As kids, my brother and I spent summers on the Jersey Shore, hanging out in the arcades of Point Pleasant, devoting countless hours to learning how to beat the crane games, also known as claw machines. We avoided the oversized prizes from the bigger games in the middle of the arcade (those were for tourists) and instead patrolled the edges, looking for easy-to-win prizes in less popular machines. We never really needed more stuffed animals — our rooms were already full of the cheap tchotchkes — we needed the high of beating the machine.
In 2020, I’m still playing crane games. But instead of popping quarters at local arcades that no longer exist or are closed because of Covid-19, we use apps to control claws located in warehouses thousands of miles away, watching the action via webcams from the safety of our own homes.
There are dozens of crane game apps out there, all with the same enticing premise: Win a prize on your phone, then get it shipped to your door. Sound too good to be true? That’s what I thought until the prizes started arriving. Since I discovered this world, I’ve played Clawee, OpenWow, Toreba, Sega Catcher Online, and TokyoCatch.
The first win on the first app I tried was easy. That’s Clawee’s model: Start with small prizes on generous machines, then hope the player spends more money to win bigger items. On my first attempt, I pressed the controls dubiously. I knew I could win on a machine right in front of me, but a machine on another continent? The claw dropped and grabbed not one but two lucky cat keychains. I gleefully sent the video footage to my brother. (He only got one prize on his first attempt. Typical younger brother.)
My inner child fainted while my rational adult self agreed that my brother and I would only use free plays, not real money, to win Luna.
I paid $5 to ship my two prizes and gain some Clawee coins. Maybe that made me a sucker, but I figured $5 wasn’t a big loss if the prizes never showed. Due to a happy miscommunication, Clawee…