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Sydney Pub Features

Pokies, Probability and the Skinner Box

A few words on the flashing horrors

The Pokie machine. A tempting, flashing box of circuitry arrayed with lights, pretty pictures and a less obvious weapon in the fight for revenue. Your revenue.

Bill Bryson, in his excellent 'Down Under, quotes an arresting statistic. Australia has around one per cent of the world's population cosseted within its golden shores, yet flashing away within its pubs, clubs and casinos are tenty, yes twenty percent of the world's slot machines. This is an arresting statistic. Yes, Australia is known, and often lampooned, as a gambling nation. Every Anzac Day we head out and play 'two-up', a very low-tech precursor to the Pokie Machine, as a frankly strange way of commemorating the dead of two World Wars. But such a disproportionate number of Pokie machines per head of population speaks not of a casual enjoyment of gambling, but of a serious social problem.

Walk into any busy pokie lounge and the picture is the same. Sit and watch for a while and you'll be able to pick out a few little facts. You'll see a lot of casual pokie users, drifting in, dropping ten or twenty bucks and wandering off again, but you'll also see people fixed to the machines, glassy eyed, often with a strong drink by their side and a cigarette burning away between their twitching fingers, pumping note after note into the boxes in the hope of a quick payoff.

If you've ever studied Psychology, you will probably have encountered the figure of B. F. Skinner, pioneer of the concept of 'conditioning'. Skinner started out with pigeons, which he'd place into a small box equipped with a feeding tray and a button, or feeder bar, which when pressed by the pigeon, would dispense feed into the tray below, thus rewarding the button-pushing, in SKinners words, 'conditioning' the pigeon into a mode of behaviour. Eventually Skinner found that the pigeons would still push the bar even when food was dispensed on a random basis, or even when no food was dispensed.

Worryingly, the parallels are obvious between Skinner's equipment and the average pokie room. Gamblers, usually solitary, continue to pump cash into the machines even when the return is clearly not worth the investment. Even more worrying is that, while the pigeons in Skinner's experiments were getting a return for small investment in effort, gamblers are investing real cash for a return of effectively less cash. The rules of economics, like the rules of thermodynamics, dictate that you cannot get out more than you put in. It's as if our pigeons could only push the bar if they invested a feed pellet, in the hope of getting, say, two pellets back. I'm not sure if this experiment was, or even could be, carried out, but I think we can all predict what would happen.

But what can be done about this obvious issue? Well, the government and regulators are making low-key attempts to arrest the most serious problem gamblers, with voluntary exclusions schemes and programmes such as G-Line, but the real problem is more of a catch-22  for the regulators.

The government makes a lot of money from pokies. Cutting down on them would certainly result in a loss of revenue, a serious loss of revenue if the figures are to be believed. Publicans and Clubs are likewise in a similar bind, since a cut of the vast revenues gleaned from pokies is ploughed back into the establishments hosting them. No, this is a Social problem, and only social solutions will work. The key thing in discouraging the proliferation of pokie machines is to vote with your feet. If you too think that pokies are a serious issue, there are some things you can do. First and foremost, you can choose to drink at Pokie-Free pubs. Secondly you can encourage your friends to do the same. If you're a publican, you can take steps to wean your establishment off the revenue provided by these Skinner boxes. A number of Sydney pubs have already taken this step, and we have no hesitation in recommending them. The Fringe Bar in Paddington. The Palisade in the Rocks. The Annandale is slowly squirming itself free. There are others - We now have a 'pokie free'icon on this site. If your pub is pokie free and not listed as such on this site, let us know through the 'contact us' link. Above all else, think about it next time you pass by a pokie room.



I don't have a drinking problem... 'cept when I can't get a drink : Tom Waits - more quotes...
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