Home singapore Young people spending hundreds on arcade games, sparking concerns

Young people spending hundreds on arcade games, sparking concerns

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Young people spending hundreds on arcade games, sparking concerns

SINGAPORE – Thirteen-year-old Alicia (not her real name) spends about $2,500 a month at arcades, playing games that reward her with tickets that can be exchanged for gadgets and toys.

She is at the arcades about five times a month, often for up to two hours each time. The Secondary 1 student, who does well at school, said it is a thrill.

Arcades are not allowed to admit those under the age of 16 on school days, except between 6.30pm and 11.59pm.

There is an exception – amusement centres without computer games can admit children under 16 years of age from 7.30am to 6.30pm on school days, as long as the licensee ensures they do not play video games.

Alicia said she has never been stopped before because she changes out of her school uniform before entering the arcades in malls near her school.

The teenager, who gets the money to spend at arcades from her mother, told The Sunday Times (ST): “I can buy these toys online and spend less money, but it feels totally different getting them at an arcade.

“There, I get the satisfaction of winning the toys on my own, which makes me really happy.”

She is particularly fond of prize-redemption games, such as coin-pusher machines and claw machines that reward a player with tickets and toys. The tickets can be exchanged for prizes, including home appliances and even mobile phones.

Observers worry that the line between gaming and gambling is blurred when players are enticed by prizes that are potentially worth more than what they spend on the machines.

Prize-redemption games are also popular in places like Hong Kong. In the past, some arcades allowed patrons to exchange game points for cash, which is illegal.

According to media reports in 2020, some young gamers, lured by quick cash, ended up hooked on fishing games – which involves shooting at sea creatures to earn points – and found themselves mired in debts of over HK$100,000 ($17,400).

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) told ST that it has noticed a growing trend of games at amusement centres and funfairs featuring elements of chance.

“High-value prizes are also being offered, such as smartphones and gaming consoles. This may increase the risk of gambling inducement, in particular with vulnerable people, such as young children,” a spokesman for the ministry added.

To curb this risk, MHA said it will impose restrictions on prizes offered at amusement centres and funfairs with effect from March 1, 2024.

The measures include limiting the value of prizes to under $100, banning operators from giving out cash, cash equivalents, credit, merchant vouchers or coupons as prizes, and prohibiting patrons from selling prizes back to operators.

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Arcade prizes

Coin-pusher machines have tokens that look like coins that are dropped onto a constantly moving platform. The aim is to set off a chain reaction that pushes tokens or prizes off a ledge.

Professor Lawrence Loh, from the National University of Singapore, said some skill is needed to determine when to drop the coins.

But the unknown parameters, such as the strength of the moving platform and the way the coins stack, give the game an element of chance.

Prof Loh, who is director of the Centre for Governance and Sustainability at NUS’ business school, said that in recent years, he has noticed more games appearing in arcades that rely heavily on luck, such as Monopoly Roll-N-Go.

In this game, players spin a giant lit-up dice that lands on a number equal to the number of tickets they will win. They stand the chance of winning a jackpot worth thousands of tickets.

Said Prof Loh: “The move towards chance-based games could be a way for arcades to get more patrons, as anyone can play these games, compared with skill-based ones, which take more practice to master.”

At four arcades ST visited in malls, prize-redemption games accounted for about 30 per cent of game machines. These machines are positioned near the front of the arcade, enticing patrons with bright, flashy signs and catchy tunes.

The i-Cube machine at Timezone in Orchard Xchange, for example, gives patrons the chance to win an iPhone, gaming chair or hand massager if they can move and insert an S-shaped key into a keyhole.

Each attempt costs $2.20 in game credits.

Mr James Walton, who is the transportation, hospitality and services sector leader at Deloitte Singapore, said one of the ways arcades differentiate themselves from mobile and PC games is by offering patrons tangible rewards.

“The prospect of being able to win prizes at the end of playing a game sets arcades apart from other types of gaming.

“This is especially so if the prizes are exclusive merchandise that can be redeemed at only certain arcades,” he added.

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Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist from Gleneagles Hospital, said the bright lights and blaring music in arcades can suck players in.

“Some of them lose track of time and end up spending hours there pressing buttons,” he said, adding that there is a risk of individuals who frequently play prize-redemption games seeking out riskier games and gambling.

“As time goes by, they may get used to the high they get from arcades and want more excitement from games with higher stakes,” he said. However, this does not mean playing these games necessarily leads to a gambling addiction.

To protect the youth, Dr Lim said parents should supervise their children and limit their spending at arcades so that they do not go overboard with these games.

Addiction therapist Andrew da Roza said the motivations that drive people to gamble are similar to the reasons people play prize-redemption games.

“The thrill of winning prizes and the anticipation of winning them are what compel people to keep playing. For some, these games are also an escape from reality, to get away from their problems, stress or boredom,” he said.

Mr da Roza, who is chairman of We Care Community Services, which treats people with addictions, added that elements of chance make winning rewards unpredictable and add to the excitement of these games.

He made it clear that an individual is considered to be addicted to these games only if he causes significant damage or distress to his life.

This includes spending beyond his means, affecting relationships such as lying to his family about playing games, and feeling distressed when he does not have access to these games.

“Unlike gambling, which can lead to large losses, these games are usually not that expensive. For most people, it is not likely to be destructive enough in their lives to require professional help,” said Mr da Roza.

Playing for hours

Over two days, ST observed patrons at arcades, many of them sitting at prize-redemption machines with plastic takeaway containers full of tokens.

At Cow Play Cow Moo in Suntec City, polytechnic student Jaime Low, 21, was aiming to collect a full set of collectible Disney cards at a coin-pusher machine to win a bonus 17,000 tickets. The bonus tickets can be exchanged for prizes, including laptop speakers.

Ms Low said she usually spends up to $340 a month on these games, using her pocket money and internship stipend. She has spent $300 to win AirPods, which cost at least $150.

“There’s this sense of achievement when you see the tickets racking up. After a busy week, it helps me de-stress and relax,” she added.

Some patrons were seen trying their hand at winning high-value prizes worth hundreds of dollars.

Mr Sathish Kumar, a 40-year-old who works in the construction industry, was playing the i-Cube machine at Timezone in Orchard Xchange. He spent about $20 trying to win an iPhone 12, which costs about $550 online.

“I thought it was worth a try – a couple dollars for a big reward. But after a few attempts, it felt impossible, so I stopped feeding the machine more money,” added Mr Sathish.

He said he might return to the machine to try again, but will not spend more than $20.

Engineer Edwin Toh, 36, who was at Paco FunWorld in Bugis+ with his seven-year-old son during the September school holidays, said he limits the number of prize-redemption games his son plays.

“A few times are okay for children to have fun. But the danger is when they become addicted to winning random rewards and spend all their pocket money trying to fuel that kind of excitement,” he added.

Mr Lao Jiwei, founder of Cow Play Cow Moo, told ST that the arcade’s ticket redemption games do not allow players to win more than what they put in.

He said: “Let’s say they spend $10. Even if they complete the game and win all the available bonus tickets, they will take back $4 to $5 at best… Players cannot win more than what they paid for.

“It will always be cheaper to buy the prizes offered in retail or online stores.”

Mr Lao added that games at Cow Play Cow Moo have a skill element to give players some control over the outcome.

Before the new restrictions kick in, he said, the arcade will re-curate the assortment of prizes offered.

Mr Lao added: “Games that are perhaps more problematic are those where you pay a small sum for the chance of winning a high-value prize, like blind box machines, where $10 could win you an iPhone.”

Players do not know what is inside a blind box, or mystery box, until after they have bought and opened it.

Mr Lao said: “These games are programmed to reward players after a certain number of tries. We have never operated games like this in our 15 years in business.”

Mr Nesh Selva, general manager of Timezone Singapore, said elements of chance are inherent in many forms of gaming, including PC and mobile games.

“Essentially, anything that is not guaranteed to result in a win involves an element of chance, at least until someone has played enough to master the ability to predict outcomes,” he added.

Mr Nesh said the arcade is supportive of MHA’s new measures as they move the industry towards responsible gaming and bring the focus to experiences over material rewards.

He noted that only a small portion of Timezone patrons redeem high-value merchandise and that aspect does not constitute the core of what the arcade offers.

“This can be seen from our diverse mix of attractions, including activities like bowling and bumper cars, which encourage group participation and foster social interaction,” he added.

In response to queries from ST, the Singapore Police Force said game machines deployed at any amusement centre, public entertainment outlet or other public areas must be approved by the police.

There are currently 147 amusement centres with a licence to operate, they added.

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