Helping kids kick video-game habit
London — ''I never went to win money to buy a record or a pair of shoes. It was always more money that would go into the machine. I just wanted to be able to play the machine for as long as I could. The more money I won, the longer I'd be at it.''
At 16, Terry, a London schoolboy, is a five-year veteran of the gambling game. Until recently, when he joined Gamblers Anonymous, he was one of the thousands of British children and teen-agers who regularly skip school or work to spend endless hours playing slot machines and video computer games in the neon-lighted arcades scattered around the seedier, litter-strewn streets of London's West End and in most provincial towns and cities.
At any hour of the day and late into the night, the amusement arcades are packed with kids, wide-eyed from staring at a video screen or at the whirring images of the ''one-armed bandit'' as they wait for the magic combination to come up.
When the last coin has been swallowed up, they come staggering out onto the pavement, dazed, their eyes screwed up against the sunlight.
''There's usually only one thought on their minds,'' says Terry, ''where to find the money to go back in and start all over again.''
The problem has become acute: Gamblers Anonymous (GA) says that so many British youngsters are addicted to slot machines and video games that the organization is planning to set up a national network of junior branches to help them cope.
A spokesman for GA's national committee says that 1 in 5 of those who turn to the organization for help is between the ages of 12 and 18; and as he points out , that is just a fraction of those who are affected.
After consulting its 100 district branches all over the country, GA considers the situation so serious that it plans to devote much of its two-day annual conference next month to the issue of child gamblers.
A long-term member from a north London suburb says: ''We are getting more and more young people coming forward. It's getting worse all the time - especially among unemployed school-leavers who have nothing to do all day except hang about , looking for ways to pass the time.''
The idea of junior branches has come up because GA has found that young gamblers are reluctant to discuss their worries with adults - even if they do share the same basic problem. The organization feels it would be best to help youngsters sort out their troubles among themselves, at their own group meetings , with perhaps a single senior counselor present.
One of the most vociferous advocates of junior branches is GA's southern region organizer, Derek, a bank clerk: ''My main worry is that all these kids could end up like me. At 37, I've got two divorces, countless jobs, and a long criminal record to my name. The root of it all was my addiction to gambling.''
Many children begin by spending all their pocket money on the machines. When that source dries up, they begin to steal from their mothers' purses, before searching for other means - any means - of obtaining money to satisfy their craving.
''That's how they drift into petty crime,'' says Derek. ''We get many letters from young offenders in Borstal (reform schools) asking for help. They're generally in for burglary or shoplifting or pinching cars. Unless you're a gambler, it's hard to understand: Money is the key to a dream world. You feel you can't possibly lose.''
The basic difficulty, GA says, is getting children to admit they are hooked.
Most youngsters are referred to GA by their parents, but it can take families some time even to begin to suspect what is happening. When they do, the disruption can be disastrous. When money first goes missing around the house, everyone in the family falls under suspicion. The young gambler often feels so guilty at having stolen from his parents that he runs away.
Derek knows a family in Southampton where the mother committed suicide because she was so distraught at her teen-age son's stealing and her own inability to do anything about it.
''And that is not an isolated case,'' he says. ''It's simply an indication of the way things are going.''
A junior branch of Gamblers Anonymous already exists. Run by Terry, it meets once a week in a community center in London's Victoria section.
Terry says his own case is typical of others he has come across: ''It started quite innocently, when I was about 11, with family days out at the seaside, playing the penny arcades on the pier. I remember always taking it much more seriously and playing a lot longer than anyone else. Then I realized I didn't have to go down to Brighton to play the slot machines, they were all around me, in arcades and local cafes. I drifted into the arcades because they were more stylish, everything was nice and clean.''
There were times, says Terry, when he would play all day, probably spending some $:20 ($30) a week. Some of that came from his weekend job, some was money stolen from his parents and employer.
Terry's passion, which he believes is now under control, was slot machines. But Gamblers Anonymous says that video computer games, which stand alongside them in the amusement arcades, are no less compelling - even though they offer no prizes.
Says Derek: ''Video games have certainly aggravated the situation - they're so magnetic. Those who play them risk becoming gamblers because the slot machine is always just a step away. I'm not saying that all those who play are bound to become hooked. But, as with alcohol, if a kid's inclined that way, he's only got to scoop the jackpot once, and that's it.''
Under present British law, there is nothing to stop children of any age from playing slot machines in arcades or in cafes. The only places they are not allowed to use them is in pubs, or in clubs where alcohol is served, but in practice, many pub owners turn a blind eye.
Gamblers Anonymous is not itself involved in trying to change the law, and many of its members feel that nothing will be done so long as the government continues to make big money out of gaming machines. Annual license fees for these machines last year earned the government $:26 million ($39 million) - a substantial increase on the previous year's figure of $:17 million ($25.5 million). Estimates suggest the total for the current year could be as high as $ :44 million.
But Gamblers Anonymous is not totally alone in its concern about young gamblers.
Four local government authorities in London (including the city of Westminster, which covers the whole of the West End) have been working behind the scenes to try to change the law on licensing arcades with gaming machines.
Their campaign is being organized through the Amusement Arcades Action Group, whose chairman is Conservative Councilor Robert Davis:
''We have tried talking to arcade operators but it got us nowhere. A few years ago, they agreed to a voluntary code which would have prevented children under 14 from playing one-armed bandits. But that agreement has been broken, and under the present law we have no way of enforcing it. We realized then that new laws were needed.''
The action group plans to present a private bill to Parliament in November. If it goes through, it will give London's local authorities the right to limit the number of amusement arcades, to set a minimum age limit, to shorten opening hours, and to impose penalties of up to $:10,000 for operators who ignore the rules.
Robert Davis is optimistic: He says the campaign has political support right across the board, from Conservative and Labour councilors alike.
Local governments outside the capital are watching current developments closely. If London councilors win the battle for closer supervision over gaming machines, there is every likelihood that other cities in Britain will follow suit.
This will not eliminate the plight of young gamblers who are already hooked, nor that of children whose biggest challenge in life is getting the better of ''Space Invaders.'' But it may help ensure that case histories such as Terry's become less commonplace.