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Game over?

May 3, 2011

The metal-on-metal sound of a win at the slot machines is enough to put a smile on any punter's face, but they could be wiped away altogether if German lawmakers have their way.

A sign reading Jackpot
German states plan to crack down on gambling arcadesImage: frank_90

Slot machines are big business across Germany. Too big, according to lawmakers who have drawn up plans to amend state gambling laws.

The premiers of Germany's 16 states have agreed on guidelines which would greatly restrict the gambling operations at thousands of amusement arcades around the country.

Not only would they reduce the amount of money punters could legally win, they would also introduce mandatory closing times and ban gambling establishments from advertising on their facades or in their foyers.

The planned amendment would allow state authorities to limit the number of licenses available and introduce minimum distances between slot arcades. The latter measure would close a legal loophole and put many operators out of business within five years.

Officially, a German amusement arcade cannot house more than 12 one-arm-bandits, but for decades operators have been at liberty to circumnavigate that ruling by applying for multiple licenses and housing several arcades in separate rooms - each with its own entrance - on the same premises.

Protecting the weak

A woman in front of a row of machines
Lawmakers believe slot machines are a health riskImage: dpa

Over time the practice has simply become the way things are done, and up until recently nobody seemed to bat an eyelid. But a report in the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper says the state premiers of all German states now unanimously agree that the population needs to be better protected from the risks of gambling addiction. Hence the proposed amendments.

Dirk Lamprecht of the Automaten Wirtschaftsverbände (AWI) - an association which represents amusement arcade operators in Germany - says there are already ample laws in place.

"Unlike state casinos we already have limits on how much people can win and lose. We have regulations which ban the consumption of alcohol and the under 18s, and we have rules which make it impossible to have more than 12 machines in one room," he said, adding that the authorities would do better to monitor the implementation of the existing guidelines than come up with new ones.

Outspoken criticism

The industry has been highly critical of the measures, which it says would force the closure of thousands of multiplex amusement arcades thereby sounding its death knell, put as many as 70,000 people out of work and represent 1.4 billion euros ($2 billion) in lost tax revenue. As if that were not bad enough, those in the sector say, there is also a very real likelihood that the guidelines won't even have the desired effect.

A woman at a slot machine
German arcade operators say they already burdened with rules and regulationsImage: AP

"In the past few years we have seen operators developing new concepts to create attractive and appealing gaming centers which are a far cry from the dingy arcades of the 80s and 90s," Bernhard Eber, spokesman for gaming operator Bally Wulff Entertainment, told Deutsche Welle. "If mulitple licenses were no longer allowed, we would see a return of those dingy halls we have left behind."

He concedes that the liberal issuing of licenses has led to a burgeoning of arcades in locations and numbers which are not to everyone's taste, but warns against throwing the baby out with the bath water. Not least in light of the risks posed by Internet gaming.

"Online betting has become popular in the past years," Eber said. "But at home it offers no limit protection for players, they can put down as much money as they want, while in a gaming centre everything is controlled."

As far as he is concerned the solution is simply to move the centers to the outskirts of towns rather than having them right in the middle for everyone to see.

Gambling in the Internet age

A roulette wheel
The regulations would not apply to state-run casinosImage: AP

Lamprecht, however says the real nub of the issue has nothing to do with either location or protection, but with the government wanting to ward off competition from commercial gambling centers. He says the current gambling laws have led to lost revenue from state casinos and the lottery.

"They see this amendment as their opportunity to get the money back and push us out of the way," he said.

Lamprecht said the proposed law, which is due to come into effect at the start of next year, will now be subjected to intense judicial scrutiny, with the ultimate aim of keeping Germany's multiplex gambling halls open for a long time to come.

Reporter: Tamsin Walker
Editor: Sam Edmonds