Seniors hooked on fish arcade game
Arcade games like Fish Hunter are drawing the older crowd with some spending thousands of dollars over the years
With his greying hair and diminutive stature, Mr Zhen is an odd sight among the young kids at the video game arcade.
Thrice every week, the 70-year-old joins others at a shoot-'em-up game called Fish Hunter.
A maximum of six to eight players can play together on a tabletop arcade machine, casting virtual nets to catch fish on the large screen.
Mr Zhen declines to reveal his full name as his wife and children are unaware that he has spent a lot of time and money at the arcade.
He estimates that over the past seven years, he has spent at least $30,000, forking out $50 each time he goes to the arcade at Causeway Point in Woodlands.
There, he plonks himself onto a cushioned chair and starts hitting away at buttons for around six hours or until he gets tired.
The money he spends comes from his savings but he says he is hooked.
Mr Zhen says he still has a debt of more than $10,000 for a business that failed years ago.
He said in Mandarin: "Actually, $30,000 would be a low estimate of how much I've spent playing. I can't remember when I started playing this.
"It could have been worse. I could be losing more money gambling in a casino but I'm not.
"This helps me keep my mind active."
When asked why he would not pay off his debt first, he brushes off the question and says he would "rather not think about it".
Mr Zhen is not yet retired. He still works as a part-time delivery driver and draws a pay of more than $1,000 a month.
Of that, an average of $300 would be spent on topping up the charge card that he uses to play on the machine.
An addiction specialist says this form of compulsive behaviour can be difficult to remedy if family members do not fully understand the situation. (See report at right.)
"But my family knows I'm here, it's not like I'm missing or anything," he says.
Mr Zhen is not alone.
Other players The New Paper on Sunday spoke to have also spent thousands of dollars on Fish Hunter, although none came close to how much Mr Zhen has spent.
Madam Lim Siew Hong, a housewife in her 50s, says: "It's great. I get to meet other friends playing this game.
"It beats staying at home all day."
Madam Lim has spent around $2,000 on the game since she started playing it around five years ago.
"It is highly addictive," she says. "I just can't stop."
At Serangoon NEX, she joins a small crowd of other senior players quietly plugging away at the game, casting virtual nets on the screen.
But even when they catch the biggest fish - it could be a whale, shark or lobster - there is nary any reaction on their faces.
It is the machine that does the celebration for them with bright, flashing lights and the sound of gold coins raining down on them.
This is not a new phenomenon.
The Fish Hunter first arrived in video game arcades here around a decade ago and proved to be a hit with older folk.
Arcade operator TKA Amusement, which runs the Virtualand chain of arcades, says there were fewer seniors in the arcades 10 years ago.
But in 2014, they made up around 20 per cent of the arcade-going crowd, its founder Tan Kok Aun told The Straits Times.
"Teenagers have mobile games and video games at home, so arcades have become less popular with them," said Mr Tan.
Also popular with older folk is Animal Kaiser, a game in which players can field animals to battle virtual opponents.
A spokesman for OmOcha!! World arcade in Plaza Singapura tells TNPS: "We host a few rounds of tournaments for Animal Kaiser every now and then.
"Many who participate are seniors.
"Of course, there are many seniors playing Fish Hunter, too."
Other arcade owners could not be reached for comment.
In Mr Zhen's case, he was first introduced to the game when he saw others in his age group playing it.
Unlike others who would combine forces to catch the biggest fishes, he is a solitary player.
He tells TNPS that he would choose to play at empty tables and stare at others if they decide to join in.
"They are all my in-game enemies. If they have the ability to snatch my fishes, then so be it. I am not intimidated."
Mr Zhen insists that he is not skiving from his job and he goes to the arcade only in between deliveries.
He says: "To be honest, this isn't a very fun game. I'm just here to idle the time away."
Expert: Arcade addiction similar to casino addiction
Being addicted to fishing games at the arcade is similar to the addiction to slot machines in casinos, says an addiction specialist.
The similarity extends to the bright, flashing lights and blaring sounds that congratulate the player when there is a win.
In the case of the Fish Hunter game, this is when the player successfully traps a big fish.
Each time this happens, there is a release of a chemical - dopamine - in the player's brain, encouraging him to continue.
Psychiatrist Munidasa Winslow says: "This is the reward and pleasure centre of the brain telling you to continue. Doing so will get you more hits of dopamine.
"These types of activities can numb your emotions, so you don't think about your problems. It is a form of escape."
This is known as a type of compulsive behaviour and can create personal and social problems, especially if the player is not well-off, he adds.
The best way to help someone in such a situation is to cut off his flow of money, which can happen only if family members are aware of the situation.
Dr Winslow disagrees with Mr Zhen's suggestion that playing the game helps him age better by keeping his mind active.
This common excuse among habitual gamblers is not true since there are "plenty of other ways to age without spending money", such as playing chess.
Dr Winslow says: "It is perhaps true if you are talking about things like mahjong, in which a game of skill is involved.
"But you can't be exercising your brain if all you are doing is just casting a net and hoping to catch a fish."
What is Fish Hunter?
Fish hunting games belong in the shoot-'em-up genre of video games, in which players try to catch various types of fishes by casting nets or firing bullets at them.
While players refer to it as Fish Hunter, it has numerous variants and many names, depending on the manufacturer.
To play, players have to buy credits from the arcade counter.
They then use a joystick and buttons to point and fire a turreted gun, with each shot costing a certain amount of credits.
They will also have the option of firing higher powered shots, which will cost more credits.
If a fish is captured, players will be rewarded with a certain amount of credits depending on its value.
Gold creatures or "bosses" are worth a lot of credits but can take many hits to take down.
When the player stops playing, he can choose to redeem the credits for vouchers, toys or snacks at the arcade counter.