what is pre-commitment technology?

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.

Pokies

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

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

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.

Opponents

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.

Consequences

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.

Side Effects

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.

An Alternative

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.

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9 Responses

  1. Sue Pinkerton says:

    I support the collection of player tracking data. The industry already uses this data (collected from loyalty cards) to “improve” their business and maximise profits. That industry uses player tracking data to work out which machines, colours, symbols and words within the venue attract the most customers, which machine layout/carpet colour/venues design etc ‘encourages’ greater spending. They then use this “market research” to alter machine payouts, venue decore AND staff activities to maximise profits!

    Like you I do NOT support the use of player tacking data by the government, industry or help services to contact players who are gambling problematically.

    I DOP support de-identified individual player data being made available to researchers, regulators and public health departments to allow them to plan help service needs, regulate opening and closing times, to assist in the development of safe play strategies (and to inform the gambling public of warning signs of problematic play) as well as to ensure industry is complying with responsible gambling policies and procedures. From de-identified player tracking data it is possible to work out exactly how many players are gambling problematically, how many are not, as well as when/where problem gamblers are using machines.

    The algorithm already exists that can analyse machine use by individuals, individual betting patterns, times and frquency of play that then identifies problem, at risk and non problem gamblers. Finally, it is only through analysis of actual player tracking data that industry misinformation about levels of problem gambling associated with poker machines be debunked and the so-called
    “entertainment value” of poker machines challenged.

    Sue Pinkerton (former PG, problem gambling research consultant)

  2. One slight word of warning could be that even on low loss / spending levels, the amount of money that can be lost is potentially ‘way too much’ for ‘long session addicts’.

    Isn’t the idea of pre-commit to give the consumer direct spending control AND that valuable receipt / spending record that ALL consumers require to be ‘responsible’??

    Consumer education is required to get these reasons straight. The idea is being presented like a threat of ‘big brother watching’…it should be presented as a ‘valuable tool’ for responsible consumer behavior! It is not of course…because that is too close to the bone that would make it more acceptable in consumer rights terms.

    Whether the govt or any other body uses anonymous tracking and interpretation of data should be secondary. Yes it is valuable of course…but consumer sovereignty is paramount and a ‘receipt / spending record / card to limit and control over-spending’ IS the main reason for this…or should be!

  3. admin says:

    Sue,

    Thanks for your response and thoughts on this. You’ve taken the concept of player tracking to a number of distinct levels, and I agree with much of what you say.

    If the industry is already tracking player activity then there is no reason why this cannot continue in a mandatory PCT environment, so long as the fundamentals of personal privacy and security are maintained. They can’t object, as it’s something they currently do.

    And as long as this information is “de-identified” then it could readily be available under controlled circumstances, as you suggest. Again, I believe the pivotal point of this argument is that this data must not be able to be correlated back to specific individuals, and if player tracking does come to pass, then this must be made perfectly clear.

    As much as I fully recognise the benefits and value that can come from tracking player activity and gambling patterns, I still have a concern that this could be manipulated and abused… two words which are synonymous with the gambling industry and poker machines in particular. Such tracking would need to be undertaken with the utmost care.

  4. admin says:

    Libby,

    I believe the “receipt/spending record” possibilities of PCT are not considered to be a fundamental component of the concept… but rather a possible feature that could be incorporated into PCT. This is the impression I get quite strongly from the comments being made and the proposals that have been put together by various groups over many years.

    And I do know what you’re saying about long-time play at a low level. However, I believe the reality is that with industry groups heavily involved in the decision making process, such a solution may have the advantage of getting past most or all of their other restrictions and objections. Besides, it effectively guarantees a 25 cent maximum bet, which is worlds away from what we have now.

  5. Agreed Tom…but MUCH more concerning to me is the fact that the consumer toolkit aspect has been largely ignored, in providing a ‘statement of spending’ if you like. eg a monthly statement of spending…just as phone bills, credit cards give. A receipt for spending is the best moderating took a consumer can have, to adjust and redirect future spending. It is the consumer sovereignty aspect that is missing and THAT is a BIG omission in modern day trade. Our fundamental consumer safety policies are being ignored…in Victoria currently our LAW is being ignored! Has been for some years now.

    Sadly consumer issues are yet to really be well understood. They seem so basic…who needs them etc? The gambling industry is getting away with blue murder on this issue…all for its own gain.

    Monthly spending statements are the only warning a pokies gambler would get, ‘in his face’ as it were as a ‘wake up call’ soon enough in the gambling ‘recreation’ process, to make him take stock and slow up…BEFORE he gets addicted! It may not help all addicts who may shy away from knowing…but it surely helps ‘normal’ pokies gamblers to be responsible and to STAY responsible. It would also provide an avenue for families to check maybe, to help a loved one before rank addiction hits.

  6. I am a recovering alcoholic, gambler, and other addiction problems. I published a book, Gripped by Gambling, where the readers can follow the destructive path of the compulsive gambler, a prison sentence, and then on to the recovery road. I recently finished a second book, Switching Addictions, describing the challenges the addict encounters as they work toward recovery. I also publish an online newsletter, Women Helping Women, which has been on-line for more than ten years and is read by women around the world. (www.femalegamblers.info)

    Sincerely,

    Marilyn Lancelot

  7. Hello Marilyn! How are you? Hey Tom…this lady is too polite to let you know that she has helped countless numbers of people around the world who have been hit by addiction issues, that her online mag is great, her courage in ‘openly sharing’ is exemplary. Her warm intelligent approach to life will be the greatest asset in her country, the US in future, since gambling addiction will rise astronomically, with all of the damned regional casinos being developed there. Hopefully thanks to Marilyn…people who run into over-spending problems from slots especially, will have a real chance to avoid full-blown addiction, as they will have a path to follow much earlier!

    I only wish I had known Marilyn in 1995…when I could have understood what a risky road I was traveling…excepting that I thought that nobody else in the world shared my fears and mounting gambling problems, so I just buried them! It was another 4 years before I was forced to finally confront what by then had become an extremely destructive gambling addiction.

  8. The person sitting next to you in church, the man in the grocery store line, or one of your co-workers; any one of these could be involved with a gambling problem. Imagine your grandmother committing a crime to support her gambling addiction. I am a recovering alcoholic, gambler, and other addiction problems. I published a book, Gripped by Gambling, where the readers can follow the destructive path of the compulsive gambler, a prison sentence, and then on to the recovery road. I recently finished a second book, Switching Addictions, describing additional issues that confront the recovering addict. These are two books you might consider adding to your library. I also publish a free online newsletter, Women Helping Women, which has been on-line for more than ten years and is read by women around the world. (www.femalegamblers.info)

    Sincerely,

    Marilyn Lancelot

  9. RodF says:

    If they are going to implement this then at least do it properly. Anybody whose primary source of income is from government benefits should be restricted to betting $1 or less every fortnight or not being able to bet at all. Too many kids are being fed 2 minute noodles because the parents have wasted their dole money down pokies. In any case it is completely inappropriate for somebody to spend money provided for by taxpayers in this fashion.

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