Psychology professor warns what seems like fun pastime can lead to addiction

“It’s a form of entertainment. It is something to do,” says Tonya Faasse, 24.

Like Faasse, this seems to be the general mentality of many people who participate in Video Terminal Lottery, or VLT, gambling.

But David Hodgins, professor of psychology at the University of Calgary, warns that this lax mentality is a dangerous one to have and can lead to bigger issues, such as a financially-debilitating gambling addiction.

Since 1998, a gaming policy licensing review capped the amount of VLT machines in the province, says Jodi Korchinski, spokesperson for the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission, or AGLC.

There are currently 6,000 VLTs in circulation across 1,000 locations in bars and lounges in Alberta.

However, Hodgins says this is not enough of a precaution in preventing gambling addictions. Nor does it help impede those who already have a penchant for gambling.

With VLT machines being made available in bars and lounges instead of just being limited to casinos – basically meaning that if participants are old enough to drink, then they can gamble – a younger demographic is being exposed to a gambling environment.

“Certainly, accessibility is a big issue,” Hodgins says. “A lot of people get exposed to VLT games not because they’re planning to go gamble, but because they’re in a bar. They’re meeting a friend for a drink, they’re planning to play pool, they’re socializing. They end up gambling because they are in an environment where gambling is available.”

Faasse agrees with Hodgins’ observations and says that she rarely intends to play VLT games, but says that alcohol and availability contribute to her spending money on the noisy and brightly-coloured machines in bars.David Hodgins, a psychology professor at the University of Calgary, says that one reason why VLTs are so popular is because they aren’t intimidating.
Photo courtesy of: stock.xchng/Cholin

Furthermore, Hodgins says that more than just alcohol contributes to VLT plays. Many people get mesmerized and lost in the experience of playing VLT games as a means of escaping their problems, he says.

“People will describe losing track of time — not realizing just how long they have actually been playing or how much money they have lost,” Hodgins says.

“It’s certainly very absorbing and is an effective way for people to cope with negative feelings because they can forget about their problems [and] lose themselves while they’re playing.”

But the irony, Hodgins notes, is that sometimes the VLT play is actually contributing to their problems, whether their problem is already grounded in financial difficulty or simply just introducing a new factor to already existing issues.

“So they’re escaping their problem but also making the problem worse by amassing more debt.”

A popular form of gambling

Like with most forms of gambling, the simplest explanation of why people participate in VLT gambling is the desire to win money.

Hodgins says that buying into the possibility of winning money is encouraged by the seemingly inexpensive nature of the device. It only costs 25 cents to play, but Hodgins says that it is misleading. Although they have “the perception of being inexpensive because each individual play is not expensive,” people can lose a lot of money in a very short period of time if they play a lot of lines.

Also, playing into the popularity of VLTs, is the fact that they are not daunting..

“They are not intimidating. It might be intimidating to go play blackjack at a casino because you don’t really know the rules and how to play and so forth,” Hodgins says. “But VLTs are pretty straightforward — you just put your money in, choose your game and it’s not intimidating.”

The final factor that contributes to VLTs’ appeal is that the feedback is instant. Unlike other forms of gambling, such as a weekly lottery draw where individuals have to wait for the results, Hodgins says VLT feedback happens in seconds. This means that individuals can play numerous games in quick succession. It is not an activity that requires people to take significant time out of their lives.

Recovery available for VLT addicts

“What we know is that people who are problem gamblers spend a disproportionate amount of money. So the estimates are anywhere between 30 to 40 per cent of the VLT profits come from people with gambling problems,” Hodgins says.

With a significant revenue stream coming from VLT machines, Hodgins says he believes VLT gambling is a “major dilemma for the government” — a dilemma that is not lost on government.

There are numerous resources available for people who do recognize they may have a problem with VLT gambling. As with most addictions, the first step is acknowledging the problem and acknowledging that change is needed, says Hodgins.

While a lot of people will tackle the problem on their own by rearranging their lives to eliminate their exposure to the option of gambling, there are numerous other treatment options are available in Alberta, such as outpatient treatments, Gamblers Anonymous groups and residential treatment programs.

“What’s good is we have easily accessed treatment in the province. There is treatment available through Alberta Health Services,” says Hodgins.

However, Hodgins adds that the best practice is still prevention. Avoiding developing a gambling problem through inhibiting exposure to gambling in the first place is the safest practice for young adults.

“What we do know is that the earlier you start to be involved in gambling, even informal gambling with family and friends, the more likely you are to develop a problem,” he says.

For more information on VLT gambling addictions or to get help with a VLT gambling addiction, visit Alberta Health Services.

cdemuelenaere@cjournal.ca