experimenting on australia

“Experimental technology”. It’s the latest catch-phrase of choice for the Clubs industry in their ongoing campaign to shoot down the Gillard government’s poker machine reforms. Yesterday I wrote about just how wrong this concept is… how that “experimental technology” is already in the wallets and purses of almost every adult in Australia, if not the world.

If you missed that article, you can find it here. It’s worth taking a quick look, if only to get an idea of how misleading this concept is.

The fact of the matter is that there is only one form of experimental technology that needs to be addressed when it comes to poker machines. It’s already in common use in the pubs, clubs and casinos of this country, and has been for decades. It’s supported by the gambling industry, and new innovations are being rolled out every year with little or no assessment of the social impact they may have, or the addiction they may engender.

I am, of course, talking about poker machines.

It was during the mid-1980’s that the poker machines we have today were created. Computer chips, software programming and video screens. Prior to that the only pokies in Australia were the actual one-armed bandits, and they were only in NSW.

But the development of the computerised video poker machine revolutionised the industry. They swept across NSW, and by the time the rest of the country got around to legalising pokies in the early 1990’s (except WA, of course), the bugs had been well and truly ironed out and the standard had been set. Five reels, multiple playlines and basic free game features were all in place when Australia succumbed to the pokie invasion.

In the years since, many more innovations have taken place:

Low denomination machines have become the norm, with 1 and 2 cent poker machines proving to be the most popular.

Note acceptors were introduced, allowing pokie players to feed $10, $20, $50 or even in some cases $100 notes directly into the machines.

The number of playlines has grown to the point where some poker machines have 100 playlines or more.

Free game features have become more involved and creative, and are often the carrot for players to keep feeding their money in, as they offer the biggest payouts.

Ticket-In, Ticket-Out (or TITO) was developed, where winnings could not only be collected in the form of a printed ticket, but could then be re-inserted back into another poker machine without ever having to cash it in.

Linked jackpots were introduced, offering single jackpots across a bank of machines or even across multiple venues. These linked jackpots offered prizes much, much larger that could ever be won on a standalone machine, as the odds of ever winning were so much smaller.

Loyalty schemes were created, where players could insert or swipe their cards at the machines and gain loyalty points for playing.

In some machines, playlines were removed altogether and players could bet on every possible combination of symbols, reel by reel, without having to follow a set pattern. This concept was known by many names; in Australia, Aristocrat’s Reel Power was the best known.

And some of the most recent innovations include nested free games features, where secondary features can be triggered during the primary features; touch screen technology, where players can interact directly with the screen without having to press physical buttons; and widescreen displays, allowing more action and complexity on the screen.

Now, by any standards that’s a hell of a lot of innovation in twenty years. Gaming companies in Australia and around the world have invested billions of dollars in poker machine research and development, and the results are plain to see in every gaming venue in the country.

Yet none of it has been trialled to assess the potential social impact. None of it has been assessed for the development of addictive behaviour. None of it has been scrutinised to determine if, by bringing in more money for the industry, they are inflicting exponentially more harm on the community.

Every one of these “innovations” was rolled out on an unsuspecting public with scant regard of the damage they could cause. They are the essence of experimental technology, and the subjects of the experiments have been Australian gamblers.

Oh sure, every new game must be passed by the licencing body of each state before being allowed to be sold commercially… but their assessments are focused on making sure that the rules are not broken. That, for example, there is a direct correlation between increased bets and increased payouts, or that the paytables are not misleading… things like that. But these assessments do not, and have never, looked at the social harms that these advances in technology could cause.

Low denomination machines give players a false sense of security; how can they spend too much when they’re only playing a one cent machine? Note acceptors make it all too easy to just pour money into the machines without a break in play. Large numbers of playlines (or no playlines at all) make the games more complex and harder to read and understand, and don’t offer greater chances of winning despite what the industry claims. Intricate free game features and jackpots compel gamblers to keep playing, and free games have the secondary effect of giving gamblers a break in play without ever leaving the machine. TITO encourages gamblers to reinvest their winnings rather than collecting them. Loyalty schemes track player behaviour for the marketing benefit of the industry. And who knows what impact the latest innovations will have?

It’s no accident that the regular gaming machine expos, held in various countries around the world, are restricted to management from within the gaming industry, and government officials who have a direct interest in gambling regulation. They have a vested interest in keeping journalists, activists and the general public away from these expos because they don’t want the world to see what they’re developing until it hits the venues.

If Clubs Australia and the rest of the gambling industry wants to rail against “experimental technology”, then they must walk the walk. They must shut down every poker machine in the country until an independent assessment can be made of every technological advance that has been incorporated into Australia’s pokies over the past twenty years. Only then, when the sociological, financial and psychological impacts of this “experimental technology” have been properly assessed, should they even consider restarting their industry.

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9 Responses

  1. Dramfire says:

    Tom, an excellent synopsis of the last 20 years of poker machine gambling development. However, there is one point in your article that I strongly don’t agree with i.e. ‘None of it has been assessed for the development of addictive behaviour.’
    Australian (aka NSW) poker machine manufacturers have spent enormous tax deductible amounts (particularly during the 1980s) on poker machine gaming development. Poker machine programs are developed specifically with the poker machine addict in mind. Those programs are not designed for the occasional poker machine player. Prior to the 1980s there wasn’t nearly the amount of information available about addictive gaming behaviour. Flinders Uni has done extensive research on gambling addiction since 1980s. Unfortunately, poker machine manufacturers used that information to program ‘better and better’ machines.
    As an aside, the definition of ‘poker machine addict’ has always interested me. Clubs, and Gaming & Racing (in NSW) seem to use the amount wagered relative to income to define a poker machine addict. They’re right of course. However, poker machine addiction is just as much about behaviour. Personally, and regardless of an amount ‘lost’ (I like your term) I’d consider a person who spends more than a couple of hours a week playing poker machines to be showing signs of poker machine addiction. I think that there’s a problem if a person would rather spend their time playing poker machines than to be with family and friends. Of course, there are a lot of poker machine players that think that they are socialising when they’re playing those ‘bandits’. It’s the combination of money spent and ‘socialising’ with a poker machine that makes poker machine addiction such a unique (gaming or otherwise) addiction.

  2. Dramfire says:

    Sorry Tom, I just reread your article. Your reference was to a lack of vigilence by gaming authorities regarding addictive behaviour and poker machine programming, which is of course correct. My comment was referring to manufacturers. Best of Luck – there’s more support for you than you’ve dreamed of …

  3. Geoff says:

    Good article. One minor correction. The press and public are welcome to ‘gaming expos’. Pretty much only the industry magazine goes to them in australia. But in vegas it’s an international expo an much more of the mainstream press are there as well as investor representatives. Mostly positive fluff reporting

  4. cyenne says:

    Thanks Geoff, happy to be corrected. I do know that the next gaming expo to be held in Sydney (in August 2012) is restricted entry only, but you’re right, that may not be the case elsewhere.

  5. Strethemanintheet says:

    Thanks for the historical perspective.
    It is difficult to understand why state governments tolerate the awful and avoidable impact of pokies – until you realise that they have become addicted to the tax revenue pokies generate.
    A more focused anti-pokie campaign would draw attention to the tax revenue, and suggest ways for state governments to ive without it.
    But don’t hold your breath…

  6. Captain Kickass says:

    Outstanding piece !

  7. Geoff says:

    I encourage you to register and see if you can get in
    https://secure.tradevent.com.au/age2012/

  8. Geoff says:

    @Strethemanintheet The states have a funny relationship. They make a lot of money off gambing (sports, lotteries, casinos and pokies). A typical machine on average gives the player back 90c for every dollar bet. 5c to the government and 5c to the club.

    However it’s also easy to tax clubs more as labor NSW did recently with very little political damage despite a considered effort by the clubs at the time.

    Also for manufacturers the government has very little interest in all the ‘innovation’ and stuff being introduced to try and trump competitors. They establish a body to overlook the industry and make sure it follows the rules but takes very little interest even in attempts to standardise the rules across states.

  9. Cathy says:

    I really like this article Tom. It is certainly something that resonates with me and my own attempts to get this aspect taken seriously. The sticking point is not only getting around often deeply held assumptions but also various agendas that feed off them which are intent on keeping things basically as they are. The Productivity Commission I think understood this aspect and I have at times quoted the following passage. “The key evidential gap: What, in fact, was clearly lacking was compelling evidence of the ‘safety’ of some forms of gambling for consumers – and for the relaxation of regulations that permitted the widespread availability of high intensity gambling within communities around much of Australia. Much of this report aims to correct the consequence of this oversight.” (P3.31). Some years ago when reading a submission by AGMMA now (GTA) to the NSW IPART review of Registered Clubs (2007) I was peeved (by the attitude) exhibited below. Currently on the OLGR site there is a GM Prohibited Features Register – unfortunately just a continuing desultory attempt at real harm reduction.

    Game Design Criteria (GTA Submission)

    A primary example of the prevention or hampering of the supply of internationally competitive gaming products is the “NSW Game Design Harm Minimisation Register” dated 30 May 2006, which is available at http://www.olgr.nsw.gov.au/pdfs/NSW_game_design_register.pdf. It purports to outline “responsible game design practices” and most certainly inhibits game designers from developing technology. It cites no evidence, is the result of negligible consultation, carries no justifications and provides no avenue for appeal of its “decisions” – which are not applied consistently, often resulting in excessively costly resubmission of AGMMA members’ game technology applications.
    The NSW Game Design Harm Minimisation Register should be abandoned and removed from the OLGR website. All technology approval processes should be outsourced to licensed GMTFs and their brief should include the consistent application of relevant legislation and regulation. An appeal mechanism should be provided where legislation or regulation is applied inconsistently or inappropriately.

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