Aussie Judge Tosses Unfair Pokie Claims

In a landmark decision handed down in an Australian federal court last month, Justice Debra Mortimer dismissed a claim that pokies were unfair to players.

Before the decision, casino operators fretted that an adverse decision would endanger gaming in Australia and New Zealand. The case attracted worldwide attention, as reported in The Guardian.

Attorneys for former gambler Shonica Guy argued that concealed features of the pokie Dolphin Treasure violated Australian consumer law. They claimed that the game was designed to “addict” players and was responsible for her gambling problem.  Ms. Guy, for her part, testified that she was attracted to the pokie’s graphics, especially its seahorses and “chesty” symbols.

Attorneys for the plaintiff had sued the Melbourne Crown Casino and Aristocrat Leisure Ltd, the game maker, arguing the machines were designed unfairly. They claimed that players were not advised to an adequate degree about their winning prospects.

Crown is a property of Crown Resorts, the largest listed casino company outside of China, controlled by billionaire James Packer. Aristocrat is a veteran provider of pokies, both land-based and online.

Judge Mortimer found insufficient evidence for their claims. Neither Aristocrat nor the Crown casino, she said, were legally liable. In her February decision, following three weeks of hearing the previous September, she found that the pokie’s design was neither “unconscionable” nor “misleading.”

Crown Casino in Melbourne

While she said ordinary players might find information about the machine’s odds and payouts confusing, she ruled that a reasonable punter would realise the pokie’s randomness and typical returns after playing for a while.

Dolphin Treasure is a colourful classic video launched in 1997. The 5-reel, 20-payline pokie is an undersea adventure slot available in both land-based machines and online casinos.

Guy’s case focused on the fifth reel of Dolphin Treasure, larger than the others and containing more symbols. This design, the plaintiff’s lawyers argued, made it more difficult for players to land on winning symbols. The attorneys claimed the reels were “starved”.

“Reel starving” is an expression that casino industry insiders sometimes use to describe the technique of giving pokie reels a misleading appearance of regularity in symbol distribution. For example, a high-value symbol may come up three times on the first two reels, two times on the third and fourth but only once on the fifth. The symbol is much more likely to land on the left-side reels rather than the fifth. But players might expect otherwise.

Virtual reel mapping is a patented technology to give game designers more control over how symbols show on reels. Australia and New Zealand have outlawed this practice, and others deemed unfair to players. Random Number Generators (RNGs) are regularly audited by regulators to ensure true randomness and thus fairness of online pokies. Kiwi regulators are known to be especially stringent in enforcing equitable and fair gaming practices.

Guy’s attorneys also complained that not enough information was given to players about winning odds.  They alleged that losses were obscured by flashing lights and sound effects.

The Judge would have none of it. Justice Mortimer said that such technical issues belong in the bailiwick of regulators, not the court system.

The casino industry worldwide breathed a sigh of relief at the ruling. Bruce Robertson, chair of the New Zealand pokie trade association GMANZ, said he hoped the ruling would end what he said were misleading claims about the alleged “addictive” quality of pokies. “The Australian ruling was not based on opinion, hearsay or anecdote,” he said, “but on hard evidence presented and scrutinised by legal experts.”

No one denies that there are problem gamblers. But tight regulations such as those in place in New Zealand substantially reduce risks. The Canadian Problem Gambling Index (CPGI) – which has become an international standard for measuring the phenomenon — shows Kiwis with one of the lowest problem gambling rates in the world. According to the New Zealand Ministry of Health, fewer than 1 in 300 adults has a gambling problem.

Not only that. Problem gambling is usually a side effect of more complex problems. It is largely a symptom rather than a cause, according to the Australasian School of Psychologists, which reports that 90% of problem gamblers have other, more severe, mental health issues.

Casinos pro-actively screen players to exclude problem gamblers. They use facial recognition technology and background checks. New Zealand regulations require this. Moreover, Mr. Robertson pointed out, Kiwi players can choose to exclude themselves from exposure to gaming temptations.

CasinoKiwi, like other reputable casinos in New Zealand, encourages responsible gaming. The casino eases access to resources and support organisations which help players. Aristocrat welcomed the court decision, saying it supports “balanced and fact-based harm minimisation initiatives”.

The Aussie ruling found game designers or casino operators did not deviate from the law in the case. The casino industry spokesman expressed satisfaction at the ruling. “The evidence speaks for itself. Most people using gaming machines in New Zealand, do so without suffering harm,” Mr. Robertson said. Kiwis are untroubled by gambling in general and pokies in particular and, he added, “enjoy the recreational value it offers”.

Last Updated March 19, 2018