It’s been awhile since I’ve written a good article on scams. I used to cover MLM scams all the time, but since now everyone does it, it doesn’t seem like I need to any more. However, I recently read about claw machines being a scam and figured that I need to write about it.
We’ve all been there. Or maybe you’ve just been smart enough to avoid the claw machines in the first place.
I can’t remember ever really playing with one… until recently. When you have a 4 and 5 year old, a fun game to get an awesome toy is a great idea. I give them each one shot at the local arcade and they oh so close every time.
I figured that the claws were rigged to never work. I’ve never seen anyone win. At least I’ve seen people win at carnivals.
What I never knew is that the claw machines are rigged, but they DO work a small fraction of the time. What appears to be a game of skill is actually essentially a slot machine that relies totally on the luck of machine picking you as the winner.
Don’t believe me? Watch the video:
Or if you don’t happen to be a good place to watch a video, you can read the Vox article Claw machines are rigged — here’s why it’s so hard to grab that stuffed animal.
If you are too lazy to do either, I’ll give my short version of the story. Claw machines can by programmed by the operator to throttle the number of times that the claw has any actual gripping strength. There are things like “drop percentages” backed into the machines. So essentially the machine owner can set whatever profit level they want by using the price of the toy, the cost per play, and the percentage of having the claw work properly.
Of course, when Vox reported that these document were available online, BMI Gaming took them down.
I’m curious how this is legal. It seems little different than just a slot machine. Maybe you don’t get money directly, but you get something of value. At least the slot machine doesn’t deceive people into thinking it is a game of skill… it’s pretty obvious that it’s a game of luck, right?
Finally, this scam is often played on children. That’s pretty low. So little Johnny or Jill start a lemonade stand to make a few dollars and then get tricked out of it by a grocery store or restaurant owner? It’s almost literally taking candy from a baby.
Am I making too much of this? Let me know in the comments.
Looking for further reading? Kotaku had a detailed this back in 2012. There’s also some good news as some game companies promised not to rig them any more.
Also, they’ve also been part of the this Quartz obsession
It’s a fascinating topic because the machines are everywhere and are a temptation for kids and adults alike. While I know they are rigged, I have learned there is some skill to picking the items that are reachable, as opposed to what you think you want.
Many years ago we were visiting my in-laws in Kingston, NY. One of the mall stores had gone out and they had filled it with claw machines. Of course my young daughter wanted to play. After a while we saw two teen girls with a large number of toys, so we asked about it. They explained how they knew what items to pick and gave some instructions. Now, Carl Lewis could tell me how to run the 100 meters in 10 seconds and that wouldn’t mean I have the skill to do it, but their instructions have helped our win percentage go up. And our local Walmart has a claw machine in it, and one of the grown up employees has it figured out and when she’s bored she’ll go over and win 10 to 12 toys for her kids.
It’s been a little while since I posted on your blog, current events have kept be a bit preoccupied. Since I have a newborn, this topic really hits home, especially since I have been a victim of these machines, and I don’t want my son to also fall prey to their deceit. I use the term victim because I have played them where the claw machine clearly did not have the strength to pick up the stuffed animals, and it was a waste of money. This is, much like you mentioned in the article, a pretty low blow, considering kids may not understand the game is rigged and may lose hard-earned allowance or chore money. I have found machines in particular locations tend to be less honest than others, especially in restaurants. I personally won’t try a machine unless it is in a reputable arcade, such as Dave and Busters. They wouldn’t risk the stigma of having rigged games.
Some of the other tactics I have noticed from these games are, strategically placed toys in corners that cannot be reached, oddly shaped toys that cannot be grasped by the claw, toys being purposefully placed on top of other toys that cannot be moved and block the desired toy from being grabbed. These types of tricks, to the untrained eye, are very difficult to notice and can leave children frustrated and sad. It is bad enough they are taking their money, but the emotional toll is also noteworthy.
One of the few claw games I can support is the candy grab. The game will let you continue to play until you win. This to me, unlike the rigged stuffed animal games, is the only one worth introducing to children.
Thanks to YouTube, there are many videos on game “hacks”, especially games at Dave and Busters. I have found them incredibly accurate and useful, and I have won many prizes with these “hacks”. I highly recommend taking some time with these videos and showing your kids, they will look at you like you are a superhero.
Here are some interesting videos:
Lazy Man says
Are there only a few different claw machines out there? If so, I can see looking into them. Right now, I don’t know the one at our local arcade and I’m not sure if one set of tricks translates across machines (do they? I really don’t know.)
After seeing this research on how the machines are programmed to only allow winners a certain ratio, I’ve kind of become jaded that it is just luck of the draw. The article even mentioned that YouTube videos (more amazing stuff than instructional though) can make the problem worse.
Maybe the next time I’m at the arcade, I’ll get a picture of it and see what I find online.
(At my kids’ ages, 4 and 5, nothing and everything makes me a superhero at the same time. I’m a quantum bit that is both positive and negative at the same time.
ROBYN A. WEINBAUM says
I LOVE claw machines. but then, i know how to work them. a friend taught me how to look at the pieces in the machine. my win rate? 1 prize for every $1 to $3.
just last week, as a birthday present, my friend gave me $1 to play the claw machine. i eyed this beautiful piggly, pink with hearts on it. i told my friend i was going to tip it into the cage.
AND I DID!
and everyone in Steak N Shake stood up and cheered.
so yeah, people win.
There are different tricks needed for claw machines. I don’t think many have overlap when it comes to “hacking” them.
I think there can be some issues with YouTube videos if they are showing you unrealistic wins, but some of the videos I posted actually show you how to beat the machines. In fact, in the third video the guy gets kicked out due to the way he was tricking the machine into thinking he was a maintenance employee doing a routine check. This is just like any other type of research and finding good sources vs. weak sources.
I have personally used a trick from one of the videos involving the mallet game and it did work. I ended up winning 1,000 tickets.
I want to emphasize I don’t like cheating, but if the game is rigged to begin with, and it is targeting children, then ethics are clearly not something of concern. I also don’t think it is right to completely dominate the machine, but to get a win without paying an arm and a leg seems okay.
My older son wins at these regularly, but also agrees that they are, by and large, kind of scammy. I feel like they are very much in the old carnival tradition.
Regarding your comment on slot machines, I would like to point out that a lot of slots these days are in the “video poker” format, which I think IS deceptive. Using icons and a name from a very familiar game in another format with completely different odds is a way of making slots seem like a game of skill.
Lazy Man says
I can see that. Personally when something is video, I think that the screen can show whatever “cards” they want. I don’t have an expectation that it’s a fresh deck of cards. My 5 year old is also not looking to play it or pressuring me to play it.
I never thought about these machines as being a scam, but they are. It is fascinating that they manipulate the tension on the claw. I remember watching someone trying to win a set of fuzzy dice once. They probably spent $10 and did not win the dice. They should have just bought them.
I had assumed the claws never had strength. Does giving them strength only once in a while make them more or less scammy?
Cal @ FI Me Outta Here says
It’s essentially a slot machine for kids, but with crappier, cheap prizes. You still lose even when you win, since the plushies are worth way less than what you put in to play.
If you think that’s a scam, don’t look up information on carnival games….