Poker machines, known to people living outside Oceania as slot machines or slots, are the most popular casino games in both Australia and New Zealand. The affectionate nickname “pokies” is often used in New Zealand to refer to these simple games of chance.
Invented in the United States as a cheap distraction for pub-goers, poker machines made their way around the world, eventually landing on New Zealand shores by way of Australia. The first popular pokie in New Zealand (called The Clubman) was actually designed by an Aussie company, Aristocrat Technologies, in the 50s. At that time, the popular games were still mostly played underground, since they were not technically legal.
Then an Australian territorial government, New South Wales, legalized the use of various gambling machines, including pokies, under certain rules and restrictions and only in specifically registered clubs. This happened three years after the appearance of Aristocrat’s The Clubman machine, and the underground culture that had grown up around pokies still stuck. Gamblers in Oceania found themselves lining up for their favourite new game in social clubs and private rooms, rather than on casino floors as gamblers in America did.
The history and popularity of pokies in New Zealand is a complex and interesting story both unique from and similar to the same story in neighbouring Australia.
Poker Machine Legalization
All gambling is regulated in New Zealand by the government’s Department of Internal Affairs. Different forms of gambling have become legal at different times, spread across more than a century of changes to gambling law.
For example, bets on horse racing were first legalized in 1920, along with bookmaking, though bettors could wager only at the event until Off-Track Betting was allowed in 1961. The first national lotteries were held in the 1930s, though unofficial lottery-type games had been used since the 19th century to raise municipal and federal funds. Clearly, gambling law in this country is piecemeal and a little complex.
As far as New Zealand poker machines are concerned, legalization didn’t occur until quite late in the game’s history – the Department of Internal Affairs didn’t specifically allow bets on these types of games until 1991. By then, Australians had been wagering legally at poker machines for nearly four decades.
Pokies in this country operate a little differently than in nearby gaming markets – the games in New Zealand are actually operated by charitable foundations which set federally-regulated maximum jackpot limits and perform other regulatory maintenance and audits.
In 2009, the nation’s Internal Affairs department set some new regulations regarding how the games operate, the most obvious of which is that all poker machines must now show a section on each game’s screen known as a Player Information Display. This is a read-out that offers details about how much cash a bettor has spent, how long they have been playing a particular game, and advice on when to take breaks.
These strict regulations seem to be part of a cultural bias in New Zealand against gaming. This is a nation that allows bettors to place wagers but still eyes the games they bet on with suspicion. For example, a 2010 study by the federal government’s Gambling & Addictions Research Centre claimed to find a direct link between increased crime rates and the introduction of poker machines in certain areas. This same finding has not been repeated in any other major gaming market and is most likely an indicator of the federal government’s feelings about games of chance rather than evidence of an actual causal relationship between spinning pokie reels and committing crime.
Popularity in New Zealand
Compared to nearest neighbour Australia, pokie popularity in New Zealand is merely academic. The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia has reported in recent years that some 200,000 machines have been legally installed in that nation, which represents about 1/5th of all gambling machines world-wide.
In the nearby nation of New Zealand, however, this type of gambling machine draws slightly less attention. The Department of Internal Affairs reported just over 23,000 such games operating within the nation’s borders in their most recent report in 2003, or about ten percent of the number of titles available to Aussies. Of course, the population difference between Australia and New Zealand is meaningful, and the NZ Department of Internal Affairs released new numbers in 2011 showing that profits from these types of machines totals just under $1 billion. Clearly, New Zealanders enjoy their pokie games.
The nation of New Zealand seems to spend a lot of energy on researching the evils of poker machines. The implication is that the financial benefit the country gains from the regulation of the games may come with too high of a cost. The New Zealand Productivity Commission, in its 2010 “Public Inquiry on Gambling,” specifically suggests that pokie players may have a disproportionately high rate of gambling addiction. The report says specifically that “ . . . 60% of all pokie revenue comes from people who have a gambling problem or are at risk, and about a third of regular players have a problem or are at risk.” If these numbers are true, they far outpace the average rate of gaming addiction worldwide.
It’s possible that the apparent suspicion surrounding pokie titles and their potential downsides has contributed to a recent decrease in interest in this type of game among New Zealanders. In 2009, the Department of Internal Affairs reported that expenditures on pokies were at an historical low. Whether or not the increased availability of mobile and online betting has reversed that trend remains to be seen.
Beneficial Effects of Pokie Legalization in New Zealand
But the news about legal pokie game play in New Zealand isn’t all bad. Game legalization in New Zealand came with an interesting and rare caveat – the government required that the games be set up under what’s commonly called a Community Gaming Model. Only two other nations operate under this model, which guarantees a portion of profits go to improve local communities, much like lotto games in markets around the world.
When a company such as The Lion Foundation (a major provider of pokies within New Zealand) collects profits, it must contribute a minimum of 37.12% of those profits to communities. Different charitable organizations operating machine games contribute different amounts. For example, The Lion Foundation’s website states that they “ . . . aim to return 90% of the funds” to their community of origin. The money is funnelled to causes that protect native life and culture at the community level.
New Zealanders seem to have mixed feelings about this (and all other) forms of gambling, on the one hand ensuring that much of the profit from games of chance is used to fund good causes, on the other hand constantly researching and investigating whether or not gambling should be allowed at all. No doubt the history and popularity of gambling machine play in New Zealand is a foretaste for the game’s future.