Greetings from Glasgow and Coatbridge
Best wishes from Martin and Adrian who founded The Machine Zone almot six years ago. Special thoughts for those affected by gambling harms who are living the journey from darkness to light.
It’s almost six years since we met and formed the company, recently joined by new directors Tony and Karen. During the time – like most of you reading this – we’ve gone through highs and lows, both personally and on the steep learning curve of running an enterprise. What’s kept is going is very simple. It is the tremendous examples of so many others engaged with the project of reducing gambling harms; it is the support and encouragement we’ve received from so many individuals and organisations; it’s the friends we’ve made and the networks we have been welcomed into. It is people.
So now is a good time to take a look back and forwards to the coming years.
The Machine Zone is the name of our company. It’s a phrase taken from Las Vegas to describe the zone where machine players enter interacting with electronic gambling machines. Everything dissolves – worries, responsibilities, time itself. It is the zone of addiction. We believe that some products are designed to induce this zone.
It’s not just gambling. Most of us have probably found ourselves at some or a lot of the time ‘hooked’ to our digital devices, ‘in the zone’, maybe feeling calmer and escaping the demands of the day. So, now and then, on the Machine Zone website we post about this everyday digital immersion. It’s now accepted that for some people there is a risk of becoming ‘addicted’ to digital devices which brings deterioration of mental health. And, of course, our increasing familiarity with the digital environment and its charms may introduce us to ‘exciting’ games, and to gambling.
One of our central aims has been to raise awareness of digital harms, especially in relation to young people.
In many ways our focus on gambling represents one of the many areas of concern connected with online behaviours. In common with others we understand the risks as being health issues and locate them in the field of public health approaches which examine the wider influences upon our behaviour such as advertising and the design of digital products which may lead to our engaging with them in unhealthy ways.
By drawing attention to any ills that may occur as the result of digital engagement as health issues we also seek to challenge stigma. Stigma blames an individual for their behaviour, marks them as deficient in some way, morally weak for instance. Identifying compulsive gambing, for instance, as a serious mental health disorder goes some way to remove stigma and draw attention to wider social, commercial and cultural factors in shaping ill health.
Gambling Watch Scotland is a website which publishes information about developments in Scotland. It puts this in the context of UK and international news.
Generally speaking, it’s the case that unlike south of the border there are few grassroots-led and driven enterprises which seek to raise awareness and push for gambling reforms. There are notable exceptions from individuals who are doing great work based on their lived experience. We’re inspired by them and all those burgeoning organisations beyond Scotland which have grown in recent years to involve more and more people with lived experience, to mutually support, to organise powerful voices towards policy change and advocacy.
The Scotland Reducing Gambling Harm program at the Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland has done great work in recent years to extablish a forum of lived experience. It also continues to run events, grow networks, quietly and efficiently reach policy makers, and provide ourselves with tremendous support. Similarly, the Gambling Education Hub at Fast Forward, in addition to its great education work across Scotland, holds a range of events related to gambling harm. nourishes network growth and emphasises the importance of lived experience.
There has been a growth of activities from other third sector organisations. For instance COPE SCotland has been looking at gambling harms since 2007. In 2022 the Glasgow Council for the Voluntary Sector appointed a gambling harms worker. In statutory services, Scotland Public Health has been promoting attention to gambling harms for a decade, as has Glasgow City Council, these two staging the Glasgow Gambling Summit in 2021. Elswehere, from further afield from Orkney to Dumfries we see initiatives to tackle gambling harms. There are also signs that gambling harms are receiving focused attention at national government level.
One Last Spin is, without doubt, our main achievement. It’s the film Martin always wanted to make since back in 2017. He met with film maker Ross Donald from Reverie Films in February 2020. Ross, who knew nothing about gambling, was enthralled by Martin’s story, so much so that he promised to make the fim without any financial remuneration. Enthusiastic pre-production discussions took place. The cameras were about to roll. Then Covid hit. Yet through two years of lockdown, raising funds for the production costs and searching locations, chosing actors and getting film crews together Ross and his team got the job done. Sponsors generously funded the making of it.
The film has four interviews with Martin, Kelly Field, Tony Franklin and John Myers who have all been severely harmed by gambling. Each story is supplemented by brief dramatic pieces. Aso contributing were Professor Gerda Reith from Glasgow University Gambling Research Group, Inverclyde MP Ronnie Cowan who’s Vice-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Gambling Related Harm at Westminster, and William Griffiths who was Manager at Scotland Reducing Gambling Harm.
In February 2022 the film was premiered at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow. Then it was entered into film festivals where it’s picked up awards. During 2022 the film has been shown in online events set up by our partners. The feedback from audiences testifies to its power. ‘Impactful’ is a common response. We have also screened the film at the Scottish Gambling Education Hub‘s conference in Edinburgh, and at HMP Barlinnie. In January 2023 we are schedued to show the film at a conference with the Simon Community, then at the Glasgow Women’s Centre, then at Greater Govanhill magazine.
We believe the film deserves and needs to be seen far and wide. Reaching possible places to screen it has not been straightforward, and without tremendous help from others distribution so far would have been less successful. We’d love to see its being shown anywhere. We have a little funding to help venues so if you are interested do get in touch. We’re particularly keen to get the film into community venues to help raise awareness and start conversations.
Glasgow City Gambling Harms is a project funded by the Glasgow Council for the Voluntary Sector which established a gambling harms fund. It runs between November 2022 and February 2023 and is focused upon Glasgow City. We’ve recently been introduced to other recipients of the fund and greatly look forward to working with them.
Our project includes a website. On this you will find an Overview of work in Glasgow over the past 15 years or so which addresses gambling harms. It’s designed to be an introduction to the field for people new to the area. The site also includes detailed Support resources, a section on Community and one on Families and Affected Others.
At the end of the project we shall publish a second Overview which will evaluate its successes and weaknesses, and updates developments across the city. It’s largely the case that Glasgow is important in countrywide developments since much of the work being done in the city concentrates upon common themes.
Our project will also involve screenings of our film One Last Spin.
A third strand of the project is to design and have printed materials to be sent to selected places. One of these materials is a pocket-sized Support handbook. Other materials are aimed at frontline workers and community practitioners. These will be targeted at venues such as health centres and GP surgeries and contain brief notes on awareness-raising and screening. The venues will be those located in areas of Glasgow deemed the most deprived (where gambling harms are, on average, three time higher than in the general polulation). We shall also write to selected community venues enclosing leafets and an invitation to mount a screening event for our film.
We anticipate that the website will continue after the project and we are inviting our partner agencies to contribute material describing their own work.
It seems a lifetime ago! Beat the Fix was our first project. The website remains as an archive. There’s still relevant stuff for today there.
The project was based upon challenging the harms being done by Fixed Odss Betting Terminals in bookmakers’ shops. (Martin gives a very poignant account of the damage they did to him in our film). Each shop continues to have four such machines, roulette being the most popular game. At the time we joined the widesspread campaign to limit harms from them, each machine allowed a maximum stake of £100. Each spin was 20 seconds so you could stake £300 in a minute.
Concern was growing that the FOBTs were addictive. As Martin says in the film they became known as the ‘crack cocaine’ of gambling. There was a government review and we along with thousands of others submitted responses. The calls were for a reduction of the maximum stake to £2. Opposition came from the industry but also the Treasury, and the Minister at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Tracey Crouch resigned in the face of opposition to reform. Eventually the campaigners won and the stake was so reduced.
Of course, even a stake of £2 can lead to harm if these machines are addictive. You can still lose a lot of money very quickly. Bookmakers tend to cluster in the most deprived areas where gambling harms have been identified as three times greater than the general population. Especially in the midst of the current cost of living crisis an amount as low as a few pounds may signify harms to domestic economy and wellbeing.
We are seeing a growth in online gambling generally and one aspect of this is ‘slots’ games, essentially the same as the machines in bookmakers’ premises. These games are available 24/7 and if, as many claim, their design leads to compulsive gambling, we are faced with a significant public health issue.
One thing we’ve learned very deeply is that we have only been able to develop through meeting hundreds of other people and organisations. Where possible we have been able to do our bir with them, and always they have provided encouragement, inspiration and support. Another important learning has been that we can’t be too precise in planning. The landscape is always changing. Unexpected things happen. Because we are a tiny organisation we have some flexibility to fit with what arises. We’re happy with that. The word ‘happy’ comes from the word ‘happen’. Not a lot of people know that! It’s also related to ‘perhaps’. An older English word is ‘happenstance’ – whatever comes up. As they say in Yorkshire, ” ‘appen” – sort of maybe, so it goes.
One thing that will ‘appen we hope is the long delayed publication of a White Paper to begin work in Westminster on establishing a new Gambling Act to replace the 2005 one which was made before the digital explosion. Campaigners, ourselves among them, are looking to see a compulsory 1% levy on gambling industry profits to fund research, prevention, education and treatment in a totally independent way. Currently the industry make voluntary contributions and charities providing education and support options rely on these. A new levy would see funding come from ring-fenced treasury sources. We are also seeking to see the end of gambling sponsorship of sport, especially football, and a significant curtailment of advertising. Affordabity checks are also on the list of demands along with serious attention to the design of gambling products.
Whatever results (and we are not confident that all we would like to see implemented will be), the issue of gambling harms will not go away. So we will be continuing to help raise awareness and challenge stigma, and support those great grassroots organisations ased on lived experience. We’ll go on learning even as we flounder. Happily, there are more fish in the sea than flounders!
Linking with the Wider Recovery Movements
We have been very happy to receive a financial award from the Scottish Recovery Consortium. The SRC has focused upon alcohol and other hard drugs and is looking to the possibilities of integrating recovery from gambling harms into their work.
We’ve argued in the past that gambling and substance harms have very close links. For one, there is an extremely high number of people who suffer co-occuring gambling and substance issues. Secondly, there are many issues common to both: stigma, lack of understanding and awareness, human rights violations, inadeqate treaatment provision and more. And thirdly, the centrality of the SRC’s voices of lived experience to shape policy, advocate and design mutual recovery opportunities is a model to be welcomed. The range of mutual recovery activities is wide, from recovery cafes to arts based work, and there is much valuable learning and direction to be had for user-led initiatives in the field of gambling harms.
We’ll be sharpening our focus on all of this from January when we’re meeting with an expert to discuss the relationships between gamblingg and substance harms and mental distress such as depression and anxiety. As we go we shall aim to raise awareness in mental health recovery organisations. It’s a longstanding shame which has caused added pain to thousands of people that ‘addiction’ is still not anywhere sufficiently seen as a serious mental health disorder which should be given the same respect, understanding and treatment as any other mental health issue.
One Last Spin: the song
As we said above, things happen happily! We are more than happy to finish this page by thanking once again the wonderful Amanda Lehmann for writing and recording the song One Last Spin which beautifully accompanies our film. The story of the song’s production is a series of happenings beginning with the title of a poem that Andy wrote in Liverpool during his recovery, a title that captured Martin’s attention as just right for the film he wanted to make. Then through film participant John Myers’ interview with the marvellous radio presenter Sylvia Fountain to Amanda. Both Amanda and Sylvia continue in their work to raise awareness of gambling harms.
Then after the song was released, the CEO of COPE Scotland, Hilda Campbell, arranged for COPE’s artistic designer Mitch to produce the music video which you can watch by clicking on the image to the right.