VLTs could be reined in without banning them, experts say
By King’s Investigative Workshop
The choice over VLTs in Nova Scotia has often been portrayed as one between two polarized positions. One says the machines should be banned altogether because of their disastrous impact on so many people’s lives. The other—the government’s view—is that banning the machines would simply drive them underground or divert problem gamblers to online sites. Prohibition didn’t work with alcohol, Finance Minister Graham Steele argues, and he says it wouldn’t work with VLTs.
But is there a middle ground, one that would still allow for legal gambling machines while preventing the profound personal harm that comes from the addictions? Some think so.
Dr. Kerry Chambers, a recognized expert in gambling from Dalhousie University, is urging the province to look around the world to other jurisdictions and borrow strategies. He points to Scandinavia for a possible solution.
“In Norway you have to have (a) card. You have to register to get the card and it’s mandatory to use the card; you can’t play without it,” he says. “Not only that, but you can only play for an hour and then it stops for 10 minutes. You can take it to any machine in Norway and it’s not going to let you back on that machine for 10 minutes.”
Norway’s card system also limits players’ losses to the equivalent of a few hundred dollars a month.
Nova Scotia has actually been working on its own card system since the middle of the last decade, developed by a Sydney company called Techlink Entertainment. It ran a trial in the Windsor and Mount Uniacke areas a few years ago, and more recently, a full test of the system in the Sydney area. A full rollout is planned this year.
The My Play card system allows players to track their losses, set limits for their play or even exclude themselves from play. But at the request of the government, players won’t have to do any of this. In fact, as the system has been conceived by the Nova Scotia Gaming Corporation, all that would be required would be a swipe to log onto a VLT. After that, nothing would stop the player losing everything.
The gaming corporation says it is a person’s choice to play a VLT, and it would be equally a choice to use the features.
Make it mandatory
Nova Scotia’s Addiction Services has a different view. “We feel that that card should be mandatory, meaning that every person playing a video lottery terminal should have a card and then we would like the features to be mandatory, meaning everyone’s required to set a limit and everybody’s required to say how much time they are going to be on and that kind of stuff” says Carolyn Davison, director of addiction services for the province.
She may not get her way, however. In fact, the Dexter government is musing about rolling back the card system even more, suggesting even requiring it even to log on could discourage casual players, while problem gamblers would find a a way around it.
Nova Scotia Gaming Corporation acknowledges the system wasn’t designed to help addicts, although the Nova Scotia Gaming Foundation is sponsoring a study to see if it would have any benefits in this regard.
But if Nova Scotia did want to impose mandatory loss limits, it could be done with the current technology, says John Xidos, Techlink president.
“The way our system works it could be voluntary it could be mandatory it could be government controlled; it’s really up to the jurisdiction that it’s in.”
Xidos says it is also possible to prevent the kind of abuse by problem gamblers that occurred during the original trial. At that time, problem gamblers indeed started to look for ways to get around the cards, and players shared their cards in order to use the VLTs. According to a consultant who reviewed the trial, one card was used 175 times in a single week.
Xidos says the answer is a fingertip scan, which can be part of his system.
“The government didn’t want to do it in this application, (but) we also have a biometric thing that you could stick your finger on the VLT and it would know exactly who you are” Xidos said.
Xidos says a fingertip scan could be completely anonymous, with the scan not linked to anyone’s personal information, just used by the machine to limit play.
However it is implemented, Xidos said he expects mandatory loss limits in Nova Scotia within a few years,although he cautions that Norway’s system resulted in plumetting revenues. He says governments are under increasing pressure as a result of lawsuits alleging they have failed to protect people from VLTs.
There are other approaches that could also be used to reign in VLTs without eliminating them. One would be to limit the amount that can be bet, Chambers said, as is done in some European countries. If the bet, and prizes, are small, it isn’t possible to lose everything.
Another potential solution, as suggested by some interviewed for this investigation, is to limit VLTs to formal gambling venues. Ontario and B.C. have slot machines, nearly identical to VLTs, but they are in restricted locations. In B.C. they are located in casinos, at community gaming centres and at race tracks. Ontario limits them to casinos and race tracks.
That wouldn’t eliminate VLTs’ addictive potential, but it would make them less accessible.
Xidos, whose company also manufactures and sells VLTs, says it is also possible to design games that limit how much people lose. “ I can give you sustainability if I know the kind of player you are. I can sit you on a machine for an hour for $20; if you’re betting two dollars every time I can give you a buck sixty back every time you bet and then really you’re only betting forty cents every time you play and I can stretch that dollar our and I can give you free wins here and there…I have the ability in my math to be able to do that and if we can do that then I think this just becomes another form of entertainment no different than going to a movie.”