9 May

Quick History and Evolution of the Poker Machines

Today’s Internet-based slots and pokies are the grandchildren of mechanical gambling devices that first came to the Australian shore by way of the United States. An American named Charles Fey invented a machine called the Liberty Bell, a gambling device based on what is now common knowledge in the slot gaming industry: people love the spinning reels and tension that come from playing the pokies, and are apt to keep feeding slot games time and again. You could say there is something hypnotic in the way slot machines move, spin, make noise, and (hopefully) pay out the occasional cash win.

It didn’t take long for Charles Fey’s Liberty Bell machine to make its way to Australia. Depending on which source you believe, the first pokies hit Australia’s gambling centers in sometime between 1900 and 1908. Thanks to Australian law at that time, which was far more conservative than today’s legislation related to gaming, those first pokies were illegal. The fact that the Liberty Bell game and other slot based gaming options like it were profitable for shop owners who allowed them in their businesses, and the potential profits the Australian government saw from taxing and regulating the machines, were the two main contributing factors to the eventual legalization of gaming machines of all kinds: pokies, video poker games, and other electromechanical games were eventually legalized.

The legalization of Australian pokies

Legalization didn’t become official until 1954, when New South Wales became the first Australian territory to allow this type of gambling. That move was spurred in no small party by the creation of an Australian company in 1953 devoted to the manufacture of gambling accessories and machines. That company, Aristocrat, is still in operation today, providing traditional pokie and other gaming machines as well as software for Internet-based gaming as well. Aristocrat’s gamble, that pokies would mean huge business for both shop owners and game designers alike, paid off. Their first game, Clubman (designed by Joe Heywood, a British citizen and Australian import), was a big hit among gamblers who were, at the time of the game’s invention, technically breaking the law. After legalization, Heywood and Aristocrat were forced to change the game’s name to the Clubmaster, in part to cover up the fact that they’d been offering an illegal gaming machine for over a year, and In part due to international patent law. Another game called Clubman was currently in use in the USA, where certain forms of slot gaming had been legal for years in certain American states.
The government of New South Wales was the first Australian legislative body to realize the revenue potential of such games, and legalized all forms of gaming machines as long as they were registered with the territorial government, were played in state-registered clubs, and followed certain guidelines, such as being tested for fairness on an annual or bi-annual basis.

The pokie machines in those early days of legal Australian machine gambling would seem simple to today’s pokie gamblers, especially those used to the flash and spin of animated slot machines on the Internet. In fact, Heywood’s machine, and other machines designed by Aristocrat and other gaming design companies that sprang up post-legalization, didn’t even use light effects at all until the 1960s.

Today’s Australian & New Zealand gambling laws

Like in many other parts of the world, the New Zealand and Australian gambling industry is undergoing some serious transitions. Both governments are considering new laws related to pokies, with many lawmakers working out a system of regulations and taxes that would make online gambling not only legal but profitable for the state.

As of this writing, there is no law in the Australian or New Zealand penal code that makes online gambling explicitly illegal. In fact, plenty of offshore or foreign casino gaming websites are happy to do business with both Australian and New Zealand customers. Yes, these sites are technically in violation of the Casino Control Act of 2006 in Australia, but no attempt has been made by either the Australian or New Zealand government to prevent their citizens from playing pokies on the Internet.

Casino gambling in Australia and New Zealand is regulated under the Casino Control Act of 2006, which specifies how casinos in Australia must operate, offering specific rules for each territory’s casinos and gambling operations.

Where did Australians get the word Pokies?

The phrase “pokies” is the standard term used by Australians, and only Australians, to refer to what the rest of the world simply calls “slot machines” or “slots.” Take a stroll in a gambling district in Australia and you’ll see ads for pubs featuring slot games (and casinos as well) almost exclusively referring to such machines as “pokies.” The simplest explanation stems from the fact that slot machines and video poker games are always lumped together in the casino section, and even today on Internet casinos the games can be found in the same category. The phrase video poker machine was shortened to simply “pokies,” and the name stuck to slots as well.

Pokie machine evolution in Australia

Between legalization in 1955 and the introduction of rudimentary video slots to Australia in the mid-1980s, pokies didn’t change much from their original designs. Before the 1980s, all Australian slots had just three reels and one, three, or five pay lines. Naturally, the jackpots of these antique slots were much smaller than the big prizes found today, at both land-based and Web-based slot casinos, and unlike modern pokies that involve side bets and bonuses, the only way a gambler interacted with the pokie machine itself was to simply pull the handle and wait for a winning or losing outcome. If you’ve ever played a pokie machine, you know the appeal of that moment between pulling the lever and receiving an outcome—there’s something downright addictive about the tension between the pull of the pokie and the cessation of the spinning reels.

Video slots in Australia

As is often the case in Australian casino gambling, changes to pokies came only after slot machines in the USA were revamped. Australians playing slots in the 1980’s started to see pokies featuring things like video clips, side bets, bonuses, wild symbols, scatter symbols, and even a few basic story-based pokies, games which attempted to tell a narrative as you pulled the lever and moved through a sort of story arc.
For Australian pokie fans, the switch to video gaming was a huge development, by far the most interesting development in machine gaming since Charles Fey’s first mechanical slot drifted slowly down from the United States. After three decades of the same-old same-old, new pokies with up to five reels and greater numbers of pay lines meant more ways to win, including free spin offers and the chance of earning a little bonus cash
It’s a well-known fact that no matter where in the world you do your casino gambling, pokies (or fruit machines as they’re known in the UK) take up most of the casino’s valuable floor space. Whether you gamble in Sydney, Macau, Malta, or Atlantic City, long banks of video and bonus slots dominate the casino gaming area. Innovations in pokies are near-constant, thanks to increased interest in Web-based pokie play—now that Australians and citizens of other parts of the geographical area of Australia can play slots on their smartphones or other mobile Web devices, creating new titles, new styles of pokies, and games with new bonus features is the best way online casinos can attract new customers and their bankrolls.
The future of pokies in Australia depends heavily on changes to the games themselves. As gaming and Web technology improves, so will the design of pokie machines. From humble roots as an American game of chance (illegal at the time in Australia) to today’s explosion in pokie popularity, the history of pokies in Australia is a fascinating microcosm of the Australian gaming scene in general. As goes the popularity of pokie machines, so goes the popularity of gambling in Australia.