Autoethnography Project Scope: The Amazing Japanese Arcade

In Australia arcades are a pretty poor affair these days. The few dotted around New South Wales, the Timezones and even Market City’s City Amusements are shadows of their former selves. It’s been something I’ve always seen as normal, having visited arcades very little growing up. I can remember playing the racing games with prop cars and bikes at the local bowling alley, or getting some Street Fighter and Time Crisis practice in whenever I managed to spend a spare hour at one.

Last year, before I headed to Japan for the first time, I knew arcades were a big thing over there – but I never expected it to be as big as it was. The quiet, single storey arcades of Sydney were dwarfed by the multistory ‘Club Sega’ that ended up being a regular visit while we there (being one train stop from Akihabara, anime and arcade central, helped here. It’s this contrast and enjoyment that has become the basis of my Digital Artefact – my plan is to examine the Japanese Arcade and its place in Japanese society through the lens of what we see as an arcade here – often a relic of a bygone era.


A shot from my trip of the huge Club Sega (red building) in Akihabara

My initial experience with arcades in Japan was at the very same Club Sega pictured above, nestled around the corner from the Akihabara train station. When you first walk in your greeted by a ground floor full of UFO catchers (prize machines with the little dangling claws) outfitted with the latest figures from popular anime, stuffed toys and other trinkets. Escalators up and down stood next to the machines, one leading straight down to the featured new games, specifically Pokken Tournament at this point. Another four stories were above, each with their own colouring, feel and theme of games.

At first the huge amount of UFO catchers was peculiar, here they’re usually used for small chocolates or expensive toys and always seen as a scam. I remember seeing PSP’s in machines outside the local Kmart as a kid, never seeing anyone succeed at it and firmly believing they were just a money grab. After even a few hours it was pretty clear how big an attraction they are in Japan, and how – while hard – they still often deliver their prizes to players. There’s even a whole ecosystem of stores that operate solely to buy and sell UFO catcher prizes, but that’s a whole separate project…

Experience notes:

  • Strong smell of smoke, especially in higher up levels (due to indoor smoking being allowed)
  • Games are sorted into floors of the same style of game (ie. rhythm games)
  • High encouragement to buy digital passes that save progress for returning visits
  • Vistors weren’t solely kids, plenty of adults, even in business suits, playing games
  • Action based games like Gundam seemed most popular
  • Cheap and easy – coin changers everywhere and 100 yen coins (roughly $1 AUD) get you ages of play, not just a single race/round
  • the western arcade fighter wasn’t as prevalent
  • branded and rapidly changing promotional games/toys
  • filled with plenty of school or older aged females, breaking the ‘sterotypical’ western arcade attendee

There’s more I have committed to memory, but as a whole I’m very curious to delve deeper than the surface level of arcades that I first experienced. With modern day consoles and computers, what makes people leave their homes to drop 100 yen coins in a tall building filled with games? What do the Japanese arcades owe to their much longer lifespan, and continued support, that we don’t see here?

Below is a video I quickly together with the team from work as a feature on Pokken Tournament (as it was unreleased outside of Japan at this point), which includes some shots of the arcades and my initial thoughts on the experience.


My plan for the Digital Artefact is to take this approach one step further, taking a filmed walk through of a Sydney arcade (hopefully City Amusements due to its size) and discussing aspects of it in relation to my experiences in its Japanese counterparts. This is where research, readings and extra resources come in, with the intention of editing it all together into a video package which combines my own experiences with this research.

Ultimately, there’s a lot to unpack here, ranging from the introduction of arcades into Australia in contrast with the prevalence of them in Japan to the actual purpose they serve in each of the two societies. To understand this there’s a lot of history I need to delve in to the culture that surrounds these arcades and districts like Akihabara, places very unlike what I’m used to here in Australia. I’m very curious to learn more about something I enjoy as much as the arcades of Japan – I’ll be sure to keep the daydreaming of being back in one to a minimum.

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