Brief thoughts on self-exclusion

There are many things a gambler can do at the moment if they think they have a problem controlling their spending. They can call GamCare, the industry-funded charity; they can use mandatory and voluntary machine limits, or they can self-exclude from shops. Here’s a problem with self-exclusion – it’s broken and doesn’t work.

At Ladbrokes, you can self-exclude for up to a year (details online on the official Ladbrokes website list it as up to five years, but this hasn’t been updated, presumably because no one can be arsed). The onus is completely on you, the problem gambler, to make sure you abide by the terms of the self-exclusion. You have to provide a good photograph and hope that it’s processed properly. You have to hope you don’t have something like this go in the system –

self ex

There are about 30 odd shops in Birmingham city centre. So once you’ve self-excluded from that one, you’ve got to make sure you don’t go into any of those. Make sure you do the same process in the other shops, make sure the picture is just as good. Evidently, this system isn’t working. From April 2012-March 2014, there were 46,999 self-exclusions. Because you have to fill out forms for individual company’s shops (customers are encouraged to self-exclude from other shops/casinos/bingo halls) it’s not known how many are individual self-exclusions. In that same period, there were 34,378 known breaches of self-exclusions.

The system isn’t working.

As with the machine limits, the task of making sure problem gamblers don’t gamble is left up to the customer and the cashier. Even if everything goes perfectly, you’ve got to hope that today’s staff members have seen and memorised the new self-exclusion form (I worked in a quiet shop and we had dozens, it was impossible to memorise all of them). You’ve got to hope that someone who is covering a break will check the folder (no one does; why would they?). There’s no pressure on staff to check and memorise the forms. Even if they did it once a week, once a day, they can’t and shouldn’t be expected to memorise dozens of forms. Legally, companies are covered, so it’s not made a priority. It’s up to the problem gambler to stay out and keep out.

Shortly after the machine limits went live, Ladbrokes released a statement via their weekly newsletter, What’s Happening. It responded to complaints from staff that they were expected to be counselors and psychologists, as well as doing a million other jobs. Ladbrokes didn’t accept this suggestion, but didn’t really explain how it wasn’t true. Cashiers are expected to look out for signs of stress in customers and deal with it accordingly. If the customer isn’t outwardly stressing out, then the customer is left to their own devices.

Just because a customer isn’t shouting, kicking, or spitting, there’s still a chance that they’re not in control, that they’re spending beyond their means. Once a customer has been interacted with about their machine play, a cashier is to monitor their habits and only intervene if they’re not playing or behaving as usual. How am I supposed to know what’s usual from seeing someone sit at a machine? How do I know that that £200 they’ve just loaded onto the machine isn’t their last £200? That they’re going to leave the shop and beg, borrow or steal some money?

Self-exclusion doesn’t work.

Mandatory machine limits don’t work.

There’s little to no data about voluntary limits.

Who is expected to sort all this out? The cashier, the person just barely above minimum wage. It’s up to them to adhere to Think 21 procedures, keep the shop tidy, process bets, oh, and psychoanalyse customers as they play roulette. Generate the paperwork, do the bare minimum, because that’s all you need to do.

What’s the solution? Maybe making loyalty cards compulsory. Track spending habits, make machine limits mandatory, lock out a card once it goes over a daily, weekly, monthly limit, tie the cards to debit cards. Nothing like this is going to be implemented until they’re forced to. Until something happens, we’re left with self-exclusion and poking the customer on the shoulder and asking if they’re okay, which we all know isn’t doing anything.

The death of the Grand National

My two favourite days of working at Ladbrokes were the 2013 and 2014 Grand Nationals. It was the one time of the year where we could take a break from the machines and concentrate on promoting an actual horse race. For a week or so before the race you’d see new people — civilians, we’d call them — coming into the shop. You can spot a civilian a mile away — they’d tend to come in groups, they’d dress like a grown up, they’d be polite, and they’d all ask the same adorably inane questions.

The day of the National itself is a mix of dealing with hundreds of slips at a time — capturing, scanning, re-scanning, showing how quick slips work — and a dash of explaining to the civilians how bets work, how the National works. Get ready to explain to 1,000 different people what an each-way bet is and to tell them to go for an each-way bet.

It’s incredibly fast-paced, it’s exhausting, but it’s a rush. You need to coordinate your floor runner to watch for underage gamblers and to hand out quick slips to the newbies. You need to make sure the civilian has marked the right boxes. Make sure they know how to stake the bet. Make sure they don’t give you a plain slip with only the name of a jockey (I loved that guy).

2013 was a great National for me. It was my first and it was lots of fun. It felt like we were actually in a decent job, actually doing something. People were having fun. During and after the race they were screaming, singing, shouting, hugging, jumping, kissing. People who lost didn’t go into a rage and start spitting at me, or smashing a machine up. People who won took the money with a smile and a thank you and left, never to be seen again. It felt like a proper job.

Then 2014 rolls around. A few days before the National, we’re told to take down all the marketing. We’re going to be promoting a machine tournament on the day instead. I ask my manager if this is a joke, he shakes his head, and we spend the next 20 minutes furiously tutting. Down comes the marketing, up goes the posters for the latest and greatest slots tournament for Inca Hoots, or some other stupid slots game.

The day comes and goes. It’s okay. It’s not as busy as the year before. The rush isn’t the same. I ask a manager who worked in shops before the machines and he said the atmosphere just isn’t comparable. After the race the shop is dead. In a rare case of the company making a sensible decision, I’m asked to stay so the manager doesn’t have to single-man until close. With the greatest of respect to my manager, they’re probably the four longest hours of my life. No one puts any bets on over the counter. The shop is dead. The odd machine customer comes in, silently plays, loses, walks out.

I imagine what a shop without FOBTs would be like. I look at the figures and the massive pile of money we made today and wonder why it can’t be like that every day. The next day is like any other. Shitty virtual races, shitty real races, shitty machines. Same old customers, same old complaints, same old abuse.

But for one day in 2013, it was grand.

Assassin’s Greed. Get it? I’m sorry.

Say what you will about Ubisoft, their broken games, their shitty DRM, and the fact that in 2014 alone, they released 76 Assassin’s Creed games, but we’re still waiting for a Beyond Good and Evil sequel. Say all of that. Right, now take a breath, and admit that you have got to admire the huge, shining brass balls on Ubisoft to start promoting the new entry in the series – Assassin’s Creed: Victory.

Here are a few little bugs that affected Unity at launch. This is what happened when you paid £54.99 (FIFTY-FOUR, NINETY-NINE) for this game –

  • The character would fall through the ground.
  • If you joined a co-op session, in the game advertised as being all about playing with others (UNITY – it’s right there in the goddamn title), it could crash.
  • Hiding in a hay cart would trap you in a hay cart.
  • Literally access the main menu could fuck the game up

I’m not an expert on modern QA methods, but I’m fairly sure someone, somewhere, must’ve climbed into a hay cart and gone ‘oh shit, wait, I can’t get out. I will mark that as potentially problematic’. I get that bugs happen. I get that games like this are unbelievably complicated to make, to test, to fix. I get that. I also get that maybe you don’t motherfucking release games like that in the first place. You don’t make QA a fan’s job and make them pay for the privilege.

One of the things Ubi made a priority to fix, after tiny problems like “frame rate issues” (it’s cinematic, remember?), “graphical and collision issues” (falling through shit), and “matchmaking co-op issues” (that thing we sold the game on doesn’t work, sorry) was, and I quote – “Helix Credits issues” (microtransactions).

They fixed it so you can spend money, in-game, on the broken game you already paid a lot of money for. Whilst still having the game run like ass. An ass covered in nappy rash. Imagine the meeting where someone suggested they work on that fix. How is fixing microtransactions not the very last fucking thing you work on? Oh, and the suggestion to fix frame-rate issues? Turn the internet off. On your game you’re supposed to play with friends.

The latest update still hasn’t got the game to an acceptable level of performance; it still isn’t even reaching the performance level of Black Flag.

But Harry, you cry, that is so unfair. The game is running on new consoles, it’s going to take time to get to levels like that. Which is true. It should take time, there should be optimisation, but why should people be paying £54.99 to play what is blatantly an unfinished game?

The only way this shit is going to stop is if people stop shovelling up the dross Ubisoft is serving them. By buying on launch day, making your pointless pre-orders, you’re encouraging this. I haven’t bought an Assassin’s Creed game since Brotherhood, because I can’t be fucked with annual releases. I’m bored of Ubisoft Game. You’re not, which is cool, I buy Football Manager biennially, so I get it, but FM tends to work.

I’m aware that as we careen into 2015, the modern video game publisher isn’t going to just take a year off from an annual release, especially one as massive and sprawling as the Assassin’s Creed series. I know they’re rotating the games through their 800 global studios. I know shareholders and executives don’t give a shit about releasing buggy, laggy, broken pieces of shit and laugh at us as we buy them all. I know Ubisoft do release good, smaller games, wrapped up in shitty UPlay DRM. I know all this. But I also know that there is a very easy to solution to all of this.

Stop buying Ubisoft games. Read up on Ubisoft. Remember the amazing 2012 E3 demo of Watch Dogs and then go play Watch Dogs. Remember how they said they couldn’t make female characters to play as, because it was too much work. Remember that Ubisoft knew the game was broken when it released, they fucking knew, and they made it so reviewers couldn’t release the reviews until after it was released. This is all done on purpose, it is a conscious decision to fleece people, and people keep falling for it. For every cute experiment like Child of Light and Valiant Hearts, there’s going to be a Far Cry: More Outposts, an Assassin’s Creed: Vague Noun, and a bunch of micro and macrotransactions to get your blood pumping. Have at it, or stop bitching and stop buying.

Project 50/250

I’m planning on writing about the study released about FOBTs by the Responsible Gambling Trust, but when looking into it I remembered a little promotion we had called Project 50. The 50, I presume, was the number of shops involved in the scheme, which was later upped to 250.

This thing always left me feeling a bit weird. It was a machine-focused promotion which aimed to drive customers to the machines, especially new over the counter customers. It also aimed to keep existing machine customers at the machines for as long as possible. First you have to fill in a personal profile in this massive red folder. You have to draw a picture of yourself, for some reason, which I refused to do, in a childish fit of rebellion. My area manager would come in the shop later and basically demand I draw the picture, in front of him, and he wouldn’t proceed until I drew it. This was one of the first signs that management at Ladbrokes had their priorities a little skewed.

Anyway, I draw my stick figure, write out a person profile using all of the Ladbrokes buzz words (Game On! Bold! Buzz! WINNERS!) and now it’s time to profile my customers. I need to get at least one customer a day set up for Project 50. I need to find out his name, his interests, and I need to find out what he likes to eat and drink. There is a whole section in the folder for this, it’s called something like ‘targeted refreshments’, or something equally complicated.

It’s suggested that on a Friday, when all the lads are around the machines, I should leave the shop and buy every one fish and chips. Is a machine customer hungry? Buy him a pizza. Does John like coffee? Don’t serve him that free swill we give to the peasants over the counter. You get your arse to Costa and buy him one of those vanilla bullshit things. I’m not exaggerating, my area manager got annoyed with me for not buying in fish and chips. I explained that we were in an area known for having smack heads and trouble-making vagrants, so I didn’t want to leave food around. I didn’t explain that I thought it was a bit weird that we were basically acting like a casino and trying to make sure the customers stay glued to the machines as long as possible. I was a pussy and needed to pay my rent.

There was a guide in there about how to attract certain customers. Are the lads placing their football accumulators at the weekend spending enough money over the counter? Reward them with £10 free credit on the machines. Women, it was suggested, would be attracted to Thai Flower, the game with a vaguely Asian lady and flowers. Because… women like flowers. And Thais. Oh shit, I should’ve ordered in Thai food and did a whole Thai Flower promotion. Hindsight is even-money, I suppose.

For a company trying to promote a community-friendly, responsible gaming image, it was promotions like this that just jarred slightly. Look at the Ladbrokes Life advertising campaign. The briefer we got for the whole campaign, and how to promote it, was that the Ladbrokes Life was “aspirational”; it was trying to get away from the image of a bookies only being for “lads” and getting away from “lad culture”. Now look at the fucking advert. It’s five complete dickheads, doing dickhead things, in the most laddy way possible. We did a cringeworthy promotion with a shitty Twitter account called The LAD Bible, for fuck’s sake. There’s something going on in Ladbrokes management, they try and be responsible, try to be different, then release a print advert for gambling with the slogan ‘once is luck, twice is talent’. No, twice is luck. ‘When you win it’s skill – when you lose it’s bad luck’. Get fucked. The ASA banned the posters with these slogans for condoning an “irresponsible attitude to gambling”.

The 4Tunes scheme came around the time we’d heard machine limits would be coming into place. It was a little piece of card that a cashier would stamp when a customer went over a certain time/money limit, I can’t remember which. It was another example of a weird dissonance in management’s minds. We need to be responsible! But… the machine numbers are looking a bit down. Give them pizza and iPads and stamp that little piece of cardboard disappointment. Sorted.

All this shit has been quashed now. Things are changing, but it was weird being there at a time of mental transition. When the left hand didn’t really know what the right was doing. I still think the company isn’t taking things seriously enough, that they’re doing the bare minimum, but until government steps in, they won’t. Why should they? No one’s going to be spitting in Dave Hammond’s face at 9.50pm on a cold Sunday evening. No one’s going to tell Nick Rust the story about how his wife has left him and could he please borrow some money, he’ll pay it back soon, please?

That was the Ladbrokes Life.

Early access journalism

Here are three scenarios. Only one of them is true. Your job is guessing which.

Scenario the first – You’ve been waiting years and the big day is finally here! Your favourite author has just released their new book. You waltz into the book shop (yes, I know, it’s 2014, why would you be in a book shop, but we’re role-playing, so don’t break character) and there it is, hardback, £18.99. You fish out your debit card, pay the lovely man behind the counter, and walk off with the book, excited to start reading it on the bus home. The bookseller calls you back. Did you forget your receipt? You numpty, you’re always doing that.

“I’m sorry, but you haven’t pre-ordered the season pass.”

“Excuse me?”

“The season pass. So you can get the rest of the book.”

“What do you mean?”

You open the book, and the paper immediately starts to fall apart. Some pages are missing, the entire last chapter appears to be printed upside-down, some of it is written in what appears to be Aramaic.

“Bookseller! What’s wrong with my book?”

“Oh, there were some problems at the printers, but it’ll be fixed soon, you’ll just have to wait.”

“Then, why have you released it?”

“Well, it’s still readable. Just wait a bit.”

“Can I have a refund?”

The bookseller looks at you like you just farted in church, turns his back to you, and starts whistling tunelessly.

Scenario the second – You’ve been waiting years and the big day is finally here! Your favourite director has just released their new film. You booked tickets weeks in advance, to make sure you got the comfy, but slightly weird sofa seats, and the trailers are over. Here it comes… wait. Is that a boom mic? Well, everyone makes mistakes, let’s get- did the director just walk into shot? Why is Matthew McConaughey holding a script and scratching his tummy?

PLACEHOLDER SHOT, VFX MISSING flashes on the screen where a cybernetic dinosaur should’ve appeared, rampaging across the street.

45 minutes in, the projector explodes, and the film ends. You rush up to the box office.

“Film seller! That film wasn’t working.”

“Oh, yeah, it’s not finished yet. It was released early.”

“Why?”

“To make money so we can finish it and release it properly.”

“Unacceptable! I demand a refund.”

The filmseller looks at you like you just farted in a lift, turns her back to you, and starts whistling the theme from The Prisoner.

Scenario the third – You’ve been waiting a year and the big day is finally here! Your favourite developer has just released their new game. You pre-ordered months ago, for no other reason  than to show your support, it’s not like the digital keys will sell out. You stay up all night downloading it, fanny around with drivers, get yourself a nice big Mountain Dew and an extra large bag of Doritos and fire that sumbitch up.

Hm. This is weird. Characters are falling through the floor. Well, shit happens, they’ll patch that out later. Holy shit, the frame rate is all over the place. You just upgraded your PC, it’s basically two PS4s strapped together.

Wait, what’s this? Microtransactions? In a game you paid £54.99 for? No, this must be satire. Let’s try some multiplayer. I can’t find any one to play with. It’s launch day! Something is terribly wrong, this game is obviously unfinished.

“Game seller!” you cry, realise no one can hear you, and send an email instead.”

“Game seller, this game is obviously broken, I demand a refund.”

“No refunds. Ever. Fuck the EU and its regulations.”

You shed a silent tear, then send an email to the developer.

“We’ll patch the problems out, it’ll just take a month or so. Calm down, we’re really sorry, it won’t happen again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again-”

You close the email.

Did you guess yet? The first two scenarios are obviously made up and, if they happened, the respective critics would cry foul and you wouldn’t hear the end of it. This happens all the time in video games, and the media do very little. They reward the developers/publishers’ fuckery with 8s and 9s, leaving it up to the fans to do the critiquing.

I want to look into this. I would like to talk to developers and publishers and see if they think yearly AAA releases are sustainable. I’d like to talk about microtransactions, macrotransactions, season passes and early access. I’d like to talk about a lot of shit, basically, so if you could back me here, for free, that would be ace.

Ta babs.

-H

Half Life, Full Life Consequences

2004 was a ridiculous year in video gaming. Far Cry, Doom 3, Paper Mario: TTYD, Thief: Deadly Shadows, Pikmin 2, Fable, The Sims 2, GTA: San Andreas, Metroid Prime 2, Metal Gear Solid 3, World of Warcraft; the list goes on. Ground-breaking sequels, landmark series launches, and a little indie title called Half-Life 2.

Half-Life 2 was a pioneering game in several ways. It featured fantastic physics effects, with the ability to pick up items that had weight and affected the world. It was the first single-player game to require Valve’s Steam software (it’s like iTunes for games, but less shit); even if you bought it on disc. There are teething problems and the shift in purchasing habits and the idea of no longer physically or legally ‘owning’ a game is something that’s still being debated today. The game itself? It’s a revelation. It has puzzles that make you think and play with physics. It’s beautiful and still looks good today, with facial animations that put modern AAA titles to shame; only The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker has more expressive eyes. There are probably thousands of reviews and articles about how great and groundbreaking the game is, but I’ve no idea, because the game was broken for me.

Okay, I’ll be honest, I think I broke it.

It’s 2007 and I’m gifted a copy of Half-Life 2. I remember the first game, but I was a console gamer growing up, so I’d never really got into it. Goldeneye and Perfect Dark were my FPS games of choice growing up. Still, it was free, so I’m not going to pass up to chance to play one of the most acclaimed video games of all time.

The first thing I notice is that this game looks incredible. I’m running on a piece of shit computer, but it still looks pretty damn good. I get off the train in the gorgeous City 17 (the work of Viktor Antonov, who would later go on to work on the similarly dystopian, faux-European city of Dunwall in Dishonored) and take in the grim sights. People — slaves? — in blue uniforms are being pushed and beaten around by sinister masked members of the Combine empire. You’re soon introduced to the wonderful physics of the game by being ordered to pick up an empty can by one of the Combine. You can chuck it around and it’ll realistically (as far as you can get in 2004, anyway) bounce around. Chuck it at the miserable Combine soldier and he’ll shout and twat you, reporting to a superior that you’ve failed a loyalty check.

Moments like this abound in the game and I spend a few hours in it, absolutely loving it. I’m constantly on the run from the Combine and its flying, deadly ‘manhack’ machines; trying to avoid ceiling-dwelling, slithery alien barnacles, which trap you with its tongue and slowly pull you up towards its gaping, tooth-filled jaws. There are a few simple, but fun physics-based puzzles, like trying to weigh down one side of a massive seesaw to get over a gap, or messing with water levels to get through a dank, dangerous sewer.

It’s great! And then… I reach the mudskipper. In the Water Hazards chapter you’re tasked with taking a massive airboat called the mudskipper and crossing the City 17 Canals. You have to solve some physics puzzles and avoid a powerful, heavily-armed attack helicopter on the way to your goal. I imagine it’s full of thrills and adrenaline-pumping action, but there was just one problem – my mudskipper vanished. I didn’t realise I was supposed to have it.

Here’s a confession. I get bored with FPS games sometimes and, when given the choice to mess around, I will. So I loaded up the console (a setting for developers/idiots to test the game for bugs, etc) and turned off clipping (turning me into a ghost, basically, allowing me to float around the world and walk through walls into areas the developer never intended you to reach). I’m not sure what happened, I maybe passed through a loading zone and the game didn’t realise, but my trusty airboat was gone. I assumed this was normal and took the very, very long trip down the canals on foot.

It took a while. An hour or so maybe? Just walking, and walking, and walking. The occasional puzzle, but mostly walking. Sometimes I would get to a dead end, assumed the game was stupid, and clipped past the obstacles. Finally, after what seemed like years, I reached the end, but the game wouldn’t trigger the next chapter, because I didn’t have the mudskipper and the game didn’t know what to do. I was stuck. Alone. Forever.

I didn’t play the game for another seven years, until today. I played for two hours, fighting past the Combine, solving the puzzles, avoiding the barnacles, twatting the headcrabs with my sturdy crowbar. I enjoyed the characters, Valve’s unmatched attention to detail, the panic when you’re escaping the Combine, the general oppressive atmosphere of the game; you’re not welcome here and the world lets you know it. I reached the canals, butterflies spazzing around in my stomach, terrified it’s going to happen all over again. It doesn’t. The airboat is there. I climb on, power up and zoom around the canals. Eventually you get a weapons upgrade and get to blow the shit out of everything. I imagine the game only gets better, everyone in the world says so, but I’m happy to stop here. That damn canal has haunted me for years, but I conquered it, just as the developers intended.

One of the best games of all time? Probably. Fuck that canal, though.

Bet your bottom dollar.

If you’ve known me for a decent amount of time, you’ve probably noticed a few things. After the obvious initial observations, like my incredible sense of humour, the way I smell like a forest in spring, or the way my clothes just can’t contain my rippling biceps, you’d be forgiven for thinking that I’m a flaky dickhead who is shit at getting back to you. I would like to attempt to explain that, without getting particularly awkward or in-depth. Here’s how my mind works.

A few weeks ago, a very good friend sent me a beautiful email. We’d been having problems for a long time trying to get a project off the ground, and despite it looking like something might finally be going ahead, said friend pulled out in the most amicable, lovely, polite way. I completely understood where he was coming from and I supported his decision. This email was a fucking novel, the kind he’d usually send, and the kind I would always enjoy receiving and reading. It became a running joke about how shit I was about replying, but I knew this particular piece meant a lot to him, this motherfucker was pouring his soul out on the page, so upon finishing it, I immediately texted him to let him know I’d read it, that I still loved his face, and that I’d send a reply ASAP. I had to send that text, because I know he’s exactly like me and would be freaking the fuck out until I replied. We’re both intense worryworts, it’s probably why I’m so hetero-attracted to him.

So I make sure we’re good, and I put the phone down. I do other stuff, I forget to reply, then a day passes.

I should reply to that email, I think.

I don’t. I haven’t got the words yet.

A day passes.

I should reply to that email, I think.

I don’t. I haven’t got the words. I’m tired. I’m depressed. I’m trying to write other stuff. I’m playing Bioshock. I’m eating a cheese sandwich. I’m trying to get my Contributoria article funded. I’m making dinner for the missus. I’m washing my hair. The excuses run like water; shitty, horrible brown water that pisses out of taps in Moroccan hostels.

More time passes and all the time that fucking email is sloshing around my head. I think about it at night. I tell myself that tomorrow is the day I reply to that. I convince myself that the procrastination will end and it’ll all be over tomorrow. I get that precious, sweet hit of dopamine, because my brain doesn’t really care about fulfilling my goals, it just wants to reward me for pretending I’m going to. I am almost giddy from the prospect of sending this email.

Then morning comes. I wake up. I am really not feeling this email. I’m not feeling anything. Just close the curtains and have a nap. Complete your chores, watch Fifteen to One, eat a cheese sandwich. More excuses, more shitty brown water. I enter a shame spiral, the Oblivion of shame spirals, but the ride is malfunctioning and it won’t ever stop.

This is not a new thing. If it isn’t an email to a friend, it’s a phone call I don’t make that I promise to. It’s not even a people thing. Need to finish an article? Oh, I’ll do it later. Library book needs returning? Oh, I’ll do it tomorrow. There’s always a tomorrow. I have wasted hundreds of pounds over the last 2-3 years putting things off because there’s always tomorrow. I have lost contact with friends, really fucking good friends, because there’s always tomorrow, but when tomorrow comes, I’m just waiting for the next one.

I don’t really know why I’m writing this. Procrastination is like a drug to me. A shitty drug with no real high. I’m trying to kick it. I have an obscene amount of time right now and the good will of the missus, so I should do something with it. I should write a thing about it and post it online. Yeah, that would be good. I should reply to my friend. I should get going on my novel. I should make a new proposal for Contributoria.

Tomorrow. I’ll do it tomorrow.

The old man and the FOBT.

It wasn’t the anti-social behaviour that first made me realise this job wasn’t for me. It wasn’t the person getting an ear bitten off, or the guy shitting in a bin. It wasn’t the drug dealers, the drug addicts or the drunks. For me it was a gambling addict, or rather, the wife of one. The drunks and smack heads I vaguely understand; the guy shitting in a bin, well, he really needed to take a shit, but it’s the hardcore gamblers that really get to you sometimes.

You can watch them sit at a machine for hours and hours, not eating, not drinking, not even taking a piss break; the stamina and metabolism of the machine gambler is insane. He’ll pump a thousand or two into the machine, and no matter what his return, it’s never going to be enough. Either they’ll keep going for that magic number in the back of their head — the result of arcane maths that takes into account wins and losses for that day, week, month, year, or Christ, even a lifetime – or quit in a rage, losing thousands and thousands, chasing that mythical number they’ll never reach.

But it was none of this that soured me on the job. What got me in the end was a little old lady. Short, grey hair, sweet little smile and the kindest eyes. She’d come in a few times before with her husband, a gruff, angry little man, who always talked to her like a piece of shit. He’d snarl at her for reasons unknown, wave her away whenever she suggested that maybe they should go home, and was generally a nasty piece of work.

One day I’m covering a break by New Street, when the lady and her husband pop in. She smiles politely and says hello and joins her husband by machine number one. He loads it with £50s, shoving them in the way my missus loads the penny pushers at arcades – with haste and with seemingly no limit. He’s limited by law to £100 a spin, and those spins keep a-coming, and those losses start racking up.

Finally, his bag of holding seemed to run out of £50s. He grunted toward the sweet old woman, and she came up to me.

“May I put £200 on please?”

“Sure.”

I don’t care. She’s a grown up, it’s her money, this is nothing to do with me. A common defense mechanism for any bookie with anything resembling a soul.

Money goes on and is lost in a few minutes.

The man grunts. The little old lady approaches again, debit card in hand.

“May I have £200 please?”

“Of course.”

She heads back to machine number one, the money is lost.

The man grunts.

“May I have £200 please?”

And now I’m starting to feel it. That itch. Some customers think we don’t give a shit about them, which for 99% of staff I’ve worked with is just untrue. We’re just jaded after seeing so many people spin away their wages, or their dole money, or their wife’s money, or the petty cash. If you treat us like a human being, we’ll do the same.

“Are you sure you want £200? You don’t have to play, you know.”

I’ve heard differing things when it comes to how to deal with people machine-loading again and again. Some would have you think it’s none of your business and you should leave them to it. I can see that, but I still think we have a responsibility to step in and say something. If you worked in a pub and you’ve seen a customer drinking himself into oblivion, you’re going to say ‘okay, pal, you’ve had enough’. I have on occasion been discouraged to do the same. It was early in my time at Ladbrokes, so I decided to just take it easy for now.

“Yes, that’s fine. Please could you keep the receipts behind the counter?”

I agreed, kept them to one side, and started totting them up. It wasn’t long before she’d racked up a grand on her card.

The man has won a bit now, a few hundred, but then spins it away and that familiar grunt comes again. She approaches, now she’s looking a bit weary. She doesn’t want to do this anymore; I doubt she ever did. And because I’m a spineless arsehole, I whip out the card reader, ready to eat her card and her savings.

“May I have £200 please? Also… how much is it now?”

I quickly flip through the receipts.

“You’re up to £1,200 now.”

Her face falls a bit. She looks ill. She nods and puts the card into the reader and taps away another £200. She asks me to keep the receipt again, but before she goes back to the machine, she pauses and looks at me.

“You do see people win on these machines, don’t you?”

Oh God, that voice, those pleading eyes. If you could draw the image of a perfect grandmother, she’d be it – and I’m nicking all her money.

“Yeah, occasionally.”

“So you think we’ll win then?”

Shit. I don’t know. It’s random.

“I hope so.”

She smiles and walks back, looking relieved, maybe? The money vanishes, obviously. She takes a look back at me, nods and smiles that sweet little smile of hers. I hate when customers take out their losses on me or other members of staff, but now I want this woman to be angry, not sad. Just fucking shout at me, curse me, throw pens and slips around, just be anything other than nice.

He puts his last few coins in, loses, grunts, and they head off. She says goodbye, I try a smile, then she’s gone. The colleage I was covering for comes back and I head back to Paradise Forum. The whole walk back all I can think of is that woman and her money. I feel like I’ve basically dipped into her handbag and stolen her retirement money. I’ve nicked her grandchildren’s inheritance. Why didn’t I try harder to get her to stop? Did I even have to? Of course I did. Fuck the turnover figures, fuck the machine managers, I should’ve just refused to serve them, I should’ve said the card reader was broken, done something.

I didn’t, though, and I kept thinking about her for a week or two, before other customers took her place. Some spat at me, others screamed at me, one guy went insane and called me a white cunt over and over again over the tiniest of misunderstandings. Death threats, insults, complaints, nothing could really compare to that little old lady and the money I’d stolen from her.

Until that guy shat in the bin, anyway.