Slot machines with the image of Betty Boop are just one example of how manufacturers marry design, pop culture and art to attract casino gamblers

In every age of man, new forms of art emerge, whether cave drawings back in the Neolithic Age or painting in gold leaf on parchment during the Middle Ages. Now you can add Las Vegas slot machines to the list of “art” that is particularly derived from an age, a place and a circumstance, all wrapped into one. Give some respect to the Slot Machine as Art, please.

Slot Machines as Sculpture

“When you look at [a slot machine], you have to realize that not only is the machine designed by somebody,” noted Mark Hall-Patton, Museum Administrator for the Clark County museum system (who many of you will recognize as one of the oft-called upon experts in the hit TV show Pawn Stars), but that “you had to have somebody do all of the art — the belly plate and the top plate and all of that.”

Museum administrator, you say? That’s right, slot machines are now considered iconic Vegas imagery, right along with huge neon casino entry signs and Liberace’s capes that 3,000 lynx gave their lives to create.

Take Bally Technologies, for example; certainly one of the top creators and manufacturers of casino slot machines today. Consider what goes into creating one of these money-eating monsters: the combined dazzle of design, music, animation and illustration all have to coalesce to emerge as a beckoning siren to gamblers passing by, gamblers who are being equally lured by hundreds of other, equally creative machines that say, “Come over here. Sit down. Spend some time and money on me, I am worth it.”

Slot Evolution

It’s not as easy to put together one of these modern-day sculptures as you might guess. And while slot machines have certainly evolved in terms of sights and sounds – not to mention electronic sophistication – over the decades, they have always had a kind of unique fabulosity, special to their own aesthetic.

“ [They were created with] a lot of handwork on them, detailed little gold flourishes here and there,” says Hall-Patton of the earliest slot machines. And while they might not ever end up in the Metropolitan Museum, they do qualify as industrial art, according to Hall-Patton, and “everything was supposed to look the same but, of course, they hand-detailed it so it’s not going to be.”

“If you look at how the technology has evolved, it certainly has gotten more interesting, more high-tech, if you will,” noted Joe Sigrist, vice president of product management for International Game Technology (IGT), another major slots maker in the casino industry. “But, by the same token, some of the older machines were pretty complicated in their own right.

“I’ve seen some very early poker machines that literally had mechanical cards that fell. You see some that were extensions of more of a pinball machine, really,” added Sigrist.

Beginning in the 1990s, slot machines started getting away from their fruitier beginnings and moved more towards themes: popular TV shows like “Wheel of Fortune,” for example, which besides being one of the first, became and remains one of the most popular slot machines in casinos today. Also incorporated into slot machine themeology and design were classic comic strip characters like Betty Boop, beloved entertainers like the Rat Pack’s Dean Martin, the slighty risque (if now quite innocent-seeming) Playboy brand, well-known sports events like the Breeder’s Cup, and a host of other pop culture connections to pull gamblers in with a feeling of familiarity and comfort.

And there’s really no cut-off for what can become a game theme, even now, according to Sigrist.

“We’ve got a Tabasco sauce game,” he says. “So it’s not just pop arts. It’s what in pop culture right now, and it’s not just celebrating movies and TV shows, it’s consumer products, and you can expand it a lot of different ways.”

Let us all say a prayer of thanks that the Kardashians do not yet have their own slots branding happening.

Yet.