Retracting the claw game: Lawmaker targets arcade fave

Dake Kang and Bruce Shipkowski
Associated Press

Atlantic City, N.J. — It’s an amusement park staple with a dedicated fan base. But how often does anyone really win at the claw machine?

One New Jersey lawmaker has the same question and wants the state to consider more oversight over the game.

Critics maintain the game is easy to rig, noting operators can set the payout odds and control the strength of the joystick-controlled claw to determine whether a prize can be retrieved. They also claim that players rarely capture any of the “big prizes” that the games offer.

But industry officials dispute those claims. They say it’s in arcades’ best interests to have customers win prizes, because if they’re not getting anything over time they likely won’t want to play anymore.

Many players admit reservations but mostly put them aside because it’s a lot of fun, and most say they have won something — usually a stuffed animal or small toy.

Among them are Margie Torres, of Camden, and her 11-year-old son, Rafael Hernandez, who agree that winning seems impossible at times.

As they fed dollar bills into machines at an Atlantic City arcade during a family outing, Rafael said he knew he was facing long odds in his bid to claim a big prize.

“It’s impossible to get because when it goes, it grabs it, and when it picks it up, right when it hits the top, it just drops,” the boy said while trying to win a GoPro camera, eventually leaving empty-handed.

The claw and crane games are ubiquitous at the Jersey shore, and amusement parks, movie theaters and even retailers nationwide. Players say they are lured by the challenge and thrill of snaring a prize big or small.

New Jersey state Sen. Nicholas Scutari recently introduced legislation calling for more oversight of the claw game, which he feels targets young children who think they can easily snatch a big prize.

No hearings have been scheduled.

Most states consider the claw machines games of chance and specifically exempt them from gambling statutes, as long as they comply with certain rules specific to those states.

The claw games in New Jersey are already regulated by the state’s Legalized Games of Chance Control Commission , which oversees the amusement industry. Its inspectors make the rounds at arcades, boardwalks, fairs and carnivals across the state to ensure games are being operated fairly and standards are met.

The measure proposed by Scutari would add mechanical and programming specifications needed for claw machines to ensure a player has reasonable odds of obtaining a prize.

“Difficult is one thing, completely rigged is another,” Scutari said. “We just want to make sure it’s a level playing field.”

According to industry officials, it’s in arcades’ best interests to have customers win. They say that’s the only way to keep them coming back, although any parent who’s reached into their pocket for yet another dollar bill to fulfill their kid’s wish to try again — and again and again — to capture that (insert name of silly toy here) may disagree.

“Our association says the more you give away, the better it is for people, so the idea that they’re rigged is wrong,” said Edward R. McGlynn, of the New Jersey Amusement Association , a trade group.

“If you don’t give away prizes, people eventually won’t want to play the game. The commission has done an excellent job over the years in weeding out bad operators.”

Jeremy Hambly, a claw game aficionado from the Milwaukee area whose ClawStruck YouTube channel shows how many different models work, notes that most modern day machines have sophisticated programming that allows the operator to predetermine their profit.

Operators should have to publicly post the odds on a machine, Hambly said, like odds printed on lottery tickets.

“I don’t want people to not play claw machines,” Hambly said via electronic message. “I want them to play the right ones, because a fairly set claw machine is skill based and is one of the purest forms of fun out there.”