Poker machine documentary “Ka-Ching! Pokie Nation” went to air last night, and has caused quite a stir. The hour-long documentary looked beyond the human element and analysed the machines themselves, the people who design them, the people who make them, the people who profit from them. It pulled no punches and was damning in its conclusions: that poker machines are designed to addict, and that they do it incredibly well.
This is not my review of Ka-Ching!. This is my review of the industry response.
The Gaming Technologies Association (GTA) is “the peak representative body for Australian gaming machine technology suppliers”. What this means is that they represent poker machine manufacturers. Every poker machine in Australia is backed by the GTA. And, just like the clubs industry they service, the GTA is a not-for-profit association.
(Think, for a moment, of the incongruity of 200,000 poker machines, which earn over $11 billion a year, being represented by a not-for-profit association.)
No sooner had the credits rolled last night than the GTA issued a scathing media release on their website. I’ve reproduced that media release here, and interspersed my comments throughout.
“Pokie Nation” documentary not credible
The “Pokie Nation” documentary screened on ABC tonight presented no credible evidence about Australian poker machines. The program was unbalanced and consequently not credible.
Stop right there; one paragraph in and we’re already playing lobby group games. The program was strongly critical of poker machines, therefore it was unbalanced, therefore it was not credible, therefore the evidence it presented was not credible.
This is a classic lobbying tactic. The notion of “balance”, of equal representation of both sides when looking at an issue, was championed by the tobacco industry both as a means of casting doubt on the facts, and to add legitimacy to their own self-serving claims. The excellent book Merchants Of Doubt explores this false notion of balance and its use by Big Tobacco and, more recently, climate change sceptics. The gambling industry have long advocated “balanced representation”.
The only criticism of the evidence presented in the documentary was that it was not credible. Note that the GTA does not claim that it was false or inaccurate. That’s because they can’t.
Every Australian poker machine game is forensically audited by independent testing laboratories and by state and territory regulators before it is approved for use. It is nonsense to suggest that laboratories and regulators don’t take their responsibilities seriously – and equally nonsensical to suggest that licensed poker machine suppliers seek to provide games for any purpose other than entertainment.
Three things. One, state and territory regulators make sure that all new poker machines adhere to standards… that they have set. Technical standards. Every machine in Australia can meet those standards and still have the addictive effect shown in Ka-Ching!.
Two, don’t forget that it’s our state and territory governments who regulate and oversee these standards… and who profit to the tune of billions of dollars of tax revenue each year.
And three: entertainment. It’s abundantly clear that poker machine manufacturers supply machines not for entertainment, but to make money. New games are rolled out each year and only the most profitable survive. To suggest that poker machine manufacturers value entertainment above profit is, well, nonsensical.
The program was not factually accurate. It didn’t mention that around 140,000 Australian jobs are an outcome of poker machines. It didn’t mention that over $5 billion annually is paid in taxes as a result of poker machines. It didn’t mention that millions of dollars are generously donated annually by hospitality venues with poker machines, to worthy community causes which would otherwise go unfunded.
I love this paragraph. They criticise what wasn’t included, but say nothing about the actual content of the documentary. Not one single point of rebuttal. They couldn’t, and didn’t, refute any of it.
What the GTA won’t tell you is that these jobs figures come from a report that they commissioned back in 2008. They’re using their own report to back up their claims. More than that, the report actually says that jobs would quickly rebound as people re-skilled and other businesses sprung up… but the GTA won’t mention that.
Apart from that, Ka-Ching! was quite clear on the issue of how our governments are raking in billions of dollars of taxation revenue. It takes an industry media release to portray this as a good thing.
And the “millions of dollars” that are “generously donated” each year? No generosity there, it’s a legal requirement. In reality, those “millions of dollars” are a drop in the ocean; for example, less than 2% of club-based poker machine revenue makes it back to the community. Hardly generous.
But the biggest omission was that millions of people in Australia and around the world enjoy playing poker machines regularly and do not experience any problems.
Let’s remove the “around the world” bit. Roughly 5 million people use poker machines each year in Australia, but most of them play infrequently… just a few times a year. If we’re talking regular gamblers (which the GTA is) then that number drops to 600,000 people, and more than half of that number experience moderate to severe problems with poker machine addiction.
About half of Australia’s poker machines are located in NSW – which legalised poker machines in 1956. The only jurisdiction worldwide with a longer history of legislated, regulated poker machines is Nevada USA which legalised them in the 1930s. 2.3% of the world’s gaming machines are located in Nevada and 1.2% are in NSW.
A nice bit of misdirection to finish things off; we don’t need a history lesson. And as for the percentage of machines around the world? Well, that’s another GTA special, which I won’t get into here. Suffice to say these figures once again come from their own reports and involve some creative reasoning.
I must say I was a little surprised that Clubs NSW didn’t jump in with a media release of their own, as that’s usually their style. But seeing as they’re already suing the ABC for showing the documentary, maybe they thought it prudent to stay quiet for once.