Bingo had its heyday in post-war Britain when it provided an inexpensive social opportunity for a weary people. The gradual decline of cinema in subsequent years created a surplus of vast spaces for the hobby to occupy and an institution was born. Until the turn of the century though, the classic pen-and-paper game had proven a little slow to adapt to changing tastes in entertainment – bingo was in decline.
Like many classic endeavours, mobile phones and tablets presented an opportunity to get into the pockets of a new, typically younger audience while offering the convenience of on-demand play to bingo’s old guard. It’s perhaps testament to the nearly universal appeal of mobile apps and games that bingo is still with us at all; that, coupled with two distinct but related facts – female gamers are now a majority demographic (52%) and most bingo players (75%) are women.
Despite a precipitous drop in premises hosting the offline game, the UK Gambling Commission indicates that bingo experienced its first period of growth in four years between October 2014 and September 2015, with online brands contributing to a 4.9% increase in UK revenue from the game.
Internet bingo offers an arguably more player-orientated game than the one played in former cinemas and dance halls. For instance, the latter bingo brand, Sun Bingo, gives a one-time bonus of £30 for a £10 deposit, carries a number of variants – 40, 75, and 90 ball bingo – and offers a range of social opportunities, something of undeniable appeal to players used to the offline game.
Bingo’s revival involves more than a technological leg-up though – in an ironic twist, bingo is rapidly becoming the domain of clubbers and students.
Falling somewhere between innovation and mad science, travelling club nights like Bongo’s Bingo and Rebel Bingo combine bingo with loud music, dance-offs, and daringly dressed hosts. It might be anathema to fans of the original game but, in some ways, it doesn’t stray too far from the foundations laid by bingo in the forties and fifties – it’s an inexpensive (£9) way to pass the time.
As its core demographic ages, bingo needs to appeal to a younger audience and getting students on board is an obvious lifeline for the struggling game. Millennials, i.e. people born after 1982, are one of the largest, most tech-savvy generations in history. Bingo’s future is inextricably linked to an audience who, traditionally, isn’t interested in playing the game.
The one thing that the more modern “rave” bingo events have proven beyond a doubt is that bingo has a future. In Liverpool, for example, Bongo’s Bingo events featuring Europop group Vengaboys can attract an audience of more than 2,000 people; in other words, they sell out. Similarly, despite a late March date, there are no tickets left for Bongo’s Bingo events featuring Irish pop act, B*Witched.
Rebel Bingo, a phenomenon based out of Shoreditch, London, but with a back catalogue of events in the United States and Ibiza, is rather more antagonistic as far as its similarities to the classic game is concerned – “we do our bingo; they do theirs.” Rebel Bingo places the pen-and-paper game secondary to the overall experience, which involves burlesque dancers and prizes ranging from a stuffed panda to an iPod.
So, what does all that mean for bingo going forward? Much more than any other pastime, the future of the game hinges on the success of several, highly disparate branches – hall-based bingo, online bingo, and their raunchier cousin, rave bingo. There’s no escaping the fact that the traditional game is on borrowed time, as evidenced by the 200 real-world facilities closed between 2005 and 2015, but, with 45 million visitors per year in the UK, the end of offline bingo is still a long way off.
On a lighter note, there’s a great deal of evidence that change, however small, is all bingo needs to survive. For example, the first new bingo hall to open in the UK in seven years (in Southampton last year) swapped the church-like ambience of the fifties and sixties bingo hall for a more welcoming pub-style experience. With that in mind, bingo is slowly becoming more of an accessory to a good night than its main focus.