It’s hard to imagine any other legal leisure activity that is as widely reviled and criticised as playing the pokies. The large percentage of our population who don’t play poker machines, or do so very rarely, view them with disdain. Screens full of cartoon images, flashing lights, annoying music, and the oh-so-tiny chance of a payout in return for the dollars and hours spent… pokies are viewed as the refuge of the stupid, the lazy and the irresponsible.
Which, in turn, means that anyone who plays the pokies with any sort of regularity must be stupid, lazy and irresponsible. That does, indeed, seem to be the overwhelming public perception of pokie players, and the more someone plays, the worse they must be.
Yet a significant percentage of our population does play the pokies; some occasionally, some a lot… and then there’s the unfortunate few who can’t stop. Surely they’re not all stupid, lazy and irresponsible? Can it really be as simple as that?
The answer is, obviously, of course not. This attitude is rooted in the opinions that people hold of themselves. “I don’t play the pokies, so why should I try and understand why someone else would?”
“Why should I feel sorry for them? It’s their choice; they’re doing it to themselves.”
“Those machines are stupid and boring.”
“There’s no point.”
“I don’t understand.”
They don’t understand, and that is the key. Society sits back and passes judgment on people they don’t know, for doing something they don’t understand. It’s short-sighted and ignorant; worse than that, it’s a part of the problem.
There are a lot of addictions in our world today, some legal, some not. People drink and smoke. They smoke crack, they take speed, they snort cocaine. They steal, they screw around. These can all be considered addictions, in one way or another, but none of them attracts the moral outrage that is directed towards the addicted pokie player. It seems that society recognises these addictions as actual problems, and the addicted as victims as well as perpetrators. But if you throw everything away on the pokies? No hope for you mate, you’re scum.
Which, in turn, is one of the major reasons why pokie addicts hide their addiction. Hell, why wouldn’t they? To admit that they have a problem playing pokies is to open themselves up to the scorn of society. And so they continue to hide their problems, with the result that they never confront them. They never seek help, they never confess, they just keep on playing. It’s all they can do.
It’s been a long time since I was living in that world. Ten years plus, and yet I can still vividly recall walking the streets of the city after blowing close to a thousand bucks in an afternoon on the pokies. Every person who walked past, every face I saw, I thought to myself, “What would you say if you knew? Could you understand? Are you like me, or would you hate me?” I was desperate to stop the cycle, to break away and reclaim my life, but in every face I saw someone who would condemn me for what I’d done.
I kept quiet. And in the end I wasn’t able to break the cycle by choice; I had it broken for me by losing everything I had.
If we, as the most gambling-addicted nation on this planet, are ever going to seriously address the issue of problem gambling and the devastating harm it causes to so many thousands of people every year, then our attitudes need to change. We need to recognise that problem gamblers are people, with hopes and dreams and aspirations, just like everyone else. We need to realise that they have problems, and look for ways to help. Because ultimately, a person’s pokie addiction is the end result of other problems, other issues in their life. Happy people don’t become problem gamblers.
We need to try and understand, before we condemn. That’s where we start.