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Is the internet a boom or bust for the bingo industry?

Bingo has been around in one form or another for nearly a half a millennium, but as the world has moved online over the last few decades has the bingo industry been able to keep pace? In today’s digital world, bingo has to compete for our attention not just with casino games such as poker or blackjack, but also the millions of other gaming genres we can play from the palm of our hands.

As more and more of our lives move online, will we see bingo boom or bust?

A quick history of bingo

The game of bingo can trace its routes back to a medieval 16th century Italian game called “Lo Giuoco del Lotto D’Italia”, which roughly translates as “The Italian Lottery Game”. Other gambling games, such as baccarat, have even earlier origins, but the Italian “lotto” form the 1530s was certainly one of the first games that was based more on chance and luck than skill to gain popularity.

From its early Italian roots, the game spread throughout Europe and by the 18th century a similar game known simply as “Le Lotto” had become a popular pastime in France, which was the first to feature the player card layout that has become common today. And from there the game rapidly spread to the UK, Germany, and throughout the world during the age of European empires and expansionism.

Whilst the idea of a 90-ball game of luck and associated player cards had become commonplace by the 20th century, the game was known by a variety of names, and interestingly was used more as an educational tool in schools to help children to learn numbers and mathematics, than for any form of gambling. However, by the early 1920s Hugh J. Ward had standardised the game design at carnivals around Pittsburgh and later copyrighted a rule book for a game called “Beano” in 1933.

By the time toy merchandiser Edwin Lowe came across the game at a carnival near Atlanta in 1929 the game was already gaining popularity in the US. But when he took the game back to friends in New York and they loved it, he knew he had a winner on his hands, and created two versions of the game for mass production, and by 1940 the game of “Bingo” was being played across the country.

As the curtain closed on the 20th century, bingo is one of the best known gambling games around the world, and the game once played with cards, dried beans, and a rubber stamp had become a juggernaut industry with dedicated Bingo halls springing up that employed around 20000 people in the UK alone.

The rise, fall, and rise of online gambling

Gambling is as old as civilisation itself, but at the turn of the 21st century the internet changed the game. Poker was at the forefront of online gambling boom of the early 2000s, with huge sponsorship deals for top players and late-night television shows broadcast to millions around the world. However, this boom came to a screeching halt when President Bush introduced the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) in 2006. Almost overnight nearly all online gambling was illegal in the US, household-name operators like PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker all had their US assets seized for processing what had suddenly become illegal transactions.

Despite most online gambling remaining illegal in the majority of states across the US, the activity has grown enormously elsewhere around the world, with the losses in the US more than made up for with growth in Europe and Asia, with countries that chose to legislate rather than outlaw the practice, such as the UK, where the Gambling Act 2004 has created a safer environment for players and also generated significant sums for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC).

Where does bingo fit in now?

In the UK, online bingo has grown alongside other forms of online gambling like poker and sports betting, with online bingo firms running massive nationwide advertising campaigns and sponsoring popular sports teams. And just like with poker, it is not just paid games that have found popularity with free bingo games on Wink Bingo and others also proving hugely popular with fans.

As smartphone penetration in countries like the UK soars towards 90 per cent, it has never been easier for people to connect and play their favourite games and they are doing so in droves. Smartphones have been a boon for game developers of all stripes, from Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMPORGS) like Arcane Legends or Lineage 2: Revolution, to card games like solitaire, to games of chance like bingo. There are millions of titles to choose from, but there are billions of players around the world!

The internet may dominate our lives, but the technology is still in its early years, and it will be fascinating to see what the next decade holds for industries like bingo. So far it has done well to adapt to our changing world, but as other games become ever more advanced and immersive, will the old Italian lotto still offer the same excitement by 2050?

Photograph by Samuele Schirò

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