(trigger warning: suicide)
David Lowe: I had very little to do with pokies until I got a call from a friend in 2001. The news was shocking. Our mutual friend Matt had taken his own life. Another shock followed – Matt had been a poker machine addict. He didn't seem like the type. But what is the type?
Turns out, there is no type. Anyone can become a problem gambler, and pokies are particularly dangerous, because they're everywhere.
New South Wales has the highest density of pokies in the world. The machines are designed to be addictive. Gamblers who spend enough are given free drinks and food, special attention. In darkened rooms, time becomes meaningless.
Some people are comforted by the idea that the industry is a tax on 'stupidity', but some of the most serious pokie addicts are far from stupid.
My friend Matt
My friend Matt was a talented actor who loved Shakespeare. He lived in a beautiful place by the sea, with a supportive partner and family around him. He had a job, responsibilities, things to look forward to. He understood maths and fractal geometry. He had always been a bit of a risk-taker, but he didn’t seem to fit the stereotype of a pokie addict.
The thing is though, there is no typical profile, there are just factors that raise your risk. Things like winning the first time you gamble, living in a poor socio-economic community, having a family history of problem gamblers, and the big one: having access to poker machines.
Matt didn’t tell any of us, his friends, about his pokie problem, but he did tell his family, and he took steps with them to try to save himself. He wanted to move the whole family to an outback community where there were no pokies. He arranged for his partner to look after their money. He got himself excluded from every venue that would let him in the community where he lived.
Unfortunately, that wasn't enough.
One day when he was alone and feeling low, he found some money that had been hidden for a family holiday and took it to the only venue in town that refused to exclude him. Having lost it all on the pokies, he returned home and took his own life. He left a note with one word: ‘Sorry’.
The ripples from this event have continued to travel outward. Sadly, Matt’s story is far from unique. It's been estimated that for every problem gambler, the lives of seven others are drastically effected.
In spite of all the horror stories, the pokies industry continues to grow in Australia. State governments are the greatest pokie addicts of all. The machines brought in $1.45 billion of NSW tax revenue in 2016/2017, and that figure is rising. Unfortunately the costs to families, and society at large, are far higher, and when pokies have taken the life of someone close to you, the issue acquires a whole new meaning.
Welcome to the Machine short film and beyond
Recently we made a short drama about pokies called Welcome to the Machine. Set slightly in the future, it's the story of Clara, a woman who happens to walk past an AI poker machine, and becomes enmeshed. The film explores the psychological Achilles heel that afflicts so many people who get addicted to pokies – the feeling of winning when you're actually losing.
(trigger warning: video with poker machine addiction as theme)
I'm now developing a long form drama (TV mini-series/streaming web-series) telling the story of Matt's pokies battle. My hope is that people will be touched emotionally, beyond the statistics. This will help change the dominance of pokies in Australia and prevent more tragedies like Matt's.
By David Lowe, Filmmaker