include agricultural produce such as sweet potatoes and cooking oil.

The response from customers has been encouraging. Game arcade employees pick prizes that satisfy elderly customers, visiting the farmers who grow such produce directly and making sure they are of high quality.

Capcom, a major game software developer, also shifted to target the elderly around 2012. Managers of the firm’s amusement facilities regularly visit nursing care facilities to learn how to handle wheelchairs and teach the elderly how to use game machines.

Businesses have tried to create an environment in which the elderly can communicate with other users, and not get absorbed too much in playing games alone. An official at Wide Leisure, which operates the Rakuichi Rakuza chain, said the firm set up benches in the store so customers can sit and chat.

“It is common knowledge in our company that we cannot survive without tapping the elderly market,” the official said.

Yoshiki Morimoto, professor of welfare at Rikkyo University, said the activities and tastes of elderly customers are diversifying. “If the elderly have more options to foster a community network, it can help them keep from being isolated,” he said, noting that he sees such trends positively.