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A Frustrating History of the Claw Machine

Where they came from, why the FBI cared so much about them, and whether or not they’re actually rigged

So, I’ve got a problem with the first Toy Story movie. No, it’s not the mystery of who Andy’s father is, or even the fact that it’s all about death. What bugs me is that scene where Sid catches Woody and Buzz from the claw machine. First he catches one of those claw-obsessed aliens no problem, then he spots Buzz Lightyear and catches him perfectly by his helmet with such a secure grip that Woody can’t free Buzz from it.

Despite being a movie about living toys, this is easily the most unrealistic thing to happen in the entire film. As a guy who loves the claw machine, I can tell you that no claw machine has ever worked that well or had that sturdy a grip. “Maybe he got lucky!” you’re thinking. Well, that’s possible, I guess, but if you knew how a claw machine worked, you’d realize just how stacked against you the odds of winning really are.

As Vox detailed in its investigation into the machines, these devices have a variety of adjustable features that the owner can set in order to make them more or less challenging. For one, the operator can adjust claw strength not only to make it stronger or weaker, but how often it’s strong or weak. In other words, that crafty claw only has full strength every once in a while — most of the time, the machine hampers the claw by sending less voltage to it. There’s also something called “dropping skill,” which basically pre-programs the amount of times the claw is supposed to pick something up and then drop it so that it appears that you almost got it, when in reality you never had a chance. 

The most surprising feature, though, is undoubtedly the fact that owners can manually set a profit margin for their game. By putting in the cost of the prize, the cost of the gameplay and the desired profit margin, the machine will only send the claw a stronger voltage once in a while, as determined by how much profit they want to make. So, using Vox’s example, if a game costs 50 cents to play and the prize costs $7, the machine will only send full strength to the claw approximately every 21 games (though not exactly 21 games, to ensure a dedicated player can’t figure out any sort of pattern).

While this revelation may send you into murderous rage, some do contend that there are good reasons for these features to be there. James Roller, an amusement historian who began operating claw machines back in 1959, admits to me that, “All carnival games are historically suspect of being rigged — and sometimes with good reason,” but adds that when it comes to claw strength, adjusting this can help an operator adjust for heavier or lighter prizes. So if a game is filled with stuffed animals, beanie babies or an iPad touch, the machine can be programmed accordingly.

As for the programmed winning intervals, Roller argues, “Does it not balance the wins between the experience of die-hard players against learning players and younger players? Therefore handicapping the more skillful players and benefiting the poorer players?” Roller is basically saying that by having these pre-programmed win intervals, the claw game — which is primarily meant to appeal to children — can occasionally be won by someone with relatively low skill (perhaps even by violent sociopathic children like Sid).

Perhaps it would help you to better accept the reality of the claw machine by reexamining how you view it. Instead of seeing it as a balanced game of skill that you can master — like skee-ball or Super Shot Basketball — think of it as a game of chance instead, like a slot machine. This, incidentally, is exactly how the government views it: A great number of states have laws around the claw machine, as it’s usually considered, legally, to be a form of gambling. Rather than regulate how the machines are built or operated, though — which may be complicated as many are built overseas — the states dictate how much the prizes inside are allowed to be worth. By limiting the value of the prizes, states feel that this becomes less of a gambling game and more of a game of chance for kids, since all that can be won is some shitty stuffed bear.

That said, merely determining prize value is nothing compared to the control the government used to have over them. At first introduction, the crane game — as they’re also known — wasn’t a game at all: Instead, they were simply amusement displays showing off scale models of the steam shovels being used during the construction of the Panama Canal. From there, “the first commercially viable crane digger game is generally considered to be the Erie Digger, manufactured in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1926,” Roller explains. 

Filled with candy, the early games soon became wildly popular, being both cheap to play and cheap to operate, as it required no electricity. As Mental Floss explains, as the game became more popular, operators began to branch out and put in prizes aimed at adults (cigarette lighters, watches and the like), which is why it eventually caught the eye of the federal government.

“The Johnson Interstate Transportation Act of 1951 forbid the transportation of gambling machines, or gambling machine parts, from crossing state lines,” says Roller. The crane game became an unfortunate victim of this general crackdown on gambling, with some episodes even including Diggers being destroyed by the FBI. Due to the sudden high risk of operating crane games, most operators opted out of the business, but Lee Moss, who owned Erie Manufacturing Corp (a builder of crane machines), fought the federal government on the issue and eventually won a level of victory, successfully getting some crane games reclassified as “amusement devices” instead of “gambling devices,” although any crane game with electricity would remain illegal into the 1970s.

In 1974, the feds started to chill out a bit as far as gambling went, and the crane games began to reappear in greater numbers. They were also coin-operated again, which had ceased during the dark years of 1951 to 1974. But things didn’t just go back to normal: Soon, a new kind of crane machine would begin to arrive in America. In the early 1980s, larger, more technologically advanced machines poured in from Europe, and before long, these new machines — which more commonly had a claw as opposed to a shovel — would begin to appear everywhere, from Walmarts to truck stops to boardwalks, where they still remain today. (While some places still have old-school diggers, Roller explains that this new kind of machine pretty effectively killed off the Digger business in the 1980s.)

Prior to the new machines, explains Allen Kevorkov, of claw-machine-enthusiast website Be The Claw, crane games were generally considered to be a hard win, and back then, they were right: It was tough to swing that little shovel just right, but with patience and practice, you could get better at it. Today, though, with the adjustable features gained over time, the game has gone from a hard win to a near-impossible one in some cases. And while I understand Roller’s point that, instead of it being a game of skill, the claw machine is more a game of chance, I find it hard to accept that 95 percent of the time I put my money in, I almost definitely cannot win, no matter how good I get at the game. 

Despite now knowing the secrets of the claw machine, I also know that I’ll still never completely swear them off, especially if some perfectly placed pikachu ends up calling my name as I pass by his glass prison. Then there’s my newfound knowledge that it’s designed to pay out some of the time, and maybe I’ll get lucky! I may catch the machine at just the right win interval, or I may find a machine where the claw strength is accidentally too strong. 

There’s the fact as well that despite those adjustable settings, some people have gotten so good at claw machines that they can win despite the rigged claw strength. Perhaps one day, with enough practice and disposable income, I’ll be as good as Chen Zhitong, who’s won over 15,000 prizes from claw games. Or even Sid from Toy Story, who won an alien, Buzz Lightyear and Woody all in just two turns. The little prick.