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Australians losing $12 billion a year on high stakes gambling machines

Campaign for Fairer Gambling | Campaign for Fairer Gambling

5 min read Partner content

The Campaign for Fairer Gambling writes in response to an Australian documentary about high stakes gambling machines with up to 200,000 across that country and $12 billion losses every year.

Australian documentary exposes how high stakes gambling machines, like FOBTs, are built for addiction

In just over 50 years gambling machines, known as “Pokies”, have gone from being illegal to cropping up everywhere in Australia. There are now over 200,000 machines spread through cities, suburbs and country towns, with Australians losing AU$12bn a year.

But because the chance of winning is worse than any other form of gambling, a recent documentary called “Ka-Ching!” explored whether something else was drawing people to them, posing the question: “Have designers created the perfect addiction machine?”

The biggest manufacturer of Pokies is Arisotcrat, and founder Len Ainsworth was shown in archive footage being asked: “What is the attraction of these things, why do people play them and like them?”

He replied: “You can win on a poker machine. Of course you can… You get back 90% of your stake on average, and if you happen to strike a winning run, you can be a long way ahead. Of course that’s the time to withdraw.”

The interviewer responded: “So your advice to the poker machine player would be: know when to stop?”

“Know when to stop yes,” advised Ainsworth.

But, of course, it’s difficult to stop when the machine is designed for addiction.

After intense lobbying and “cash in envelopes”Pokies were deregulated and allowed into pubs despite, as Dr Charles Livingstone asserted, “no one marching in the streets” for more Pokies. Around 80% of the population think Pokies need to be reigned back. A 2013 study found that those who live closer to Pokie venues are more likely to develop a problem, meaning their proliferation is causing harm.

The move away from mechanical reels to a computer screen kept the fantasy of reels but moved the odds, and a toolkit of tricks, to designers. Coins became notes and cashless tickets. Buttons let you bet every three seconds, up to $10 a spin or AU$12,000 an hour.

“Addiction By Design” author Natascha Dow Schull said that in the early 90s she would go to gaming expos in Las Vegas and Australians were “the kings of the floor”. Aristocrat had designed “incredibly complex machines” which meant players didn’t really know if they were winning. In more archive footage, Len Ainsworth was asked: “What’s the secret of your company’s success?” and he replied: “Building a better mousetrap.”

Around 200,000 Australians struggle with these machines, and those that have a problem provide 60% of the profits. Marcus Fortunato, the manager of Tictabs Gaming, a slot machine creator in Las Vegas, showed a game called “Super Chicken”, which was designed for bars and taverns in the rural area around Chesapeake Beach in Maryland. He said: “There needs to be something that pulls them to the machine, and that’s what the graphics are.”

Cameron Munro composed music for Pokies. He said: “You want to keep their attention on the machine. You don’t want them to become too mindful of who’s at home. Maybe negative things are happening in their life. Obviously some people have a problem with gambling and the guilt associated with it. You’ve got to redirect that with music that is more of an escape for them. Everything’s happy sounding. So if you lose, there will be no sound. You don’t want to reinforce that they’ve lost. The winning sounds help them feel good about what they’ve done and they keep plugging away.”

Dr Kevin Harrigan of the Gambling Research Lab in Ontario was shown testing the biological response to Poker machines. “The machine is constantly emitting positive sounds… Incredibly you’re winning something on almost every second spin. So the question arises, how do they manage to give so many wins? And that is through what we call ‘losses disguised as wins’. Many wins on your modern slot machine are net losses. So you wager a dollar but win back 70c, but the machine celebrates it as a win.” Designers also programme into the game the sensation of a near-miss, where the player is always one away from a jackpot.

Roulette on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals is designed to give the player losses disguised as wins when multiple numbers are wagered, with the winning audio reward signals on losing transaction. A near miss is always likely as you can be either one away on the board or one away on the wheel. Also the visual spin of the ball and the wheel are designed to build anticipation, even though the result has already been determined.

But whilst it’s possible to bet around AU$70 every 20 seconds on Pokies, FOBTs allow the user to stake up to £100 in the same timeframe. There are many similarities between Pokies and FOBTs, particularly in terms of the stake and speed of play.

Pokie manufacturers may face legal action for alleged deception as they have offered a product under the guise of entertainment when they know many users will become addicted. The Campaign will be closely watching to see how this progresses.

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