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Why Bingo Endures and Changes with History


It is known, but not commonly known, that the modern game of bingo (whether in bingo halls or online) descended from a game played in Italy during the 1500s onward [1]. From there, its popularity migrated north and eventually hit England, where it evidently more than just stayed alive through the centuries. Now bingo is arriving at the frontier of online bingo and mobile bingo. What is it about this simple group-oriented game that propels it into yet another chapter of its long story?

You may also hear that bingo was enjoyed by British soldiers during WWII and then afterward it was played at vacation spots for veterans. From this renaissance of bingo, the whole country found the game all the rage; bingo halls became common in most towns following its legalisation in 1961 by popular appeal.

Bingo has taken a quantum leap from bingo halls, in which crowds of seated folks watched their cards and felt the excitement of the group, to online games with chat windows where players interact as little ‘avatars’ or pictures for their online identities.

The first online bingo was introduced in 1996, a site called Bingo Zone that offered the game free (using an advertising-based model). Since then all the major UK bingo-hall operators have launched online bingo, and, this burgeoning hot market has attracted some mega brands like Virgin and The Sun that now offer bingo and casino games to their audiences.

We are currently in the dawning of online bingo’s latest evolution, as it moves onto smart phones and tablet computers (the iPhone and iPad, namely, but Android and Windows users are also well served by new games widely developed on those operating systems). It is an interesting turn of history: the computerized, globally networked version of bingo, by its own very technology, is morphing back towards something increasingly similar to the live bingo hall experience of yore.

The two main technical features that are making this ‘retro’ movement possible are the touch-screen and the very latest experiments with integrating live video in a variety of ways. (People are generally wary of being videoed, so the trick for online bingo is to restrict the use of video to comfortable and well-defined ways.) In the outer reaches of speculation, one feature of playing bingo online is incidental: the smoking ban of 2007 in the UK may indeed have motivated the smoking members of the bingo-playing community to take up online bingo instead, where they could smoke and play at their leisure while still being in touch with their bingo buddies through the chat windows.

The touch-screen of a smart phone or tablet computer makes online bingo less like a ‘video game’ and more like a reactive place (like a bingo hall) with graphics that move according to physics, as well as the virtual presence of the callers, the chat moderators and the rest of the players in a particular Web-based ‘room’ (the amount of players is approximated by the number of chat participants).

And video is a wide-open field for innovation at the moment. There are a handful of deployments of video on the Web already, but exactly when we can expect the arrival of a mass wave of video usage is anyone’s guess. Some sites have used this medium to allow winners to upload short victory speeches; other sites utilize video as a way to keep attention on the bingo caller or a celebrity guest. There are exciting possibilities with video chat, but these could take some time to implement on an enterprise-scale website like those of online bingo. Google has just recently introduced a video chat feature in its new social networking system (so the fate of this feature there should be a good indicator of video chat in general).

The answer regarding what it is about bingo that endures and morphs through history may well be the fact that the game possesses certain human touches and nuances that, as opposed to thrills derived from particular technical features (bound to change), are always found in the most enduring cultural forms and social performances. Some of these perennial favourite motifs are: the suspense of a game of chance, a small amount of money on the line and sometimes a lot to gain, a witty personality leading the way, other players and on-lookers who are reacting emotionally to the game, and lastly, a very simple physical component (a grid score card).

It is the social overall nature of bingo that the websites that host games should pay most attention to, as they try to understand their customers. Interestingly, in physical bingo halls it is common for speaking among players to be restricted during a game. On the Web, the trade off for lacking shared physical space (in the hall) is the fact that the chat window is always live during the games. Some sites even allow players to pipe in games from a few rooms onto their screen to play and chat simultaneously. So what has happened online is basically an amplification of some of the basic human facets of the game of bingo, because it lacks the simultaneously-shared space of the traditional brick-and-mortar bingo club.

This natural and established demand for the human elements in any new medium such as the Web or mobile devises is the reason that watching videos online has become so popular. Somehow, seeing user-created videos on one’s screen (or uploading one’s own) makes the entire Web feel communal, not a top-down kind of affair the old TV networks. But we notice that video telephones did not become immediately popular; although now, video calls on services like Skype and Google Talk are commonplace in most people’s personal technology repertoire.

And so, the natural evolution of bingo into a networked world will eventually include discrete uses of video by both the website and the end user (who may enjoy video chat with specific people online). Bingo is a game that simply hits the right social strings, as well as being one of the most affordable forms of entertainment during relatively hard times. The game of bingo, in the final analysis, survives because it is a very human game.