Perth Casino royal commission asks the difference between pokies, EGM’s
The question of how pokie-free Western Australia really is has been raised at the Perth Casino royal commission.
The ABC reports that for decades, the state has resisted attempts to introduce pokies beyond its casino.
It has been a source of pride among pubs and clubs that are free of the flashing lights, trumpeting jackpots and gambling addictions in other states.
“We talk about the pokies and how there has been a bipartisan position over many years from both sides of politics to stand against the scourge of the pokies,” Racing and Gaming Minister Reece Whitby told the WA Parliament in 2018.
“Anyone who has been interstate and gone up the high street in Melbourne or Adelaide and seen the dens or corners of pubs or even the big leagues clubs would know that it is pretty depressing stuff.
“Those things are wreaking social havoc on communities right up and down the east coast.”
But the question has been raised during the Perth Casino royal commission that there really isn’t much difference between poker machines and the electronic gaming machines that function at Crown Perth.
Even harder to determine is whether they are less harmful and addictive than the pokies.
Rules governing gaming machines are strict in WA
Poker machines have been banned in WA since the casino opened in 1985, amid concerns about gambling addiction.
“It may be assumed…that the prohibition of poker machines was prompted by Parliament’s concern that they were harmful or had characteristics that had the potential to cause harm,” counsel assisting the royal commission Patricia Cahill said.
There are plenty of EGMs to play at Crown, with the number growing from 200 in 1985 to 2500 today.
Financial reports show that gamblers spent more than $306 million on Crown Perth’s EGMs in the past year, an increase of almost 50 per cent from the previous year.
Every machine played at Crown must be approved by the casino watchdog, the Gaming and Wagering Commission.
There are strict guidelines that say the games must have no spinning wheel display, have some player interaction, have games that take a minimum of three seconds to play, use symbols that don’t appear on poker machines on other states, give a minimum average 90 per cent return to player and must be started by pushing a button.
Difference difficult to identify
The same laws banning poker machines fail to define what is and is not a poker machine.
This has meant that many past and present GWC members have not found it easy to tell the difference between the two, as shown by their evidence to the royal commission.
“I don’t think the speed of play between the two is any different,” current GWC member Jodie Meadows said.
“The poker machine is where it has the balls dropping down and an electronic gaming machine is more of a visual thing, where it doesn’t create that fast drop-down speed of the ball,” Kevin Harrison said.
“The degree to which there is actually a difference is something that would be an interesting unpicking, I think,” Professor Colleen Hayward said.
Even James Sullivan, the man in charge of Crown Perth’s gaming machines, said both types of games involved “the repetitive action of just hitting a button to play new games over and over again”.
Mr Sullivan found it hard to explain what a poker machine is.
“There is no definition of poker machines,” he told the royal commission.
“That’s simply been my impression having worked within the business over a period of time and what that is intended to mean.”
This widespread uncertainty is understandable.
Expert weighs in on machine differences
There is little difference between the two products, according to gambling researcher Charles Livingstone.
Dr Livingstone said that pokies are just one form of EGM, with their main difference being whether they show a picture of spinning reels or not.
“All they’re doing is taking a random number generator and mapping it onto a different display, so essentially, they’re very similar,” he said.
“They have almost identical characteristics in the sense that they provide people with reinforcement and relatively high speed and allow relatively high stakes to be bet fairly rapidly.”
The royal commission has also been told that over the years, Crown Perth made many requests to the GWC to change the rules around EGMs.
These included increasing the game speed and reducing the return to gamblers, measures which the casino thought could boost their revenue and therefore, the amount of casino tax they paid the WA government.