Gambling is a complex and intriguing human activity. When it appeared long ago, it seen as popular, but it has cycled to the opposite extreme to be rebuked, condemned and repressed as a social evil. More precisely, Video Lottery Terminals (VLTs) are one important aspect of gambling that affects gamblers and makes them addicts. These machines are often referred to as the “crack cocaine of gambling”, “one armed bandits” or even the “devil`s television”. First, to uncover the VLTs world, we need to go back and explore the history of these machines. Then, we need to emphasize on the relation between the population and the machines: what attracts people and how? Following this, view by a psychological manner, we have to focus on the fact that VLTs are not random and how people are enslaved by them. Also, the explanation of how these slot machines are taking money from people and their effects. Statistics revealed by a professor who studied gambling in Las Vegas said that 78 per cent of pathological gamblers had thought about suicide and 49 per cent had attempted it; 35.5 per cent said they stole from work to pay for their gambling and 27.5 per cent said they filed for bankruptcy. Finally, the role of the government and the economy will be introduced, and some solutions for addicted gamblers must be included.
First, a little historical introduction is important to analyse where the gambling and VLTs came from. The earliest reference to gambling is found in ancient Egypte displaying various board games. Knuckle-bones, from which dice were derived, were popular in Greece and India (Roman board games). Many other little inventions were created; such as the roulette which was introduced into England in 1739 (Roulette history) and playing cards, which originated in 12th century China, reached Europe through Spain and were brought to America with Columbus in 1492.
Lotteries were known to exist in early Roman times and were used in judicial proceedings to determine guilt and for the selection of politicians. In England and Western Europe around the 16th century, lotteries became a popular mean of raising government revenue for public projects (lottery history). By 1790 lotteries were flourishing to the point of a “lottery mania” and were more active (Lottery history). Horse racing is several thousand years older than Christianity with Homer and Xenaphon. “Knowledge of the first horse race is lost in prehistory” (Horse racing). It was then made common in the 11th century in London under the interests of Henry VIII. The formation of the Newmarket Jockey club in 1750 paved the way for the formal regulation of racing (Horse racing).
Poker-machines, referred to as slot machines or Video Lottery Machines, were invented by the American Charles Frey in 1895. They gained popularity rapidly to become one of the most profitable gaming devices invented (Slot machine history …,2001-2002). Profits derived were so fabulous from such little investment and little effort that governments willingly took advantage and control of these machines. Today, the number of video lottery machines has increased by thousands year after year and the money continues to grow rapidly in the governments pocket. From a journal written by Novak (1998) it is said that “the amount of money players fed into the machines went from $1.4 billion in 1996 to $2.1 billion in 1997” (p. 2).
It is important to examine the relationship between the population and the Video Lottery Terminals. The question that psychologists and sociologists often ask themselves is what attracts people to VLTs? First, the machines are often very attractive because of their splendid colour and their simpleness. The games are usually visually appealing. Some would like to say that they are « architecturally primitive » (Golfman, N., December 1998), but because they are not complicated to play and there are not many buttons and readings, the players like these machines that require no skill. “And even though it is a chance outcome, it seems that there is some skill involved. So, you get the sense that you are good at what you are doing” (King, M., March 1999). Long ago, these boxes were rudimentary with brown and black colours. But today, to attracted even more people, they are striking with fluorescent coulours and are becoming more modern to fit into today’s world. It is seen that after playing a couple of times, it is very difficult to resist the temptation to drop a coin when you are given the opportunity. The next point is in fact about control. People think they have control over their game, but they are just pushing a button or pulling a bar. The rest of the job is done by the machine and it decide when to stop. Also, because it is so simple, it is quicker to play. It is also a way to pass time and some people like it better then sports or reading.
In fact, VLTs are easier to play with, you can do many things at the same time while playing and it does not require much of your brain to understand the games. A player can easily have a cigarette, take a sip from his or her beer or even chat on a cell phone while “keeping the game’s images in play with some gentle one-fingered pressure applied to a large well-worn button” (Golfman, N., December 1998). These machines only provide an illusion of activity. Also, some games are more popular because they stimulate more than others. The Real Games such as poker, blackjack and Keno are far more popular than other gaming terminal options (Golfman, N., December 1998). If we compare the card game solitaire to Keno, we can see the difference of stimulation. The software for a game of solitaire on a computer is programmed to deal whatever cards it wants. Keno requires merely picking some lucky numbers, hardly a stimulating way to pass the time (Golfman, N., December 1998). And with VLTs games like poker or blackjack, you get to chose the cards you want, instead of having it done by the computer. This way, you have a chance where the computer could choose weather you win or lose. When somebody plays these games, he does not have a partner which is often more stimulating. But that is why the Real Games are visually appealing.
Many people think that they have an equal chance to win or lose money when playing with VLTs. The population is not aware that most of these slot machines are not random. In fact, they look random, but thousands of winning combinations have been removed from these games. If VLTs were random, the machine would lose a large amount of money occasionally. But it seems like this does not happen. For example, the Five Reel slot machines are the biggest money makers in Alberta VLTs (Vegas Professor Say…, October 13, 2000) and the odds of winning are terrible. The Five Reel game has five pay lines including the three lines across and the diagonal corners. The cost to play is 25 cents per line, per spin, which can be increased to a maximum of $2.50 per spin. This game can easily cost $300 per hour, but the jackpot is only $250. How can we really know if VLTs are random or not? When a player pushes the button which activates the spin, is it really him who decides when to stop? No, it is the machine, so we have no control over them. Again with the Five Reel game, only 13% of all combinations (7,962,624) are actually winning spins where the pay out is higher than the original bet; 45% of the combinations pay absolutely nothing (means the player lose); 28% pay less than the original bet (the player still lose) and 12% of the combinations return the original bet (Vegas Professor Say ….,October 13, 2000). That means you can only win 13% of the time and this is how government make millions of dollars per month. “Your losses and winnings are electronically tallied as you play, (…)” (Cook, J., 1992) and this means we have no control over our bet.
Psychologist and sociologist often analyze how VLTs enslave people and take their money. First, the prime objective of slot machines is to make you believe that the winning combinations are imminent so you keep playing and putting your money into the machine. It means that these machines are very quick. It is not like lottery tickets with which you have to wait often half a week or a week to receive the results and see if you win or not. “They are widely available, but you have to wait until Saturday night to get the results of the draw” (King, M., March 1999). For VLTs, the rate of play, rate of return, and the rate of feedback are very quick as a matter of seconds. This is one factor of problem gambling. What happens is that instead of spending the money just won to buy a beer or two, “the now pleasantly hooked client will more than likely roll the credits towards the next set of games” (Golfman, N., December 1998). Then, before the player can realize it, he has just passed hours in front of the machine, the credits have led to incredible betting and a big amount of money will be gone. The machines seen to have the capacity to enslave the gambler. When a player loses, he usually has the tendency to play again because he wants to win and since VLTs are fast, it is easy to just replay as much as he wants. VLTs can be played as quickly as 20 times a minute. “In that time an enthusiast can set and lose up to $5” (Golfman, N., December 1998). So, during an hour, the player can give up almost $300 to the machine.
Another factor that causes problem gambling is the accessibility of VLTs. They are widely available in bars and casinos. Anybody can have access to them and even teenagers can easily play with the machines. For example, a man living in Montreal, who just finished working and receives a small salary with a wife and kids, can easily go play at the casino and spend all his money. People become addicted to VLTs and cannot stop playing. Also, many VLTs outlets are open 24 hours and it is not unusual to hear someone’s playing 36 hours straight (Novak, V., 1998).
After having identified the quickness of the play and the ease of access to VLTs as factors in problem gambling, we can identify a third one. VLTs are not expensive (King, M., March 1999). It only cost 25 cents to play with certain machines. Because you only need pocket change to play and because it seems like a really small amount of money, people tend to play longer with a larger amount over time. “It does not seem like a big investment” (King, M., March 1999).
There are various effects and consequences of being addicted to gambling. Lots of players are at risk to develop problems. They become absorbed in their game and also they “mobilise their bodies to function with astonishing mechanical dispatch-like rats in a control experiment” (Golfman, N., December 1998). Many scientists did experiments with rats and discovered that when they stimulated the rodents brain, the animals kept returning to the place where they were receiving the stimulation. VLTs uses reinforcement as well to make the gamblers play more and more. This refers to any event which increases the probability that a response will occur again (Coon, D., 2000). While playing, the reinforcement is money and the response occurs when the players keep playing. This creates addiction and it is considered as a disease. Professionals “who specialise in gambling addiction agree that video poker provides an exceptionally fast track of addiction” (Novak, V., 1998). Other scientific research show that video games cause addiction and are enjoyed by many players diagnosed with addiction-disease (Golfman, N., December 1998). This is why the gamblers always return to play even if they do not have the money for it. It is a great pleasure that they cannot live without it.
There are many effects of the addiction on gamblers. The player can lose all his money and with it, his house and job. He can lose his wife and even kids. Men are often the gamblers and women or children are the ones who are often physically or sexually assaulted (Macionis, Benoit, & Janson, 1999). Often, because of this, the player thinks about suicide and can even attempt it. He can also make criminal acts or just steals money. Both of these acts are terrible and can get the person into prison. Some gamblers just go through alcohol and drug abuse to get away from their problems. As an example, a young pizza-franchise manager has a criminal record after feeding the machines for weeks with his store’s cash (Novak, V., 1998).
Next, the governments are the one who gets the profits. So, do they really want to shut down the VLTs or to ban these machines from bars and casinos? They are “virtually vacuuming up gambling profits directly from the machines into their treasury” (Golfman, N., December 1998). Some provinces share as much as 80 per cent of the net revenues produced by VLTs, “making it virtually impossible for government to resist their invading presence” (Golfman, N., December 1998). The money from these machines are a form of hidden tax. The Government uses this money to repair roads, pay bills and manage government itself as taxes do. They also spend money on gambling problems (about $150 000 a year in the province of Newfoundland), but it cannot be compared to the $80 million that they collect from bars and casinos with VLTs (Golfman, N., December 1998). So, can we say that governments are supporting problem- gamblers as much as they could? Not really. Another example is in South Dakota where VLTs make 70 per cent profit (Vegas Professor Say ….,October 13, 2000). Most successful businesses are only making around 10 per cent profit, so video lottery machines are making 60 per cent more profit then other good businesses.
We can really say that lottery terminals are a source of revenue for state budget. They turned gambling into a supposed source of money for causes like education, environment and economic development but, in fact, it is more like a tax to gain money to go in government treasury. “Last year, the VLTs yielded Montana $21 million on tax revenue, South Dakota $25 million, five to ten times what their conventional lotteries do” (Cook, J., 1992). Since the 1970s, there has been significant expansion of gambling. Various form of gambling were legalize to “increase revenue without having to rely upon more traditional forms of taxation” (Carr, Buchoski, Kofoed & Morgan, 1996). Today, VLTs are part of our lives and governments do not want to ban them. It seems that they do not realize the problems that these machines are causing on the population. “The phrase problem gambler is itself still a suspiciously new term, and one that governments refused to recognize until VLTs conquered the landscape” (Golfman, N., December 1998).
There are many possible solutions for addictive gamblers. First, we could shut down the machines. In South Carolina, the Supreme Court shut down 36,000 video lottery machines on July 1st, 2000. By this, the number of active Gambler’s Anonymous groups was cut in three months, from 32 to 16 groups (Vegas Professor Say ….,October 13, 2000). In South Carolina, the Governor said that VLTs are a cancer and he wants them out. If all forms of government could do the same thing, there would have a lower race of addicted gamblers. This Governor made an effort to ban these machines. “It passed overwhelmingly in the house, then was filibustered to death in the senate, but is sure to resurface next year” (Novak, V., 1998). There are other states where there are signs of reassessment taking place. In Louisiana, many people voted to ban the machines starting next year (Novak, V., 1998).
As a second solution, reduction in the speed of the units themselves is a possibility. Many casinos say that slowing down the games mean losing clients (Golfman, N., December 1998). People get bored with slow games and will stop playing them. For now, it is only a recommendation and it has not yet been applied. Maybe by losing clients, it will reduce the number of addicted gamblers.
The most current solution, or should we say help, is treatment. Scientists are still at the beginning phases of research on the effectiveness of various treatment approaches (King, 1999). Some Addiction Centre and Gambler’s Anonymous centres offer help to addicted gamblers. These include self-help groups, support groups, therapy, individual and family counselling, family support and number of treatment programs for people who feel they need a break from their surroundings in order to quit gambling (King, 1999). The emphases of these centres are on developing strategies to stay “quit” once you have quit. “For example, these strategies can be external (controlling access to money), or cognitive (helping people to understand their thought patterns and how what they think may lead to into gambling or not gambling)” (King, 1999).
The shut down of VLTs and the number of people entering some centres are related. When video machines were turned off in South Dakota, the number of individuals receiving treatments for problem gambling diminished abruptly (Carr, Buchoski, Kofoed & Morgan, 1996). This suggests that VLTs present a unique risk for development of problems severe enough for the need of treatments. But the thing is we know that only a very small proportion of those identified as having a problem actually seek treatment. Most of the population do not realize their addiction and continue to play.
In conclusion, in addition of being the biggest revenue producer for governments, video lottery terminals are also the biggest cause of problem gambling. No other style of gambling creates such an hypnotic fascination. It is seen many times that it is very difficult to resist the temptation to drop a coin when given the opportunity. It cannot be denied that problem gambling is a reality and we have to do something to stop it. Solutions such as banning the machines are efficient and we should do it everywhere. As Quinn says, a director of Carolina Psychological Services in Columbia “video lottery machines are not worth the cost to society in lost productivity on the job, crime, divorce and bankruptcy” (Vegas Professor Say ….,October 13, 2000).