What is a claw machine?

24 January 2024 - by YMCA of Greater Toronto

Claw machines, also known as crane games, are popular among youth. These games require players to insert money or tokens to use an arm-like device to grab a stuffed animal, toy, or another prize. They are found in many places, such as cinemas, malls, and arcades.  

There are many types of claw machines. Play-to-win ones provide an unlimited number of attempts until you win. Single-play machines give you only one chance to grab the prize. These games can be programmed to grab at full strength occasionally. The owners of claw machines can tweak them to ensure a prize is won sometimes.  The chances of winning depend on several factors, including the value of the prizes, the player's skill level, the settings for payout percentage, the speed of the motion, and the grip pick-up and hold strength. 

The element of chance in single-play claw machines and the flexibility in the payout percentage set by the owners raise the question of whether claw machines are a form of gambling.

Single-play claw machines: Games of chance

In 2002, an Ontario Court examined a case concerning the legality of claw machines in single-play mode, where the player has only one chance per credit to win a prize. The court found that although the ability of the player to control the crane’s movement gave the appearance of an element of skill, the game was played as a game of chance, and, therefore, should be prohibited outside of trade fairs and exhibitions.

The trial judge defined the game as “one of mixed skill and chance with an overwhelming degree of chance and merely a dash of skill.”

Online crane games: A twist on the traditional

Typically, claw machine games are played in a physical arcade, but new ways of playing have emerged, including apps where claw machines can be operated remotely through video streaming. “The claw machine is physically located in another country,” says Aria Khosravi, a  Youth Outreach Worker with YMCA Youth Gambling Awareness Program (YGAP). “If you win, the prize is sent to you by mail.”

While physical claw machines are often programmed to make owners a certain amount of money before they pay out a prize, apps can operate differently. For example, you may never win or win on your first try because the app is designed to entice players to keep playing, or you could win multiple times in a row with a catch attached. “To claim your prize, the app may require you to join as a member and pay a monthly fee — and you cannot claim your prize without being a member,” says Khosravi. “And what happens is that after a few months, they may increase the price of membership dramatically.”

 This allows individuals to play potentially riskier games outside of Canada. There could be a scam or no standards for fair play, or your personal and bank information may get compromised.  

Young child using a mobile

Are claw machines a form of gambling?

According to the Criminal Code that governs gambling in Canada, three elements are required for an activity to be considered gambling: Payment to play the game, the resort to chance or a combination of skill and chance to determine the outcome, and an opportunity to win a prize with monetary value.

The gambling elements of claw machines include risking money for a chance at winning a prize and uncertainty about winning a prize in single-play games.

YGAP defines gambling as risking something of value when you don’t know if you will win or lose. Based on this definition, we consider single-play claw machines a gambling activity.

“There’s a business that owns the claw machines, and the primary goal of that business is to make money. People do win, but ultimately, the odds aren’t in your favour. The house, or arcade, has the edge,” says Sarah Hannaford, YGAP’s Youth Outreach Specialist. “The business doesn’t want to pay out more than it’s taking in.”

Single-play claw machines share other characteristics with gambling, including:

  • Near misses: It may look like you are grabbing the item, but it can fall at the last minute.
  • The illusion of control: You think you have the skill to control the claw, but in reality, it can be set by arcade owners to give out prizes occasionally.
  • Audio and visual cues: They are similar to slot machines. 

In some jurisdictions, claw machines are regulated with rules about the types and values of prizes that can be offered, where claw machines can be placed, making the rules that govern the game available to the player, and age restrictions on playing. From paying $1 for one chance at winning a key chain or a stuffed animal to $5 claw machines providing a chance at winning high-end shoes, these machines are popping up everywhere. We see claw machines that charge a relatively high price to play the game and provide high-value prizes. Since single-play claw machines may be gambling, and since it’s unclear how much skill is involved, and still the question remains as to why are claw machines so accessible to youth in Ontario?

Claw machine usage & gambling problems

Claw machines have a wide audience. Even parents are interested in playing because of nostalgia. “It’s a new kind of exciting experience,” says Hannaford. 

While claw machines can be fun, they are not necessarily risk-free. Studies show adults experiencing problems with gambling are more likely to recall using claw machines as youths. Frequent usage of these games as children may be associated with greater gambling problems as adults (Newall et al., 2020, 2021; Parrado-Gonzalez & Newall, 2023).

It’s important to have conversations with youth about the risk involved in claw machines and other chance-based games. You pay for an unknown prize with claw machines that do not guarantee a win. You are more likely to lose these games due to the house advantage, so decide if you want to spend money on them. Keep in mind that they are games of chance that can have the potential to cause problems. 

Recognize warning signs

Here are some common warning signs to look out for when playing claw machines or other games of chance:

  • Unable to stop playing or thinking about playing
  • Spending more than you can afford
  • Expecting to win or becoming irritable when not winning
  • Playing for extended periods or spending more money
  • The game is not fun anymore

It is a good idea to set a budget for entertainment if you choose to play these games and don’t spend more than you can afford. Engage with them as entertainment rather than getting stuck in a cycle of trying to win a particular prize. Make sure you balance playing games with other activities and get enough activity, sleep, and nutrition. 

Additional resources and support

YGAP frequently discusses current gaming trends with youth to help make the connections between gambling and games and to support informed decision-making. Contact us to learn more or to book a free gambling awareness workshop.  

There are free support services and resources available if you or someone in your life is experiencing problems with gambling or gaming.  ConnexOntario provides access to information for mental health, addiction, and problem gambling services. Kids Help Phone offers mental health and wellness help to young people in English and French. 


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