Claw Game

A claw crane or skill crane is a type of arcade game known as a ‘merchandiser,’ commonly found in video arcades, supermarkets, restaurants, movie theaters, shopping malls, and bowling alleys. A claw vending machine consists of prizes, usually plush toys or alternatives such as jewelry, capsuled toys, hats, balls, dolls, shirts, candy and electronics.

Higher end and more expensive prizes are sometimes placed in a plastic bag so the toy is harder to pick up. The player inserts coins into the machine, which then allows the player to manipulate a joystick that controls the claw for a variable time (controlled by the operator) usually 15 to 30 seconds (in some cases, a claw vending machine might offer a minute of time).

The player is able to move the claw back, forth and sideways, although some machines allow the user to move the claw after it has partially descended. At the end of the play time (or earlier if the player presses a trigger button on the joystick), the claw descends down and makes an attempt to grip. After making the gripping attempt, the claw then moves over an opening in the corner of the case and releases its contents. If the player is successful, then the prize the claw is holding is dropped into the opening and dispensed through a chute into a hatch for collection.

The success rate winning a prize is dependent on several factors, including operator settings, player skill, type of machine, and prizes available (size, density, and distribution). A prize may be lost due to player inexperience, player error in manipulating the claw, the weakness of the claw, or the specific crane configuration. Many modern cranes use a computer to determine a payout percentage based on the operator’s settings, in the manner that the claw would have a strong grasp on objects only on a certain percentage of attempts. All modern claw machines incorporate some means for the owner to adjust at least the strength of the claw’s grip and how closely the claw’s fingers pull together. Some machines incorporate a feature called two-level claw power, which, when enabled, causes the claw to at first grip at full strength, but then gradually weaken its grip to the normal level after a brief delay. This can cause the crane to initially pick up the prize, but then drop it.

Some machines can be configured to basically be games of chance. On a machine with a flimsy grip and a mechanism controlling the odds of a strong grip, little skill is involved in winning prizes by attempting to grasp them with the claw: the crane’s random number generator decides whether the claw will grip or not. However, if the claw’s grip strength is set such that it is capable of holding a prize — even tenuously — on most attempts, then experienced players will win more often than inexperienced players because an experienced player will be able to identify which toys will be easiest to remove and how they should be grasped by the claw. It is also worth noting that, even given a machine with a very weak claw grip or low payout percentage, players have discovered various techniques for using the claw to drag or tip prizes into the chute without necessarily grasping them.

The ability of the crane machine owner to set features such as a payout percentage raises the question of whether these machines should be considered gambling devices in a legal sense, alongside slot machines. In the United States, claw vending machines are typically specifically exempted from statutes which regulate gambling devices, contingent upon compliance with certain rules. In the state of Michigan, for example, this exemption applies only if the wholesale value of the prizes inside is below a certain threshold, and if these prizes are actually retrievable with the claw. Other states hardly regulate crane machines at all. In addition, some attorneys have advised claw machine owners to avoid using the word ‘skill’ in the game description decal present on most machines. In other jurisdictions, such as Alberta, Canada, skill cranes are illegal unless the player is allowed to make repeated attempts (on a single credit) until he or she succeeds in winning a prize.

Claw cranes have diminished in popularity in the US, but are still very popular in Asia, notably Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. There are entire video arcades dedicated to hosting these machines. In China, machines have been known to stock domestic and foreign cigarettes. In East Asia, live animals are occasionally the prize in the claw game. In Chinese supermarkets, a live crab or lobster can be won, presumably to be eaten by the winner. In Japan, pet turtles can be won.

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