Australia, it’s official. We’ve been had.
Even if you’ve never played a poker machine, most of us are familiar with the concept. You put some money in, you press a button, the reels spin, and if they line up, you win. If they don’t, you lose.
Or so we thought; it turns out we were wrong.
The documentary “Ka-Ching! Pokie Nation” did a fabulous job of exposing the tricks that poker machine manufacturers use to make their product addictive. Graphics that appeal to our inner child, music that triggers our pleasure response, artwork that catches the eye, all wrapped around an unpredictable reward system that is mathematically designed to make sure we’re always anticipating a payout that never comes; they truly are addiction machines.
Only it’s worse than that. Modern poker machines are built on a lie, and everything, EVERYTHING about them is a con.
You see, every poker machine is a computer. And at the heart of every poker machine is a random number generator, which constantly spits out a steady stream of random numbers, whether the machine is in use or not.
When you press the BET button on a poker machine, it grabs a handful of random numbers from that steady stream. As soon as it does, the bet is over. Just like that.
And everything that follows, the spinning of the reels, the noise they make, the way they fall into place one after the other, the music that plays and the lights that flash, has absolutely nothing to do with the result.
Nothing at all.
It wasn’t always this way. Mechanical slot machines, the old “one armed bandits”, had actual reels that would spin and lock into place. They were bad enough, but every bet was live until all the reels had stopped.
And that’s the concept behind most games of chance. Roulette is probably the closest thing to a poker machine in the sense that the wheel spins, the ball is released and from there, the outcome is random. But as long as the wheel spins and the ball bounces around, the bet is live.
Other forms of gambling rely on this principle too. Poker, sports betting, blackjack… there’s always a period of time where the bet is alive. Where the gambler can anticipate what’s going to happen, follow along, and invest themselves in the result.
But poker machines are instantaneous. The instant you press that button, you’ve already won or lost… mostly lost. What happens after that is little more than a three second cartoon designed to make you think you still have a chance.
So if you strip away the elements of a poker machine that have nothing to do with the outcome… strip away the flashing lights, the colourful graphics, the fantasy symbols and the celebratory music, what you’re left with are numbers.
Numbers that mean nothing to you or me, but that are mapped by manufacturers to indicate a win or a loss.
Numbers that can fall into one of several million combinations, and most of them are set to “LOSE”.
If poker machines looked like this, no one would use them. So instead, they are wrapped in a multi-layered sensory assault that disguises their true nature, and makes us think we’re playing them… when in fact, they’re playing us.
So. A network of machines that has spread across the country, that uses numbers to bleed the vulnerable dry, and that cloaks itself in a shroud of illusion to soothe us, numb us, make us believe we’re in control?