dollar signs or dragons?

Earlier this year, the Victorian state government introduced legislation covering signage for poker machine venues. Labelled “plain packaging for pokies”, the new rules are supposed to stop venue operators from putting up glitzy “Las Vegas-style” signs once the Tatts/Tabcorp duopoly ends in August 2012.

Dollar signs, gold coins and treasure chest symbols are banned, and signs must contain only the word “pokies”. Victorian Gambling Minister Michael O’Brien said: “It’s not exactly plain paper cigarette packaging, but it is certainly moving to non-branded pokies.” (emphasis mine)

A few weeks later, the Tasmanian state government was called upon by the Greens to investigate doing the same thing in their state. Tasmanian Greens Gambling Spokesperson Kim Booth said: “There is clearly merit in adopting similar prevention measures as being implemented in Victoria including the pokies plain packaging approach.” (again, emphasis mine)

What. A. Waste. Of. Time.

Sure, stop venues from installing huge flashing neon signs. They won’t care. There’s a very good reason why the industry spends millions of dollars every year on game design and advises venues on the best way to lay out their gaming rooms. It’s because they know it’s not what’s outside the venues that’s important.

This is not plain packaging for poker machines. It’s plain packaging for venues. Just another token effort by a state government that wants to be seen to be doing something, while steadfastly refusing to consider changing the actual product that is causing the problem.

Poker machine manufacturers get it, and so do the venues, the clubs and pubs that run the machines. It’s not about dollar signs or treasure chests; heck, if the government extended this ban to the pokies themselves the industry wouldn’t care.

No, this is an industry built on psychology, on symbolism and loyalty. Games are designed to appeal to players on a level beyond money, using symbols and characters from history, mythology and more recently, movies and TV shows. If a game doesn’t prove popular it is quickly discarded, but when it’s a hit, the production line ramps up and the successful game is quickly sold across the country.

Look at Queen Of The Nile for example. Made by Aristocrat, it was a simple game, not much different in gameplay to many, many other poker machines. But the Cleopatra theme and symbols from Egyptian mythology struck a chord with the gambling public, and this game went on to become the most widely sold, played and known poker machine in Australia. It was in production for ten years, twice the normal production lifespan for poker machines, and can even be found in Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum.

How about The Phantom? Also made by Aristocrat, the Phantom poker machine is based on the iconic comic book character of the same name. It was introduced across NSW first, and is now being rolled out across Queensland and Victoria. In their 2011 annual report, Aristocrat specifically cited The Phantom as being largely responsible for a surge in their performance, which included a profit increase of 174.7%.

Then there’s Sex And The City. The massively popular TV show and movies now have their own poker machine, manufactured and distributed by IGT. Aimed squarely at younger women, the machine has proven to be extremely popular, a fact not lost on Clubs Queensland who promote the S&TC poker machine on the home page of their website.

Interested in Chinese astrology? Poker machine manufacturers are. Dragons symbolise power, strength and good luck, and have long featured in poker machines… but this year is a little different. We are currently in the Year of the Dragon, and the industry knows it. To capitalise on this, dragon-themed poker machines have been relentlessly promoted by all of the major manufacturers since early last year. Ainsworth got in first with their Year Of The Dragon poker machine:

But the others weren’t too far behind. Aristocrat’s 5 Dragons, IGT’s Eastern Gems and Shufflemaster’s Yellow Emperor poker machines were all specifically marketed for the Year of the Dragon, while Konami (Free Spin Dragons) and Aruze (Fortune Festival) also flogged their dragon-themed machines constantly.

Astrology, comic books, mythology and TV. That’s only the tip of the iceberg; themed poker machines are the latest frontier for the gambling industry and we can expect to see a lot more heading our way.

So sure. Go ahead and ban dollar signs, gold coins and treasure chests… just don’t think you’re making an ounce of difference. This legislation is a placebo, nothing more. The industry knows where the real money is.

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1 Response

  1. Cathy says:

    I saw this myself and promptly dismissed it. It is just another addition to an already long list of ineffective measures which serves to distract and push real reform further away. Mainly due to it being the only area they are willing (or are ‘allowed’) to touch, they confine themselves to just fiddling around the edges. However, because of operating within such a limited sphere this inevitably produces the futile measures that are regularly inflicted on us – which sooner or later are recognised as such. Due to what can be achieved under these limited circumstances including the feeble measures that come from it. Ironically, this has gone some way to providing the industry/government with an excuse to insist that reforms be ‘evidenced based’ before being implemented. However, this appears very selective as it really only seems to apply to reforms that are distasteful to them. So, we continue with this bizarre and hypocritical situation of ineffective measures lacking in both logic and evidence being rolled out. Yet they will be unremitting in pulling out all stops to prevent the introduction of more worthwhile reforms that would actually see people spending less on the machines. There really is no logic in any of this beyond protecting vested interests including the government.

    I must say that I am very disappointed in what has transpired. This was about poker machine reform. The original agreement with Gillard was about poker machines, the Productivity Commissions’ focus was also poker machines and how to rein them in. The industry did not want the focus to be on poker machines despite the devices claiming around 60% of all gambling revenue and producing the most harm. It seems even here the industry have got their way with the spotlight moving away from the machines to other forms of gambling. While a concern of course, none of them come close to imitating the concrete reality of the kind of money spent and problems caused by land based machines in Australia. If they can’t bring themselves to fix an existing problem that is staring them in the face, how sincere are they in reining in an abstract projection of what might occur in the future with the internet etc. Conversely, one comment about this which stuck in my mind was where someone was saying that these projected concerns about other forms gambling effectively negated the current concerns about poker machines. Achieving genuine poker machine reform was not only a unique chance to set a precedent but was also an opportunity to help clueless people understand that it is just as much (or more) about the product as anything else.

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