Are Claw Machines Rigged Against Us?

Claw Machine with Mew Plush Toys

Source: Megan McClain on Unsplash

A claw machine full of cuddly stuffed toys has the power to attract kids and adults like bees to honey. And I’ll be darned if that claw doesn’t look easy to manoeuvre into the perfect position… Those toys are just waiting to be picked up and taken home by someone with awesome claw-control skills. Obviously, the previous players didn’t have the same hand-eye coordination that you do… Drop the coin, slide the claw forward, slightly to the left. Now drop that claw, grab that Pikachu and bring him home to mama. Oh wait… what kind of weak grabbing action is that? The powerful claw is now acting like it’s made out of wet spaghetti. Pikachu falls back into the pit of ”mice”, perfectly positioned for the next player to grab. Better try again, before someone else takes your toy!

Yes, as you can tell, I have fallen prey to the temptation of the claw machine on multiple occasions. And the frustration of that weak mechanical grip is still fresh in my mind as if it were yesterday. So, what if those droopy claws were actually rigged against us all along? You’ve probably wondered about that at some point in your life. And the answer is, yes, claw machines are rigged against us. JackpotCity, the home of online pokies, has really stuck its claws into this topic and now we will tell you what we found out…

The truth about claw machines

A Vox article brought the fact to public attention in 2015. Of course, the information is publicly available on Wikipedia too, but to be honest, I’ve never taken the time to actually research claw machines to find out. Now that I have, I can pass on my pearls of wisdom to other unsuspecting claw machine goers. The truth is that operators can program the claw to have a wimpy grip and drop items. And that’s not all: new claw machines even have an operator-adjustable payout rate. This fact alone, raises the question of whether these machines should be considered gambling devices under law, in the same way that roulette and pokies are.

Claw machines adjustable settings

The fact that claw machines can be adjusted by the operator isn’t a secret: these details are fairly openly advertised by claw machine manufacturers around the world (but not all of them, I should add). Even the most basic stuffed toy and lollies machine comes with a description like the one below:

“...Crane all in one! Attractive Unit, Programmable Pricing and Options. Electronic Sounds, Prize Detection, Secure Exit Door. Adjustable Claw Strength, Electronic Coin Comparator. Vends Plush & Candy all in one! Available in 2 sizes.”

The most important detail being that the machine has programmable options and an adjustable claw strength.

The most advanced machines have even more features:

“… Cranes offer operators fully customizable game play settings and customizable software that allows operators to fine tune their game settings, and then apply those settings via SD Card to all of the other cranes in their route! […] so customizable, you can even program your own audio and attract sounds” and… “adjustable claw strength with meter included”.

These machines are rigged in a clever way because as you suspected, the claw can be programmed to only have a strong grip some of the time. This is the reason you often experience wet-spaghetti claw. But the machines can also be programmed to drop prizes a percentage of the time and do many other things. The most advanced machines allow operators to set the profit ratio on their machine to reach the desired level of profit. As the Vox article says, “this isn’t isolated to one claw machine or one company – this is standard practice industry-wide”.

But adjusting claw machine settings has to be done carefully. A machine tipped too far in the operator’s favour will lose customers and gain a bad reputation over time. If they want to continue to make profits from their machines, operators need to adjust their settings so that people win frequently, but not too frequently. It’s a careful balancing act. And there are some people who have become so skilful at these games they still manage to grab prizes even with a weak claw. Many machines will adapt their full-power claw percentage to make up for these “weak claw” winners.

There is very little regulation on this type of behaviour. If operators decide to have very unfair claw settings, there are often no laws stopping them. In this respect, playing better regulated casino games, like pokies may be the preferable option.

Claw Machine

Source: Wikimedia Commons

UFO catchers and crane games

The modern claw machine originated in Japan. The first machines were manufactured by Sega and Taito in the 1960s. In the 1970s, stuffed toy manufacturers took an interest in the machines (originally the machines contained dolls) and the modern claw machine was born. In Japan, the machines are known as crane games or UFO catchers. The name UFO catcher comes from Sega’s UFO Catcher game machine, which was released in 1985. It had an original eagle-claw shape suspended from a flying-saucer-shaped body (look closely in the image of UFO Catcher 8). Japan is still the land of the claw machine. The new Taito Station Fuchu Karuru, Tokyo, has just set a Guinness World Record for the most crane games in an arcade. It has 454 UFO catchers!

Tips to beat a droopy claw and claim your prize

If you really want to try and win a prize, after everything we’ve told you, there are a few things you can do to increase your chances of winning. Here are a few tips from some highly skilled weak-claw masters, Kim Morgan and Jen Yamato, as reported on Mental Floss…

  1. First of all, you probably should forget about the really valuable box prizes, like iPhones and smartwatches. The prize-to-play ratio has to be lower for the operator to make any profit and smooth box-shaped surfaces are hard to grab and tend to slip from the claw. As Yamato says: “Sometimes, the most desirable prizes are the hardest ones to get”.
  2. Study the prize pit and be realistic: Avoid tightly packed prizes that will require some pulling to wriggle them out. A weak claw won’t do it, so walk away. Morgan says: “If the pretty pony in the far end […] is an impossible option, you’re going to have to settle with the ugly duck/monster thing”. Look for things sticking out a little and avoid things leaning on the glass (the claw track won’t let you go there) or too close to the chute. Try to avoid things too far from the chute too because there’s more time for the claw to drop your prize. Round objects should be avoided too, they slip out too easily.
  3. Watch the person who plays before you. This gives you a chance to check out the claw grip strength and see whether it has been programmed to drop prizes.
  4. Be strategic. Play a few times first to get a feel for the claw and if it seems too weak consider using another machine. Three pronged claws are generally easier to use than two-pronged claws, but the grip is the most important thing of all. Use your initial attempts to reposition your prize for success: grab it and bring it closer to the chute. Set a limit on the number of attempts you will make to avoid overspending.

Tales from the arcade: when temptation won

The mounting frustration from never winning that prize – or simply not being allowed to play at all – drives some children to extremes. In 2017 and 2018 two children made headlines when they became stuck inside claw machines. The first, a 3-year-old child in Ireland named Jamie. He climbed into a machine full of stuffed toys that was actually the “prize every time” variety, but unfortunately most 3-year-olds can’t read. Jamie’s father was sitting drinking his coffee when he heard a muffled complaint behind him. Turning around, he saw Jamie staring back at him “inside the machine, looking out of the glass. […] He seemed a bit panicked, and then I told him, ‘Listen, you’re fine’, and gave him a big smile. Then he started laughing”. An off-duty fireman managed to talk Jamie into exiting the same way that he had come in. Since the incident, the machine has been removed by the owners, who were very relieved that Jamie wasn’t hurt.

In 2018, the situation repeated itself in Florida, in the play area of a Beef O-Brady’s restaurant. This time it was a 6-year-old boy called Mason who crawled into the machine. Luckily, for Mason, another off-duty firefighter was having dinner in the restaurant and seeing him stuck inside the machine called his colleagues at Titusville Fire Department. The boy was apparently embarrassed, but not in distress. He had crawled into the machine after being dared to by some other kids in the restaurant. Mike Abernethy, a lieutenant in the Titusville Fire Department said that the team “used our extraction tools to break the lock, pull the pins, and extricate the child out of the machine”. But told reporters, “I was just thinking, ‘How could a kid get in this machine?’”. Let’s just be glad they managed to get him out again unharmed in the end. Temptation can be a dangerous thing.

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