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The Peninsula

Grasping for Entertainment: The Rise of Claw Machines in South Korea

Published February 8, 2017
Category: South Korea

By Gwanghyun Pyun

Recently, the number of claw machines around downtown Seoul have greatly increased, especially in busy nightlife areas such as Sinchon, Hongdae and Gangnam. Unlike in the past when claw machines were scattered around the city’s sidewalks, the machines have become so popular that there are now shops that exclusively run claw machines for people to enjoy. Koreans call these claw machines ‘Inhyeong bbobkkii’ (literally translated as ‘picking up a doll’) and these shops are called ‘Inhyeong bbobkkii bang’ (translated as ‘picking up a doll room’). According to the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, the number of registered picking up a doll room shops was 21 in February 2016, and had grown to 880 by December, a forty-fold increase.

Some experts have suggested that the ‘picking up a doll’ culture emerged from an era of low economic growth in Korea. According to Professor Kyung Ok Huh from Sungshin Women’s University,  this phenomenon is known as the ‘lipstick effect’. The ‘lipstick effect’ is an economic theory that says when the economy is in recession, consumers tend to buy inexpensive products instead of luxury items so that they can still have a small treat.

Since the global financial crisis, the South Korea economy has faced low economic growth, making it harder for people to get a job and therefore feel a sense of accomplishment. This is particularly so for young Koreans, who are experiencing record-high unemployment rates and who feel locked out of the system. However, the price of playing one round of a claw machine game is only 500 won (43 cents) to 1000 won (86 cents). Playing the game gives people an opportunity to obtain prizes such as dolls with comparatively little expense. Claw machines were also popular in Japan in the past due to a similar economic situation.

In addition to the lipstick effect, the so-called ‘Kidult culture’ has also promoted the popularity of claw machines. ‘Kidult’ is a mixed word using kid and adult, more specifically referring to adults who like things that bring back their childhood memories. Recently, many Korean young adults like childish characters such as Shin-chan, Pokemon, Marvel heroes, One-Piece figures and Kakao friends, and many claw machines are filled with these characters in the form of dolls. ‘Kidult culture’ appeared in South Korea, because young adults want to recall their childhood memories to escape from their present hardships. In this regard, the ‘Picking up a doll’ trend represents the hardships of young South Korean adults and how they overcome their day-to-day life challenges.

The ‘Picking up a doll’ craze is not the first trend that rose from an era of low economic growth. For the last three years, more South Koreans have become interested in food and cooking as evident by a growing number of cooking shows on TV. Koreans call such programs ‘cook-bang’ (an abbreviation of ‘cooking show’). In ‘cook-bang’ shows, famous professional chefs show viewers how to cook various cuisines and celebrities discuss how they taste. In the summer of 2015, cooking shows reached their peak, as there were 17 ‘cook-bang’ programs on major TV channels such as KBS, JTBC and tvN. Furthermore, many young Koreans began to upload pictures of food on social media outlets such as Instagram. This phenomenon is known as ‘Mukstagram,’ a mixed word that comes from the Korean verb “to eat” plus Instagram. The ‘cook-bang’ trend and ‘Mukstagram’ can also be understood in the same context as ‘picking up a doll’ trend. These trends suggest that young South Koreans seek some form of satisfaction through daily activities such as cooking to give themselves a break from everyday life.

Playing a claw machine can help distract from life’s hardships. On the other hand, it can be a source of addiction. ‘Picking up a doll’ can be considered to be a type of gambling, since it is difficult to pick up a doll on the first round and people want to keep on trying to get the doll. It resembles gambling in that people want to “hit the jackpot” by successfully snatching up a doll. Professor Younghwa Son from Keimyung University said that people delude themselves that the more they try, the higher the possibility to win. This phenomenon is so common among young people that they already created and use the word, ‘Tangjin jam,’ which can be translated as ‘run through all the money for fun’.

The ‘picking up a doll’ trend reflects South Koreans’ tough lives under an economic slowdown. This is just an entertainment trend and it can be over interpreted. However, the reason why many experts and major media in Korea are worried about it is the obvious fact that Korean economy has been getting worse, highlighting the need for a new economic growth engine.

Gwanghyun Pyun is currently an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America as part of the Asan Academy Fellowship Program. He is also a student of Sogang University in South Korea. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Barnimages.com’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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