Addiction is a condition in which a person engages in use of a substance or in a behavior for which the rewarding effects provide a compelling incentive to repeatedly pursue the behavior despite detrimental consequences. Addiction may involve the use of substances such as alcohol, inhalants, opioids, cocaine, nicotine, and others, or behaviors such as gambling; there is scientific evidence that the addictive substances and behaviors share a key neurobiological feature—they intensely activate brain pathways of reward and reinforcement, many of which involve the neurotransmitter dopamine. Both substance use disorders and gambling behaviors have an increased likelihood of being accompanied by mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety or other pre-existing problems. Substance use and gambling disorders not only engage many of the same brain mechanisms of compulsivity, they respond to many of the same approaches to treatment.
Complex conditions that affect reward, reinforcement, motivation, and memory systems of the brain, substance use and gambling disorders are characterized by impaired control over usage; social impairment, involving disruption of everyday activities and relationships; and may involve craving. Continuing use is typically harmful to relationships and work or school obligations. Another distinguishing feature is that individuals may continue the activity despite physical or psychological harm incurred or exacerbated by use. And typically, tolerance to the substance increases, as the body adapts to its presence. Because addiction affects the brain’s executive functions, individuals who develop an addiction may not be aware that their behavior is causing problems for themselves and others. Over time, pursuit of the pleasurable effects of the substance or behavior may dominate an individual’s activities.
There is no one cause of addiction. Although genetic or other biological factors may contribute to vulnerability to the condition, many social, psychological, and environmental factors have a powerful influence on substance use. There is no one personality type associated with addiction, either. The lack of ability to tolerate distress or other strong feelings is linked to addiction.
Although all addictions have the capacity to induce a sense of hopelessness and feelings of failure, as well as shame and guilt, research documents that recovery is the rule rather than the exception, and that there are many routes to recovery. Individuals can achieve improved physical, psychological, and social functioning on their own—so-called natural recovery. Others prefer the support of community or peer-based networks. Still others opt for clinical-based recovery through the services of credentialed professionals. The road to recovery is seldom straight: Relapse, or recurrence of substance use, is common—but definitely not the end of the road. For those who achieve remission of the disorder for five years, scientists report, the likelihood of relapse is no greater than that among the general population.
If you approach the Mount Pritchard Community Club on the 816 bus from Cabramatta, the first thing you see is the name in giant capitals splashed across a concrete tower: MOUNTIES. The club is a sprawling structure of glass and concrete, a blend of gentle curves and sharp edges bounded by car parks. It is so distinct from the surrounding suburb that it looks to have been dropped there by some architecturally careless god. I approach the row of membership scanners with digital displays monitored by a friendly uniformed woman. She welcomes me, processing my ID. I am not a member but am told I can become one for a $6 annual fee.
The first thing I notice is the smell: sweet and cloying, pumped in through the air-conditioning. The scent suggests concealment, an attempt to neutralise the unpleasant or distinctive, whether nicotine, sweat, alcohol, buffet food or cleaning fluid.
Ka-Ching: pokies documentary reveals what makes the machines so addictive
Mounties is in the Fairfield local government area, which the Australian Bureau of Statistics ranks as Sydney’s most disadvantaged community. In the 2015–16 financial year, this community is estimated to have lost $681,219,755 playing poker machines. The average Fairfield resident lost $4,171; the average salary here is $39,936. In the same financial year, $5.4bn was lost to poker machines in NSW registered clubs, and $8bn to poker machines statewide. In 2016, Mounties announced $128m worth of renovations, to be completed over five years; the planned upgrade will probably make it Sydney’s largest club (it is not clear by what measure). The club is currently home to around 560 machines – no doubt the renovations will see that number increased substantially.
You might enter a club for any number of reasons: a meal, a show, a trivia night, or to watch a game of rugby league. But the venue’s entire operation is sustained by the thrumming engine of the gaming floor, where poker machines generate absurd amounts of revenue, the majority of which comes from patrons with a gambling problem.
At Mounties, the gaming floor is off the lobby, to the left. You aren’t forced to pass through the gambling floor but the club’s layout means that you inevitably glimpse it. Most of the clubs I visit adhere to this structure: gaming rooms are near the entrance, adjacent to the bistro, and bordered by a bar. At Burwood RSL, for instance, I look past the staff greeting me and see the telltale glow of the gaming room, visible between narrow panes of glass decorated with cascading water. (The language and décor of clubs fetishise Vegas luxury: rooms with poker machines are frequently referred to as VIP rooms; Burwood offers “diamond” and “platinum” membership tiers; what appear to be red blankets sag above the Mounties gaming room, seemingly inherited from a B-grade sword-and-sandal set.)
A woman behind the counter gestures to an attendant: “Could you tell that guy to stop banging on the machine behind me?” I trail the attendant as he approaches the player: a slight man in T-shirt and jeans, transfixed by the flashing screen and steadily whacking the play button. He twigs to the instruction before it is delivered, raising his hands, palms out, apologetically. Pokie players tend to be simultaneously mesmerised and alert, as if expecting to be caught in the act.
Those I do catch in the act are almost always over 50, though I visit mostly during the day, with elderly women the most represented demographic. The number of players varies, but at Mounties and Penrith Panthers, the biggest of the clubs I visit, about 30% to 50% of the machines are occupied. Most people play alone. When I do see players interacting, they are invariably either a couple (when a husband and wife are at the same machine, the husband is always instructing the wife) or gaggles of grey-haired ladies.
“Some do it for loneliness,” a bartender tells me. “Some think they can win all the time.” Those staff I meet along the way reference the entrancing, anaesthetising effect of the machines, which create a state of mind commonly referred to as “the zone”. Even when crowded and noisy, gaming areas are lonely places. Pokies induce a state of soothing, absent-minded automation, distracting from obligation and anxiety. No one is immune to this appeal, an appeal similar to that of alcohol, or television, or methamphetamines, or Facebook. But pokies constitute a particularly insidious version. Researching this article, I repeatedly heard stories of problem gamblers (regardless of background) hiding the addiction from family, friends, and employers for as long as possible. The machines, with their constant stimulation, promote this isolation. In gaming areas life, whether terrible or beautiful, is deferred.
Beyond the gaming area, Mounties is mostly hallways lined with sports memorabilia and restaurants subsidised by pokies revenue (on weekdays, a member can get a steak and soft drink for $8). Directly above the gaming floor sits Kaos, a “family amusement centre”, where minders herd packs of children towards various diversionary activities. With its gaudy aesthetic and arcade games, Kaos is unsettlingly similar to the room below.
Later I recount this scene to Allison Keogh, spokesperson for the Alliance for Gambling Reform, who recalls being abandoned for hours while her mother played the same kinds of machines (she tells me that she and the other children referred to the kids’ room as “the jail with pink walls”). Her mother’s addiction meant she had to grow up fast: “I remember standing on a chair to hang washing out and staying up late at night to hem my sister’s dress for her first day at school.”
Keogh left home at 17 with stress-induced medical issues, working three jobs in order to support herself. According to the Australian Medical Association, for every person who suffers from a gambling problem (approximately 2.5% of the population), five to 10 additional people are affected; this means up to five million Australians could be adversely impacted by gambling. Additionally, around 400 suicides in Australia each year are attributable to a gambling addiction, and a 2016 Australian National University study of gaming machines in Victoria linked the presence of poker machines in a postcode to a significant increase in domestic violence.
Australia is, per capita, the world’s most lucrative gambling market. As a nation, we lose $20bn per year, and poker machines account for more than half these losses – around $11bn. A 2010 Productivity Commission report recommended introducing a range of safeguards, including a maximum bet limit of $1, arguably a reasonable measure and one supported by Andrew Wilkie, Nick Xenophon, the Greens and various lobby groups. In New South Wales, the current maximum bet limit is $10, meaning a player can lose an average of $1,200 per hour. Most pokies gambling occurs in clubs, which contain 70% of the state’s machines.
Gambling can destroy lives quickly. Dr Charles Livingstone tells me that he’s seen punters lose $2,000 to $3,000 in an hour. Livingstone is the closest Australia has to an anti-gambling guru. A senior lecturer in the School of Public Health and Preventative Medicine at Monash, he studies the relationship between poker machine gambling and socio-economic disadvantage, focusing specifically on health and harm minimisation.
He tells me that, on average, 60% of club revenue in Australia comes from pokies, and the number is higher in NSW. Of this revenue, 42% comes from individuals with a serious pokies addiction, and another 20% from those with a moderate gambling problem. He also tells me that fewer than 5% of players take advantage of self-exclusion, a voluntary program which clubs recommend if a player is addicted. The feebleness of self-exclusion – the program allows individuals to specify places or online sites from which they wish to be banned – is compounded by NSW venues facing no consequences if they fail to remove a self-excluded patron from the gaming floor or venue.
In the gaming room at Mounties, warnings against addiction are ubiquitous but they are submerged in an ocean of visual stimulation and formulated as accusations. “THINK! ABOUT YOUR FAMILY.” “THINK! ABOUT YOUR CHOICES.” “IS GAMBLING A PROBLEM FOR YOU?” The current regulatory focus (endorsed by ClubsNSW and Liquor & Gaming NSW) is on behavioural change and education. In other words, the burden is shifted from venues to players. Livingstone highlights the inadequacy of this approach by comparing it with other health responses – for example, dealing with a contaminated water supply by providing hospitals with antibiotics, rather than treating the water.
Visual messaging in gaming rooms takes two (conflicting) forms: first, warning people they are a danger to themselves; second, inducing them to stay at a machine for as long as possible. Black-clad gaming attendants swoop in to serve refreshments ordered with the press of a button. The iPod-sized touchscreen through which these orders are made sits between the hypnotic digital reels and the dazzling screen that advertises the machine’s jackpot – “GRAND JACKPOT $7,583.17”. Less extravagant is the sticker reminding you of the odds of hitting the jackpot: “no better than a million to one.” (Why not just “worse than a million to one”?)
The touchscreen display cycles through drinks specials, advertisements and competitions. “YOU CAN NOW CHARGE YOUR PHONE AT THE GAMING MACHINE.” “JACKPOT: $1,052,000.55 WON AT MOUNTIES IN MARCH.” Beside the screen, hung at eye-level, is an all-day snack menu featuring spring rolls, pizza, chips, pide and other greasy offerings. “To order,” it explains, “simply press the [martini glass icon] service button on your machine.”
The machines have names such as Lightning Cash, Seven Seas, King Coins and – hammering on the ceiling of hyperbole – Super Diamond Eternity. Cartoonishly sexy animations flash across screens, resembling banner ads for free-to-play fantasy video games. Many are startlingly racist, featuring Asian or Middle Eastern caricatures ripped from the pages of 19th-century tales of colonialist adventure. The tawdry triviality implies that this is not a place where you will bleed serious money, but an arcade where you might lose a few coins.
Depending on the machine, you can bet as little as 1c per spin, or as much as $10. You select how many credits to bet per line (one credit usually equals 1c), which is then multiplied by the number of lines you choose to have in play. The more lines in play, the higher the chance of a “win”, and the less likely you will be disappointed by icons aligning on a line excluded from play.
I say “win” because spins can deliver a loss disguised as a win – for example, if you bet $1, and win 50c, the spin is accompanied by the sounds and sights of a win (triumphant music, cascading coins, animated characters, etc.) even though you have actually lost half your bet. In the anticipatory trance of play, however, the brain registers this as a victory. And every win, no matter the size, is accompanied by celebratory visual and audio reinforcement. Pokies never play negative sounds. They have “been designed over a long period of time to provide maximum reinforcement with a minimum amount of actual payment,” Livingstone explains.
Beyond the lines and credits, each machine has its own dizzying set of rules, available for perusal at the press of a button, but surely rarely checked. Here is one of more than a dozen rules on the Seven Seas machine: “All wins left to right only, beginning with the leftmost reel except scatters which pay any and Progressives and Bonus Prizes which pay as described on the REEL PULSE FEATURE page.” It is hard to say whether this is a poor translation, a lazy copywriter, or intuitively comprehensible to the dedicated gambler.
The main gaming room at Mounties is indistinguishable from the gaming floor of any casino. Walking among the machines, it is difficult to get a sense of the entire space from any one point within it. The prevailing feeling is that this part of the club is entirely its own, dissociated from the larger venue, like the engine room of a cruise liner. The area is windowless, the walls a dull shade of ochre; the lighting is a dim, jaundiced yellow, drawing out the thin, gleaming neons that border the machine cases and their hypnotic, luminescent screens.
Then there is the never-ending soundtrack of jaunty circus melodies and hands slapping plastic buttons. (During my conversation with Keogh, she tells me that when she walks through a venue with pokies, the noise has a “re-traumatising effect” that transports her back to her childhood.) Many clubs have air-conditioned, technically-outdoor-but-indoor-by-any-reasonable-definition “smoking terraces” where ashtrays are perched on the machines, minimising the threat of a smoko interrupting a gaming session. This all contributes to a sensation of stupefaction that pulls people towards the pokies and keeps them there.
In her excellent book Addiction by Design, Natasha Dow Schüll describes the challenge Las Vegas paramedics face when responding to a heart attack in a casino. First, they can’t park out the front; it is bad for business. Then, entering through a side door, they have to navigate indirect routes, multiple elevators and disorienting corridors. Finally, there is the issue of transporting the victim: one paramedic recalls inserting an intravenous line while wedged in a narrow aisle, surrounded by machines, because the “gamblers just wouldn’t move to let us out”.
Clubs are reluctant to take any action that will reduce the gambling in their venues. The 2015 documentary Ka-Ching! Pokie Nation claims that $36m of Fairfield RSL’s $39m in annual revenue comes from poker machines. The house take in most casino games averages 2% to 3%; on poker machines it is 10% to 13%. And because money won is immediately added to the machine’s credit, it can be effortlessly gambled away. In short, pokies are a terrible bet for the player, and a licence to print money for both the owner and the state government. NSW takes approximately $2bn per year in poker machine taxes.
Plenty of actions could be taken to reduce the harm done by pokies – if there was the political will to do so. In addition to the $1 bet limit, the Productivity Commission report recommends that patrons should be able to load no more than $20 into a machine at any one time. In Queensland, the limit is $100. In NSW, you can sit down at any machine in the state and load up $7,500.
The report also recommends introducing a mandatory pre-commitment system. This means that players must decide on their maximum spend before playing, and are prevented from playing on any machine in a particular jurisdiction once they have hit their ceiling.
When Andrew Wilkie and Julia Gillard proposed a mandatory $1 bet limit on high-intensity machines, ClubsNSW – the peak body representing clubs registered in the state – spent nearly $3 million fighting the proposed reforms, which were subsequently dropped.
With more than 6.7 million members and 62,000 staff across 1,400 clubs, as well as considerable advertising influence, ClubsNSW wields significant power. Keogh tells me that between 1999 and 2015, ClubsNSW donated $2.5m to political parties. The rhetoric ClubsNSW employs to resist regulation emphasises the sector’s community spending (clubs usually support junior and senior sport, and partner with charities such as Surf Life Saving). However, in the 2013–14 financial year, clubs in NSW distributed only $92m in community grants. That is less than 2 % of the $5.4bn lost to pokies in the state over that period.
Because clubs are not-for-profit establishments, revenue is poured back into the venues, renovating, diversifying, and subsidising meals and services. In 2015, Revesby Workers Club (located in Canterbury-Bankstown, where $330m per year is lost on pokies) opened the Revesby Village Centre, which includes a Coles supermarket, a hairdresser, a medical centre, a dentist and an AMF bowling alley. Increasingly, clubs are absorbing the community under the banner of serving the community. ClubsNSW signed memoranda of understanding with both the O’Farrell and Baird governments before their elections. The agreement with Baird committed his administration to exploring financial assistance to clubs in providing aged- and child-care facilities.
When I contact the regulator, Liquor & Gaming NSW, they respond to my questions with a list of government initiatives, almost all focused on counselling and treatment. At the top of the list is “$23m to target problem gambling and promote responsible gambling”. The only specific requirements for venues are that machines be switched off between 4am and 10am, and that all service staff undertake the Responsible Conduct of Gambling training course.
But do service staff intervene if they suspect problem gambling?
Leigh Mason suffered on and off from a severe gambling addiction from 2008 to 2012, at which time he finally sought help. During this period he would plan to gamble every week and “be happy to lose $1,000 to $3,000 a fortnight”. I ask Mason whether, during this time, he was ever discouraged from gambling. It never happened. He remembers how, in one small venue where the staff knew him by name (to be fair, not a club), “I would put $50 in the machine, and before that first $50 was through, I would have a beer sitting next to me.”
“I don’t know if it was greed or just pure addiction, but I just continued to play the machine until it had exhausted all the funds,” he tells me, describing what it feels like to lose $2,500 dollars in one night. At the height of his addiction, he would frequently play until his credit-card limit was maxed out. Then, he would wait until midnight when the limit reset, and max it out again. He still sees a counsellor regularly. “You are playing for the same thrill, but you don’t really care about when you get that next win,” he finishes.
I spend hours on gaming floors and never once witness an impassioned celebration. The closest I see to evidence of pleasure is a woman who has scored a number of free spins, attracting a cadre of octogenarians who coo approvingly for several minutes, watching her credits tick up. An hour or so later, the woman is still there, alone, a wad of $50 notes in hand, tapping away $7.50 with every spin.
The last club I visit is Penrith Panthers – “Your World of Entertainment” – home to the iFly Downunder indoor skydiving centre and, out the back, a wakeboarding lake. The gaming area sits in a sunken floor at the club’s heart; my visits to other venues have not prepared me for the sheer scale of the operation. There are a lot of pokies, and a lot of people playing them. Every club I visit provides at least one ATM at the edge of the gaming area; Panthers has three.
Sitting at a poker machine, watching my strict budget of $20 disappear at a rate of 20c per spin, I realise that the constant noise of the machines, mingling with the club’s innocuous soundtrack (You’re so Vain, Is She Really Going out with Him?), conceals that there is almost zero conversation happening anywhere here.
Two pokies over, a lone woman, who must be in her eighties, steadies her tremor by gripping the machine. For each spin, she strikes the play button three times with the force of a bodyguard punching his palm. That she is playing for nothing but the anticipation is obvious in the way her mouth moves, caught in a trembling inward breath, as if she is preparing to smile.
This is an edited extract of the essay Money against Eternity published in the new issue of Overland magazine.