Claw machine arcades are one of Taiwan’s great novelties, inspiring the curiosity, delight and bewilderment of travelers and new-comers alike. If you’re wondering what a claw machine arcade is, well, it’s exactly what it sounds like: an arcade filled exclusively with claw machines.
Before I came to Taiwan, I had never seen a claw machine arcade. I’d seen many a claw machine, sure, but usually only one or two at a time in the context of an arcade mostly full of other games. I’d never given them a passing thought. That is, until I arrived here.
Now, it feels, I’ve seen thousands! At the most recent count I can find from 2019, there were 8,000 claw arcades in Taiwan (although other articles from around the same time cite as many as 10,000). For context, at the end of 2019 there were 11,429 convenience stores in Taiwan, a density beaten only by South Korea. Which means, essentially, that in Taiwan you’re never more than a five minute walk from a convenience store or a claw machine arcade.
From what I’ve gathered (the two best articles I found are from Ketagalan Media and Atlas Obscura), the claw machine arcade scene really started blowing up in 2014, with the number of arcades almost doubling by 2018. They became so popular that the government had to issue an increase in the production of $10 NT coins.
What inspired this boom was low-stakes entry and investment for individuals – you see, one claw machine arcade is not solely a one-person operation. Landlords can convert storefronts into arcades, and then individual operators can purchase one claw machine, or several. They pay rent each month to the landlord, but above and beyond that the profits are their own. Many articles I read contributed the growing enthusiasm in this side-hustle to stagnating wages in Taiwan. It’s a simple way to add some extra income, without requiring too much time and effort. Claw machine arcades are also one of the biggest sources of entertainment tax revenue.
What’s the Draw?
Simply put, they’re fun. Playing a claw machine is a very non-committal, hassle-free form of entertainment, and you can spend as much or as little time as you want. They’re everywhere, so if any particular prize catches your eye and you have an extra $10 NT coin to spare, you can try for a win! It can be a nice pick-me-up after a long day, a fun family activity or something to do with your friends when you’re bored. When I was teaching, it was a great way for me to try to win some goodies for the prize-bag. The claw machine owners really have their fingers on the pulse of what draws people in, so there are always tempting options.
Depending on the landlord, machine owners and their target market, the arcades run the gamut from family-friendly to grungy and eerily-lit to full of adult toys to having trendy instagram-aesthetic vibes. Sometimes it feels like walking into a nightclub, what with the flashing lights and music. Many are open 24 hours, and they definitely have something for everyone. The variety of prizes is virtually endless. You can play for key chains, stuffed animals, anime figurines, handbags, electronics, and all manner of toys (some illicit).
The Future of Claw Machine Arcades
There is some question as to whether the claw machine arcade success is sustainable, especially after such a period of growth. According to the Ketagalan Media article, sales profit slowed after the expansion in 2017, as the increase in supply outpaced an increase in demand. Perhaps it is a bubble about to burst. Perhaps there is only so much claw-machine-playing the people of Taiwan can do!
On the other hand, some concerns have also been raised over the years about growing addiction problems. One psychiatrist has spoken to the media about the danger of such addiction, citing cases of men who have gone to extreme lengths to feed their habit, including spending their entire salary, taking out loans, and theft – all for a small prize that could be purchased at a store for a few hundred NT. One man spent his son’s tuition, and then convinced a friend to help him steal it back from the coin change machine.
Another concern has been the lack of adherence to legal standards – be it regarding goods sold, failure to follow laws and regulations, or proximity to schools. After finding that up to 70% of stores operating in major cities can be classified as “illegal”, it’s possible that the government will make efforts to more strictly regulate the arcades.
Currently, due to COVID-19 and the Level 3 Alert, entertainment venues including claw machine arcades have been shut down. Right now, they’re taped off, abandoned and quite sad-looking, a relic of happier times.
**Update 7/24/21: Claw machines are set to re-open on the 27th of July.
Because so many of the machines serve as a side-hustle rather than sole income, it is likely that the arcades will bounce back quickly once the restrictions are lifted, but who among us knows the future of claw machine arcades in Taiwan? They truly have become such a big part of the culture, and so ubiquitous, that it is difficult for me to imagine a Taiwan without them!
What do you think about claw machine arcades? Do you love playing them, or are you envious of Taiwan for having them? Let me know in the comments below! As a parting gift, here is a picture of some of the cool stuff we have won from claw machines!