It’s one of Australia’s favourite pastimes—those ubiquitous, colorful-sounding machines that fill out the cities pubs, clubs and RSL venues across the nation. They come in all different shapes and sizes, from the legendary ancient-Egyptian-themed “Queen of the Nile” to other newer games like Vikings Go Bezerk. There are approximately over 200,000 machines that dot the country, from the most southern state of Tasmania all the way up to Darwin. In fact, did you know that Australia has the most slot machines per capita in the world (that is, other than microstates like Monaco)? Somehow, it has managed to run through the veins of the country, weaving its way into the psyche as much as the AFL and ACDC have secured places in Australia's heart. No one actually knows where the name “pokies” comes from, but we assume it originates from the time when slot machines were associated only with casinos.
Some say reasoning and analysis are solely limited to the classic casino-based, traditional games like roulette, blackjack and even newer, novel variations of Texas Hold'em, but sometimes pokies also require a rhythm of strategy and patience. Yet, it's mostly about fun and the randomness of chance. You could put one coin in, and your destiny might change. But how did it become one of the nation's favourite pastimes?
We would have to go back all the way to 1895 when a car mechanic in San Francisco by the name of Charles Fey came up with the first variation of what we now know as ‘the fruities” or slot machines. They were called fruities because, at the time, they paid out in fruit lollies and sweets. Little did he know that his invention would become one of the most popular appliances to grace the gaming world ever. Around the early 20th century, the first machines made their way over to Australia (called Liberty Bells), even though gaming was forbidden at the time.
In 1956 Australia faced a watershed moment when its most populous state, New South Wales, became the first to legalise gaming. At the same time (around 1953), Aristocrat Leisure Limited, which was founded by Len Ainsworth, developed their own machine called “The Clubman”. It was designed by Joe Haywood and inspired by Charley Fey’s first machines. To this day, it's still the biggest producer of pokies on the continent and second in the world only to America’s own IGT as a supplier. Both of those incidents in the 1950’s allowed pokies to flourish across New South Wales, and to this day it is the state with the most pokie machines.
The earliest slot machines only possessed three reels; it wasn’t until the advent of video machines in the 1980s that five reels were introduced to the public, allowing for more choice in games and style. Shortly thereafter, several states (such as Queensland and South Australia) started to introduce slot machines with real money alongside video machines on a limited basis.
Now pokies move in a whole new direction with the inception of online gaming from the comfort of your own home. In fact, the first online game was introduced all the way back in 2004 with the appropriately-named “Thunderstruck”—an ACDC reference.
Even though responsible gaming is encouraged throughout Australia and the industry has gone through various regulatory changes over the years, pokies remain a way of life for Australians and are steeped into the consciousness of the country. Those bells will be ringing for decades to come.