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Claw machines are rigged — here's why it's so hard to grab that stuffed animal

Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

At some point or another you've probably played one of these claw machines, hoping to score the plush toy of your dreams. But despite your skill at perfectly positioning the claw over the prize and activating it, you've found that the pincers just don't grab tightly enough to pick up a stuffed animal.

It's not your imagination. Those claw machines are rigged. But they're rigged in a surprisingly clever way — and not the way most people suspect.

The claw is programmed to grab tightly only part of the time

Some people think the claw machine is so hard to win because the stuffed animals are packed so tightly together. But the bigger reason is more insidious than that: the claw machine is programmed to have a strong grip only part of the time.

This isn't a closely kept secret. It's publicly available information, pulled straight from the instruction guides for the biggest claw games out there. Open the manual for Black Tie Toys' Advanced Crane Machine. Look at page eight, section subheading "Claw Strength":

Instruction manual page showing claw strength.

Instruction manual page showing claw strength. (BMI Gaming)

The machine's owner can fine-tune the strength of the claw beforehand so that it only has a strong grip a fraction of the time that people play.

The owner can manually adjust the "dropping skill," as well. That means that on a given number of tries, the claw will drop a prize that it's grabbed before it delivers it to you.

The machines also allow the owner to select a desired level of profit and then automatically adjust the claw strength to make sure that players are only winning a limited number of times:

A claw machine profit table.

A claw machine profit table. (BMI Gaming)

This isn't isolated to one claw machine or one company — this is standard practice industry-wide.

Want to win a prize from the Bling King? The machine's instruction manual shows you'll likely have to play dozens of times. The owner can program beforehand how often the claw's grip is strong or weak (based on the voltage sent to the claw):

A claw machine strength table.

A claw machine strength table. (BMI Gaming)

The big decision for machine owners is how fair or unfair they want to make the game. They could adjust the machine so that the claw only operates on full power one out of every 23 times. That would, in theory, create a profit of around 50 percent. (The machine also has ways to ensure this — if a player wins with a "weak claw," the machine can wait even longer before sending full power to the claw.)

But owners also have to be careful, since no one wants to play a machine that never seems to work. So they might want to accept less profit in the short term by allowing the claw to be stronger more often, thereby giving the machine a better reputation.

For the player, however, there's no way to know in advance how strong or weak a machine is.

States do regulate claw machines — but they typically focus on prize size

States regulate slot machines to make sure they're not rigged too unfairly against players. But they rarely do the same thing for claw machines.

Instead, state regulations typically focus on keeping the value of the prizes in claw machines relatively low. Lawmakers seem to think that larger prizes would make claw machines more akin to gambling, whereas smaller prizes keep them safe for kids.

By contrast, there are fewer regulations on how strong the claw should be. If machine operators want to make the claw wildly unfair against the players, there's little stopping them — in most cases, the only check is the machine's reputation.

Even though it's rigged, people are still tempted by the claw

If the claw is so badly rigged, then why do people keep playing this game? Starting in 1951, the machines were regulated as gambling devices, but in 1974, those regulations were relaxed. A claw boom began. Today, they're ubiquitous in grocery stores, malls, and anywhere else with lots of foot traffic.

One possibility for their enduring popularity today: social media has made it easy for people to record their victories playing claw machines, and each victorious post or video about a successful claw machine attempt only serves as a commercial for the games. (By contrast, few people broadcast their claw failures.) That might give the impression that the game is way more winnable than it actually is:

Research has consistently shown that social media can inspire a fear of missing out on key relationships and experiences, and a claw victory is alluring. It's easy to see a Facebook post about a claw machine victory and want to capture that glory yourself.

What's surprising, meanwhile, is that claw devotees don't use social media to better identify which claw machines are badly rigged and which aren't. The fan site Be the Claw does some of this work, but it's far from comprehensive. By the same token, it's difficult to find claw machines on consumer ratings sites like Yelp. (A Yelp spokesperson says businesses must fall in certain categories to be classified on the site: an entire arcade can get rated, but a single claw machine usually can't.)

For now, there's only one sure-fire way to beat the claw machine: don't play.

Update: Since this article was first published in April, a few notable things happened:

  • BMI Gaming took down the PDFs of their instruction manuals, which used to be publicly available.
  • A response to the article, published at Vending Times, provides more detail about how some claw machine operators are responding to charges of rigged machines. However, the article confirms what one source told me: confusing state regulations make it hard to know what each area's law is, and self-policing remains the primary method of regulation.
  • Finally, more than one person told me that they'd had more luck with Sugarloaf claw machines at Wal-Mart than they had with other claw machines. However, there's no easy way to verify this claim, so claw operator beware.

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