Techno pickpockets: Crown bathes in misery created by toxic gambling culture

Mar 11, 2021

A significant proportion of Crown’s profits come from its world class electronic gaming machines (pokies) that deploy sophisticated psychological principles to maximise bet sizes and machine usage. About 75% of people experiencing gambling problems report pokies as the main source. An inquiry into the misery caused by gambling addiction is well overdue. 

It has not been a good start to the year for the Bentley-driving millionaire owners and managers of Australia’s Crown casinos. Sydney Crown cannot open its opulent gambling den in its $2.2 billion Barangaroo complex until it assures the regulator that its days of operating a criminal enterprise are over.

Crown Melbourne and Crown Perth are to face separate royal commissions. Finally, this huge criminal network built on greed and corruption is to account for itself.

While all these inquiries are vitally important, so is examining how Crown wilfully contributes to the toxic gambling culture that produces so much misery for the victims of gambling addiction. A significant proportion of its profits come from its world class electronic gaming machines (EMGs or “pokies”).

Crown, like all other clubs and hotels in NSW, is a very effective techno pickpocket. As of 1 June 2020 there were 67,982 EMGs in NSW raking in $1.2 billion in net profit!

According to a report from the Australian Gambling Research Centre, the new generation EGMs are computers utilising clever techniques designed to maximise spending and “time on device” per user. EGMs deploy sophisticated psychological principles to maximise users’ bet sizes and machine usage.

These characteristics increase the addictive potential of EGMs. Each EGM is a seductive portal into a psychological experience that is irresistible to the gambling addicts. A Productivity Commission 2010 report says about 75% of people experiencing gambling problems report EGMs as the primary source of this harm.

The current generation of EGMS are formidable openers of wallets and purses. Problem gamblers don’t stand a chance. Messages displayed on screens congratulate the user on their “good fortune” or “luck”. This gives the player a sense that the casino is really on their side and wants them to win.

With this reinforced sense of support, the player continues to feed the machine. Another ploy is the sounds emanating from the machines at strategic times, such as animals galloping or engines revving. These audio cues reinforce a sense of pending success, on a machine that will never let you win over the long run.

As for permissible load up levels, these expose the failure of governments to protect citizens from corporate robbery in casinos. Load up levels are the amount of money that can be fed into cash acceptors attached to machines.

NSW is the big offender. The regulator, Liquor & Gaming NSW, allows gamblers to load up to $7,500 in on any one machine. In 2010 the Productivity Commission recommended that the load up limit on EGMs should be $20!

As for the newly hatched idea of responsible gambling. This was conceived by the casino industry as a reflex against community concerns about the terrible effects on people of losing money to gambling. It is a form of self-regulation to keep out the real regulator. It lacks credibility.

In fact, it is a dangerous concept in the hands of casinos because it sends a message to gamblers that EGMs can be used safely. There is no way. In this contest between vulnerable humans and machines the machines always win.

Crown’s answer to problem gaming is it s mysterious unaudited unit called The Responsible Gaming Centre. We do not know what this unit does, or who staffs it. It apparently operates a referral service. Which is a rather expansive way of saying it has a list of services in a tattered manila folder.

Then there is the Self Exclusion Program where problem gamblers contract with Crown to stay away from their casinos. Then there’s the farcical chaplaincy service. A casino that offers spiritual guidance! What are the Crown chaplains doing? Kneeling with the gambler in front of the machine and praying for a spit out? Blessing the machines so they act in the gamblers’ interest?

A 2017 research report from the Australian Gambling research Centre shows how tokenistic and arbitrary are these measures. Researchers embedded themselves in gambling locations (not Crown) and observed gambling behaviour.

They found that signs of probable gambling problems were almost always present at all venues. This included “behaviours such as gambling very fast and intensely, betting above $3 a spin on a machine, gambling through a usual mealtime and withdrawing cash multiple times”. However, at no time did they see staff approach gamblers to interrupt EGM use (e.g., suggesting they slow down their gambling or take a break).

One of the gamblers said to the researchers;

“There’s been many, many times where I would’ve loved for someone to stop by and say, ‘Do you need someone to speak to?’ … I’m sitting there and promising myself, ‘Okay, this is the last $50 …’ And you see the money go down quite quickly and you know that that money is needed for so many other things in your life and yet you can’t walk out, so maybe just having that someone come up to you and say, ‘Do you need assistance?’, would have just been enough to get you out even that one time to be able to … have that money for something else.”

Other gamblers responded;

The only reason they’d approach you, … ‘Would you like another drink, sir?’ You know, that’s it. Or, ‘Look, we’ve got a tray of sausage rolls by the by. You’re welcome to go grab a couple…

They’d give you a coffee or a Coke or – the longer you played there, the more they’d give you … when you’re winning, they’d attend to you. But if you’re losing or anything – they wouldn’t come near you.”

As on so many things, we should take a leaf out of Norway’s book. It has a superior EGM harm reduction approach. Between 2006 and 2009 it temporarily banned machines then re-introduced modified machines that removed banknote acceptors, reduced maximum bets, and introduced universal weekly and monthly maximum loss limits and a full pre-commitment system.

Let us not waste the moment. Criminal behaviour has been revealed in Crown casinos. We should not stop there. We need to expose the way Crown uses its EMGs to create so much misfortune – kids going to school without breakfast, families losing a roof over their heads and so much more.

Meanwhile a senior Crown executive has just shelled out $626,927 for a 2020-plated Bentley Flying Spur.

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