Over the past month, since Julia Gillard and Andrew Wilkie shook hands and the prospect of a minority Labor government became that much more likely, there has been quite a lot written and spoken about pre-commitment technology for poker machines. There has been hysteria, recriminations and threats; there have been warnings of the impending collapse of Australia’s network of clubs and the end of our gambling industry… not to mention agenda-driven misdirection and outright lies. There have been nuggets of truth in amongst the morass, but the overwhelming majority of print space given to pre-commitment technology has been negative and designed to cloud the issue and smear the concept.
So: what IS pre-commitment technology?
In its purest, simplest form: pre-commitment technology (PCT) is a system that allows people to commit to a limit, before engaging in an activity. Nothing more than that. What that system is can vary wildly; so too can the rules that can be put in place. But ultimately, that’s all it is.
What about PCT for pokies? Now we’re getting a little more specific. PCT for pokies will be a system that will allow poker machine players to commit to a spending limit before engaging in playing the pokies. But before I talk about what the possibilities are for PCT for pokies, it’s first important to understand the real differences between voluntary and mandatory PCT for pokies.
Voluntary PCT means that whatever system is put in place will be optional. Pokie players would have the choice of staying with the scheme and abiding by their pre-set limits, or opting out of the scheme and continuing to play without any controls, self-imposed or otherwise. In my opinion as a former poker machine addict, voluntary PCT is useless. The majority of gambling addicts, especially those in serious trouble, will either opt out of the scheme when it infringes on their game-play, or refuse to take part in the first place. Gambling addicts, like most other addicts, can find a number of ways to justify their behavior while they’re playing, and to make participation in PCT voluntary is to render the whole concept ineffective. Small wonder that all of the industry groups and most of the state governments support voluntary PCT.
There have been trials of a number of voluntary PCT systems recently, including pop-up screens on poker machines, warning messages and enforced machine shut-downs. None of these have proven to be particularly effective.
Mandatory PCT, on the other hand, means that everyone who plays the pokies would have to abide by the rules of the PCT scheme that is put in place. No opting out; refusal to participate means no game-play. Otherwise, the rules are the same. Mandatory PCT is what has been put forward as a key plank of the Gillard-Wilkie agreement; it is supported by most anti-gambling and gambling-reform advocates. I completely support mandatory PCT for poker machines… but it is vital to recognize that a mandatory scheme would by necessity cover ALL pokie players: recreational, problematic, at-risk, you name it. Consequently, we need to ensure that whatever form mandatory PCT takes, it must be simple, secure, and cause minimal disruption to gamblers who are legitimately not problem gamblers.
I believe this last point is very important. Gambling can be addictive, but it is also a legitimate recreational activity for many people; we have to recognize that for all the harm pokies cause, there are a lot of people who can and do play them without harm. Additionally, there is an entire industry that has sprung up around poker machines; should the industry collapse as a result of PCT (which it shouldn’t) then the impacts would be terrible and widespread. Still, I draw the line at allowing this industry to continue to profit from problem gamblers, and that is why mandatory PCT is so important.
Mechanics of PCT
Currently, there are two devices that are being assessed as a means of implementing PCT. These are USB keys and smart cards.
USB keys have been given a lot of negative press recently, as this is the option that supports the ability to record a player’s fingerprint instead of using a PIN number. Smart cards are a much more familiar option; pretty much everyone these days has a smart card of some description (credit cards, anyone?). But both devices would serve the same basic functions: they would enable gamblers to set spending limits that would be recorded within the device, and gamblers would not be able to play poker machines without one.
As a concept, it’s quite simple. Get a “device”. Set your pokie spending limits, using a dedicated terminal (similar to an ATM, for example) or possibly the internet. Insert your device into the intended slot on the poker machine. Swipe your finger (for a USB key) or enter your PIN number (for a smart card). Now you can play! You can change machines, change venues, even change states… the process remains the same. And the device keeps track of your spending, checking it against your pre-set limit. Once you reach that limit, no more pokies until the next day, or week… depending on what you set.
It’s easy to see why there is a lot of opposition to mandatory PCT in certain sectors. If all gamblers have to set and stick to spending limits for the pokies, then the industry is going to get hurt. On this point I am unsympathetic. No matter what arguments can be made against mandatory PCT for pokies, no matter how much bad press the industry can generate to serve their ends, the fact remains that 40% of money lost annually on the pokies comes from problem gamblers. That’s $5 billion a year, and personally I believe it’s higher than that. The clubs and pubs, the machine providers and the government are profiting from money they simply should not have; they are preying upon the addicted, and doing so knowingly.
Still, as I stated earlier, PCT is not intended to kill the poker machine industry. It is intended to minimize the harm of problem gambling, and stop addictive behaviours from developing.
For recreational and occasional gamblers, using PCT would physically be little different to using a loyalty card. They would set realistic limits and gamble responsibly within them. Problem gamblers, on the other hand, would be prevented from spending more than the amount they initially intend to… and it’s fair to say that many, many problem gamblers expect to win rather than lose. They expect, or hope, to get that “big win” before they spend too much; and that’s where the limits come into play. Once reached, problem gamblers would be unable to delude themselves into thinking that spending more money is the best, or only, option… as it will no longer be an option at all.
Mandatory PCT could have many “side effects” depending on the agendas of those who support it, oppose it and regulate it. One of these is the concept of player tracking. There is a vocal component of the anti-gambling community that supports the idea of using PCT to track all poker machine gambling, to the extent that gamblers could receive activity statements showing their gambling, their wins and losses, every month. This would be all-inclusive; every poker machine would be linked and all spending data collated centrally.
This, in turn, could allow such data to be analysed and passed on to agencies such as Centrelink, under extreme circumstances. The collection of this kind of financial data is fraught with danger and if undertaken, must be done with the utmost integrity and with appropriate safeguards in place.
The suggestion has also been made that mandatory PCT could be effective in the fight against money laundering, an activity which is apparently rampant in states that allow large-denomination bills to be inserted into pokies via notes-acceptors.
Another possibility is that PCT could make poker machine gambling a cashless activity; money would have to be loaded onto the PCT device, and winnings paid back onto the device.
None of these “side effects” are required to make PCT work, but by necessity all of them will be considered by the groups that have been charged with investigating the best way to proceed. Every angle must be looked at in order to ensure that the final solution is the right one.
In my opinion, PCT needs to be kept simple and secure. It is being implemented to prevent problem gambling, and for no other reason. I do NOT agree with the concept of tracking poker machine spending centrally. I believe that the potential for misuse is too great, and that this constitutes too great an invasion on the privacy of all pokie gamblers. I believe that players’ spending limits and tracking data should go no further than the device that is used to implement PCT, which in turn helps ensure that an individual’s gambling responsibility lies with them, and not the government. In this I know that I am at odds with many anti-gambling voices, but I also know that there are others who also hold this view.
As long as PCT is mandatory, and the rules governing the ability to increase and decrease limits are thoroughly worked out, then I believe that this is the best way.
Finally, I would like to speak of a PCT alternative which is getting no press coverage at all, but which I believe would satisfy the needs of everyone; the anti-gambling factions, the gambling industry, and the governments. This is the concept of partial PCT, and is mentioned in the recently-released Productivity Commission report into gambling.
The idea is that low level use of poker machines is left available for anyone to play without a PCT device. By low-level use, I’m referring to a maximum bet of around 25 cents. This would cover 25 lines on a one cent machine, for example, or five lines on a five cent machine. No multipliers, no fancy options. Any pokie player who was willing to play at this low level of use would not need a PCT device, and would not have to set any limits.
However, should someone want to bet more than that – playing more lines, or a higher-denomination machine, or use multipliers – then they would need a PCT device, and would need to follow the rules that go with it.
Without naming names, I’m not alone in thinking that this may be the best way forward. Partial PCT would allow recreational gamblers unrestricted access to poker machines, but would ensure that they could lose no more than 25 cents a spin… far lower than the $1 bet limit that currently has everyone in the industry up in arms. Problem gamblers who didn’t want to use a PCT device would be similarly restricted in terms of how much money they could lose in a given period of time.
And to bet more than the mandated minimum? Get a device and play by the rules.