IN THE BEGINNING THERE WAS… BINGO!
Okay, sure, bingo may not have been around since the beginning of time, but this game is definitely older than your nan. It’s actually been played in some shape or form for hundreds of years. The earliest record of a similar game comes from Italy – yes, this European country isn’t only great because it gave us pasta and pizza, it’s also believed to have given birth to our favourite game: Italians played a similar traditional national lottery game called Il Giuoco del Lotto d’Italia back in the 1500s.
Other countries in Europe were also bitten by the bingo bug, with French aristocrats playing another precursor game known as Le Lotto reportedly around the 1770s. The Germans also got in on the action a few decades later, although they supposedly adapted the game to be an educational tool for children.
COMING TO AMERICA
About a century later, America started to grow very fond of a game called “beano” (not to be confused with the British comic of the same name). Many historians believe the game was being played at carnivals in the US state of Georgia when a American toymaker by the name of Edwin Lowe came across the game. He saw the potential it had, and returned home to work on his version of the game.
Lowe soon began testing the game out with his friends, who were all utterly thrilled with it. It’s believed that when one of them won a game, they were so excited that they leapt up and shouted out the word “bingo” instead of “beano”. Clearly Lowe had an eye for potential and changed the name of his version of the game, and – at least, when it comes to the name of the game – the rest is history.
But we aren’t quite done when it comes to the game itself. Lowe had noticed that there were often multiple winners during a game, which meant prizes needed to be split or extra prize money had to be paid out. This was less than ideal, so he hired Carl Leffler, a maths professor from Columbia University in New York, to help him figure out a solution. Leffler’s title was clearly well-earned, as he helped Lowe create an additional 6,000 unique cards, making the game harder to win.
The game spread like wildfire over the US, particularly as fund-raisers for churches and charity groups, but also with official halls run by casinos and other groups (such as Native American tribes) that were legally allowed to do so. This was despite the fact that states often had very strict gambling regulations which often banned any form of gambling!
A CLASSIC UK PASTIME
While some sources state that, just like in the US, things really took off in the 1960s in the UK, you can’t ignore that there were earlier versions of the game that players had been enjoying for many decades before the boom. Games such as housey-housey, tombola, and lotto were being played by many people here, even though cash betting and other forms of gambling were illegal.
Before the 1960s, the UK Government realized it was fighting a losing battle given the growth of various types of gambling, and instituted the Betting and Gaming Act in 1960. While it believed that it could use this act to manage social gambling, the legislation really opened the door for gambling “clubs”. With the game exploding in popularity in the US, it was no surprise that it did the same in the UK once this “loophole” was put in place by the Government. Within just a few years, millions of people had registered at clubs, and halls started popping up everywhere.
SIMILAR, BUT DIFFERENT – UK VS US GAMES
While bingo was undoubtedly reaching never-before-seen levels of popularity in the UK and US, that’s not to say people were playing exactly the same game.
UK fans usually play a game with 90 balls, compared to the 75-ball US version of the game. The cards used by the US and UK also differ, with the US version using a 5x5 card, and the UK, a 9x3 card. The US version of the game also allows for more variation in winning, with horizontal, vertical, and even diagonal rows counting towards a win, while the UK version only counts wins horizontally due to the card format. To this day, no one knows for sure how and why these differences exist.
THE GOLDEN ERA IS NO MORE
While bingo had been in decline since it’s “golden age” in the 1960s, changes to laws and regulations (such as the smoking ban in the UK), as well as a general decline in popularity of the game due to competition from other gambling and gaming experiences, caused numbers of players and halls to decline well into the late 1990s and early 2000s in both the US and the UK.
Thankfully, all was not lost: a seismic change was coming that would change the way this game was played – for ever.
THE WORLD COMES ONLINE
In the early 1990s, more people were gaining access to computers, and having a device at home was becoming more commonplace. But a little known tool called the internet became accessible to the public in 1991, and it allowed computers (and people) all across the world an easy and more affordable way to connect and communicate with each other.
No one could have predicted how the invention of the internet would completely change the world. In 1996, one of the first free bingo games – called Bingo Zone – was launched into cyberspace. This was followed by another online title called Bingo Blitz, from a company known as Uproar, in 1998.
While these games were basically identical to their offline counterparts, game developers would soon start to add features, such as auto-dabbers, friend lists, or card limits (to prevent abuse by wealthier players), to online titles. They also took the time and money to improve the graphics, sound, and overall presentation of their games. These features were seen as a necessity, as bingo was nowhere near as popular as it used to be, and, dare we say it, some even thought it was a dying game.
However, the shift online, as well as the growth in mobile devices, made it easier than ever for people to start playing. Mobile gaming technology may have started off slowly, but today even budget phones are powerful enough to run at least some games. It was this incredible ease of access that not only fuelled the “rebirth” of the industry, but also had a major impact on who you’d find playing the game.
Shift in demographics
Bingo, before it went online, was mostly seen as a game played by old people, more specifically women, with the stereotype being it was an excuse for a bunch of old ladies to get together to have a few drinks and a bit of scandalous gossip. But change began all the way back in 1996, even if it hadn’t yet been noticed, and really only caught people’s attention many years later.
In an article from 2015 called “Who plays online bingo?”, Gambling Insider noted that the pastime was becoming increasingly gender-neutral. It spoke to the owners of different sites, who highlighted that there was an overall trend towards more male players in the online scene, and that some specific services may appeal more to men than women.
A study by international research and analytics group YouGov in 2018 highlighted the changes in player demographics in 2018. The report, A full house – who is driving online bingo’s growth?, revealed that the biggest age group playing the game online was actually 25-34 years old, with the second-largest group being 35-44.
WhichBingo’s Annual Report 2021 found that the number of male players who participated in its study had exploded from 21% in 2020, to a whopping 48% in 2021. Similarly, its study found that the most popular age bracket in 2021 was 25-54, as compared to 35-64 in 2020.
Where to from here?
While online bingo is showing a resurgence in popularity thanks to younger players, the question that most operators and players are likely to ask is: “Where do we go from here?”
The biggest challenge for online bingo remains capturing the atmosphere of real halls, but perhaps technology could be used to address this challenge, as virtual-reality devices such as the Oculus Quest 2 mature and become more powerful – and more affordable. With devices like these, perhaps online players will be able to enter completely virtual worlds, and finally be able to experience the fun and excitement of brick-and-mortar halls from their own homes.
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/ 12 April 2021