The increasing reach of video gambling machines is creating high rates of gambling, which results in personal, financial and employment issues for many gamblers.

With increased legalization, relaxed laws and online availability, gambling in the U.S. is moving outside of casinos. Rather than being restricted to a few casinos in a few states, gambling is now widely available across the country.

With slot machines, card games and video gambling becoming more accessible, more people are playing these games of chance, which increases the risk of gambling disorder and gambling addiction.

The impact of video gambling in Illinois, in particular, is shocking and may serve as a call to action to individuals, professionals and politicians across the country. Instead of offering additional revenue, video gambling is creating distinct problems.

Video gambling machines have drastically changed the way people gamble. With video gambling, the process of gambling is computerized, more convenient and more addictive than ever.

Rather than needing to make a potentially long drive to a casino video gambling machines are located throughout communities in some states. A person may find video slot machines or video poker machines in local:

  • Restaurants
  • Bars
  • Truck stops
  • Gambling parlors, which may be found in strip malls

Since the Illinois video gambling expansion in 2012, about 30,000 video gambling machines have been installed at nearly 7,000 locations in that state alone. For some, the additional gambling options serve as a temptation to participate in the activity.

Just as not every person who drinks alcohol will develop an alcohol use disorder, not every person who gambles will develop a gambling disorder. With easy access, though, the rates of people with problematic gambling will likely increase.

States That Have Legalized Video Gambling Outside of Casinos

Video gambling is a relatively new phenomenon with few states adopting policies to legalize it. Currently, there are only seven states that allow video gaming terminals.

The states that have legalized video gaming outside of casinos are:

  • Illinois
  • Louisiana
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • Oregon
  • South Dakota
  • West Virginia

The statistics on gambling are challenging to track because the industry changes so rapidly. In June of 2018, Louisiana passed new gambling laws allowing:

  • Online fantasy sports games
  • Riverboat gambling expansions
  • Larger slot machines at race tracks
  • Additional video poker machines
  • Fewer rules on truck stop gambling

Other states do not explicitly allow video slot machines or video poker machines outside of casinos, but they may offer a variety of other casino games, lotteries and online gambling options.

Impact of Gambling Expansion

Depending on the point of view, the gambling expansion has been either a successful or damaging initiative. States are reaping huge rewards, while individuals are suffering terrible consequences.

For states, video gambling is a windfall of revenue. In 2017, video gambling in Illinois earned $1.2 billion statewide. With such a large amount of money produced by video poker and slots, many people see the benefit of expansion and are in favor of continued growth, even though the state only receives a small portion of this revenue. The majority of profits go to the terminal operates and establishments that house the machines.

With video gambling, the state wins, but its people lose. All of the revenue from gambling comes directly from the citizens’ losses.

Since its legalization in 2012, residents of Illinois have lost more than $5 billion to video gaming machines, according to a report published by ProPublica. Gambling losses continue to increase every day.

Beyond the massive cumulative losses, there are plenty of first-person accounts of people who have lost their homes or businesses due to gambling. Others gambled away their life savings by wagering upwards of $10,000 per week on video poker games.

Similarities to Substance Addiction

Supporters of video gambling often suggest that people who are losing too much money on gambling should simply stop. For many people, though, stopping this behavior is extremely difficult.

With time and increased exposure to gambling, people may acquire a gambling disorder. In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) released its latest revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a text mental health professionals use to understand and diagnose psychiatric conditions.

For the first time, the DSM-5 classified gambling as a “Non-Substance-Related Disorder,” implying that gambling has more in common with alcohol and drug addictions than it does with impulse control problems. Gambling disorder is the only recognized addiction linked to a behavior, not a substance.

People with gambling disorder have a persistent pattern of gambling that creates high levels of stress or functional impairment. A person with a gambling disorder will:

  • Need to gamble larger amounts of money over time to achieve the desired excitement
  • Feel restless or irritable when not gambling or attempting to cut back
  • Make various unsuccessful efforts to reduce or stop their gambling
  • Think about past or future gambling
  • Gamble to manage stress
  • Continue to gamble, even after losing significant amounts of money hoping to win it back
  • Risk their job, relationships and health for the sake of gambling
  • Rely on others to help them out of serious financial situations

Gambling addiction and substance use share many similarities, including the tendency to obsessively think about gambling or drugs and the compulsive desire to engage in the harmful behavior. In addition to these thoughts and actions, experts find that the brain responds in comparable ways to gambling and substance use. Gambling and substance use both cause the release of a chemical called dopamine in the brain. High amounts of dopamine create a rewarding experience, which trains the brain to seek out the feeling again.

Gambling is also like substance use disorders because many people with these conditions tend to have additional mental health disorders as well. People with a gambling disorder or substance use disorder may also have:

Evolution of the Video Gambling Experience

Traditional gambling may produce addiction, but the development of video gambling created games so apt at creating gambling disorders that experts have referred to them as “the crack cocaine of gambling” and “electronic morphine.”

Modern video poker and video slot machines are so comfortable, convenient and stimulating that it becomes easy to lose track of time, block out the world and spend more money than originally intended. The machines are not designed to create addiction, but they are designed to capture a person’s attention and time.

The modern video gambling experience has many facets to encourage gambling, like:

  • A comfortable chair with foam and leather cushions
  • A button on the armrest to minimize movement needed to play
  • Cup holders
  • Cash input
  • Flashing displays and lights, often with themes meant to appeal to common groups of gamblers
  • Sound effects

Game designers spend time meticulously reviewing every characteristic of the game to create the most captivating experience. Every part of the screen, chair, buttons and cup holders helps the person play longer and faster. People may play between 600 and 1,200 spins per hour.

One of the most potent psychological tools associated with video gambling is the reinforcement the game provides. Video gambling machines use something called a “variable ratio reinforcement schedule” to reward players, meaning there is a random number of plays needed to receive a payout.

A reinforcement schedule like this builds anticipation, so the player believes the next spin will be the jackpot. On average, though, machines keep more than 25% of the money put in by design. Given enough time, the machine always comes out ahead.

Another crafty strategy to encourage more gambling is the misleading wording that flashes on the screen. If a player wagers $10 and losses $8, the machine will say the player won $2 to shift the focus to the money left instead of the money lost. This trick is called a “false win.”

A Reason for Concern: Lack of Funding for Treatment

More people gamble more frequently with video gambling. Unfortunately, there are few resources set aside to identify gambling problems and provide professional treatments to those in need.

In fact, Illinois does not use any profit garnered from video gambling to fund treatments for those who develop gambling disorder. Private treatment facilities and the Department of Human Resources offer treatments to individuals in the state.

The Illinois Department of Human Resources allocated more than $800,000 for gambling treatment in 2012, but less than $650,000 in 2017. In 2017, most of that money was used for outreach and awareness of gambling-related issues.

Preventative Measures

The act of preventing gambling addiction or gambling relapses is complicated, due in part to the widespread nature of video gambling machines. In Illinois’ 10 casinos, people can add themselves to a casino self-exclusion list, meaning the casino will not let them enter or gamble. This list permits a person with an insight into their problematic gambling to take preventative measures to avoid future gambling. It is the equivalent of a person heading to the local bar and pleading with the bartender to never serve them in an attempt to remain sober.

With almost 7,000 video gambling locations, tracking all players and cross-checking with a self-exclusion list for video gambling would be time-consuming, cumbersome and cut into profits, so politicians would likely resist its implementation. It is needed, though, with about 40% of people on the self-exception list citing video machines as their reason for being added to the list.

Other preventative measures employed in the U.S. and around the world include requiring all players to use tracking cards to limit their play or setting the machines to moderate the play of the person. The effectiveness of these measures is not yet known.

If gambling is affecting your life in combination with a substance use disorder, it may be time to consider professional treatment. Calling The Recovery Village will put you in touch with a helpful representative who can describe treatment options and begin the enrollment process.

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Editor – Megan Hull
Megan Hull is a content specialist who edits, writes and ideates content to help people find recovery. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Eric Patterson, LPC
Eric Patterson is a licensed professional counselor in the Pittsburgh area who is dedicated to helping children, adults, and families meet their treatment goals. Read more

American Gaming Association. “State of the States 2018: The AGA Survey[…]cial Casino Industry.” 2018. Assessed May 4, 2019.

American Psychiatric Association. “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Fifth Edition.” 2013.

Grott, Jason, Kambehampati. “How Has the ‘Crack Cocaine of Gambling[…]’t Bother to Check.” ProPublica, February 20, 2019. Accessed May 4, 2019.

O’Donoghue, Julia. “Gambling in Louisiana Will Have a Totally New Look Soon.” The Times-Picayune, June 18, 2018. Assessed May 4, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.