A trip down to a British seaside is very rarely about taking advantage of the weather, but it is an opportunity to enjoy some of the classic experiences that we’ve come to expect over the years, like Kiss-Me-Quick hats, sticks of rock and walks along the pier. Head to the right seaside town and you’ll also be presented with any number of amusement arcades, keen to entice you in with promises of opportunities to win cuddly toys and other such paraphernalia.
Amusement arcades are an interesting place to spend a bit of time, if for no other reason that the rules you might expect to apply to people of different ages when it comes to gambling don’t actually come in to play in all instances. Children of any age can use the 2p machines, for example, which ask you to put 2 pence pieces into slots in order to get a load more two pence pieces to drop down. What sort of thing are we talking about and why are the rules different?
What Are Amusement Arcades?
Amusement Arcades are essentially large halls that are filled with games of all different shapes and sizes. The types of games that you’ll find in there can range from coconut shies to ones where you need to shoot targets in order to win prizes. There are 2p and 10p machines, that push other coins off a ledge and into your tray when you get your timing and positioning right. In essence, amusement arcades are places where you can amuse yourself for some time as long as you’ve got enough money to do so.
The venues mainly trace their history back to the penny arcades of the 1900s, which offered the likes of fortune-telling machines, non-electrical pinball and love tester machines. In the 1970s and 1980s these were overtaken by video arcade games, but the old-fashioned nature of the amusement arcades you can play in some towns never truly went away. The modern day variation of the amusement arcades tend to offer a mix of old-style games and newer variations, seeing a cross-section of grabby machines and computerised gaming consoles.
The main thing that allows an amusement arcade to stand out is the fact that you can win prizes and earn tickets that you can swap for prizes on pretty much every game that you can play. Take the 2p machines as an example. There are two shelves filled with two pence pieces and arms with barriers attached that move backwards and forwards, pushing the two pence pieces towards the edge. When enough of them are pushing against each other they’ll drop into a tray, meaning you can take home the two pence pieces and any other prizes that drop.
Those machines also tend to print out tickets that, when you’ve got enough of them, can be swapped for different prizes. There is usually an exchange section where you can find out how many tickets you’ll need to win certain prizes, from thimbles with the name of the town on them through to PlayStation consoles. Obviously they’ll be worth a different amount of tickets! The more that you play certain games the more tickets you’ll win.
What Gambling Games Can You Play in an Arcade?
Of the myriad of games that you can play at amusement arcades, there are specific ones that offer you the chance to take home money or a prize that it worth something in and of itself. Those games are worth taking a closer look at, so here are the main ones:
These games offer users the chance to ‘win’ money by putting two or ten pence coins into slots that then land on a shelf that is being moved backwards and forwards mechanically. Get your timing right and your coin can land in a place that will push other coins over the edge of the moving shelf and onto the shelf beneath it.
That shelf is also moving, of course, so the coins that drop are able to push more coins on, which will hopefully send those close to the front over the edge and down into a tray for you to collect them. Sometimes it’s not the shelves that are moving but some sort of arm, but the principle remains the same.
Regardless of which method is used, you stand a chance of getting more coins to drop into the tray and increase the amount of money that you have. Most of these devices also put extra prizes within the coins that will also drop into the tray, meaning that it’s more than just money that you’re playing for.
When it comes to the house ‘cut’ for these games, it’s worth bearing in mind that they usually feature sections along the side of the ‘drop zone’ where coins and prizes fall and constitute the house’s edge. It means that you can spend any amount of time and money waiting for a prize to drop only to see it disappear down the side of the tray and out of your reach.
There are two different types of slot machines in most amusement arcades: those that are worth low value and anyone can play and those that are higher value and are limited to eighteen-year-olds. The games come in all shapes and sizes and will differ depending on whether you’re playing the game for everyone or just the one for older people with bigger prizes.
They are, in essence, compensated slot machines. That means that the Return To Player figure is fairly consistent, allowing people to win bigger sometimes and smaller others depending on whether it has paid out recently. If the machine is running below the average RTP then it will become easier to win on it, whilst if it has been running higher than average then it will become tricker to win on.
This is different from how Random Number Generated slot machines works as each spin is independent of the one before and each spin has an equal chance of winning. Given that RTP figures are generated over as many as one hundred thousand spins, it’s fair to say that the average user is unlikely to be overly concerned with the figure apart from when deciding which sort of game to play.
Horse Racing Games
These sorts of games involve mechanical horses ‘running’ along a track and are often ‘powered’ by some activity or another that players are asked to take part in. This could be squirting water into a hole, for example, or rolling balls into targets with different values. The higher the value of the target that you get the ball into the more chance that your horse will be the ‘winning’ one. Having a winning horse results in a prize being allotted to you, usually in the form of a cuddly toy.
Some versions of the game act more like virtual horse racing and offer odds on the horses and you can bet on which one you think will win. If you’re correct in your bet then you’ll win the cash of the odds times your stake. If enough people play then there will always be a guaranteed winner of these games, but if there are some empty horses then there’s a chance you won’t.
Wheel Of Fortune
This game is exactly what you’d expect it to be, giving users the chance to win a prize depending on where the wheel finishes its journey. The vast majority of amusement arcades offer players the opportunity to win tickets that can be exchanged for prizes, with the temptation to play coming from the fact that the tickets are offered in significantly larger proportions than you could win elsewhere in the arcade.
Some versions of the game offer people the chance to win cash, much as they could on the well-known gameshow. As with any other game on this list, there’s no guarantee that you’ll win each time you spin the wheel. The wheel is broken up into different sections and each section is worth a different ‘amount’. Wherever the wheel stops its journey and the ticker sits will dictate how much players will win.
Bingo games at amusement arcades work slightly differently to the ones that you might have expected if you’ve ever been to the likes of Mecca or Gala Bingo. That’s not to say that the actual game is different, given that bingo can only really work in one way, but rather what the prizes are and how the game is played. As with many of the other games on this list, bingo will sometimes offer users a chance to win a prize and sometimes promise an increased number of tickets that can be swapped for something else.
Often the games are computerised and you will buy a given number of tickets for the entry price. You’ll be required to monitor two of the tickets and every time you select a number on them it will be highlighted elsewhere on the other tickets. The bingo reader will usually call the numbers quite quickly, meaning that it can be difficult to monitor your tickets properly and tick off the numbers that you’ve got.
Depending on the type of bingo you’re playing, you’ll either be offered the opportunity to win a large number of prize tickets or else some other alternative. This may include a cash prize or a specific prize like an over-sized cuddly toy. Usually the bingo games in amusement arcades only play to a line, which is why the prize is relatively small compared to more traditional bingo venues.
Another game type that has been around for a number of years is the computerised Stacker. This sees a collection of blocks moving backwards and forwards on a screen, with your job being to press the button to get them to land. After that another collection of blocks appears and moves slightly faster than the one before it, but you need to get the blocks to land on top of the previous ones.
There are targets for you to hit, with the first one meaning that you’ll win a smaller prize and the second one, which is far higher up the screen, promising a major prize. These can be things such as computer consoles or mobile phones, so it’s clear that it is trickier to hit the major prize line than the minor one. The blocks move quicker and quicker each time a new set appear, so it’s a test of reflexes as much as anything else.
At the start of play you might have, say, four blocks in a line that you need to land. Then if you miss this will decrease to three blocks, then two blocks and finally one block before missing means the end of the game. The owner gets to dictate how difficult or easy it is to win on the game, so you’ll never know what it’s like until you play it.
These are essentially mechanical claws that you control with a joystick. You manoeuvre it into position and then set it free to drop down and attempt to grab a plush toy, which is usually made up of some film or TV character like Mickey Mouse or something from Toy Story. Often amusement arcade managers will stuff the machines full of toys so as to make it difficult for you to grab one.
That isn’t the only reason why it’s tricky to take home a stuffed toy, however. The owner of the machine is able to select how many times the grabbers will hold onto the toy that you’re trying to get hold of. They can even set the machine to grab hold of a toy and drop it before it reaches the hole that you need it to drop into to allow you to take it home.
The top machines allow owners to work out the percentage of times a game needs to be played before it will pick up and drop a toy in the right place to mean that someone has ‘won’. They can decide that a player will win every twenty times, for example, with the game costing twenty pence a go. That means that each toy will ‘cost’ £4 to win.
Because it’s randomised rather than a toy being won every twenty goes, one person might win after one go but the next person might not win for another twenty. It will also ‘rollover’ from one player to the next, so a lucky punter might win a toy on their first go and an unlucky one might not win for forty goes. This is just the way that the machines work. If you’re hoping to win, therefore, it might be worth watching someone else and jump on their machine when they’ve given up!
Whilst they all work in different ways, the common component is the ability to win prizes or tickets from them. Shoot a number of baskets to win a prize, for example, or manage to get the positioning and timing of the grabber right and you’ll snag yourself a cuddly toy or a block wrapped with a £10 note.
The other key factor that they all have in common is an inability for those playing the games to decide quite how fair they are. Does the grabber have the strength in its arms to actually hold onto a toy? Is the Wheel Of Fortune loaded to mean that it will rarely stop on the biggest of prizes? The reality is that they will have to be winnable in order to gain a licence, but that doesn’t mean that you’re guaranteed a prize every time.
Are The Games Fair Or Are They Rigged?
All of these are Category D machines and therefore offer low stakes and low returns. Interesting, the United Kingdom Gambling Commission website states that the average Return To Player amount must be displayed on all Category D machines, but that it’s up to the manufacturer to decide upon the RTP.
The reason this is interesting is that the UKGC stipulates no minimum average RTP for these machines, only that the average is displayed for players to see. Theoretically that means that manufacturers can stop people from winning all the time, though it would obviously make for a much less interesting game if they did. Here’s the exact UKGC Wording:
RTP is an average measured over a large number of games and will vary over a typical session due to normal game volatility. It is a matter for the manufacturer to decide upon the game RTP and there is no minimum requirement but the minimum average return must be displayed to the player for the game.
It’s obviously in the interest of amusement arcade owners to ensure that all games can be won at some point or another. If players feel that they’re never likely to win on a game then they won’t play it and therefore the owners won’t make any money. The trick is in finding the balance between allowing the machines to pay out on a regular basis but not so regularly that it cuts into the profit of the owner.
Some games will be more popular than others, meaning that it gives owners a degree of flexibility in terms of how often to allow people to win. The more popular a game is the more money it will make and the more often users can get a prize without it cutting into profits. On the flip side, of course, allowing people to win more regularly is likely to make a less popular game more interesting for punters.
Age Flexibility: Should Under 18’s Really Be Allowed to Play?
One of the most interesting things about amusement arcades is the manner in which they seem to be open to people of any age. Whilst there are often cordoned off areas that a limited to people aged eighteen and over, which tend to house the more expensive machines that offer real money, there’s nothing to stop younger people from getting involved with the 2p Pushers or the Grabbers, or even the cheaper slot machines.
Indeed, there is an argument between people when it comes to whether or not these arcades are a good thing or a bad thing for young people in terms of their future relationship with gambling. On the one hand is the argument that showing them that spending money can lead to winning more money or things that equate to money, whilst on the other is the suggestion that learning early on to spend only what you can afford and that you’ll probably get little back in the long-run is the perfect introduction to gambling.
One thing that anyone who has even been into an amusement arcade can testify without any doubt is the fact that there are only certain games and areas of them that are not open to everybody. Does the fact that Grabbers allow you to win fluffy versions of cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse and Tigger change the fact that it is a gamble whether or not you’ll win each time you use one? Why are the rules on that different to scratch cards when it comes to age?
There Are Different Types Of Amusement Arcade
The answer comes in the form of how the United Kingdom Gambling Commission define the different types of amusement arcade. They put the various types into one of three different categories:
- Adult Gaming Centres
- Licensed Family Entertainment Centres
- Unlicensed Family Entertainment Centres
Licensed Family Entertainment Centres can have areas that are for adults only, with people under the age of eighteen forbidden from entering these areas as well as any area of an Adult Gaming Centre. You might well have come across some Adult Gaming Centres when walking around a town or city centre; they are the venues that have obvious signs on them saying that they’re for over eighteen-year-olds only and normally brand themselves as a ‘casino’ or other such thing.
An Unlicensed Family Entertainment Centre can offer as many Category D machines as they like, providing they have gained a permit to do so from their local licensing authority. The type of arcade it is will dictate which type of machine they’re allowed to offer. An AGC can offer any Category of machine from Categories B, C and D, for example, whilst an FEC can only offer Category C and Category D machines. UFECs can offer Category D machines with a local licence.
Here’s how the different Categories work in terms of prizes offered:
- Category B: Maximum prize of between £400 and £10,000. Maximum stake of £1 to £100
- Category C: Maximum prize of £100. Maximum stake of £1
- Category D: Maximum prize in money of £5 or non-money of £8, though Grabbers can offer non-money prizes worth up to £50
There’s an age limit of eighteen on Category B and C machines and no age limit on Category D machines. Both AECs and LFECs require a gambling licence from the UKGC, whilst UFECs do not. There is also a different set of requirements for amusement arcades in Northern Ireland.
To put it simply, whether a machine can be played by someone under the age of eighteen will depend entirely on what level of prize they are able to win. The more the prize is worth, the more likely it is that the game itself will be in a higher category.
Are Amusement Arcades In Decline?
The question of whether or not amusement arcades are in decline is actually part of a wider question about whether or not seaside resorts are facing less visitors than ever before. The arcades themselves probably remain as popular as ever in terms of the percentage of people who head to the likes of Brighton and Blackpool visiting them, but if fewer people are going to those resorts then there will obviously be equally fewer people crossing the thresholds of the amusement arcades.
The first ever amusement arcade in the United Kingdom is widely considered to be Barron’s ‘Paradium’, which could be found on Marine Parade in Great Yarmouth. In the early part of the twentieth century travelling by plane was something that was virtually unheard of, so British seaside resorts had countless visitors to them as families looked for somewhere to take a holiday. That popularity was never going to last forever, though it truly started to decline as people began to venture abroad on their holidays.
Even so, it’s since the 1990s that amusement arcades have been in true decline. This coincided with the proliferation of home consoles that meant that people could play games in the comfort of their own home rather than needing to travel to seaside towns in order to do so. The only thing that remained out of touch was the ability to gamble, so the invention and spread of online gambling was seen by many as the final nail in the coffin of amusement arcades.
Between 2007 and 2009 nearly two hundred amusement arcades closes their doors permanently, leaving around one thousand left. Of those one thousand, however, around fifty percent were still considered to be in a vulnerable position. Interestingly, there’s an argument that the government’s austerity policy combined with uncertainty over Brexit in the years since 2016 might well have breathed new life into both seaside towns and, as a consequence, amusement arcades. A 2013 report by the Office For National Statistics shows that a third of Britons couldn’t afford to go on holiday.
The UK’s Most Noteworthy Amusement Arcades Towns
Despite their declining popularity, it’s difficult to believe that amusement arcades in seaside towns will ever truly die a death. The combination of a penchant for retro things as well as the inability to afford more expensive holidays abroad mean that both the arcades themselves and the areas that house them will always welcome people of various different social backgrounds.
There are countless such towns around the United Kingdom, with the following being an example of some of them:
There’s a reason why the people behind Barron’s ‘Paradium chose Great Yarmouth as the location for it. As well as being incredibly popular thanks to its uncharacteristically good weather, is relatively accessible to people in places such as Ipswich, Norwich and Peterborough.
Once there visitors can pay a visit to any number of arcades that promise a wealth of options, including the likes of the Mint Arcade, Golden Nugget Arcade and Leisureland Arcade. It’s one of Britain’s classic seaside towns that still maintains some of its original charm.
Great Yarmouth might be accessible to numerous local towns and cities, but it’s a fair old trek from London. The same can’t be said of Brighton & Hove Albion, which remains one of the seaside towns that people from the capital love to take a trip out to when the weather is even remotely decent. On top of the beach, the sea and as many bars as you might want to drink at, Brighton also promises a fair or too.
More than six million people take a trip to Brighton Pier every year, eating sticks of rock and fish and chips and then spending their change in the arcade on the pier itself. Housed inside a Grade II listed building, it’s about as old-school in looks as you could hope for. It’s far from old-school in terms of what’s inside, though, with all of the modern slots and games sitting alongside new takes on old-fashioned offerings.
Blackpool Pleasure Beach is one of the country’s original and most beloved locations for jumping on thrilling rides such as the Big One and Red Arrows: Sky Force. Just a short walk along from there is the Golden Mile, which sees amusement arcade after amusement arcade doing battle for your hard earned pennies and pounds. There are behemoth venues that seem to go on for ever and threaten to blind and deafen you with the lights and sounds blaring out of the machines.
One of Blackpool’s charms is that it also offers plenty of family-run arcades, should you prefer the slightly more personal touch. The main thing to remember is that you can’t really mix and match your tokens here, so if you’ve won them in one arcade then you’ll need to swap them for prizes there too. If you’re umming and ahrring about which arcade to go to then you’re unlikely to find a more quintessential experience of northern seaside hospitality than at Blackpool, with so many game choices you won’t know what to do with yourself.