killing the feature

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.

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22 Responses

  1. scott eagar says:

    hey this is scott eagar who’s article you are referring to. Two things in here that are just flat out not true.
    1. To chance the program of a poker machine its a software upgrade. these are being done now with no concern or cost by the manufacturers. You would give them a 3 year window period to change over all the machines and then public say that this is what they are doing now.
    2. Jackpots can be one spending 1 cent 1 line. this is completely different to the feature where you have to be betting as much as possible at the time of win.
    Look at the replies to my column, To today’s player the feature IS the caffeine. Get that message out there.

  2. njptower says:

    Reading Scott’s article, my first thought was that in a war, you don’t limit the weapons available. You don’t only use tanks and artillery, you also use rifles and even bayonets. My second thought was that Scott almost seemed to be on the side of the clubs.

    I was not aware of the costs inherent in Scott’s idea but I can see the clubs seizing on that article and spinning it to say other methods won’t work and stopping features is horrendously expensive thus nothing should be done.

    Malcolm Turnbull is doing a survey at the moment and seems to be pushing the low value $1 per game idea

  3. scott eagar says:

    njptower. I am scott eagar I wrote the op ed piece in the Sydney morning herald. I have spoken to the author of the above blog and explained to him that THERE IS NO EXTRA COST IN UPGRADING MACHINES WITHOUT THE FEATURE. THEY ARE UPGRADED NOW EVERY 3-5 YEARS, IM JUST ASKING TO HAVE THE NEW ONES INTRODUCED WITH SIMPLE WIN LOSE SPINS. NO FEATURES.
    . you give the companies a 3 year window to faze out the feature of there games, which is the same time period as they do now to faze in new GAMES. They fazed in machines with the feature very quickly and with no fuss. Im asking them to faze them back out again.
    PLEASE DO NOT START SPREADING COST AS A REASON TO NOT REMOVE THE FEATURE, YOU GUYS ARE SHOOTING YOURSELVES IN THE FOOT AS ITS THE MOST EFFECTIVE FREE WAY TO COMBAT POKIE ADDICTION. REMEMBER iM THE ONE WHO DID THE SURVEY OF ACTUAL PLAYERS. 85% AGREED WITH ME.
    this plus the max 1 dollar bets is the most affective simplest solution, that will be seen by the public to be actually doing something.

  4. Cathy says:

    I actually find this whole thing rather curious. Taking it at face value, when I first read the article I thought it was good to see this aspect getting some attention it deserves. I saw all the comments attached to it however, I did have a niggling feeling about it. I sort of dismissed this unease thinking perhaps it was just that with all the crap flying around about this issue it lends itself to one becoming a bit wary. Regardless of what the situation is, in essence I agree with the importance of the effects that free spins can have on people. I put a comment in about it but was clear that what he was saying had no effect on my stance about these proposed reforms. It was interesting because further on in the comments someone did suggest the industry was behind it in some way, even if this were the case, it doesn’t change anything.

    In my 2009 submission to the Productivity Commission I wrote in great detail about these free spins, I also spoke of note acceptors and many other aspects. As much as I felt that all these individual factors contributed to the problem (and some being worse than others) I thought and stated the best approach was in the potential of what a full pre commitment system could offer. I was also in favour of reducing the bets to $1 per spin. I haven’t changed my thinking about this, in fact, it has grown stronger over time.

  5. Libby Mitchell says:

    Could the Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP be diverting attention away from what would work…simply because “$1 bet limits” by themselves will NOT work? Be wary!

    Addicts DO form a BIG part of the 88% who use ‘$1 or under pokies’….I was one of them. Do not be misled.

    The gambling industry must by now be getting pretty toey all up. So must governments who panic at the prospect of losing the short term money IN…when to stop that money ‘on their watch’ would be painful for many. Hard to have that cash cow stop too soon.

    Gambling venues could be faced with full mandatory pre-commitment and the gambler ID CARDS that go with that safety measure in the end. They could well be faced with the very “licensing’ down the track that they are so deeply afraid of, simply because ALL consumers should be given basic warning and spending information…and the industry know it would reduce their profits.

    Anything NOT to do with cards would be appealing to a lot of different groups. But conversion costs of Scott’s idea would be the excuse given…I agree with Tom and njptower there. What I do NOT agree with is that we must let the gambling industry get away with that stance.

    Did we NOT introduce seat belts because they cost too much? NO we charged the consumer indirectly and got the seat belts into cars asap…and that is what is required. We need to levy the gambling consumers AND get the gambling industry to cover its business costs more responsibly. Let THEM BOTH be a part of the solution. It is THEY who jointly cause the losses that others pay for!.

  6. scott eagar says:

    wow some of you people are way to buried in this. Im scott eagar. I wrote the article. Im not from the liberal party, Im not a plant from any politician. I am an ex addict that is telling you that everyone is pissing money up the wall chasing the feature. JUST TAKE OFF THE FEATURE. ITS NOT ROCKET SCIENCE.

  7. cyenne says:

    Yes, Scott. I know who you are. But you’re not the only ex-addict with an opinion.

    Your article, which caught national attention, didn’t talk about phasing in the feature-free games over time. It didn’t talk about the cost, or (in your opinion) the lack thereof. And it quite clearly said that (in your opinion) $1 pokies wouldn’t work. Yet here in these comments that’s all you can talk about.

    Maybe you should have put more care into your article. For example, you call the feature the “elephant in the room”, implying that it’s obvious but no one wants to talk about it. You couldn’t be more wrong. Features and free spins were investigated at length in a 2005 study, with the corresponding report released in 2006. Banning free spins was a central component of the Family First “Poker Machine Harm Minimisation” bill that was introduced to senate in 2008 by Senator Steve Fielding. And in their submission to the Productivity Commission Report into Gambling, the Victorian InterChurch Gambling Taskforce also backed a ban of free spins on poker machines. The PC Report gave the “feature” situation two pages of detail, more than many other game design elements.

    You’re not the first to think of this, not by a long shot… the problem is that you put it on the national stage as a much better solution than the proposed reforms, which you ticked off one by one (using arguments that Clubs Australia have been spreading for months) and said wouldn’t work. In doing so, you undermined those proposed reforms in the eyes of the public, which can only harm the overall reform process.

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I agree that the feature can be addictive. But it is NOT the only ingredient, and removing it would NOT be simple, NOR would it fix the problem.

    That’s my other issue with your article. You presume to speak for all pokie addicts… saying that “The chase for the feature is why players overspend” and “Every player sits down with their hard-earned cash, hoping to get it” and “There’s a battle going on in the minds of all pokie players in Australia right now: the hunger for the feature”… but you’re wrong. So very wrong. There are so many different reasons for people to develop poker machine addiction, and so many different ways. And when you say “No one is addicted until the first time they get the feature”, then your credibility is shot. I wasn’t addicted to the feature, and I blew $100,000 in three years.

    I have no doubt you’re sincere; I’ve spoken to you, read your comments and I have nothing against you personally.

    But you’re wrong.

  8. scott eagar says:

    I spoke to Nick Xenophon today, and they are looking at 3 measures to be pushed now.
    1. Remove the feature.
    2. Maximum 1 dollar bets.
    3. reduced jackpots.

    I agree I was wrong about the 1 dollar max bet point in my article. But I didn’t understand why if 90 % of players were spending 1 dollar or less per spin, and still spending everything they had, that this was ok for the government.
    I was speaking out at the time, because I could see a real void of the removal of the feature in the public debate.
    I do believe the above 3 messures together that is being discused at next weeks committee hearing, would greatly get the result we are all looking for.
    Im sorry if I offended anyone with my article in the smh and the age, I was just curious why we were looking at pre commitment cards as number one idea.

    As for fazing out games with features back to strait game play. this would be done over a period of 3 years which is the companies normal turnover of games. Also the venues and tax payer would not be charged any extra cost. Please do not spread the rumor it would cost billions to roll back the feature, It simply isn’t true.

  9. scott eagar says:

    the removal of the feature. + 1 dollar max bets + lower jackpots would have pubs and clubs association absolutely shitting them selves. All 3 together should be ok for you? Please give me your feedback before I push this .
    scott

  10. Spin says:

    You realise the same implementation difficulties involved with removing the feature game also apply to $500 max prizes. You need to redesign the maths to accomodate for the change in prize structure.

  11. Early Grayce says:

    For Scott to come back saying that machines are replaced every 3 to 5 years is not exactly true as the majority of machines that I see when going into hotels in the city or country are the same ones I used to play 5 years ago.
    Hotels in the country or with few machines have the highest proportion of legacy mechines from what I see.

  12. cyenne says:

    Scott,

    I’ve had my rant and got it off my chest. You keep coming back to the cost issue… your article didn’t mention a phased approach. So the costs I talk about are for a conversion approach.

    Even under a phased scheme, “Early Grayce”‘s comment above is spot on. More than half the pokies around at the moment are more than 5 years old, and the smaller & regional venues have many machines that are older still. A 3 year phased approach would leave the majority of pokies in Australia with features… and if a mandatory cut-off date was set, then the costs would come into play.

    Having said all that:

    Look, I keep coming back to this. I don’t have a problem with your suggestion, but you have to realise it’s not new, and it has been looked at seriously a number of times already. You also have to realise that this is the sort of thing the industry talks about when they claim that reforms “treat everyone as a problem gambler.” Your suggestion will impact on every single pokie player, including those that, by definition, do not have a problem.

    I’d actually suggest a different approach. Make the features easier to get, coming up more often, but paying out less. Reduce the thrill and shrink the carrot.

  13. scott eagar says:

    I understand your approach, but by making the feature come up more, you would only create more of a problem I believe. If you are excited by the feature, and that is the hook that is there to get you addicted in the first place, then that’s the first thing that needs to come off.
    Also your point about a lot of machines are more than 5 years old in venues is by choice. If those machines are sucking in a lot of peoples money then of course they are going to be left there.
    Those machines could have their programs changed tomorrow with no fuss. The venues would definitely do that if it was in there best interest, Im just asking them to do the opposite for the good of the community.

  14. scott eagar says:

    Ill leave you with another point, The government introduced seat belts in cars. this affected everyone, even though some people were good drivers, and may never have an accident.
    Poker machines are designed to be addictive, and feed off the vulnerable. For reform to be affective, like seat belts we have to do it in a way that will affect every one to protect the few. Please understand, I am trying to help while I can.

  15. cyenne says:

    Scott, I do believe you want to help. Never said otherwise. Oh, and if you’re talking seatbelts… you may be interested in reading this.

    http://www.cyenne.com/discussion/pokies-fasten-your-seatbelts/

  16. scott eagar says:

    pre commitment cards should be fitted on all machines or non at all.

  17. I don’t think removing the feature will be that easy. Machine programmers will quickly find another way to achieve same end.

    I think the only way to do it is to have games reviewed by a classification board and ban the most addictive. If we can do it for video games played at home, why not for video games in Clubs.

  18. In reply to Scott’s earlier question, yes we need to support $1 max bets and lower jackpots.

    I say in my blog (though I know Cyenne is not so sure) that dropping MPC in favour of $1 max bets will knock the stuffing out of the Club’s ‘Licence to Punt’Campaign.

    See my comment above regarding the how to control ‘the feature’.

    PS. Cyenne is doing a fantastic job here. Please do what you can to support.

  19. Familyman says:

    Hi every one. I have decided to enter the discussions in Cyenne. Firstly, regarding the free feature my view is as follows: I believe the free feature debate is an elephant of a red herring in so much that removing it will just allow the game designers to incorporate some other method or methods in the machine’s designs, that gives a similiar rush to the addicted problem gambler and others ultimately forcing the lobby groups to continually chase the tail as to what is a feature and what isn’t.There is no way in my opinion to make a machine safe as the machine manufacturers are skilled in the art and will always shift the boundaries and it will be another 20 years till this opportunity arises again to do some thing constructive.As a matter of fact I truely believe the poker machine barons would love to be forced to remove the said feature and am sure they have many many more options to replace it’s removal in the draw just waiting to be incorporated. As for the dollar limit : I think it has merit but personally prefer the mandatory pre committment myself or a mixture of both. If you have the $1 limit be sure that the jackpots are not allowed to be linked as problem gamblers and others will be chasing the jackpot bigtime and in the future would an arguement be mounted on CPI increases and the world has changed etc so invrease the $1 limit to keep up with the times? Mandatory pre committment will also have a detailed spending and loss reciept available to the player instantly. Look forward to your views on the above. I have a huge question to raise but will wait to see how my views so far have been greeted. Best regards to all amd No I am not having a go at the chap who suggested the removal of the feature just being logical and upfront here as time is getting short and distractions this late in the game will cause less attention and focus on the big issue.

  20. Cathy says:

    Familyman

    As you can see from my comment up further I agree with you. As much I feel strongly about different aspects of the machines/environments (and there are many). In my 2009 submission to the Productivity Commission (where I wrote about 3 pages just on free spins) I stated, in relation to pre commitment that “these smartcards have the potential to quite substantially reduce the detrimental effects of EGMs from whichever source these negative effects are originating from”. Having played these machines from the time of their pull handle days (NSW) and though quite ‘addictive’ even then, they were nowhere near as dangerous as what they are now. From this experience I am fully aware that these machines are just going to keep evolving. I feel that a well thought out full pre commitment system will tackle the problem more directly and effectively (as long as it is done right). I am all for $1 bet limits as well and a lower cash input and other harm reduction measures (shorter hours of operation etc). I prefer the PCs suggestion where they had in mind that only small amounts could be played outside the full pre commitment system. If they are going to have this hybrid proposal I would like to see the max bet being no more than 50 cents before you are required to be in the system. I lost a hell of a lot of money playing $1 per spin and under.

  21. scott eagar says:

    To all the people that say removing the feature wont work. Why is all the measures you guys are discussing to reduce pokie addiction only seeming to minimize the damage?? Why not do something to make them less addictive in the first place.
    If you even out the game play and remove the features, it would be easier for the player to monitor losses. Also the gut feeling of the spins are due soon would not be there which is when we blow money.
    It would be easy for the government to legislate against features, or anything that resembles features.
    You make the machine law straight win loss game. Where every time you hit the button, its just as important and productive as the last.
    I believe that the feature is the most addictive component. I surveyed 202 actual players. 176 agreed with me. I wrote an article in the sydney morning herald, 132 responses 127 agree with me. The only people on the planet that dont think its worth looking into is you guys. I give up, Ive got bigger ears to chat to and bounce my ideas off. Good luck with this continuous online argument

  22. Namore says:

    Just listen to Scott Eagar talk about this on Mike Jefferies show on radio 2UE
    Scott if your going to mount an argument and convince people , stop the name dropping and talking non stop an you might start to sound coherent.

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