Growing up today is something I’ve grown to really not envy. I personally struggle with the way gambling in the UK has become such an accepted part of British Culture. It’s practically become integrated as a step of growing up, even a right of passage.
I hold a vivid early memory which draws surprise to many young people today—it used to be socially acceptable to reward people for smoking. Every time I visited my Grandma as a child, she used to present me with a stack of tokens, each worth twenty points that she had collected from each pack of cigarettes smoked. These tokens would to add up fast over the course of a year, and once I had collected enough, I used to visit the catalogue shop in the town centre to get a ‘gift’ in exchange—a jackpot win you could say. Flicking through the selection on offer, I had endless choices from top-end walkmans to tobacco company branded gifts.
Back then, I never once stopped to think that these gifts I got excited about picking were a direct result of my Grandma damaging her health by being addicted to cigarettes.
Reflecting on this memory, it usually leads to a heavy feeling of guilt attached after battling the consequences of addiction myself and often seeing so many of these marketing ploys used on a whole new scale today. It feels, on many levels, they use the same principles, the biggest addicts are the biggest losers, yet are made to feel like winners—the VIPs who are encouraged to keep coming back. I can only hope the next generation will look back on gambling today in the same way. I strongly feel gambling is the addiction we misunderstand during the current times. The socially acceptable ‘pastime’ allowed to advertise, normalize, and encourage people to spend more than they can reasonably afford.
Currently, over 14% of 11-16-year-olds in the UK—that equates to around 450,000 individual children—have spent their own money on gambling within the last week alone. This is one of many alarming statistics reported during 2019 by the Gambling Commission.
If each of these 450,000 children gambled a low amount, as little as £5 each (the amount I used to get for spends as a kid), that is a weekly gross of £2,250,000. The actual average amount reported being spent is £16. Which totals £7,200,000.
When we talk about kids and gambling, the way most of these children are feeding the beast isn’t down at a race track or inside bookies, it’s right in front of us via games and apps on their phones. Particularly, there have been many reports highlighting that Loot Boxes within games have grown at an astonishing rate. These ‘virtual’ boxes are where a person pays a fixed amount to get to pick a random in-game item, the hook is that they have a ‘jackpot’ item, the one which every player feels they absolutely need. This whole process is actually causing the same reaction to a player’s mind as placing a bet. The same addictive traits, the same moments of regret, the same chasing of the ‘jackpot’. This is all within computer games. Didn’t these used to all be about fun and completing the next level?
In comparison to the 14% of children gambling, only 13% had consumed alcohol in the past week, an even lower 4% who had smoked cigarettes and a shrinking 2% who had taken illegal drugs.
If you look within any mobile phone app store and type in ‘casino’, ‘slots’, or similar, you will be presented with thousands of ‘games’, all approved for children to play. The games on offer are actually casino gambling games, with a catch. They give you large sums of virtual currency to play. When I say large, I mean offers of 1,000,000,000 free chips if you download and sign up. The problem here is the ‘gameplay’. It causes exactly the same reaction as gambling real money. The games make huge profit margins as they never pay out any real prizes, just more virtual money. They allow you to continue to buy more ‘virtual’ money to help keep you coming back.
I hold my hand up, I have spent a lot of money on games like this, and all my memories of these apps are exactly the same as being at a real gambling game, except my stakes were set higher and the adrenaline of huge multi-million ‘pound’ wins were amplified, I simple ended up craving this more from my real betting.
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The UK is a leader in the way we encourage gambling for its entertainment ‘value’ as being a part of growing up. I hold memories from being as young six and the excitement of the yearly grand national horse race. Each year used to be a similar event, my Mum used to go to the shop and buy two copies of the newspaper, each had a special pull out guide to the horses. I used to get really excited to look to see the long list of runners. Each horse was surrounded by stats, which I still can’t say I understand despite being a ‘professional’ addict. Scanning through the names and looking at the colour of each jockey’s top and helmet, the quirkier the name of the horse was how I used pick my horse to win. This was the way an innocent me thought I would be onto a winner. The excitement in the living room used to build as the day went on, my Mum used to make a little finger buffet for us all to nibble at as we watched each race.
It was time, the big race was getting ready to go. The moment the horses began to run, I can still relive the emotions it stimulated, the confusion at the start when there were more horses than I could make sense of where ‘mine’ was, emotions quickly moving on to the excitement as I spotted the helmet and heard the commentator yell the name out, to the fast disappointment as the horse fell back into the crowded pack. All the excitement that had built over the day quickly squashed, the moment the winning horse crossed the line. I would begin to feel like I had made a daft choice when the horse I could have picked won. Even elements of anger would to build within, directed at anyone else who had managed to pick a horse that placed, their few pounds in return for having a better eye at picking a name than me.
It never stopped at being a single yearly experience for me. I can still describe the excitement that used to build with each of the visits to an arcade. It was a family tradition, we used to go on day trips out to seaside destinations and on caravan holidays. Each place we visited always seemed to have at least one ‘family amusement arcade’. My sister and I would each be given our money at the start of the trip and told a similar message and warning to not spend it too quick. The words never stuck. The moment we stepped in the door to the mecca of sounds, lights, and what looked like sheer enjoyment to nearly every child but me. I seemed to be able to home in on my arcade favourites, I would see the row of 5p slots stand out, a fully legal source of fun for children. Imitation grown-up slot machines with a limit of £5 jackpot, my childhood fixed-odds betting terminals you could say. I would soon have spent my entire £10 spends chasing a £5 jackpot, watching the wheels spin and nearly always landing one symbol away from the jackpot.
It seems to surprise many when I explain that in the UK, we have a fully legal type of gambling which is by design hidden within ‘games’ for arcades which are prominently targeted toward children to play. These games fall under a machine type classed as CAT D. By the Gambling Commission’s own description “Category D machines can be located in casinos, betting shops, tracks with pool betting, bingo premises, adult gaming centres, members’ clubs, miners’ welfare clubs or commercial clubs, FECs, pubs, travelling fairs, and unlicensed (with permit) family entertainment centres.” It’s that last broad description of an arcade that still frustrates me. Unlicensed, family, entertainment. Which to me reads as a great opportunity to normalise gambling before you are even eighteen.
I really feel part of my big issue with the current way children are brought into gambling is by normalisation. As children, we are all encouraged to see gambling as a way to have fun. Encouraged to take ‘risks’ and develop the belief that it is nothing but a good experience to lose all of their spends in exchange for a token gift. You can still walk into any ‘family amusement arcade’ and expect to see an endless selection of the latest tech racing games or familiar gaming characters flashing on screens to bring entertainment for the family. In reality, it’s completely different. Games are made to mimic the gambling effects they are going to be encouraged to desire on their eighteenth birthday.
I could list many examples of this type of game, but I will describe three, and I ‘bet’ you will struggle to understand how they are any different.
First, the roulette impersonator. This game consists of a person putting money in and then being presented with a flashing button, a spinning wheel—which consists of random numbers between 1 and 500, and a single flashing section labelled “jackpot”. The aim of the game is hit the button to release a bouncing ball, where the ball stops, you get that value in tokens. Simple as that, no skill needed. Just an opportunity to trigger the near win experience and to encourage the child’s desire to need to keep ‘playing’ to get enough tokens to claim a prize.
The second one I will be honest, I have a great issue with, it’s a double experience, the child plays a slot machine which doesn’t pay out any cash prizes, just tokens again. The unique part is alongside, above the slot machine wheels, is a table set to look like a horse racetrack, every spin and win makes your horse move toward the end. Six children line up, each spinning their slot wheelers and all moving their horse. To add on the second gamble, the first horse to the finish line wins, you guessed it, more tokens. Somehow, this is justified as entertainment, no skill, just monotonous button pressing. The same feelings and near wins that have taken away most of my twenties, left me in debt, and in a position of rebuilding my life. The only difference is, these games are made purely for children’s entertainment.
The last game is the well-known TV show Deal or no Deal—kids version. The child places a bet on their box then play through the game, picking three boxes a round and being presented with a choice each time—deal or no deal. Rather than money, they gamble on how many tokens they want to win, right through to the very end where they are given the choice of a swap or no swap. Rarely does anyone ever pick the box with the jackpot value of tokens, it’s usually a low blue number.
Where is the fun for any child in playing a game of nothing but risk and chance? Where is the skill, the entertainment, or a single moment to make the player feel like they are having fun?
I understand for those who may not have felt the grip of a gambling addiction, most of the games look like they are fun and there to bring excitement layered memories. But we need to remember that gambling is fed by a sense of uncertainty and chance that players may be able to win an item or sum of money. Gambling needs this uncertainty to breathe. It relies on our natural processes and the way our brains work.
Dopamine is the chemical reaction within the brain for any type of activity we see as enjoyable. Food, sex, drugs etc. all thrive when they are being led by the anticipation of what is to come. Each time a bet is placed, we remember the feelings that are to come and crave that sensation more and more. The peak is often the moment you nearly win, that moment you dream for a split second of what you will do with the money or prize. This speeding thought, even when followed by a sudden crash when you lose, leaves you feeling more of a rush than the moment you do win. Gambling knows this, it is designed to push these moments. It needs to find a way to keep you coming back.
Studies have shown that the dopamine released and mental stimulation during gambling are very similar to drug abuse. Repeat exposure to gambling and uncertainty, just like drugs, produce lasting changes to our brains. This is why growing up needs to be made of memories of fun and enjoyment, not being misled by the risk, uncertainty, and needs gambling causes.
Even in children’s games, the house always wins. They can add as many lights, as many distractions and design features to make it seem like nothing but fun, but there is no skill required. They are there with a single purpose, to ensure the next generation is ready on their eighteenth birthday to step up a league to the bigger, more addictive gambling that awaits.
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During school life, part of education is always focused around Drugs and Alcohol to teach the dangers which addiction can cause and to give a universally accepted understanding that these substances are physically and mentally addictive. I have no memories of Gambling even being mentioned on any syllabus. The only time it was referenced was when the teacher encouraged the first person to complete a task within a set time, via a bet that they would get a prize in return.
It’s becoming more understood and accepted that behaviour type addictions like gambling are just as addictive in their nature as being addicted to substances. The difference to me, and I fear this is the same with many others, especially when growing up, is that gambling is legal. We have bookies in clusters along most high streets, we have TV advert breaks filled with celebrity-endorsed gambling promotions. When was the last time you saw your local dealers standing around in groups dotted along a high street, or getting their logo on your favourite football players top?
Behavioural addictions are being noticed in many aspects of life today with technology being at the forefront of most people’s lives. This is a real turning point for the way we think about growing up, and our children. We give them an endless supply of games, and apps and teach them to replace many tasks we used to complete ourselves. The effects of gambling can almost be viewed as a grassroots example of the way these addictions will grow.
The principles that feed gambling’s addictive nature are included in a wave of other uses. One stand out example is the effects of social media—the uncertainty of what will come next, keeping up to date on latest posts, and a constant supply of information, the feeling of needing to post an update or photo at every place you visit. Already, there are now people with direct issues to their mental health when withdrawn from social networks. The anxiety, loneliness and isolation that can be felt the moment they step away, or the pressure felt that they have to be on a social network.
Personally, to me, I find this more frustrating knowing the battle that it has been and ongoing efforts to never gamble again. I look at all these new ways that people are feeding addictions as a growing issue and worry we are allowing these to become a part of our lives to such an extreme level. Along with the frustration for the way gambling and all these newer addictions are developed by design to encourage our inner demons to crave more to thrive. The developing is done to ensure we want to come back, we want to spend money, and to feel we have a need for it.
In 2018, the gambling commission completed research into minors and gambling. From the young people who advised they gambled, the main reasons for this were: To try to win money (46%), Because it’s Fun (44%), It gives me something to do (20%) Because I like to take a risk (15%) and To get a buzz (14%). Three of these top responses are a match for many of the reasons people give for their first-ever tasting of an illegal drug. But the unique factor added to this when talking about a gambling addiction is it comes with an advertised reward, the chance of winning something back. This gives an extra element to the addictiveness of gambling—people can see a reason for gambling that they believe could change their life if they win. This is a dangerous element to add to any young person’s learning about the trait of addiction, we can all easily say drugs damage your health, smoking damages your lungs, but how often do you think the same type of reaction is given for gambling? It can make you depressed, suicidal, in debt, and just as trapped as drugs.
Over the numerous times I’ve battled to beat my own addiction, I’ve spent time looking at how it ever became normal to gamble as a kid. I always remember a standout quote from back in 2005 which was said by one MP during a discussion on if category D Gaming required age restrictions, John Gummer a Conservative MP for Suffolk Coastal said “I wonder whether my hon. Friend can think of a worse example of the nanny state than the Secretary of State’s taking the power to prevent a small child from grabbing a cuddly toy.” It still echoes in my mind as an example of how even now, years later, gambling is still washed as not being a major issue and human nature.
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My seventeenth birthday was my first huge mistake when it comes to gambling. It was a day which should have been stitched with happiness, but instead, it became a lonely day, filled with yet more regret. I had been given £380 in total from the family in cards. I had planned to book my first holiday abroad with my mates, but instead, I got the temptation to go into the bookies next door to my house. I walked out of my home, turned in the opposite direction to where the bookies were and walked the long route around the block to try and make sure I wasn’t seen by any of my family going in. As I approached the door, I started to feel a sensation of excitement that caused me to get palpitations.
I pushed open the door, knowing that I would more than likely be asked for ID and turned away. I saw a dog laying on the floor next to an older guy who sat watching the horses. In a split-second decision, I walked over and started stroking the dog and saying hello to the guy, thinking to myself that if I act like it’s just a normal visit, no one will stop me. The walls of the bookies are filled top to bottom with upcoming races, matches, and the odds set, none of these get a second of my interest. It was always the machines, I spent the next half an hour staring at the screen, hitting a single button to keep spinning and spinning, my winnings went up, down, down, down. I soon was left, on my birthday of all days, penniless. The night out I had planned would need to be cancelled, I would need to find an excuse yet again for why I couldn’t go.
The walk home felt like it was a marathon, not just the few steps it actually was. I got in and found myself snapping at my sister straight away when she asked, “What time you off out at?”
I darted back to my room, thinking of a long list of expletives and started to feel the anger building up. I had managed to just lose everything. I need to find a way to cover this up was one of the most prominent thoughts. I began to think irrationally, thoughts race by the dozen through my head, faster than any bloody horse race. I started to think about things to sell in my room to get some money back, nothing stood out. I thought about hurting myself like I used to, but I had the ability to fight off those urges, I was stronger than that.
I decided to drop a text to someone I was supposed to be going out with to see if could ‘have a borrow to go out. I thought if I could get a hold of enough to get drunk, then I could go out and use it as a cover-up the next day for losing my birthday money. I got the text back, and the night was on. I felt relieved, no one would need to know about the bookies.
I went out that night, washed with plenty of thoughts, made memories, then lost most of them due to getting into a state that doesn’t usually remember much after a sleep. Responsibility was gone, wiped out. The next morning, as I was on a comedown that added to the regret of yesterday and the depressed mood that the night out had masked, my Mum noticed and made a passing comment about me being hungover yet again.
My parents never liked when I disrespected them, but it was a strange situation where they often just didn’t know how to help. The thoughts in my head were clashing with each other, some were thinking “well done”, “cover-up complete”, others were thinking “how stupid am I for getting ‘off my face’. All of this is added to the pressures I already had about where my life was at. The gambling, that had just been a mistake, the reality that I was now dealing with a comedown, and couldn’t remember the night out took front seat. I needed to stop the drinking. It never had a good ending.
The problem with all the memories that stand out throughout most of growing up was I felt like I was a burden, caused nothing but worry, and reacted selfishly. I always had to find a way to break the norms and to be destructive toward my own life. I was faced with adversity before I even knew myself.
Gambling is a silent side effect to this it creeps into many people’s lives, it’s socially acceptable to bet, it’s a form of entertainment, no stigma attached like drugs & alcohol behold. My secret vice that was able to amplify as I grew up to the point that it had a hold of me, caused me to go into debt and to lose all confidence I ever had in myself.