How Did Pokies Become So Popular in Australia?

With pokies holding such a ubiquitous place in the Australian landscape, it may seem inevitable that this was meant to be. But nothing just happens. And not all trends take off, no matter how on-target they may seem. It takes just the right elements, in the right time and place for something to work.

Think about it like this, if you will, looking at gambling in particular. Blackjack and roulette are massively popular in other countries around the world. Same goes for bingo. In fact, there are places where these are the preferred gambling games. In other places it’s the lotto or sports betting that reign supreme. Yet here in Australia, there is one form of gambling that always comes out on top in terms of how much we spend and how often we play. And that is unequivocally pokies. In fact, pokies are more popular here than pretty much anywhere.

Since many if not most countries have access to pokies, there are interesting questions that arise. How is it that pokies became so popular in Australia in particular? Is it something about the game itself? How we relate to it? Our local laws? Or perhaps a matter of our national character? As is often the case, it’s a combo factor, with a bit of all factors contributing to their ascent.

How Australians’ love affair with pokies began – A short history

To even begin to understand how pokies became so popular in Australia we need to start from the beginning. That is, a short history of pokies. This story, as you may know, originates in the United States well over a century ago. The first contraption similar to what we would recognise as a pokies machine made its debut in Brooklyn, New York around 1891, the brainchild of the duo Sittman and Pitt.

Soon after, or some might say simultaneously as the exact date is unknown, Charles Fey of San Francisco entered the history books with the Liberty Bell. For this invention he has been widely credited as the inventor of the slots machine, though in more accurate terms, he made the tweaks to come up with basis for the more familiar pokies mechanisms that have continued to be popular through to this day. A more automated game than its predecessor, the Liberty Bell had five symbols and three spinning reels. But most impressive were the range of winning combinations it enabled, and even more so, the automatic coin payouts it made. Needless to say, Charles Fey had a real winner on his hands that quickly spread in terms of popularity across the continental US. So high was demand for this new machine, that Fey couldn’t keep up with demand, and competitors were quick to collect on his unpatented device. Bad news from him, but good news for the rest.

As is the way with such trends and nifty gadgets, news of these exciting poker machines quickly made its way around the world. The mechanisms themselves soon followed and by the early 1900s, had safely landed on our shores in Australia. Initially pokies were illegal here, but that didn’t stop their popularity from gaining hold amongst players and developers alike.

Laws and location fuel pokies’ success

Although pokies were popular here in Australia long before they became legal, their legalisation helped fuel a national phenomenon. Of course, legalisation didn’t happen at once. This is a big country after all. It began in 1956 in New South Wales and spread from there, first to Victoria and Queensland, on to South Australia, then Tasmania and the Northern Territory. Even to this day, gambling laws differ somewhat between the different provinces, especially when it comes to where pokies can be played – that is, for example, in pubs and clubs or casinos alone.

With legality came accessibility. For starters, Australians could now easily play pokies at the bar while drinking a pint. Or if they preferred, they could venture out to a local casino and enjoy the spins there. And since pokies were seen as a legitimate pastime, and visibly present in so many perfectly respectable places, we could play them shamelessly as well. In other words, legality led to even greater legitimacy. And for the local and national governments, it also led to a whole lot of tax dollars!

As such, poker machines continued to grow in popularity. So much so that there are now estimated to be around 200,000 such machines within our borders today. On a per capita basis, that is around one land-based pokies machine for every 114 people or so. If that doesn’t strike you as a lot, rest assured it is! In fact, it is one of the highest rates in the world, and currently number one if you don’t count gambling towns or districts like Monaco or Macau. Another calculation that blew us away is that Australia is home to 18% of the pokies in the world, while being home to just 0.3% of the world’s population. With such legitimacy and accessibility, it is no real wonder that we’ve come to be the most frequent players as well, with an estimated 4% of Australians wagering on pokies per week. That number quickly escalates to as many as 30% if you look at the local pokies gambling picture on an annual basis. That is, by any account, a lot of people playing pokies around here.

So in wondering how pokies became so popular in Australia, it could very well be their legality and massive spread. Though, again, it’s not clear which came first. That is, whether we have a huge number of pokies machines because we love them so much, or if we came to love them so much because they are simply around, pretty much everywhere. Either way, once the cycle began, it’s safe to say, it has pretty much propelled itself organically ever since, and there is no real stopping it. That is unless the law chooses to get involved on the other side and add some pokies restrictions; something that has been happening in recent years, as citizens become more aware of the sometimes damaging societal costs of gambling.

Local pokies creators make their imprint and grow the trend

While many countries enjoy the thrills of playing poker machines, not every country boasts successful pokies developers. Here in Australia, we have two pokies manufacturing giants, who are popular both here and abroad. And although pokies likely would have been popular nonetheless (that is if we’d stuck just to imported machines as many do), we have a strong inkling that the local manufacturing has also helped drive their popularity.

The first of these local pokies developers is the now very famous Aristocrat which came out with the first home grown poker machine, the Clubman, back in 1953, right before these mechanisms were officially legalised. Since then, Aristocrat has been on a roll, releasing successful pokies for over 65 years. It now ranks number one in Australia and number two around the world led by the exceptionally popular land-based machines Queen of the Nile and More Chilli games.

The other leading Australian pokies manufacturer, Ainsworth Game Technology, has also done its part in steering the local pokies craze. A publically listed company, it is continually reinventing the gaming space, but to us, Ainsworth Game Technology is likely best known for its land-based pokies machines starting with the Ambassador launched in 2001.

Exceptional access to online casinos increases pokies’ popularity

It’s true, we had a solid love affair with the pokies long before they made their way online. But once we found pokies on the internet, this love affair reached new heights. And it is pretty obvious why.

Online pokies are exceptionally accessible. So long as you have an internet connection you can play. Once upon a time you needed to download the casino software to your computer to gain access. That, however, is a format of yesteryears, and nowadays you can play direct from your web browser. And not just on your PC. Your mobile phone or tablet are also a perfect fit. That means, we Australians, who already loved playing pokies so much, can now play them even more, anywhere, any time.

This access is made even easier by the fact that pretty much all of the big names in the online casino domain run websites – including their promotions – in the language we speak. That is English of course. Knowing that Australians love to gamble online, these casino operators have also made it more convenient for us by allowing gambling in Australian dollars using many of the banking methods that we prefer on a local basis.  But in some ways, this is only the beginning.

The other big difference that has helped further increase online pokies’ popularity in Australia is the fact that playing them here is basically legal. Or perhaps more specifically, it isn’t illegal. In case you’re not quite familiar with the law, it goes something like this. In 2001, the Australian government came out with what is known as the Interactive Gambling Act. Like any legal text, it is a bit confusing to decipher. But what it seems to imply (with an interpretation that has been widely accepted) is that it is illegal for anyone in Australia to offer casino gambling services online to people in Australia. However, it does not seem to say that online gambling per se is illegal here, so long as the service being provided is from a company based overseas. A fancy little loophole indeed. But the long and the short of it is that at the moment, it is essentially legal to play pokies at online casinos in Australia.

To understand what this may mean in terms of pokies’ popularity, think of this comparison. While players in a place like the US took a love to online slots as well, they were quickly out of luck as the laws closed down their access. Here, however, our love was allowed to grow. And as such, many online casinos are happy to further tailor their offering to the local market, which in turn, attracts even more Australian players.

A natural fit for our national character

A final thought in answer to the question of “how did pokies become so popular in Australia” is this. True we have the right laws, which in turn give us good access. And true, we can find pokies in our many brick and mortar casinos, not to mention other entertainment venues. And yes, pokies are made even more convenient by being so available online. But even with all that, it doesn’t make their exceptional popularity a given. That’s because it takes a certain type of person to enjoy pokies. And some might say, Australians make for a natural fit in this as well. How is that?

Australians are known as a casual folk. We are people who love to have fun. We enjoy our drink, and are world renowned for knowing how to revel in our leisure activities and have a laugh. We are also pretty much obsessed with sports and competition, especially those that offer a thrill. And of course, we are open and tolerant, and always rooting for the underdog (instant millionaires, anyone?). In other words, we’re the type of population that knows how to have a good time, especially if it offers a bit of adventure. Sounds about right for the type of people who’d be attracted to playing pokies, don’t you think?

In conclusion

So there you have it. Your answer to how pokies became so popular here in Australia. While their trajectory to stardom was singular, it took a few different factors to get us to where we are today. These include the legalisation of pokies, our access to pokies both online and offline, and a certain national character combined. In other words, it’s no coincidence that pokies are so popular here. On the rare occasion when you have the right elements lined up, success is near inevitable. And that’s what seems to have happened for pokies here in Australia. Now let’s just cross our fingers, and hope this pokies luck carries on over to you!