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I know I write about video games but the one true game I love deep in my heart is a good old-fashioned claw machine. The lights, the promise, the movement: sliding to the right, forward, down, up, hold your breath, swing, rock, drop — yes. I would have a claw machine in my flat if I could. I have no idea how to make that happen but if you happen to have a spare lying around please let me know. The tension, the fantasy, the prizes. Claw machines, crane games, grabbers, and their cousins the UFO catchers too. They are locked in the kid-heart inside my big-heart and I think I will enjoy them forever.

Maybe Toy Story is to blame, the way the squeaky aliens mythologised The Claw. I can still hear their screaming chorus in my mind. Maybe I’m so attached because every kid in my primary school had their birthday party in the same bowling alley that housed a massive arcade. My classmates would scream over air hockey tables and sometimes I would too, but mostly I would watch adults with bank accounts try to catch themselves a toy. I was mesmerised. They had to be so exact, and I remember how they would stretch their necks to look around the side for a better angle. Funny spatial game and funny that they’d want some toys. I thought they were onto something though — like it was better to use your coins to win a material thing you could take home, instead of disappearing money into a machine that wouldn’t give you anything back. I thought they must all be rich as well. Yeah, I was obsessed. A magic box filled with treasures I could see but couldn’t touch. It was a mirage in the arcade I wanted to fall into, like the kids that go viral when they climb inside. I should have done the same while I was still small enough; I too could have shouted at The Claw.

In that arcade as a school kid, it was like I wasn’t tall enough to ride yet. But I’m a world and a girl away. Now, I’m the adult playing and paying with no parents hanging over my shoulder to tell me they’re a waste of money - now I know a lot of things are a waste of money, except the stuff you love.

In 2018, the job I was due to start was delayed by 3 weeks. I was busy the first and third weeks but the middle was free, and knowing I was about to be flat out busy for the entire next year, I searched low to high on sky scanner to see what I could see. One of the cheapest flights was for Hong Kong, and I wondered… I had grown up listening to my mum talk about this futuristic place she’d been on her honeymoon, full of electronics and good food. I’d been watching vloggers who lived there, and others who ran gaming channels on YouTube and had featured Hong Kong arcades in their travels. So, I did not wonder for very long.

I went on my own for the week and stayed in a cheap hostel. I ate and ate, I visited a friend in the north, and I went to The White Cube gallery for the novelty. I walked everywhere, and I felt wired by the endless daytime at street level because of all the lights. But I spent most of my time in front of claw machines. They were everywhere, not only in arcades but in shopping centres, stations, or just right there on the street. It was the best week of my life; I’ve never spoken so little or been so happy. For both claw machines and gachas, you could use your travel card to operate them. Easy! Silly. I was losing my mind.

I remember standing on the top floor of the Dragon Centre shopping mall in Sham Shui Po late one night, eyeing the rollercoaster that runs through the building with no explanation, thinking there’s no way I can get on a plane home. I’d been on a boat the day before. I’d seen turtles in the park. And I’d just finished eating in the food court and walked upstairs to win myself a Togepei. When the time finally came, I zipped my suitcase on that small hostel bed and found my case was completely full and yet still so light; it was stuffed with plushies, snacks, and little toys I’d won the week I ran around inside a dream.

I wish I could do it again. I’ve started making a post-pandemic list of things to do when it’s safe, and besides reunions and finally learning to drive, I’ve written ‘arcade trip around the world.’ I can’t picture it happening, especially with the news so many of these places have financially caved in the past 12 months. What can I do besides hope and pray and wait? Do I find strangers on the internet who happen to have spare claw machines lying around so I can put them in my flat? How would it even fit through the door? What would I put inside?

No, in the meantime, I can download an app that allows me to remotely play on real machines that have cameras pointed at them live-streaming from a warehouse somewhere. I can attempt to win prizes and then get them shipped to my house instead. Yeah, I did it. I finally tried Clawee. There are a few of these apps - Toreba, GOTON and Crane Master are some others - and for a long time I’ve been interested in how they worked and felt. I wondered if they could offer me a fun pandemic stand-in, a little entertainment and joy. I wondered if it would be a good means of access too for people who can’t spend time in an arcade.

But after a few days, I deleted the app. I think I hate it. I think it is an uninspiring way to play, and more than that, I think it reframes claw machines, moving them away from skill games and closer to the choked atmosphere of gambling. I believe Clawee could be dangerous for some players in that respect, and knowing people close to me whose lives have been ruined by similar gaming apps, I feel a hard responsibility to explain why they in particular should steer clear altogether; and also why claw machine lovers in general shouldn’t get their hopes up.

First off, on playability and logistics. When the game starts, the player is given coins for free, enough to have one or two goes on the beginner machines which are 200 a pop. I could try for a lucky cat plushie, a panda keychain, an octopus one, a unicorn pencil case and some other random shit. I went for the cat and won straight away. I felt cool for winning straight away. But there are two things to note here: the beginner machines are packed out with a mound of toys for you to grab at, and the claws themselves have attachments on the bottom that widen their hold. You are going to win something by default, and you are going to think you are amazing for winning so quickly.

Once Clawee has hooked you in with this sly beginning, it takes off its mask: the price of playing those beginner machines jumps from 200 to 1000, the rest of the machines have claws without helpful attachments, and inside they are sparse with items. I decided to pay £11.99 for 2400 coins, going for what I thought was a nice big amount after having been iced out of the beginner machines. A Jigglypuff would cost me 365 per play for example, a mini heart necklace was 130, so 2400 ended up disappearing fast. For the purposes of the review, I also paid £3.99 to become a VIP so I could get ‘free’ shipping on anything I won. When you win something, you can either ship it to yourself or trade it in for more credit. I was hoping to receive that lucky cat toy in time to review its quality but it hasn’t arrived yet. That’s the game in a nutshell.

Reader, with those 2400 coins, I won a single cheap horrible necklace with sunflowers on it. I hated the thing so much and, worrying about my dwindling coin count, I traded it in for more coins but still won nothing after that. I know, the house always wins, but I thought I’d have slightly more fun before I got my coat and walked. I just couldn’t. Clawee didn’t work for me on any level.

A claw machine is about space. It’s about nailing the X and Y axes; it’s about precision, nerve, timing, weight, scale and angles. That’s the exciting part, and then the prize at the end is a bonus and memento of your time. But all of those spatial elements are flattened when the scene is passed via shoddy cameras through a phone screen. Plus, when the machines are almost empty, it becomes very easy to miss the mark, grab nothing and drop hot air into the box. You can switch the camera view mid-play to peak around the corner but that does not help establish an accurate sense of depth. What you have to do is deposit more coins and play way more goes than you would in real life in order to properly orientate yourself in the remote machine. This is especially so because the cameras aren’t at the exact same angle for each one, some look different sizes, and so every time you approach a new prize you’re starting from scratch.

Despite my genuine skills, I missed and missed and missed. I was disappointed, and it only made me miss real arcades more because here on Clawee, some essence of play is lost. The game itself does not feel present; fun does not feel present. Fun would feel present if you had endless disposable income with which to establish a good sense of the space behind the screen. But if you had that much money, wouldn’t it be even better to BUY A MACHINE. Get me one while you’re at it please.

No. All I could think about was how I’d signed up to an app that had given me some coins for free to start out with, just so I could give them my money for free going forward. I resented the thing in its entirety.

But I could walk away. That was made easier by the fact I didn’t want 90% of the items in the first place. Cat tunnels, luminous rings, ‘witch hat,’ scrunchies. It was tat. The Pokemon plushies on the lineup were of most interest but half of them were jarg, mis-coloured or had strangely angry faces. I didn’t want them haunting me. I knew if there was something here I wanted, I could buy it online instead; and as I’ve said, without any real fun present, there wasn’t exactly a difference between winning and buying these items anyway. Yeah. Those people who have endless disposable income to get on parr with the app could just buy themselves nicer things anyway. Cars. Houses. Jewellery. Why would they waste their money here? I don’t know. And while I could walk away, I know there are plenty of people who couldn’t.

I have known people in my life with very little income who are depressed and who became gambling addicts because of the fragile, desperate situations they are stuck in. I’ve lived with them. I’ve seen the bright colours on the apps, heard the tunes, and I remember how their phones would light up ten times a day with notifications to play some more. Here’s a little discount today; here’s a fun opportunity this afternoon - and come quick before it expires. Clawee’s constant notifications have included ‘Happy Hour Is ON! 💥⏰  15% Off On All VIP Prices For The Next Hour ONLY!👉’ and ‘Gabrielle, You Deserve a Bonus!💖 Use coupon 21XTR & get extra coins!’ Now, I can drown them out but I’m not depressed - I’m not as reliant on those tiny moments of dopamine, I don’t have addictive tendencies, and my income is good and reliable.

I’m also not disabled. Recently, as part of her series ‘Access-Ability’ on YouTube, game critic and writer Laura Kate Dale uploaded a video detailing the ways ‘Microtransactions Prey on Disabled Gamers.’ The video refers to in-game purchases for video games, and while I accept Clawee’s deal is entirely transactions-based in a more transparent and immediate way, there were elements of that episode that felt very relevant to mention here. I recommend watching the video in full.

Dale describes how disabilities can ‘pre-dispose people to compulsively spending,’ and discusses addictive behaviours and completionism. Certain games are designed to capitalise on these compulsions and it really feels like Clawee nails them all. To start with, prizes are visible even if you aren’t at a high enough level to play on certain machines yet, and the only way to level up is to play more games - each time you play something, even if it isn’t a win, your percentage bumps up slightly. You need lots of money then. But prizes also drop off with no warning and there is a ‘new’ tab for ones coming soon. It creates a constant cycle of scarcity that might induce some players to spend money they don’t want to spend but feel like they need to if they want to complete the whole collection - moreover, a collection that never ends.

There is also an extra sneaky move on Clawee’s part that worked on me many times, where a machine’s cost is reduced after the first go. As soon as you lose, the game plays a ticking noise and you have to decide quickly whether or not you want to try it again at this specially reduced price. Dale talks about how ADHD can make players feel trapped within the sunk cost fallacy, spending and spending to try to get the item they want. This discount play offer almost feels like the most dangerous part of Clawee’s design. Some players will feel like they can’t stop until they’ve got the prize because they’ve already put so many coins into a certain machine.

In Clawee, claw machine mechanics become gambling mechanics. It is scary and dark and the total opposite experience to the one I was hoping for. But I’m glad I know now, and I’m glad I can at least warn other people. As I was writing this, I remembered another childhood encounter that might be a good note to end on to cleanse us of this ugly app. For a week one summer, my nan and granddad took all the cousins to a caravan park in Presthaven Sands. In the day, we’d swim and mess around, make up dances, drink glass bottle coke, have fun. In the night, we’d go to a big social hall where they put on shows for kids and the adults could have a pint. I wasn’t really into the shows - I was working my way through Final Fantasy Tactics at the time and I definitely wanted to be playing that instead. But at the back of the hall, I found a small red claw machine with a tiny grabber dangling over the hundreds of tiny toys inside. On the front of the cabinet, it had the beautiful words ‘play til’ you win.’ I couldn’t believe my luck. Every time you put something in, you got something out. I went on it every day and I had toys for days.

I’m happy to wait until it’s safe to go to a real arcade instead.

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a camera feed into a claw machine shows a flat layer of cat plushies
an almost empty claw machine with just a few wrapped boxes at different angles
a screenshot of the page where you can buy in-game currency shows 2400 coins is 11.99, 4320 coins is 19.99 and so on up and up and up
a blue fluffy toy is caught in the claw
an in game offer for ‘another 100% sale’ that shows you can get double the coins for any purchases
the prizes include a witch hat for 455 coins, a mini heart necklace for 130, two heart rings for 130 coins, a cat tunnels for 230 and so on - all the items look quite cheaply made