Chasing the Dragon

by | Mar 31, 2020

I had a chat recently with a very smart academic and she asked me what it was that made the products I gambled on so addictive. Be her own admission, she said that without testing the products herself, which of course I strongly advised against doing, she couldn’t ever really understand this. Those of us that have been in the thick and choking haze of the disordered gambling curse, often ask themselves, ‘Why are we doing this?’ For me, it was a question I simply couldn’t answer at the time and even now I struggle to fathom why I would continue in a cycle of such of destructiveness. One thing which is pretty clear, is that the ‘winning’ only tells a small part of the story, because we never did win. Granted, there were a handful of times where I managed to offset losses and make a withdrawal but it wasn’t long before the ‘winnings’ were re-invested again. So, three years on, some things begin to make sense which are now so glaringly obvious as to why my behaviour was influenced by the deliberately addictive nature of the products I was gambling on.

For this particular subject, I will focus on fruit machines or Electronic Gaming Machine (EGMs). My gateway to gambling began through playing fruit machines in the seafront arcades of my hometown in Weymouth, Dorset at a young age. This trend continued into adulthood with my frequent visits to the local pub with friends. Still to this day, I can recall certain fruit machines that seemingly brought to me an element of enjoyment. This in part was actually true but also, when I look back and remember spending my meagre budget within the first hour of being in the pub on these machines, and then relying on my friends to buy me beers for the rest of the evening, I can assure you that feelings of stupidness, anxiety and depression haunted me all evening. So what was it then that made me perceive that I was going to enjoy playing them, aside from dreaming of the ‘mega’ £25 jackpot which was the cap at the time?

Well for me, my perception of enjoyment came from what I describe as ‘feature-chasing’. The best example I can give for this, in the context of being an 18 year old in my local pub, was one particular fruit machine that I not only adored, but I despised at the same time. This fruit machine would have a staircase of numbers to enter the first strand of the feature. The feature is the element of the game that allows you to accumulate winnings, often by spinning a dice or going higher or lower on a 1-12 spin and then navigating a board of squares. Within the board there would be question mark symbols and also a ‘lose’ square. Normally if hit a question mark you’d lose but sometimes you’d get a bonus from it too, this in itself gave a shot of dopamine. You then normally had an option of collecting your winnings at any time or continue to see if you could accumulate better wins or side features. This particular machine had an ‘invincibility mode’ which meant that if the number staircase lit up red, you’d be guaranteed the jackpot. It meant that you could play the feature knowing that whatever question mark you would land on, would be favourable until you eventually got the jackpot. But it didn’t even end there because you’d then get a chance of getting a double jackpot. So whilst the invincible mode made you feel amazing, it was actually the anticipation of hitting the double jackpot that gave me the real buzz. So in time, winning the jackpot itself wasn’t enough, it was a disappointment, it was the double jackpot that would give me the buzz. Of course, that was a rare event and looking back, when I used to get a jackpot in the early days of my gambling, I’d never go back and play the machine because logic tells you that it needs to refill again before paying another jackpot. But for me, I used to carry on playing, hoping that another jackpot would come along soon. Very occasionally, it would and essentially I got my double jackpot. Most of the time, as per logic, the money got eaten back into the machine in record time and my depression was huge, knowing that again, I had to rely on handouts or a bar tab to get me through the evening and week ahead.

Fast forward 15 years to now playing an EGM/fruit machine online, where now it’s not a twenty pound budget I’m playing with, it’s hundreds and thousands. I begin playing the online slot at £2 a spin, which to put it into perspective, is a lot when you’re clicking the spin button every second but a hundred pounds may last you twenty minutes. What was my goal? To get the all singing and dancing mega feature that could unlock big wins. When I was spinning away at £2 a spin and I wouldn’t get the feature (which comes around when it wants to) after say, investing £200, my logic said that the feature must be due to land any time now. So then I would up the stakes to £5 because when the feature does land, the increased stake makes the winnings greater. Then the feature may come in but could be a disappointment and give me a meagre win which barely covered half of my investment thus far. I’d maybe go back down £2 a spin for a while and then increase the stake to £10, then £20 and sometimes much more (£90 a spin was my peak). Yes, when the feature did land, the wins became bigger. The wins would often be a mystery and you’d be looking at the cash counter going up with a grand message which started by saying, ‘BIG WIN, then next, ‘MEGA WIN’, then, ‘INCREDIBLE WIN’ (the words may be different). These were the moments that you waited for, the moments that only came by very infrequently.

It’s now pretty easy for me to see why my stakes increased, why I spent hours upon hours on these machines and deposited more and more, faster and faster. Feature-chasing was designed, no doubt, by top psychologists, the identify of whom will probably always remain a mystery, with the sole intention of making people like me gamble more and gamble in a disordered and addictive manner. I do recognise that people can play these machines and not suffer what I went through. They are the lucky ones, whether they get the feature with their controlled budget or not.

So for all ex/disordered gamblers out there, have a think about this and how the products you were addicted to played their part in making your addiction worse. Whether it was in-play sport betting, poker, live casino games, scratch cards or whatever. Each product has been designed to make you want to keep playing. Scratch cards for example are an obvious one, the ‘heart-stopping’ moment of revealing two huge prizes, yet never matching the third. We ourselves need to dissect what happened to us because no matter whether those that are sitting around the political table to decide on how best to protect future disordered gamblers have degrees from Oxford or not is irrelevant, only us, Experts by Experience, can truly tell it how it is.

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