Edition #2: Gambling today

Blurred row of lit up poker machines
Blurred row of lit up poker machines
Photo: iStock

Make it pop

Redfern Now gives a masterclass in telling it like it is

One of the consistently outstanding things about Redfern Now is the way the ABC Television series tells stories of everyday life. It is not didactic about its messages or the fact that its stories are about Indigenous people. Rather, they are stories of people who happen to be Indigenous.

Sometimes culture or ethnicity will affect or frame a story, but so will many other things. Some are universal, while others are more particular to a character, such as personal history or socio-economic status.


In presenting information and education about gambling, the foundation faces a similar challenge of not being didactic or one-dimensional. This applies both to telling gamblers' stories and producing material that is helpful for them and the broader community.

So when Redfern Now decided to tell a story about gambling on the pokies, I had great interest in how it was done.

Episode five of series two has the simple title, 'Pokies'. The opening shot is in a venue. We are watching a woman, Nic, playing a poker machine. Her face is reflected from the screen as she pushes buttons and feeds fifty dollar notes into the machine. The scene is lit by the machine's lights and its sounds gently emanate from the screen.

Woman's hand playing the pokiesPhoto: iStock

It is all too familiar to anyone acquainted with the pokies and their spell. Nic's eyes are focused, yet glazed, as the machine responds to her constant presses. She is in what pokies players call the zone, as in zoned out. Pokies as escape or retreat. Those selling the machines spruik them as offering increased player 'immersion'. Same thing, different name.

From this opening shot, the signs of Nic's problems mount. She is agitated when her phone rings, and quickly leaves the gambling area to answer it. It is immediately apparent she is lying about where she is to the person at the other end. Hence the need to get away from the sound of the pokies before answering.

Portrait of a problem reaching crisis point

Nic is in the grip of a problem that is reaching crisis point, and this is the story of the episode.

When she leaves the venue we see her go back into a normal life. She has a loving husband, a teenage son who is doing outstandingly well at school, a nice house, a good job and a wide circle of family and friends. And she is lying to them all.

She is in what pokies players call the zone, as in zoned out. Pokies as escape or retreat.

The pokies have a great capacity to swallow money and they are eating up her and her family's resources. She now has three credit cards running, her husband is about to find his cheques bouncing and, shame of shame, she even stole the tip left for one of the dancers at the Aboriginal cultural centre where she works.

The behaviour and situation are acutely and accurately observed. She rubs the machine as she plays, one of the telltale problem signs for a pokies player. As things go downhill, she gambles even more, escaping her problem while making it worse.

Collateral damage

But this story is not just about Nic's ultimate descent into crime, betrayal and tragedy. It is also an exposition of the way the damage caused by problem gambling spreads out to the family, friends and community of someone caught in its grip. Lots of people get burned.

It turns out both Nic's husband and sister knew she had a gambling problem. They trusted her when she said she had given it up, and they cannot help but be angry with her when they find out she hasn't.

The pokies have a great capacity to swallow money and they are eating up her and her family's resources.

From my point of view, this is a key component of the unfolding tragedy, and an example of why the foundation's family and friends campaigns are so necessary. Those who love Nic didn't really understand the depth of the problem and how to get help. And now their reactions and her fear of those reactions are driving her further into shame, guilt and a need to escape.

When Nic is pushed to the edge as it all comes out, the anguish ripples across the screen. The desperate calls to her mobile phone from those who love her signal how far out she has drifted, and so quickly. Maybe her son's despairing call to his mother – 'I love you, I would never be ashamed of you' – will save her. Or maybe it is all too late.

A very human story

As usual with Redfern Now, we have real drama, taken from life but also allowing us to reflect on life. But for the pokies, Nic's story would be one of good, ordinary satisfaction. She has been a success in her family, job and relationships with others. But when her relationship with the pokies undermines that life, Nic's self-respect and social ties start to unravel.

Yet those closest in her life do not stop loving her. Love is offered as an antidote to shame, an important message for anyone grappling with this type of pain. But seeing a way clear, going from the darkness to the light, is not easy. The damage is still there to be faced. And without planting a spoiler, I will note that it is on this realisation that the episode ends.

As usual with Redfern Now, we have real drama, taken from life but also allowing us to reflect on life.

'Pokies' is a drama worth watching, whether you are interested in gambling or not. It is a wonderfully observed and accurate portrayal of the experience of problem gambling, and a very human story. It will make you feel, empathise and reflect: all hallmarks of a fine work of art.

Tony Phillips
Tony Phillips

Tony Phillips is the head of knowledge and policy at the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation and manages its Gambling Information Resource Office. He was formally an academic teaching public policy, political economy and modern history. Tony moved into gambling when he became research manager at Victoria’s Responsible Gambling Advocacy Centre in 2010. He has also worked in broadcasting and journalism.

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