What are Pokies? And where did the term come from?


The term "pokies" has its origins in the mid-1900s in New Zealand and Australia, referring to standing slot machines. Slang, a common part of the local vernacular, emerged to describe these games, with "pokies" derived from poker symbols on the reels. The history traces back to Charles August Fey's invention of the slot machine in 1898, with developments leading to the inclusion of poker suits, bells, horseshoes, and fruit symbols.

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Pokies Origin and History

The history of the term pokie or pokies trails all the way back to the mid-1900s. It was a time when standing slot machines were first introduced to New Zealand and Australia, working in a similar way to what you know as pokies today. Over time, rather than use their elongated namesake of slot machines, slang was developed to refer to these gambling games.

Slang is a very common part of the vernacular in New Zealand and Australia. So, while the Brits have their fruit machines by citing the fruit symbols on the slots, Kiwis and Aussies have their pokies referencing poker symbols on the reels.

Early Beginnings of Pokies in New Zealand

The humble slot machine was first devised by Charles August Fey, a Bavarian-born inventor from San Francisco, California, back in 1898. He first built a coin-operated gambling machine. Four years later, he developed his machine mechanics into the Card Bell, which touted automatic payouts and featured three reels of card symbols. As he further developed the game, he added more symbols, including bells and lucky horseshoes.

Banned in his home state by 1909, and with over 3,000 in circulation in San Francisco alone, manufacturers like Fey had to move and disguise their operations. Many hid their games under the guise of chewing gum machines, which is where the first fruit symbols came onto the reels, representing flavours of gum. By the 1950s, they were banned almost everywhere in the US outside of Nevada, but not before catching on in other countries.

It was in 1956 that New South Wales, Australia legalised these gambling machines, and it took until the 1990s for the rest of the country to catch up. In New Zealand, parliament legalised the establishment of gaming clubs in 1989, and with it, the slot machine. However, slot machines had been in the country for a couple of years by this point, so there’s a good chance that the term pokies was already well in circulation by 1989.

What is the History of the Term Pokies?

The history of the term pokies reads that slot machines arrived in New Zealand in 1987 and became very popular. At the time, they were mechanised gambling machines that featured poker suits, bells, horseshoes, and fruit symbols. It was the poker symbols that caught on as the more recognisable of the icons of the games. So, the “pok-“ of “poker” was taken and made slang, creating the shorthand reference of pokies for slot machines.

Land-based Pokies in New Zealand

You can find pokies across New Zealand, predominantly in bars and hotels. The majority of these more publicly-available pokies are run by charities in the country, with maximum prizes being closely regulated by the New Zealand Gambling Commission.

As for pokies in registered casinos, it took until 1994 for such a venue to open in New Zealand. Sure, gaming clubs were permitted from 1989 onward, but it wasn’t until the opening of the Christchurch Casino that a full-fledged casino offered its services to Kiwis. Later came the Grand Casino in Dunedin, opening in 1999, as well as a series of venues operated by Auckland’s own SkyCity Entertainment Group. These casino complexes can be found in Auckland, Queenstown, and Hamilton and are all loaded with pokies.

Technological Advancements: From Mechanical to Electronic Pokies

The initial breakthrough from the mechanical slot machine to electronic slot machines came in the 1950s, with the part electric-powered, part mechanical pokies. They were designed to allow for more paylines and winning combinations, as well as a varied payout range per the bet size. It is said that the first fully electronic pokie machine came about in 1963, which quickly led to the dominance of electronic slots.

Video pokies, still as physical units, were first introduced to America’s gambling haven, Las Vegas, in the mid-1970s, but to limited success due to their lack of likeness to the clanking, tumbling mechanical pokies. Still, the computer programming in these video pokies laid the foundations for multi-game pokies, feature-stuffed pokies, and linked-jackpot progressive pokies.

No longer limited by physical reels or electronic readings, video pokies could greatly expand on the gameplay experience and features of slots. Much like how video game development built out from board games and tabletop RPGs through digital development, so too did pokies. Without traditional limitations, pokies could now come with special game modes, incredible animations to immerse the player, and alter the frequency and sums of payouts.

The Introduction of Online Pokies

Well before people began to fear the turn of the millennium, the iGaming industry (online gambling) was already taking shape. In 1994, Microgaming created the first online casino software with real-money virtual pokie machines. Others like Playtech would rival Microgaming, but in the state of play at the time – with websites mostly hosting games from only one supplier – UK developers would reign supreme.

In 2004, even before the launch of the game-changing iPhone (2007), Microgaming created the first mobile casino software. In the same year, they launched the original licensed slot, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, which has since been given a smash-hit sequel in the form of Lara Croft: Temples and Tombs Since then, mobile has taken precedence, forcing developers like NetEnt to go with a mobile-first, touch-optimised approach.

Thanks to the pioneers of iGaming, online slots have become readily available to just about anyone in the world who can access an online casino. In New Zealand, the online pokies market is incredibly competitive because of all of these different international developers. As a result, the standard continues to be raised and innovative new features are continually introduced to Kiwi spinners.

Most recently, thanks to the rise of online and mobile casinos, we’ve seen pokies become live casino games. What’s next for pokies? Perhaps virtual reality will finally experience its big boom and maybe developers will double down on a VR pokies experience.

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