Video lottery terminal addiction is a serious issue in Canada, but despite making efforts to reduce harm caused by these machines, are cash-strapped governments feeling pressure to turn a blind eye to the negative effects? Billions of dollars in profit passes from gamblers directly to the government each year, and the amount is increasing consistently: from $1.7 billion in 1992 to $3.8 billion in 1997 to $5 billion in 2004. A good chunk of this money is coming from video lottery terminals (VLTs).
Playing the Machines, a documentary directed by local filmmaker Barbara Doran, takes a close look at the subject. Telling the story of three VLT addicts, including John Dunsworth, outspoken anti-VLT activist and Trailer Park Boys cast member. He has been campaigning for years to push for the elimination of VLTs, and to educate people about VLT problems and their true face.
They are sometimes called ‘killer machines’ or the ‘crack cocaine of gambling’, and Newfoundland, with the highest number of machines per capita in all of Canada, knows a thing or two about the negative effects of VLT addiction.
Dave Sullivan—Scope writer, actor, educator, and former member of the Dance Party of Newfoundland comedy troupe—is no stranger to the issue either. For five years, he was addicted to the machines. Doing the research and interviews for this piece brought back memories he had long thought buried forever.
Many people have a vision of a VLT player. They see somebody who is disadvantaged, un-educated, and unsuccessful.
That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Problem gamblers are in every IQ and tax bracket. From a lawyer on Duckworth Street, to a housewife on Carpasian Road, addiction doesn’t know status, gender, or genius. It only knows how to grab you.
And I ought to know.
The first time I played a Video Lotto Terminal was at the Shallow Bay Motel, in Cow Head, Newfoundland. It was July 1st, 1997. That summer I was working at the Gros Morne Theatre Festival, it was my first professional gig.
That night, we had just come in from the beach after watching the three or four Canada Day fireworks, with the faint sight of the northern lights dancing around in the background.
I stepped into the bar of the motel and a friend of mine hauled me up to a machine.
“Try this,” he said.
“Shag that by’, I’m going to play pool,” I said. But I hesitated.
Boy I really wish I had played that pool game now.
I elected to drop a dollar into the machine. I maxed the bet, and took out 120 dollars when it was all over. What followed was five years of absolute torture.
Those innocent-looking boxes of monetary hope stashed away at the dirty end of the bar or restaurant aren’t nearly as innocent as people first thought.
The machines first made their way into our lives in 1991, right around the same time as the collapse of the cod fishery, just our luck. The Atlantic Lottery Corporation, co-owned by the provincial governments of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador, began distributing the machines to local bars and pubs without so much as a raised eyebrow. After all, what harm could come from a few video games in a pub?
Nearly twenty years later, VLTs and slot machines have exploded into a $13 billion industry in Canada, and a huge money-maker for the Atlantic provinces. In just the past ten years, our province’s annual revenue received from the Atlantic Lottery Corporation has doubled from $54 million to $108 million. Newfoundland and Labrador also has the distinction of having the most VLTs per capita in Canada.
The Canada Safety Council estimates there are close to 300 suicides in Canada each year by addicted gamblers — higher than any other form of addiction-related suicide.
Looking at the statistics is one thing, and hearing about the experience is another. Local director and producer Barbara Doran has set out to show people exactly how harmful these machines can be to individuals and their families.
“I was absolutely perplexed by it,” she says. “My first thought was that there is something more here than meets the eye. I couldn’t believe that these machines could be that damaging to a person’s life.”
Doran also has some ideas as to why problem gambling, and VLTs, are so prevalant in rural Newfoundland and Labrador.
“Access is a definite factor. The more easily accessible the machines are, the more likely people will play them,” she says. “There was a time when people sat at the bar and would talk, and now the people have left the bar and are up against the back wall, the conversation has stopped.”
“I wanted to show how widespread this problem is,” she says. “To shine the light on it for those who need it. Let people know they’re not alone.”
I spent the rest of that first summer pumping just about every cent I had into those machines, pissing away every cent I made. When the summer ended and I stopped making money, I wound up back at university broke and needing to feed my appetite for the slots.
There were days I remember packing up pretty much everything I owned-CD’s, tapes, movies, school books-and walking all around Corner Brook to try and get somebody to buy the stuff. Most days they did. But, on the days when they didn’t… those days were bad. Those days were spent in darkness in my room. Those were the days that I would call home to my folks, or try and borrow cash from a friend so I could go into a bar and make some real money.
One of the most outspoken opponents to Video Lotto Terminals in Canada is Halifax-based actor John Dunsworth-best-known as Mr. Jim Leahy of Trailer Park Boys.
“Throughout history, man has felt ‘not in control’,” says Dunsworth from his Alberta hotel room, “There’s a certain joy to sitting at a machine and being transported into a kind of Zen state…”
Dunsworth would know, as he is not only an activist, but also a former addict, going so far as to have himself officially withdrawn from Nova Scotia casinos. Residents of the province can ban themselves from casinos, preventing them from being able to set foot in those casinos ever again.
But, he says, this isn’t the only answer, due to the number of VLTs stationed in pubs and taverns all across the country. It’s almost impossible to avoid the temptation, unless you choose to never leave your house again.
The biggest hook of playing VLTs that keeps most addicts coming back is the “big win.” For most addicts they start out playing the machines with no intention of returning to play more. However, something happens to them if they, by some semi-random act of luck, win. This one win has the possibility of hooking that addict for thousands of dollars more.
“The first time I played the machines I won three times in twenty-four hours. I won over a thousand dollars,” he says. “But that one win cost me many, many thousands of dollars after that.”
“The problem with the machines,” he says, “is it gives intermittent reinforcement. It is proven psychologically that this is the hardest kind of reinforcement to break.”
Intermittent reinforcement comes from the theories of influential American psychologist B.F. Skinner. When you are training a dog to sit, for example, first you show the dog what it means to sit, then you use positive reinforcement, in the form of a treat or a big old scratch on the belly, or maybe a big win on the slots, to condition it. After some time, you can switch to intermittent reinforcement, and the dog doesn’t think it’s in control of the action. Once intermittent reinforcement is in place, the dog expects to be given a treat or to have its belly scratched. Sometimes the dog will even get up and repeat the sitting motion in front of you several times because it can sense that they will eventually be rewarded for this action. It’s a powerful system.
This world of possibility is what pumps through the mind of every problem gambler. It’s a far off delusion that sometime soon lady luck is going to turn around and smile at them.
“People who get hooked on these machines, if they win $400 one day, the next day they’re brazen,” Dunsworth says, “and the whole 400 goes.”
“There are people who can win money and walk away,” he says. “But most people end up programmed by the machines.”
I remember cold November mornings at 8am lined up outside of the Plaza Mall in Corner Brook, waiting in the freeze to get in at the machines at some greasy spoon they had up there. Shaking, half from the cold, and half from anticipation. It was a place I chose because the odds of me seeing somebody I knew there were slim to none. I could walk in and out without being seen. This is how I managed to hide my addiction. I would go where nobody would know me.
As a matter of fact I’ve been in every single dive Corner Brook had to offer-and in St. John’s for that matter-at all hours of the day. Not many folks can say they’ve been at the Earl of Water at 10:30am.
I hid my little secret from everyone. Nobody could know.
In terms of the thinking patterns of gamblers, the most dangerous of the bunch can be summed up in two words: the chase.
In Henry Lesieur’s book, The Chase: Career of the Compulsive Gambler, he says people in this stage are no longer just thinking about money.
“[The chase] is about running away from the past and the present as much as it is about chasing a fantasy future that will bring an end to suffering. The next bet will solve the problems, alleviate the pain or right all the wrongs.”
The chase happens when the addict has lost far too much money to just turn around and walk out of the bar. At this point, they have to play the machine in order win back the money they’ve lost.
Things become desperate. Many addicts will enter a bar with their weekly wage in hand and deposit those wages directly into the machine in hopes of doubling or tripling their cheque-or to just win back what they lost from last week’s binge. At this point this behavior isn’t fueled by consistent reinforcement, it’s fueled by desperation.
Here it’s easy for the wheels to fall off completely.
It’s at this stage of gambling that the lying, cheating, and stealing can happen. It’s here where the addict is trapped, having gradually shifted closer to giving more to the machine until all they can think about is how to fix what is broken. For many, the only way to fix it is by gambling more.
“If you’re addicted to machines, you’ll end up stealing. You’ll cash in your RRSPs. You’ll end up mortgaging your house,” says Dunsworth. But he’s also quick to point out the fact that not everybody does this.
“It really does prey on people who have a weakness,” says Dunsworth. “And the Government knows this.”
I remember waking up in the morning from spending hundreds of dollars the night before… hundreds of dollars I simply didn’t have.
I remember lying. Cheating. Stealing. Anything. Just to feed it.
When I was at home I’d tell my folks I’d be going to a friend’s place somewhere, I’d bum some money off of them, tell them I was going to rent a movie or something. In actuality I would take the money and go straight to the bar. Once that was gone, which used to happen relatively quickly, I’d return all embarrassed and say, “I lost that money you gave me,” or I’d search the porch and say, “I don’t know where that could have gone.” I did know though. I knew damn well where it went.
Given all that we now know about problem gambling, the question arises, what is the government doing about this? Have they simply turned a blind eye?
The reason may lie in this simple statistic: in 2005-2006 the government of Newfoundland and Labrador pulled in more than $122 million from VLT machines alone. It’s a staggering number. A number that begs the question be asked again, is the government doing enough to assist people who are devastated by the effects of problem gambling?
John Dunsworth doesn’t think so.
“It’s laughable, it’s less than five per cent of the money they steal from people,” says Dunsworth. “The government relies on the revenue, so they turn a blind eye… They’ve made a choice to capitalize on people’s weaknesses.”
After a study revealed that the residents of Bell Island-population 3,000-pumped more than $1 million into VLTs in 2004, the government couldn’t ignore the problem any longer without facing massive public outcry.
So they changed the way the machines operated in the province. They shortened the number of hours they could be played during the course of a day, and slowed them down by 30 per cent.
The government also reduced the number of machines per establishment, with five machines possible for every liquor license. But some bars have as many as three liquor licenses, meaning up to 15 VLTs.
“It’s not just the collusion between the gambling corporations and the government,” suggests Dunsworth, “it’s the radio stations and newspapers that get the [advertising] revenue. We’re supposed to have strong-whistle blower legislation in Canada, but it’s a joke. It’s an absolute joke.”
When I ask Barbara Doran if she felt the best solution was to eliminate the machines entirely, she responds with six small words:
“Out of sight, out of mind.”
But many groups and organizations established to help assist people affected by problem gambling feel a sense of hopelessness when it comes to eliminating VLTs. It has become a David and Goliath-like battle with non-profit organizations fighting against lotto corporations. Corporations have billions of dollars, and often band together to protect their interests. They aren’t about to allow a small organization toss any stones their way.
Up until December of last year, there was a David in the works here in the province.
A class action suit was filed by St. John’s lawyer Ches Crosbie, who was to represent a large group of VLT players, and argue that VLTs are deceptive devices, and the risks involved with their use are not fully disclosed to the players. Crosbie has argued that VLTs are designated to be inherently deceptive, inherently addictive, and inherently dangerous when used as intended, without any information or warning. And that’s the important part.
“VLTs are unlike any other form of gaming in their concealment of the rules of the game, their manipulation of the player, and in their potential for addiction,” said Crosbie in a press release. The Charter of Rights guarantees the right to life, liberty and security of the person, he said, and “for an agent of the government to expose players to a breach of their Charter rights is a constitutional tort.”
But can a machine be deceptive? All machines are programmed by people. People, as well all know, can be deceptive from time to time-especially with billions of dollars at stake.
The big problem with slot machines, I believe, came when they went from reel based systems (non video) to video based systems. In a reel based system you can see the math in front of you. When dealing with a VLT, all the math is hidden. Anything is possible.
One of the more common complaints of VLT deception involves what’s known as clustering. It’s simply taking a bunch of symbols-like 7’s, Bells, or Jackpot Bars-and making them appear together as they ‘spin’. Clusters usually form just before the spinning stops to give you a near miss. A near-miss entices the player into trying again, because-in the gambler’s mind-they just missed the jackpot.
Misrepresentation of winning is another common ‘cheat’ when discussing deceptive VLT practices. This simply means that the odds printed on the screen are not the actual odds, but merely a fabrication of odds placed there to give the gambler false hope.
“The simplest way to put it is what you see is not what’s going on in the guts of the machine,” insists Crosbie, “what you’re seeing on the screen that is misleading and deceiving the player are false assumptions and conclusions about their actual odds of winning, and what’s being determined in the background is something completely other. So that’s the fundamental deception in VLT’s.”
In December, the class action suit was denied in Surpreme Court. The Atlantic Lottery Corporation convinced the judge that as a Crown agent, it is not subject to the ordinary consumer protection laws in the Trade Practices Act.
None of my friends knew about my addiction. They understood that during the summer I may have played the machines a bit, but they figured once the summer was over I did the same as everyone else, and stopped. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.
I managed to keep it a secret from my family for about three or four years. Then one year in Trinity, my parents had gotten a bank statement delivered to their house. They opened it and saw I had spent a $2,000 scholarship in a day and a half. All the transactions were cash advances from the bar. They thought I was on drugs at first. Then I explained to them that it was like a drug. But it wasn’t the kind of drug they knew about.
What followed that summer was a very hard fall to what most people refer to as rock bottom. If anyone needs to go there, I can easily draw you a map.
The amount of shame I felt because of my addiction to VLTs was tangible. It was as if I was wearing it around me like a cape. Every now and then when I needed to, I yanked it across me and hid in it. All I loved was that feeling. Nothing else was that important to me.
One story told in Doran’s powerful and stirring documentary is that of 31 year old Susan Piercey of Corner Brook. Piercey, a university student, began gambling at 18 years of age.
Described by her family as a sweet, fun-loving young girl, Piercey was always smiling and would be friendly to pretty much anybody she met.
Things quickly turned for Piercey once she fell into the world of problem gambling. First she began to gamble away her student loans. While living in St. John’s she worked three separate jobs and could barely save a dime.
It wasn’t long before she began to defraud banks and family members in order to come up with the money to play.
The sweet girl with the smile disappeared, and what was left behind was an addiction that wouldn’t stop.
Piercey spent years trying to find the help she desperately needed to get herself out, including stints in treatment centres in both Corner Brook and Ontario. But none of it appeared to work.
She wrote a letter to the source of her problems: the machine.
“I sold my soul to play your game, you never judged, ever ready to accept my money… You’ve hurt me more than anything or anyone in my life… You made me reach depths I never thought possible, and with my assistance turned me into a liar, a thief, and a con.”
Susan Piercey was discovered unconscious in her parents’ home on July 23rd, 2003. She had overdosed on prescription drugs, died five days later leaving her parents to question how this could happen to their daughter.
The representative plaintiff in the failed class action case was Keith Piercey, her father.
The last time I played the machines was back in Cow Head, in August of 2003, at the same row of machines, in the same old motel. I had put in $20, maxed the bet, and hit bells. I won so much money it shut the machine off and forced it to reboot. I believe the total amount I removed from the machines that day was about $1,500. But then I took the money, put it in the bank, and never looked back. Two weeks after finishing the theatre festival I hopped on a plane bound for South Korea where video lotto wasn’t readily available to me. (You could say ‘out of sight, out of mind.’)
The time spent in Korea reinforced my decision and gave me the time to think it through without the temptation of the machines being at every corner.
Now, in 2009, I’m fortunate enough to be able to sit back and reflect on this part of my life. My VLT addiction has made me realize how lucky I am, and appreciate the many wonderful relationships which have come because I recovered. If I hadn’t have made that choice that one day, then I wouldn’t have the life I have now.
That choice made it possible for me to meet my beautiful wife, buy a house, and build a life together. That choice gave me my second chance. And for that, I’m truly grateful.
Playing the Machines airs on CBC, Tuesday, March 24th at 10pm ET, 11:30 NL.
If you have a gambling problem and need help, please contact the 24-hour crisis line at 1-888-899-4357 (HELP).