Gambling by choice or design – what are the odds?

It’s common knowledge that gambling can be addictive. But where is the line between free choice and addictive behaviour? Are any heavy gamblers in full control of their actions? Or are they all ‘sufferers’ of addictive behaviour and at risk of, or experiencing, associated mental health issues? And, who’s to blame for this addictive behaviour – the gamer, the government or the gaming industry?

A recent panel discussion, hosted by MICCN and the Brain and Mental Health Laboratory (BMH), explored whether people can indeed make a fully free decision to gamble that is free from the influence of poker machine design and the gambling environment.

‘Hooked on Gambling: by Choice or by Design?’ was held at the Deakin Edge Auditorium, Federation Square, Melbourne, on the evening of Wednesday 11 October 2017. 774 ABC radio broadcaster, Jon Faine, moderated the discussions with three thought-provoking panellists:

  • Rev Tim Costello AO: spokesperson for Alliance for Gambling Reform and Chief Advocate of World Vision Australia
  • Anna Bardsley: former poker machine gambler sharing her own lived experience
  • Dr Charles Livingstone: Senior Lecturer and Head of the Gambling and Social Determinants Unit (Monash University, Australia)

Central to the debate was the question of how machine design influences gambling behaviour, and the effect it has on the individual.

Mrs Bardsley opened the discussion with a revelation about her own extensive addiction to poker machines, conveying how she barely recognised herself or her behaviour at the time.

“I was a person who had no sense of self-worth anymore. I believed that I was a loser... I had no confidence left... I lost more than money in those places,” Mrs Bardsley said.

Dr Livingstone went on to confirm that, in Australia, people are presented with more gambling opportunities than any other country in the world. He explained how poker machines are designed to put people ‘into the zone’ to continue playing.

Discussions moved onto the need to shift community attitudes to gambling, and how to achieve this, as well as the need to push for governments and the gambling industry to be more accountable for the effects that poker machines have on individuals and the community. There was strong agreement around the ineffectiveness of government health messages that attempt to discourage harmful gambling, or what is misleadingly called ‘responsible gambling’.

“’Gamble responsibly' is as stupid as saying 'use ice responsibly' or 'smoke responsibly',” Rev Costello said.

An initial audience poll revealed that 60% of attendees held the belief that gambling is the result of gaming machine design, rather than personal choice. This number increased to 78% after the discussion, reflecting the need for something to be done by the authorities to help prevent gambling addiction and the problems that come with it.

The evening was hosted by MICCN’s Dr Adrian Carter, and opened with a performance from Three Sides of the Coin, which captured the personal stories of those affected by gambling.

The event was an initiative of the David Winston Turner Endowment Fund, a $5.2 million philanthropic investment supporting research into obsessive-compulsive disorder and addictions, and was part of Victorian Mental Health Week.

A video of the public event is available via BMH Lab's YouTube channel.

For more information on MICCN’s research into gambling and addiction, contact Dr Adrian Carter, 
T: 03 9902 9431, E:

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