Saturday, 25 February 2012

The Ghost Who Walks

The Phantom is Australia's best selling comic. The Australian Phantom comic is the world's longest unbroken run of Phantom comics beginning in 1948.

Given it's popularity, it seemed inevitable that the Phantom became a poker machine. Australian based Artistocrat was the certainty to create the machine that would exploit the Phantom artwork and themes.

While in New Zealand for the International Problem Gambling Conference, I wanted to experience the Sky City casino, and in particular the much touted warnings that were built into the pokie programming.

I ended up sitting in front of a Phantom poker machine.

The biggest spruick on the machine face is the bonus free spins feature. This feature is won when 6 skull ring symbols appear. A Gambling Research Australia report found that the free spins feature was a principal cause in gamblers exceeding self set expenditure limits (see page 181). You will find this statement:
"Qualitative research over both the Queensland Consumer Precommitment Trial and in the current study strongly suggest that the behaviour of many players is very goal-oriented towards attaining features or free spins and that when these do not occur, it can motivate continued gambling."
This research is completely in line with the views of Scott Eagar who got a lot of national publicity by stating that
The video below is a recording I made of the pokie Phantom's display and sounds.

Firstly, you can see the gambler interruption message, the information it contains and how easily it is dismissed. While this feature will help, the evidence from New Zealand is not much.

Secondly, you'll note that I experience 2 losses disguised as wins (also called "fake wins") in the space of less than 2 minutes in front of the machine. I blogged about losses disguised as wins back in December 2010. This feature was also the subject of an article in the International Journal of Psychophysiology (co-authored by Prof Alex Blaszczynski) that concluded:
"It is possible that fake wins sustain interest in and contribute to the addictive nature of EGM play. These results also support the possibility that the inherent arousal in EGM gambling may be the primary reinforcer, with monetary gain serving as a secondary reinforcer"  
If you would like a pdf of this article, email me at and I will email it to you.

Thirdly, the video of the pokie Phantom shows how the potential of winning the free spins feature is being teased by the machine's programming. Watch and listen how once the skull symbols appear on the first reel, the potential of winning the free spin feature is teased by sounds and an increased spin time on the remaining reels. You will note that I missed out on the bonus feature both times.

What the gambler is experiencing is a Near Miss.  And Near Misses are like winning to a problem gambler. A 2011 University of Cambridge study is reported to have found as follows:
"The brains of problem gamblers react more intensely to near misses than casual gamblers, new research from the University of Cambridge has found. The results could help explain what keeps problem gamblers betting even though they keep losing."
This is really nasty.

But what is nastier is if the reels are weighted or "stacked" so that more of the potentially winning skull ring symbols appear in the first reels and are diminished by the manufacturers on the later reels. This destroys the randomness of the gamble. On two of the three machines I have had access to in Victoria, this has been the case.

This could be why the last reel never came good for me in the video.

Tim Costello, Nick Xenophon and I all wrote to the relevant authorities in South Australia and Victoria asking for the PAR sheets (also referred to as Prize Payout Sheets). The information in these sheets will disclose whether or not the reels are weighted or stacked. The examination process will take only hours and the facts can be known. Transperancy will be served.

I met with Bruce Thompson, the Chairman of the Victorian Gambling Commission with a view to obtaining the information about stacking symbols on pokie reels to create near misses.

I wrote to Mr Thompson asking that this information be disclosed. I copied my email to Ted Ballieu and Victorian Gambling Minister Michael O'Brien. After all, Messrs. Ballieu and O'Brien keep spruicking transparency.

No response. Nada. Nothing. 

At the very least, the conclusion is that the Victorian government has something to hide. And what it is hiding it pokie programming that the evidence based research finds that seems to lead to pokie addiction.

The ghost who walks.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Queensland, Pokies & Alcohol

It is the accepted wisdom that in order to to be in the alcohol trade in Queensland, one must own a pub. And if that pub has pokies, well then, you must be in the pokies business. Not so. Here's a picture of the national retail brand "Thirsty Camel" marketing alcohol in Sunshine Beach, Queensland.

And here's a picture of the West Australian based brand, Harry Brown Merchant Trader  (clearly a Dan Murphy's wannabe) marketing alcohol at the Eatons Hill Hotel just north of Brisbane. And if you look closely, you can see the Sydney based Bottlemart marketing alcohol via the drive thru.

It would seem that neither Woolworths and Coles need to operate pokies to use their national brands to profit from the liquor trade.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Confronting the Saints

It is essential to personally confront the pokie industry if the harm of poker machines is ever to be  reduced. One can present compelling research and evidence based solutions but failure is inevitable unless the message is delivered face to face - nose to nose. So that's why I took my son and my mate, Stephen Mayne, along to the Saint Kilda FC annual general meeting last week. This was our view.

I must disclose that while I don't know every stat or historical fact, I am devoted to the Saints. Measured by emotional involvement, our loss to Geelong and draw with Collingwood are two of my four greatest spectator sporting moments. I only want the best for my club.

Given that Stephen gave up an evening with his young family, I encouraged him to choose our seating. The result was that we were face to face with new coach Scott Waters and about half the Saint's squad including the charmingly self amused Stephen Milne.

The managing director of Coles, Ian McLeod is a St Kilda director. Appropriately, Stephen's questions were aimed at uncovering whether Mr McLeod's company will be supporting the Saints. In light of their progressive stance on limiting the exposure of pokie sights and sounds, Stephen also asked about what Mr McLeod's view would be on the Saints' own pokies. He insisted that Mr Mcleod speak for himself. The answers from Mr McLeod were polite but not specific. At least, he had to confront the issue.

My own statement addressed the Centrebet sponsorship. I began by stating my support for the steps that the board has taken to clean up the Saints' off-field behaviour. This is an important first step.

I expressed my strong feelings that the St Kilda brand should not be used to promote online gambling. There is wide consensus from research, our political leaders and the community at large that the normalisation of betting through sporting sponsorships and commercial messages is a really bad thing. A mate pointed out is that the Saints' association with gambling puts off other advertisers.

As I stated to the Productivity Commission when I appeared before them in 2009, one must never forget that gambling is a harmful form of adult only entertainment. It is entirely inappropriate to be marketed to children. Yet by an online gambling logo being prominently placed on every bit of apparel, my Saints are being used to market online gambling to children.The desperation for prominence results in Centrebet logo being larger than our own!!

It is not just about logo size, this sponsorship is all wrong. The sponsor's promotion of online betting is made worse when the Saints, quite correctly, see their future as a family friendly footy club associated with the bayside communities of Melbourne.

In the interest of the club, I asked that management consider giving notice of termination to Centrebet. With respect to the Saints' pokies I asked that they join with the Geelong football club indicating their support for a $1 maximum bet per pokie spin.

The response from President Westaway was disappointing. Indicating their desperation for $$$, his point was to ask me what sponsors I might suggest. Given the considerable marketing experience of Mr Nettlefold, Saints general manager, and Ian McLeod, Coles Managing Director, whatever I might suggest would be sincere but naive to say the least.

But, on reflection, they might approach the state government who is spending millions on a campaign to arrest the growth of online gambling.

But the Saints Centrebet sponsorship would roadblock that.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Ballieu and O'Brien Fail Victoria

The failure of Ted Ballieu and Michael O'Brien to implement even their "Designed To Fail" scheme of voluntary pre-commitment must result in Victorians doubting whether Mr Ballieu or Mr O'Brien feel bound by any promise or undertaking they make. Here's page 3 of a letter Mr O'Brien wrote me. Click on the image and read how he spruicks the absolute nature of his resolve:
Another failed promise is Premier Ballieu's 2006 campaign promise to reduce Victoria's pokie numbers by 20%. Clearly, that promise has been forgotten.

If one is to believe Minister O'Brien's words, the people of Victoria "endorsed" his 2010 policy. Here are the actual pages that set out that policy:

In failing to honour the policy upon which they were allegedly elected Premier Ted Ballieu and Minister Michael O'Brien have failed the people of Victoria.