I’ve been getting a lot of questions about Scott Eagar’s article in this morning’s Sydney Morning Herald, so I thought I’d respond here. Saves me repeating myself!
If you haven’t read the article, then you can find it here, and I do recommend you take a look. But in a nutshell, Scott is an ex-poker machine addict who has taken a different approach to the idea of tackling problem gambling on poker machines. He doesn’t believe that the proposed reforms, which entail converting most poker machines to a $1 maximum bet and imposing pre-commitment on the remaining high-spending machines, will work. His solution is simple; in his words, “Why don’t politicians take a look at what makes pokies addictive in the first place, and remove it?”
What he’s talking about is the feature. The free spins. That rare moment when the right symbols line up the right way and trigger the bonus games. They are what every pokie player hope for, and they are what Scott says should be removed.
I can definitely see his point. The features on poker machines have evolved over the years, they’ve become more involved, more exciting, and offer much bigger payouts than the regular game ever can. And yes, they are highly addictive. They suck you in, keep you playing long past any limit you might have set, in the hope that you can win it all back in a blaze of free game glory. Hell, I can remember pouring hundreds of dollars into a poker machine (something to do with penguins) just to trigger the feature… and when I finally did, I won $50. Nothing like what I’d put in. Duped again by the feature.
Not every poker machine had a feature game when my addiction kicked in, but that’s all changed over the past fifteen years. I’ve written before about that evolution, which has happened with little or no regard for the human cost. And I’ve been calling the pokies “designer addiction” for years, because that’s what they are, and the feature plays its part. They have largely replaced the jackpot as the lure for pokie players. In fact, they’re worse than a jackpot, because they promise so much… and can deliver so little.
But would removing the feature from pokies solve the problem of poker machine addiction? Is it the answer, the simple solution that should have been staring us in the face?
Sadly, and I do mean sadly… the answer to that is no. I wish I could say otherwise, but I can’t.
Removing the feature from today’s poker machines would make them less attractive, less addictive. No doubt about that. But that would involve redesigning every single poker machine game that we currently have in this country… and there are hundreds of them. You see, you can’t just remove the feature. Poker machines have to pay out a certain percentage over time, and that is built into the way they’re designed. Take away the feature, which is responsible for the biggest wins and the largest payouts, and every other aspect of the game would need to be recalculated to compensate.
The cost of doing this would make the hysterical claims that Clubs Australia are currently making about pre-commitment and $1 pokies look like pocket money. Every poker machine in the country would have to be not only replaced, but redesigned. You could double the clubs industry’s $3 billion figure, even triple it… and I still doubt you’d come close.
I hate to talk figures like this; you can’t put a price tag on human suffering. But the stark reality is that the cost of implementation will play a big part in the implementation of any poker machine reform. If it costs too much, it won’t get done. That’s why the industry screams about the dollars.
Yet even if this happened, if features were banned and every game was redesigned accordingly, what would happen? For starters, jackpots would get bigger. I’m not talking about feature game wins here, I’m talking about old-fashioned jackpots where everyone is playing for the same prize. Winning combinations in regular play would also be worth more, partially to compensate for the lack of a feature, and partially to keep players interested. They’d also be harder to win. The gaming machine industry sinks hundreds of millions of dollars into making poker machines “attractive” (aka addictive)… they’d adapt to the lack of features and carry on.
And people adapt too. Take away the features and you’d change the playing experience for every poker machine player today… but we’d get used to it. And the kids of today, some of whom will be the pokie players of tomorrow, won’t know any different. They’ll chase jackpots, like I used to, or play to escape. Like I used to. And the pain would continue.
Look, the reason I support the reform proposals we have is because they place a limitation on any single bet on a poker machine. They’ll make a difference at the point where we actually put the money into the machines. Besides that, they’re affordable and achievable; it’s no good trying to do something that simply will not get done.
But I also believe that poker machines need to change. Scott’s right, they need to be less addictive, and in more ways than just making them less potentially lucrative. Not just features; the music, the graphics, the lights, the colours, all have been analysed, trialled and designed to attract people and keep them playing for longer and longer periods of time. There are a lot of changes that could be made to make poker machines less addictive, and we should be doing something about them.
Those changes are the long term solution. They can be achieved, but it will take time. And they would need to be rolled out slowly… otherwise the industry will keep bucking and screaming, and the politics of the situation will again result in compromise and delay.
And we’ve had enough of that already.