This game of chance was intended as a diversion for saloon customers, based loosely on the rules of poker. Since that crude machine, pokies have evolved to include bonus features, side games, multiple reels and pay lines, and other extras to expand both the potential winnings of customers and the amount of cash they fed into the game. There is something hypnotic about the way these machine’s reels spin, and as poker machines developed, they started to be even more appealing, adding lots of flashing lights, sound effects, and even video clips to grab the attention of gamblers.
Charles Fey’s original machine, Liberty Bell, eventually made its way to Australian gambling centres between 1900 and 1908. At that time, Australian law regarding gambling was far more conservative than it is today, so much so that Liberty Bell was technically illegal. When shop owners figured out that pokies were highly profitable, and when the government saw potential for big profits from the taxation and regulation of these games, the machines were eventually legalized, as were similar games of chance like video poker and other traditional casino games.
Officially, these games weren’t legal until 1954, when the government of New South Wales was the first Australian territorial governing body to make many forms of wagering explicitly legal. Besides the potentially huge profits available to businesses that offered the games to their customers, and the equally high potential tax income for the government, the incorporation of the first Australian gambling design company in 1953 (Aristocrat) played a big role in the move towards legalisation.
Aristocrat is not only still operating today, they’ve become one of the big players on the world casino stage. Australia’s own flagship casino game designer is a leader in the pokie industry, providing software for Internet-based gaming as well as traditional casino settings. Aristocrat’s first machine, called The Clubman was an instant success, even though when it was released in the early 50s, it too was technically against the law. After legalisation, Aristocrat made some small alterations to the game, including a name change (it became The Clubmaster) in an attempt to cover up the fact that the company had been producing an illegal machine for more than a year.
While most of the world refers to this type of game as a slot machine, the standard term used by Australians and other people in Oceania is “pokies” or “pokie machines.” To complicate matters a little more, sometimes the word is used interchangeably with the word “slots” or “slot machines.” Because video poker games and other machine-based titles are set up in the same section of a casino, and even placed in a similar category at Internet casinos, people from outside Australia may be even more confused by the name. The evolution of the word pokies probably has as much to do with the similarities between the two types of game as any other factor. It is easy to imagine how the phrase “video poker” was shortened over time to “poker machine” and then simply “pokie.”
The earliest pokies in the Australian gambling industry would seem simple to today’s audiences used to flashy, loud, and far more complex titles. These original pokies designed by Aristocrat and other gaming designers (popping up by the dozen after the first moves toward legalisation) didn’t incorporate lighting effects at until the 1960s. The main appeal of these games was their speed – gamblers could insert their money and start playing right away without the need for a dealer or other casino employee or even for other gamblers playing the same game. The single-player aspect of pokies was, in the beginning, the biggest draw of games in this category.
Even today, the governments of New Zealand and Australia are still undergoing big changes. Dozens of laws (either making real cash betting more legal or more restricted) have been passed, re-worded, struck from the record, and passed again, leading to a complex legal landscape that still confuses citizens to this day. Even as of the writing of this article, governments throughout the South Pacific are considering new laws about pokies; the good news is that many lawmakers seem to be working toward a system of regulation and taxation making online wagering both legal for citizens and profitable for territorial and national governments.
Right now, no law in the Australian or New Zealand penal codes exist to make any form of online gambling illegal. As proof, hundreds of offshore and foreign-based casino websites welcome business from Australian customers. The only applicable law on the books that may directly affect the pokies industry is the Casino Control Act of 2006, an Australian federal law that could be used to prosecute providers of any form of real-money gambling based in Australia or New Zealand, though to date no entity has been prosecuted under this law.
Between the time of the first legalization of games of chance in Australia (slightly more than a half-century ago) and the appearance of the first video pokies in Australia (sometime in the mid-1980s), this style of gambling machine did not change much from the early titles designed and released by Aristocrat and their industry competitors.
In fact, before the 1980s, all Australian pokies were made up of just three reels of symbols and either one, three, or five pay lines. Because of the limited number of outcomes, jackpots on these older casino poker machines were smaller than prizes available at today’s land-based and online gambling venues.
Modern poker machines include features like side bets, wild symbols, scatters, and bonus games, but until the 1980s, the only way a gambler interacted with a poker machine was to insert their money, pull the lever, and wait for the outcome. The basic appeal of pokie machines is the tension that rises between pulling the lever and learning the outcome.
Slot play is addictive in part because of the excitement that builds in the time between pulling the machine’s lever and learning the outcome. Over the years, designers have added additional features to make the gamble more appealing and increase the amount of money gamblers were willing to wager. Larger jackpots (and the increased potential for winning thanks to wild symbols and the like) mean more money spent per session.
The biggest changes to Australian gambling came as a reflection of changes to slots in the USA and improvements to technology. When Australian gamblers saw American-style slots in the 1980s, with their impressive video and audio clips and more in-depth themes, the demand for more complicated poker machines grew.
When Aristocrat and other Australian designers started incorporating videos and other features, it represented the largest change in game design since Charles Fey’s first mechanical slot design in the late 19th century. When new pokies appeared, featuring not just cosmetic but also rules variations, the ability of gamblers to wager on up to five reels and even more pay lines, gamblers realised that the increased number of ways to win meant they could see a bigger return on their investment.
Pokies now represent a huge portion of casino income, whether the venue is online or in a traditional brick and mortar casino. No matter if you walk into a casino in Sydney, Atlantic City, Macau, or Las Vegas, the section where poker machines and video poker games exist are huge compared to the area set aside for table games. The ability of gamblers to play pokies on their smartphones and other mobile gadgets further increase the appeal of the games – new titles, with new ways to play and more ways to win, attracted new customers and convinced people already in love with pokies to increase the size and duration of their play.
From the humblest roots – a simple mechanical American game of chance – sprang an entire industry. Australian video and casino pokies are big business, and as new ways to play appear, featuring machines designed to keep gamblers coming back for more, the industry continues to grow.