‘I would have had my own house by now’: the devastating effects of a life in thrall to the pokies

Aaron Perkins-Kemp-Berger spent nearly 50 years gambling before he found a way out. Advocates say it’s time to make the problem a public health issue rather than blaming individuals

For four months last year, merely speaking about gambling made Aaron Perkins-Kemp-Berger dry retch.

The 56-year-old had spent most of his life betting, starting out in his home town of Alice Springs, playing “pocket-money games” of cards with other kids, putting down 20c and 50c coins.

As he got older, he joined the “adult’s table”, buying in with bets of $20 to $50. He would also sneak into the casino to play, convincing the security guards he was older than he was. There were no pokies then – he didn’t discover those until he moved to Adelaide in 1984 for work.

“So guess where all my pay went,” Perkins-Kemp-Berger says.

“I didn’t see anything wrong in it. I just did it. It was like having breakfast, lunch or tea – it was a done thing. It fed my endorphins, my need.”

He was working in hostels, where food and accommodation were provided. The lack of expenses meant he spent most of his salary on slot machines. Later, he rented his own flat, but “even then, I still made sure I had more money for pokies”.

“I didn’t live well, but my pokies habit lived well,” he says. “If you asked me to tally what I lost? I would have had my own house by now.”

Perkins-Kemp-Berger, an Arrernte man, says gambling was brought into his community through colonisation, but “it became part of our culture”.

“Besides the language and the stories, you learnt how to gamble.”

Designed to be addictive

For nearly 50 years, Perkins-Kemp-Berger was one of the estimated 1.3 million people in Australia who experience gambling harm. The consequences can include debt and other financial repercussions, problems with time management, relationship breakdowns, physical or psychological health issues, serious legal tangles and more.

Aaron Perkins-Kemp-Berger seated at a table
‘I was in a no-win situation, literally,’ says Aaron Perkins-Kemp-Berger. Photograph: Stuart Walmsley/The Guardian

They can lose extraordinary amounts of money very quickly. Recent estimates put Australians’ cumulative losses to legal forms of gambling at about $25bn a year. Last year, non-casino poker machines alone accounted for $11.4bn. Australians spend more on gambling than on any other activity considered addictive, and have the highest per-capita losses of anywhere in the world.

Poker machines are particularly pernicious because they are designed to be addictive, says Prof Dan Lubman, executive clinical director at the addiction treatment and research centre Turning Point and professor of addiction studies at Monash University.

“They have lots of features, based on psychology and neuroscience, that are designed in the machines to keep you there, to give you the sense that you’re in control, and that you’re about to win. And they’re not regulated in a way that protects the consumer,” Lubman says.

It’s something Perkins-Kemp-Berger knows well. The small wins, he says, made him more determined to play – which resulted in more losses. “I was in a no-win situation, literally.”

His first reckoning with the idea that gambling might be bad for him came one day when he found himself turning the house upside down in search of loose change – not for pokies, but for essentials.

“I found the money, but I had to look. And this happened in private, but the humiliation, the degradation and shame of trying to scrounge money – I looked in the couch, the cushions, on the floors, under the bed, in the laundry. It was humiliating. And that was when I put a limit on it.”

The facade of the New Albury hotel
‘No matter where you went, there were pokies surrounding you,’ says Aaron Perkins-Kemp-Berger. Photograph: Stuart Walmsley/The Guardian

His self-imposed limit meant that instead of splurging three times a week, he gambled small amounts, every day. It still wasn’t helping. He decided to move back to Alice Springs.

“Unfortunately by that time the casino at Alice Spings had become just one big poker machine. You couldn’t find blackjack, roulette, two-up – the old casino games – it was just pokies. No matter where you went, there were pokies surrounding you.”

Lubman says it’s “almost impossible” to escape from gambling. Average losses are increasing year by year, which he puts down to the availability and saturation marketing of gambling products, all contributing to “the normalisation of gambling in our society”.

“There’s dissonance between the harm it’s actually causing in the community and the revenue it generates for particular community organisations or even governments – they are essentially addicted to that revenue,” Lubman says. “And it’s very hard then to have an honest conversation around whether this is actually healthy.”

Advocacy groups such as the Alliance for Gambling Reform want to change the way gambling is discussed: they want it to be framed as a public health issue rather than a matter of individual responsibility. Studies have shown that the “responsible gambling” framework that dominates the issue in Australia, right up to government policy level, is largely ineffective in minimising gambling harm.

And people want greater regulation: multiple studies have found overwhelming public support for improved regulatory oversight, including one in 2018 that showed 81.4% of NSW residents surveyed supported tougher laws.

Lubman says the lack of regulation wouldn’t be accepted in any other industry.

“We know that gambling is an inherently dangerous activity that creates enormous harm. We know that the machines themselves are designed to addict, yet we don’t put in those public health messages that we do for every other activity that we know is inherently risky. Instead, we blame the individual – we say it’s their fault for not being more responsible, when really the responsibility lies with the industry.”

‘What have I done to myself?’

It was a play that finally convinced Perkins-Kemp-Berger to give up gambling. He was asked to take part in a production about gambling harm in Wodonga, where he now lives.

The play, Press Press-ure, was devised from his own experiences and poked fun at the culture of pokies players, constantly compelled to press those buttons. Suddenly, he saw himself from the outside.

Aaron Perkins-Kemp-Berger framed against an overcast cloudy sky.
‘I might have been ashamed before, but I’m not now.’ Photograph: Stuart Walmsley/The Guardian

“At the time I was doing it, I didn’t see it as a harm. But as I was doing this play I thought, oh my god, what have I done to myself?”

Quitting had a physical effect on him – it took months before he was able to stop dry-retching when the topic of pokies came up in conversation, or was able to walk into a venue containing slot machines without panicking.

Wendy Sandeman, a counsellor at Care Financial Counselling who has specialised in gambling for six years, has seen the harm it can do at close quarters.

“People usually contact financial counselling when they’re in a crisis,” Sandeman says. Many people do not initially acknowledge or accept their gambling is causing harm, according to her.

“Shame and stigma is a huge hurdle for people addressing the issue and in seeking help. So I tell my clients that it’s not their responsibility alone, because gambling harm is everyone’s responsibility, including the industry, government and the community.

“For some people, that might be the first time anyone’s having that conversation with them.”

Perkins-Kemp-Berger says he has gone beyond that hurdle. “I might have been ashamed before, but I’m not now,” he says.

“I’m ready to spread the word. If I’ve got to face consequences for that, well, is it fair for them to make addicts of us? Bring it on.”

• In Australia, Gambling Help Online is available on 1800 858 858 and through live chat. The National Debt Helpline is at 1800 007 007. The crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14.

Do you have a story? Stephanie.convery@theguardian.com

Contributor

Stephanie Convery

The GuardianTramp

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