No lady luck: A case study of adolescent female slot machine addiction

Based on research into adolescent slot machine playing, all British research has found that most adolescent slot machine players are male and that very few female adolescent slot machine addicts have ever been identified in the literature. The main findings relating to adolescent female slot machine players were published in papers by Dr. Sue Fisher and myself (mostly in the 1990s). In 1993, Dr. Fisher reported the existence of teenage females with no playing skills and little interest in acquiring them, and who gamble on slot machines primarily to gain access to the arcade venue where they can socialize with their friends (calling them ‘Rent-a-Spacers’). Their preferred role is one of ‘spectator’. In an earlier published (1991) study in the Journal of Applied and Community Psychology, I observed that arcades were a meeting place for adolescent social groups in which playing activity was predominantly male-oriented with girls looking on in ‘cheerleader’ roles. In 2003, I published a rare case study of an adolescent female slot machine addict (who I called ‘Jo’) and thought I would share some of the things I found from that study in today’s blog

During a nine-month period, I interviewed Jo three times formally and also maintained regular contact with her on an informal basis. She was confirmed as a probable pathological gambler using the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-IV criteria for pathological gambling.

Jo was brought up as an only child in a seaside town in the South West of England. She described her parents as “comfortable, middle class and loving”. However, she also made reference to the fact that there were reasonably strict rules in the house. Her father was an insurance salesman and her mother was a schoolteacher. She went to a mixed school, and up to the age of 13 years she had good school reports and was in the top 10% of her class academically. She was also very good at sports (and was an active member of the school athletics club) and described herself as “physically stronger” than most of her peers. Jo claims she did not really relate to the other girls in her school and often got into playground fights with them. During her early adolescence she made a few good friends although these were mostly boys of her own age or a little older. She herself described her adolescent years as a “tomboy”. Educationally, she left school when she was 16 years old and got an office job working as an administrative assistant.

Jo started playing slot machines at a young age because they were so abundant in the town where she lived. She described them as “being part of the wallpaper”. To some extent, her parents encouraged her gambling. Like a lot of “seaside parents”, they often took Jo to the amusement arcades as a child for “a weekend treat”. Like many families, they did not see anything wrong with going to the seaside arcade because they felt it was “harmless fun and didn’t cost much.” However, these early experiences coupled with exposure to slot machines in her peer group were instrumental factors in Jo’s acquisition of slot machine playing. Living in a seaside town, access to the machines was widespread, and the main place for “hanging out” was at the local arcades. There were four or five of them because the town was a popular tourist attraction. Arcades provided a meeting point for her friends. She was part of a gang in which hanging around the arcades was one of the few activities that the group could engage in.

At 13 years old, she mainly used to just watch her male friends play on the slot machines and video games. However, within a year, she was playing on slot machines as much as her peers. The arcade was where Jo “felt safe and protected”. She liked it that everyone who worked there knew who she was. In the arcade she was a ‘somebody’ rather than a ‘nobody’. In essence, the arcade provided a medium where Jo’s self-esteem was raised.

Jo gave a number of insights into her motivations for slot machine playing. Skill did not appear to be a motivating factor for continued play. She played to win money (to further her playing rather than fuel any winning fantasies) and did not see the machines as particularly skilful. Although most of Jo’s (male) friends claimed that slot machine playing was very skillful if you were good at it, Jo always believed that slot machines were not like video games and that “winning big” had a lot of luck to it. Knowing her way round a slot machine while helpful, didn’t make her feel as though she was especially skilful except when complete novices would play. Also, being female, the older age women who played on the simple machines would talk to her (unlike the adolescent males who would be shunned by this clientele). This made her feel wanted and needed. However, between the ages of 14 and 15 years, Jo’s slot machine playing became all encompassing. As she explains:

“There was a period in my life between the ages of 15 and 17 where the machines became the most important thing in my life. I didn’t worry about money. I just believed I would win it back or that money would come from somewhere because it always had. I was forever chasing my losses. I would always tell myself that after a bad loss, the arcade was only ‘borrowing’ my money and that they would have to ‘pay it back’ next time I was in there. Of course, that rarely happened but once I was playing again, money worries and losses went out of the window. Gambling became my primary means of escape. On the positive side, at least it helped me to give up smoking and drinking. I simply couldn’t afford to buy nicotine or alcohol – or anything else for that matter. I never believed that gambling would make me rich – I just thought it would help me clear my debts.”

Jo didn’t acknowledge that she had a problem – even when she started to go down to the arcade on her own and using all her disposable income to fund her slot machine playing. However, in retrospect, she realized a problem was developing.

“I used to spend every penny I had on the (slot) machines. It was a good job I wasn’t into clothes like the other girls at school. I couldn’t have afforded to buy anything as I lost everything I had in the long run. I used to wear the same pair of jeans for months. I don’t even think I washed them”.

When Jo was 15 years old, a telephone call from the school headmaster alerted Jo’s mother that her daughter might be having some problems in her life. The headmaster phoned to say that Jo’s attendance had been very poor during the previous three months and that she had stopped attending athletics practice. When confronted, Jo admitted that she had not been attending school but said that all the girls in her class hated her. To some extent this was true (she didn’t get on with any of the girls at her school) but was not the reason she was truanting. Instead of going to school she had been spending her time in the local arcades. For a few weeks she tried to stop her gambling. Now that her parents knew there were problems, she thought this would be the ideal time to give up. However, after 17 days without gambling, her boyfriend split up with her and she relapsed by gambling again. This then carried on for almost two years.

Jo’s parents were very understanding and looked for alternatives to help their daughter. They considered moving classes within the school and moving schools completely. Jo simply said she would try to integrate more. At no stage did Jo’s parents ever suspect that her erratic behaviour was linked to anything other than the problems of adolescent mixing. Jo managed to successfully hide her problem for a further two years before everything came out into the open.

As an only child it was difficult for Jo’s parents to know whether their experience was normal. They hardly saw Jo. At the age of 16 years, Jo upset her parents not only by leaving school but also by leaving home. They knew there was little that they could do. When Jo left home, she assumed that all her problems would disappear. However, she got into more and more trouble and was unable to make ends meet. She lived from hand to mouth. She began to steal from friends, from work and from anyone she met. On two occasions she met males she had never met before that moment, went back to their houses, and then stole their money and/or valuables.

Over this period of nearly two years Jo became more and more withdrawn, lost her friends and ended up resorting to stealing from her place of work. Eventually she was sacked (for taking the petty cash) although her employers were unaware that her problem was gambling (or that she even had a problem). They assumed she wanted more money to supplement her very modest wages. Although she lost her job, the company did not instigate criminal charges.

The first major turning point was being sacked from her first job for theft of the petty cash. She had nowhere else to go but back home. Her parents were a tremendous support although were surprised that slot machines were the heart of the problem. Jo claimed her mother didn’t believe her at first. They wondered how someone could get addicted to a machine. Jo claimed it would have been easier for her mother to accept if she had a drug or alcohol problem rather than a gambling problem.

The cessation of her gambling began when Jo (with her parents’ help) got another job in a remote village in Cornwall (in South West England). There was no arcade, no slot machines in the local pub, and no slot machine within a four-mile radius. She did not drive a car and it was too far to walk to the nearest town. In essence, the lack of access to a slot machine forced her to stop playing. She still got the cravings but there was nothing she could do. She also claimed to have a number of serious self-reported withdrawal symptoms. At work she was short-tempered, irritable with colleagues, and constantly moody. Physically, she had trouble sleeping, and occasionally had stomach cramps, and felt nauseous through lack of play.

Jo eventually joined a local Gamblers Anonymous (GA) that her parents drove her to every week. She only attended a handful of times and stopped attending because she was the only female in the group, the only slot machine player, and also the youngest. Despite the opportunity to share her experiences with eleven or twelve people in a similar position to herself, she felt psychologically isolated. Being able to talk about the problem with people she could trust (i.e., her parents) was a great help. In addition, with her desire to stop and with no access to slot machines, Jo managed to curtail her gambling. She claims she “wasted four years of her adolescence” due to slot machine playing – and she doesn’t want to waste any more of her life. However, there is no certainty that Jo is ‘cured’ – Jo feels a number of triggers could set her off again (like rejection of someone close to her). Talking to people has been Jo’s “salvation” as she calls it. She had always thought that slot machine playing couldn’t be a problem and therefore found it hard that people would accept the “addiction” she had. Other people’s acceptance that she suffered something akin to alcoholism or drug addiction has helped her recovery.

From my own personal research experience, Jo’ account is fairly typical of slot machine addicts. This is an individual who began playing slot machines socially, steadily gambled more and more over time, spent every last penny on gambling and resorted to the cycle of using their own money, borrowing money, and then finally stealing money, just to fund their gambling habit. Criminal proceedings could have occurred but fortunately (for Jo), she was punished by losing her job. The one major difference between this and all other accounts is that Jo happens to be female.

The major limitation of a study such as this is that it relied totally on retrospective self-report. Not only do I have to take Jo’s account as true but it is also subject to the fallibility of human memory. There is also the major limitation that the findings here are based on one person only and there is little that can be said about generalizability.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Fisher, S. E. (1992). Measuring pathological gambling in children: The case of fruit machines in the U.K. Journal of Gambling Studies, 8, 263-285.

Fisher, S. (1993). The pull of the fruit machine: A sociological typology of young players. Sociological Review, 41, 446-474.

Griffiths, M.D. (1991). The observational analysis of adolescent gambling in UK amusement arcades. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 1, 309-320.

Griffiths, M.D. (1995). Adolescent Gambling. London : Routledge.

Griffiths, M.D. (2002). Gambling and Gaming Addictions in Adolescence. Leicester: British Psychological Society/Blackwells.

Griffiths, M.D. (2003). Fruit machine addiction in females: A case study. Journal of Gambling Issues, 8. Located at:

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Adolescent gambling. In B. Bradford Brown & Mitch Prinstein(Eds.), Encyclopedia of Adolescence (Volume 3) (pp.11-20). San Diego: Academic Press.

Griffiths, M.D. (2011).A typology of UK slot machine gamblers: A longitudinal observational and interview study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 9, 606-626.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on July 22, 2014, in Addiction, Adolescence, Case Studies, Compulsion, Gambling, Gambling addiction, Gender differences, Obsession, Psychiatry, Psychology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Just for info: this case study has been on the ‘further research’ Pre-U psychology syllabus (alternative to A level) for the last five years.

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