‘Designed to get us hooked’: Pokies case kicks off

n Baptist minister Tim Costello holds a Door stop in support for Shonica Guy and Jennifer Kanis, Maurice Blackburn’s head of social justice, outside the Federal courts in Melbourne, Tuesday September 12, 2017. Ms Guy and Maurice Blackburn are launching legal action against Crown casino and the makers of the Dolphin Treasure machine, alleging the game is rigged. (AAP Image/Joe Castro) NO ARCHIVINGAn unprecedented lawsuit likened to a “David and Goliath” battle has begun, with a former gambler taking on ‘s powerful pokies industry over claims its products are designed to addict users.
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James Packer’s Crown Resorts, owner of Melbourne’s Southbank casino, and the ASX-listed slots manufacturer Aristocrat Leisure will, for the next three weeks, be locked in a landmark Federal Court trial defending claims that the prominent Dolphin Treasure poker machine is misleading, deceptive and in breach of consumer law.

The case was launched by Shonica Guy, a former pokies addict, represented pro-bono by law firm Maurice Blackburn. Ms Guy on Tuesday morning said she lost 14 years of her life on the pokies, and wanted to stop this happening to other problem-gamblers.

“For too long now, we have been told we are the only ones to blame for pokies addiction,” she told reporters on Tuesday.

“I want this case to show the machines are misleading … and designed to get us hooked.”

The lawsuit alleges the Dolphin Treasure machine, of which Crown Melbourne has 38 on its gaming floor, is designed to mislead gamblers about their chances of winning, partly through an uneven spread of symbols across its five spinning reels.

Reverend Tim Costello, a prominent anti-pokies campaigner with the Alliance for Gambling Reform, said Crown, Aristocrat and the wider pokies industry was the “most powerful industry in “, whose influence was equivalent to that of the American gun lobby.

“They are the equivalent of the National Rifle Association. That’s why we have the greatest number of problem gamblers bar no country in the world … because of the power of this industry.”

Ms Guy’s decision to take on Crown and Aristocrat, he said, was “truly a David and Goliath story”.

“But I know the Bible, and I know how that story ended,” she told reporters outside court. “The little guy, David, wins.”

Former federal court judge Ron Merkel QC, for Ms Guy, told the court that Dolphin Treasure disguised overall losses as wins, and said gamblers were not made aware of a number of allegedly deceptive features of the machine’s design

Among these is the fact the first four reels have 30 symbols while the fifth and final reel to stop spinning has 44 symbols, making it harder to win on the last reel and encouraging the perception that gamblers have had “near misses” when they lose.

Another allegation is that Dolphin Treasure’s advertised return rate of 87.8 per cent gives the impression that a player will retain 87.8 per cent of the money they bet while risk losing 12.2 per cent, when, in reality, that figure is calculated over the lifetime of a machine and includes jackpots that occasional players rarely win.

Crown Resorts and Aristocrat deny the allegations and will vigorously defend the lawsuit. Industry sources said both defendants were treating the case with the “seriousness it deserves’, but believe they have walked within the boundaries of the law.

The Gaming Technologies Association – the group representing poker machine manufacturers – said the industry firmly stood by the integrity of its products, “which are heavily regulated and comply with strict standards”.

“Those national standards include consumer protection measures, such as no false information, no misleading information, adequate information for players to make informed decisions,” association chief executive Ross Ferrar said. “Those go above and beyond consumer protection legislation.”

When asked whether he believed the design of poker machines contributed to addiction, Mr Ferrar said help was available to gamblers who had a problem, and urged them to “get help”.

Neil Young QC, for Crown Resorts, said the casino operator was “entirely reliant” on the statutory approvals of the Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation.

He said the language used in Dolphin Treasure, including the advice on the theoretical return to players, was based wholly on state regulation.

Maurice Blackburn lawyer Jennifer Kanis said the unprecedented lawsuit was not seeking damages from Crown and Aristocrat, but rather, major design changes to make their poker machines “fairer”.

The case will call other former gambling addicts to testify, as well as addiction psychologists and mathematicians.

“Through this action we hope to make people aware of what is really going on in the design of poker machines and importantly to see a better standard applied to the future design of machines,” she said.

“It is our view that this case will have ramifications across the industry.”

Mr Costello said anti-pokies campaigners had given up on the hope that state governments will act on serious pokies reform.

“They take too much in donations from the industry,and they get far too much in revenue,” he said. “They are really Dracula in charge of the blood bank.”

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