High financial risk at stake in cheap plays
"It's a form of entertainment – something to do," says 24-year-old Tonya Faasse, who admits to playing VLT machines at pubs and bars.
That idea of entertainment seems to be a common motivation for many people who participate in VLT gambling.
But David Hodgins, professor of psychology at the University of Calgary, warns that this lax mentality is dangerous and can lead to a financially debilitating gambling addiction.
Since 1998, a gaming policy licensing review capped the amount of VLT machines in the province, says Jody Korchinski, spokesperson for the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission.
There are currently 6,000 VLTs in circulation across 1,000 locations in bars and lounges in Alberta.
However, Hodgins says this is not enough of a precaution in preventing gambling addictions. Nor does it help impede those who already have a penchant for gambling.
With VLT machines being made available in bars and lounges instead of being limited to casinos, a younger demographic is being exposed to a gambling environment.
"Certainly accessibility is a big issue," Hodgins says. "A lot of people get exposed to VLT games not because they're planning to go gamble, but because they're in a bar. They end up gambling because they are in an environment where gambling is available."
Faasse agrees with Hodgins' observations and says that she rarely intends to play VLT games, but says that alcohol and availability contribute to her spending money on the brightly coloured machines in bars.
Furthermore, Hodgins says that more than just alcohol contributes to VLT plays. Many people become mesmerized while playing VLT games.
"People will describe losing track of time – not realizing just how long they have actually been playing or how much money they have lost," Hodgins says.
"It's certainly very absorbing and is an effective way for people to cope with negative feelings because they can forget about their problems."
But the irony, Hodgins notes, is that sometimes the VLT play is actually contributing to problems, whether the player's problem is already grounded in financial difficulty or by simply just introducing a new factor to already existing issues.
"So they're escaping their problem, but also making the problem worse by amassing more debt."
A POPULAR FORM OF GAMBLING
As with most forms of gambling, the simplest explanation of why people participate in VLT gambling is the desire to win money.
Hodgins says that buying into the possibility of winning is encouraged by the seemingly inexpensive games. It says it only costs 25 cents to play, but Hodgins says that is misleading. Although VLT games have "the perception of being inexpensive because each individual play is not expensive" people can lose a lot of money in a very short period of time if they play a lot of lines.
Also, the isolated nature of the games, and the ease of use can lead to problematic gambling on VLTs.
"It might be intimidating to go play blackjack at a casino because you don't really know the rules and how to play and so forth," Hodgins says. "But VLTs are pretty straight forward — you just put your money in, choose your game and it's not intimidating."
The final factor that contributes to VLTs: instant gratification.
Unlike other forms of gambling, such as a weekly lottery draw where individuals have to wait for the results, Hodgins says VLT feedback happens in seconds. This means that individuals can play numerous games in quick succession
RECOVERY AVAILABLE FOR VLT ADDICTS
"What we know is that people who are problem gamblers spend a disproportionate amount of money," Hodgins says. "So the estimates are anywhere between 30 to 40 per cent of the VLT profits that come from people with gambling problems."
With a significant revenue stream coming from VLT machines, Hodgins says he believes VLT gambling is a "major dilemma for the government."
"What's good is we have easily accessed treatment in the province. There is treatment available through Alberta Health Services."
However, Hodgins says that the best practice is still prevention. Avoiding developing a gambling problem through inhibiting exposure to gambling in the first place is the safest practice for young adults.
"What we do know is that the earlier you start to be involved in gambling, even informal gambling with family and friends, the more likely you are to develop a problem," Hodgins says.
- By CELESTE DE MUELENAERE