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. If you have a look at the web page, click on "Major Findings" to download the report summary. There you will find this statement:
"Findings relating to game design showed emerging evidence of the effects of free spins, player’s being involved in play and feeling ‘irresistible urges’ during play in non-adherence to precommitments. The other predictor related to ‘excitement’ from features.
Bonus features of EGM (eg. free spins and features) were proposed by Walker (2003) as attractive to EGM players and this study supports this finding. In addition, it suggests that such factors may play some role in players exceeding their precommitments."
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 PokieWatch@yahoo.com 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.