Photo supplied by Drew Rooke
Like many young Australians, I grew up with the pokies. They’re practically impossible to avoid: almost 200,000 are scattered across the country, the majority not in casinos but in the pubs and clubs that play such a central role in this country’s social life.
I even remember seeing them as a child, when my mum would take me and my sister to dinner at one of the local clubs. Mum never gambled on them but when we’d walk in they were there, right near the entrance desk, with their bright colourful lights and catchy jingles. They looked and sounded so fun to me.
For many, they are fun. But a few years ago, I began to understand there is a darker side.
When the fun ends
One afternoon, I visited a gambling venue in Sydney where I met a man who was feeding one $50 note after another into a poker machine. Despite the money he was churning through, he didn’t look agitated or angry.
I counted that he lost $1,700, but he had no idea of the figure.
He told me he didn’t indulge in other forms of gambling – he was ‘strictly pokies’. And although he was dressed in his work uniform, that was a ruse to make his wife think he was going to work when he walked out the door of their home. In the few hours we spent together, I counted that he lost $1,700, but he had no idea of the figure when I asked him as we said goodbye.
As a result of this experience, I started researching poker machines and gambling addiction in Australia more deeply.
Unpaid rent, unpaid bills
I met Doug* through an inner-city gambling treatment clinic. Doug was undergoing treatment for a severe gambling addiction and was open to sharing his experiences with me. Over the course of about two years, I saw in great detail the financial, emotional and physical damage that gambling can cause.
Doug worked for the army and gambled exclusively on poker machines. Before he went into treatment, he was at rock bottom, gambling so heavily it was not uncommon for him to smuggle out rations from the barracks where he was based because he had no money for basic groceries. He faced eviction multiple times because of unpaid rent and repeatedly had his utilities cut because of unpaid bills.
‘I am doing the walk of shame now…broke again…’
Counselling at the treatment clinic helped him but he still relapsed badly on numerous occasions. Late one night, I received a rambling email from him after one relapse. He wrote, ‘I am doing the walk of shame now…broke again… I wish these machines weren’t on every corner, in every pub. I just wanted to let myself relax a bit, that’s all, but now… How did these machines get so inside my head?’
Affected by another’s gambling
I met a lot of people like Doug. I also met people who were in relationships with people like Doug.
Michelle’s* ex-partner had a serious gambling addiction. He regularly lied to her about his gambling and lost most of their shared savings, including money they’d set aside to buy a house. Eventually Michelle separated from him. Even though she knew it was for the best, her heart still ached with grief.
He regularly lied to her about his gambling and lost most of their shared savings.
‘I just wish we could all go home together and celebrate the kids’ birthdays and have dinner together,’ she said. ‘But I know that will never happen.’
When self and time dissolve
It’s not surprising that poker machines are harmful to individuals, families and entire communities. They’re designed to maximise what industry calls ‘time-on device’, keeping gamblers in a meditative-like state of mind where all sense of self and time dissolve.
A poker machine’s imagery, music and ergonomics all contribute to this state, but the most important feature is the intermittent delivery of wins. As one poker machine designer told me, ‘It’s all about the cadence of play – the regularity of wins, the size of wins, the way those wins are created. There needs to be a very fine balance.’
‘It’s all about the cadence of play – the regularity of wins, the size of wins…’
These days, Doug has a better handle on his gambling. Being in a relationship with a supportive partner has helped, as has the pandemic-related closure of gambling venues.
But he wants state governments to use this unprecedented opportunity to pause and reflect on gambling-related harm, follow the advice of public health experts, and implement harm prevention and reduction measures like $1 maximum bets that target the gambling industry and its products, rather than the individual.
*Names changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.