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Bingo: harmless fun or cause for concern?


By Patrick Gallus

In the 1980s, 20 per cent of adults in Victoria gambled on bingo but the introduction of pokies into hotels and clubs in the 1990s is considered to have been the key driver of this demise. By 2014, participation had dropped dramatically to less than three per cent.

Commonly associated with community and aged care centres, bingo is usually seen as harmless, however it is a form of gambling when people wager money to play. Players today are disproportionately women, older, First Nations people, and those on low incomes.

La Trobe University researcher Dr Sarah MacLean and her team set out to understand how people from disadvantaged communities experience bingo, and what steps need to be taken to reduce the risk of harm.

Distinct groups, shared experiences

Through interviews, group feedback sessions and observations at bingo sites across Victoria, Dr MacLean and her team investigated how bingo is played and experienced in three distinct communities: First Nations people in Gippsland; the Pacific Islander community in Sunraysia; and older people with fixed incomes such as a pension in Melbourne.

Partnering with Gippsland and East Gippsland Aboriginal Cooperative, Sunraysia Mallee Ethnic Communities Council and COTA Victoria, the researchers wanted to understand the benefits experienced by different bingo playing communities, as well as the harms.

‘You’re in another world when you’re at bingo…’

‘We found that bingo provides an important social outlet for people who don’t have much money,’ Dr MacLean says.

Across the three communities, the perceived benefits of playing bingo were consistent. Bingo offered the community an opportunity to gamble in a controlled and predictable way and take a break from the stresses of daily life.

’You’re in another world when you’re at bingo … you have to concentrate,’ says one study participant from Melbourne.

A participant from Gippsland says they would use bingo to escape the loneliness of living alone. Another, from Sunraysia, says it was a place they could visit and not be exposed to racism.

‘But although we can think of bingo as benign, it can lead to harms, like any other form of gambling,’ Dr MacLean says.

A real risk of harm

The experience of harms varied across the three groups, and for some the harms were considerable.

Some interviewees identified spending the household budget or spending less time with children as harms they had experienced. Others shed light on a range of environmental factors associated with increased gambling-related harm, such as personal electronic tablet (PET) machines, the cost of playing, and the exposure to other forms of gambling (including pokies).

The introduction of PET machines has supercharged spending at many venues. Traditionally, bingo has been played with pen and paper, which has placed a natural limit on playing more than a small number of games at once. PETs, however, allow users to play up to 200 games at a time. The devices automatically cross off numbers and beep when a player has nearly achieved bingo.

The introduction of PET machines has supercharged spending…

Dr MacLean says that PETs can substantially increase the amount people spend gambling on bingo, as they are able to play many more games than they otherwise could.

‘PETs and large jackpots can make bingo more appealing to the exact people that are more likely to have gambling-related problems,’ she says.

The study also highlighted how recent technological advances, like the opportunity to play online (which is illegal in Australia, but accessible nonetheless) have made playing bingo riskier.

A gateway to gambling

The researchers were concerned that bingo was often used by venues as a gateway activity to other forms of gambling.

At clubs and hotels, where pokies can be offered alongside bingo, the researchers observed many people would use bingo breaks to gamble on the pokies in the next room.

They described a sea of people at the casino going straight to the pokies room once a bingo session finished. Crown has since ceased offering bingo.

‘…bingo was often used by venues as a gateway activity to other forms of gambling.’

‘We felt that bingo in some settings entices people to enter premises and engage in other forms of gambling,’ says Dr MacLean. ‘There’s a concern that bingo puts people in very close proximity to pokies machines, and that is a major source of harm.’

While bingo centres remain an important place for connection in some communities, modern advances are placing players at an increasing risk of gambling-related harm. The researchers argue that regulation is not keeping up with technology.

Striking the balance between maintaining the positive aspects of bingo while protecting people from harm will be an ongoing challenge.

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