Minn. lottery, Nintendo team up

Published Sept. 28, 1991|Updated Oct. 14, 2005

In Minnesota, all you will need is a dollar, a dream and a Nintendo set. The state, one of the last to enter the lottery sweepstakes, plans to test a system that will allow people to use Nintendo equipment to play the state lottery in the comfort of their living rooms. Or, as critics fear, in children's bedrooms.

Nearly a third of the nation's homes have Nintendo sets, and if the Minnesota test succeeds, Control Data Corp., the company that developed the idea and is designing the test system, plans to make the system available to other states.

In Florida, where Nintendo is not part of the picture, Control Data has been paid $134-million since 1988 to operate a main computer and 7,500 terminals in retail outlets around the state for on-line games such as Lotto. Florida lottery officials have followed the Nintendo experiment with interest, said spokesman Ed George.

"We thought it was bizarre, but anytime a state comes up with something innovative, we try to keep track of it," he said.

But Florida couldn't offer the game without a major overhaul of its lottery laws. For one thing, Florida law forbids video lottery games, mostly to prevent people under 18 from playing.

It is for that reason that the Nintendo lottery has drawn criticism. Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe says the experiment will encourage children to gamble.

"While I understand that the lottery folks are simply trying to maximize revenue," he said, "I also recognize that intruding into people's homes and converting a game which is immensely popular with young children into a gambling tool is not only unethical, but insidiously destructive to society."

But Minnesota lottery officials and Control Data say they have developed built-in safeguards that will prevent children from gambling. It's illegal for minors to buy lottery tickets.

Young people today are well acquainted with technology, and Tony Bouza, the former gaming commissioner in Minnesota, predicts they inevitably will devise ways to bypass the security measures. He also said that gambling at home by adults sets a bad example for children: "You can't create safe sins."

Becoming eligible to play the lottery at home is an involved process that requires mailing in a copy of a driver's license or other photo identification. Participants would have to deposit up to $200 in advance. No credit would be extended. Any winnings would be credited to their account, but prizes of $1,000 or more would be claimed through a lottery office. There would be a $50 daily limit for at-home players.

The test will involve 10,000 homes next year. For the test, the state will provide the Nintendo sets and the modem devices that allow them to communicate with a central computer.

Participants, who will pay a service charge of $10 a month, will get software that lets them play all of Minnesota's games, including the biggest jackpots. The system will have passwords and other safeguards intended to thwart unauthorized playing.

After players set up accounts with the lottery, they will be able to select their lottery numbers on their television sets at home. The numbers will be stored electronically in the central lottery computer and in a file in the player's Nintendo set.

Nintendo's use as a gambling device may help put spark into the market for such on-line services, said Gary Arlen of Arlen Communications, a research firm in Bethesda, Md.

"I've been looking for the killer service," he said. "This is the kind of thing that makes sense."

For more than a decade, large corporations like Sears, Roebuck and Co. and International Business Machines Corp. have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in networks that allow people to shop, read the news and make travel reservations using home computers linked to telephone lines.

Such systems, including a Sears-IBM joint venture, Prodigy Services Co., have been somewhat cumbersome to use and have been viewed more as a novelty than a necessary adjunct to daily life.

But as giant corporations have stumbled, Nintendo has been lurking in the background, the envy of the industry, with 30-million units already in use. Nintendo has had its eye on far more than the video-game market since it sold its first machine in the United States in 1986.

In Japan, Nintendo customers use their machines for banking and for buying and selling stocks. In a prescient bit of engineering, Nintendo included a plug to snap in a modem on the bottom of every machine sold in the United States.

With the lottery game, Nintendo will introduce its modem to the United States.

Control Data officials said Nintendo is providing the 10,000 machines and the other equipment for the test at no cost. The machines retail for about $80.

People who already have Nintendo machines would have to retrofit them with a modem to take advantage of on-line services.

Computer modems are currently available for less than $100.

Some in the industry say Nintendo may harm its image by its association with a lottery. They note that the company already is under fire from some parents and educators who say its games lack educational content.

"It's Jimmy the Greek comes home to your kid's bedroom," said Bob Heitman, general manager of the Sierra Network, a computerized game network that charges players to use its service.

_ Information from the New York Times, the Associated Press, staff writer John D. McKinnon and Times files was used in this report.