Woolies is just one of many gambling companies using spying and other techniques to lure gamblers

Gamblers feel connected to the machine as hospitality keeps them playing for longer. Gary Knight/flicr, CC BY-SA

Woolies is just one of many gambling companies using spying and other techniques to lure gamblers

Woolworths is reported to be instructing staff to ply gamblers with food and drink and to keep dossiers on the private lives. And while Woolworths has been singled out for systematically requiring these kind of practices from their staff, the company is hardly alone in putting profits ahead of gambler’s well-being.

Poker-machine operators have good reason to treat their customers like this. Their primary goal is to take as much money from their customers as possible, and with poker machines, this means easing gamblers “into the zone”.

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“The zone” is the term that frequent poker-machine gamblers often use to describe the altered state they enter into when gambling on pokies. The experience of entering the zone - and even the term itself - has been independently described by gamblers in studies in Australia and the United States.

Gamblers describe it as an out-of-body experience. As one gambler put it:

You aren’t really there, you’re with the machine and that’s all you’re with.

Or in the words of another gambler:

I feel connected to the machine when I play, like it’s an extension of me, as if physically you couldn’t separate me from the machine.

But the zone is also an expensive state to access. Gambling on pokies costs - on average - around A$120 per hour, or up to A$1,200 per hour if machines are played to their maximum capacity.

It’s when their customers are in the zone that poker-machine venues are at their most profitable.

Easing gamblers into ‘the zone’

Poker-machines are specifically engineered to ease people into the zone and to keep them there, according to emerging evidence. But in order for people to enter the zone, people must play the machines, and preferably play uninterrupted. This is where the tactics of venues like Woolworths loom large.

Venues use a wide range of tactics to get gamblers in through the door and in front of machines.

First of all, poker-machine venues are located in convenient locations, near to high traffic transport routes, shopping centres and the like. This facilitates frequent visits, and venues try to decrease the distance from your home to the closest poker-machine venue.

For the same reasons, gambling venues are open very long hours. Operators want poker machines to be available should you need somewhere to go at 3am.

Indeed, poker-machine operators also go to extraordinary lengths to make their venues feel comfortable and welcoming. Operators have known for decades that the venue environment is crucial to facilitate profitable gambling. A cottage industry of research has sprung up in recent years to better help casino managers understand what sort of venues will keep gamblers feeling at ease.

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For example, a 2011 study of pokie venue gamblers in Australia found there were certain gambler-friendly qualities of the venue which could be improved on to attract more gamblers. These included free refreshments; attentive customer service; safety and security; loyalty programs; and comfortable seating.

Casino design manuals go into great detail about how the manipulation of casino atmospheres can encourage people to stay and play. These manuals state that lighting should be steady and even, and should be angled away from gamblers faces.

Smells are said to affect gamblers’ decisions to continue gambling or leave, and so venues regulate them. Special attention is given to keeping out bad odours. In casinos, even architectural decisions such as ceiling height are calibrated to maximise gamblers’ “cognitive satisfaction”.

Ambient music shouldn’t be too loud or too soft, and should be deflected, reverberating off walls rather than directed into gamblers faces. And music coming from the poker machines themselves shouldn’t be too jarring lest it distract the gambler, or attract too much attention to a win.

Protestors from GetUp holds signs and banners against Woolworths’ growing pokies portfolio. David Moir/AAP

All these amount to providing what one study has termed “social accessibility”, the degree to which venues provide safe, friendly and easy places to visit - and to stay. The relationship with venue staff is central to this, as one problem gambler from the same study put it, “[In] all my preferred venues they [the staff] know me quite well”. It is this social accessibility that appears to be being manipulated by unscrupulous operators.

On a grander scale, US casinos use big data to devise tailored marketing strategies which will pull people back in. Recent court findings have shown that US casino giant Caeser’s values its customer database at more than US$1 billion dollars.

While Australian pubs and clubs are not allowed to promote poker machines directly, they are able to cross-promote other events that might serve as vehicles to bring patrons into the venue, and thus facilitate a gambling session.

Venues also offer a place where children are encouraged to come and play. Not only does this facilitate the gambling of their parents and carers, but hearing or seeing adults gamble may serve to normalise the practice for the next generation. In particular, new research has found that marketing, especially of family-friendly events, is influential in shaping children’s and adults’ perceptions of gambling venues and products and thereby increase the likelihood that children will gamble when they grow up.

When good hospitality becomes harmful

All of these measures are designed to make gamblers as comfortable and relaxed in venues as possible. So why is this a problem?

In short, poker machines are highly addictive and cause a great deal of harm. Subtle manipulation of gambling venues are tested and tweaked by operators to maximise the chance that someone will come in, play the poker machines, and keep on playing.

What may look like good hospitality, is in effect a subtle - or in the case of Woolworths not so subtle - attempt to keep people gambling after the point at which they would otherwise have stopped.

The Woolworths revelations demonstrate once again that poker-machine venues can’t be trusted to self-regulate in the best interests of their patrons.

Industry practices such as codes of conduct - and the “responsible gambling” mantra - are simply inadequate when venues have a business model reliant on harmful levels of gambling.