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Could the heyday of traditional slot machines be over?
Credit: Brian Gratwicke

I remember coming to Las Vegas as a kid, standing on the sidelines of the casino floor as my mother and grandmother gambled. They’d feed $20 bills into shiny metal slot machines, then call out for triples 7s or rows of cherries, hoping to win a jackpot.

Today’s slot scene looks, and sounds, very different.

Walk around any Las Vegas casino – fancy Strip resorts, budget downtown spots or locals haunts (yes, locals play slots although serious gamblers prefer video poker because it has better odds) – and you’ll see people trying to shoot digital deer with toy rifles; players swaying and shaking in chairs as they try to avoid being slimed by Ghostbuster spectres; and gamblers rocking out to the tunes of Michael Jackson.

One-armed bandits – traditional three-reel slot machines with side levers – used to be casinos’ bread and butter. Today, they take up a minimum of space in most resorts.

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Credit: Bally Technologies
High-tech digital games with pop culture themes have taken over the casino floor.

There are games based on movies (Grease, Gone with the Wind, The Hangover, Dirty Dancing), board games (Clue, The Game of Life, Monopoly), books (Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Aladdin), sports (NASCAR, Big Buck Hunter), music (Elvis, Dolly Parton, Kiss) and TV shows (CSI, Pawn Stars, Judge Judy, Deal or No Deal, The Amazing Race), to name but a few.

The trend emerged in the late 90s, with a few key titles. Wheel of Fortune, one of the most popular slots in history, is the gold standard. Introduced in 1996, it has attracted hordes of players and billions of dollars in revenue.

Dated by Las Vegas standards – here, attractions that are just a few years old can be considered passe and slots typically go out of fashion in two or three years – gamblers continue to feed the almost 20-year-old machines quarters or dollars for a chance to spin its wheel and hit a cash bonus. The catch: you must wager the maximum, typically three bets, to activate the bonus.

Why does Wheel of Fortune continue to succeed? And why are more pop-culture slots popping up? Because the format is addictive.

As slots, and gambling in general, lose market share in Las Vegas due to the national spread of casinos and visitors’ increasing interest in eating, shopping and clubbing over gambling, game manufacturers and casino operators have looked to new ways to draw players in, entice them to bet big and keep them playing. Pop-culture themed slots, from Wheel of Fortune to David Copperfield, are the industry’s answer.

This is most evident in Nevada, which has more slot machines than any other place in America – almost 200,000, according to the American Gaming Association. Nationally, the gaming industry makes 62 per cent of its revenue from slots.

Keeping people playing is a high-stakes proposition.

The vast majority of the pop-culture slots feature intricate bonus rounds that trigger randomly. The bonuses are the key to attracting players, who want to ride Aladdin’s carpet, dig for buried treasure or go shopping with the ladies of Sex and the City. The hope of hitting a bonus round, which players convince themselves is just a pull away, compels them to spend more time playing and stick another bill in the machine.

Moreover, the games play more like video games than traditional slots, helping to draw a new, younger audience. Many of the titles feature high-definition graphics, movie-theatre-quality sound and interactive features more akin to an Xbox title than a casino game. Chairs vibrate and sway; games link to Internet platforms where people can continue playing at home; and skill-based challenges – shooting at deer, for example, or killing centipedes – give players a sense of control.

Joy Lipton, 59, scanned a bank of slot machines at Binion’s downtown, looking for just the right one. She bypassed the Beverly Hillbillies and Monopoly slots, in favour of Betty Boop’s Love Meter.

“I grew up with her,” Joy, a tourist from Los Angeles, said of the cartoon character.

She fed $100 into the machine, hoping a spin would launch Boop’s “How Hot are You?” bonus, which allows players to place a hand on the game’s touchscreen display to measure their “romantic potential” and win a progressive jackpot.

“It looks like fun, and it reminds me of my childhood,” Joy said. “Plus, I think she’ll bring me luck.”

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