Gaming arcades have always been the centre of social interaction for many members of the gaming community. For a moment in time, arcades were inseparable from gaming. Whether you were challenging other players to a round of Street Fighter or grinding out Donkey Kong to become the undefeated high-score champion, gaming arcades used to be the best place to get a good gaming experience while interacting with others that shared the same interests as you. However, with video games becoming much more affordable and accessible now, gaming arcades are slowly losing their charm and Japan is suffering the most.
The Akihabara neighbourhood in Tokyo is famously known as the “mecca” of basically all things related to anime and video games. Unfortunately, the iconic Sega Akihabara Building 2 closed its doors on 30th August 2020 and things have only been going downhill for gaming arcades in Japan since then. A report published by The Japan Times reviews the challenges faced by gaming arcades in Japan and how the once-revered places for video games are slowly going extinct.
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While gaming arcades have been on a downward trend ever since PC and console gaming became much more dominant, gaming arcades in Japan face a much bigger challenge than just competition; COVID-19. Social interaction has always been the most important aspect of arcade gaming. It’s what set it apart from multiplayer video games; you go to a gaming arcade and socialise with others that share common interests as you. However, if everyone’s practising social distancing to avoid a deadly disease, the socialising feature of gaming arcades goes away.
According to a police white paper, the number of gaming arcades has been decreasing since 1986, from where there used to be 26,573 of them across Japan to now only 4,022, as of 2019. This number has declined even more since the pandemic, as many businesses that rely on physical interaction have closed down. If you’ve played the famous Yakuza video games series, you’re probably familiar with the Shinjuku Playland Carnival arcade in Tokyo’s Kabukicho entertainment district. However, that too closed down in November 2020.
“The amusement market continues to face a harsh operating environment given the direct impact it sustains from the COVID-19 pandemic,” Square Enix states in its financial results released on 13th May 2021. CAPCOM, too, in its financial results released on 29th July 2021, discussed how the pandemic has influenced the company’s arcade sales. As a result of COVID-19, the entire industry has faced the consequences!
For decades, bowling alleys functioned as a form of entertainment for people. By the early 1970s, people were introduced to gaming arcades as a place for amusement and social interaction. Not long after, gaming arcades completely dominated the industry across the world, particularly in Japan. Even until the early 1990s, gaming arcades became an immense source of income because of the recreation they brought to children and adults alike — a virtual environment to escape from reality.
However, with time, companies like Nintendo released consoles that were both convenient and affordable, and gaming arcades started to gradually decline. With the debut of the internet, online multiplayer games became more common and the social interaction aspect of gaming arcades, which was once physical, now became virtual. Yet, gaming arcades still didn’t die out completely. Over the years, they became a centre for nostalgia — a place for people to reminisce about their past. In 2010, Nikkei reported that gaming arcades were increasingly becoming a place for social interaction among elderly people.
Unfortunately, much of what set gaming arcades apart — social interaction — has been restricted due to COVID-19. When Japan declared a state of emergency because of the pandemic, Taito and Sega — two gaming arcade giants — completely shut down their gaming arcade centres temporarily across the country. As a result, not only did sales suffer but the enthusiasm for gaming arcades also diminished. The gaming arcades that didn’t close had to take necessary precautions, such as using disinfectants and practising social distancing, but the whole ambience of gaming arcades was no longer the same.
“Business was tough, but I had thought we could get out of this someday,” Noriyuki Shimoda, the manager of Shinjuku Playland Carnival, told The Asahi Shimbun in an interview about the closure of the beloved arcade. Yet, the Japanese government still hasn’t much or any attention towards the desolated condition of gaming arcades in the country after the pandemic. The government continues to throw a blind eye towards the concern and the decades-old gaming history slowly fades away, as a result.
“The government is doing nothing to help us out of this hopeless situation,” the manager at the Tokyo arcade, Mikado, Yasushi Fukamachi, told The Japan Times in an interview. Mikado’s owner, Minoru Ikeda, was forced to start a crowdfunding campaign in 2020 and raised ¥37,328,892 — almost $339,925 — to save the dying business. However, not all gaming arcades can do so!
“Although amusement center operations, which had slumped due to the impact of COVID-19, have entered a recovery trend, it is expected to take some time for the recovery of purchasing motivation of customers,” stated Sega Sammy Holdings in one of its recent financial statements. Similarly, Square Enix has also stated that the company is noticing a recovery in its gaming arcades, particularly those in the suburbs and shopping malls. It seems like gaming arcades haven’t gone extinct completely and there may still be hope for some. However, this may be the biggest challenge that gaming arcades in Japan have had to overcome since forever!
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