Pokies on trial: Shonica taking on Packer's Crown and Aristocrat

Take a walk across the gaming floors of casinos around the country and you'll see flashing lights, hear ringing bells, and the simulated sound of coins spilling out onto the floor.

There is also a pretty good chance, among the glowing rows of poker machines, that you will see the name "Dolphin Treasure".

Made by market-listed slots manufacturer Aristocrat, Dolphin Treasure is just one of any number of poker machine brands that are available to Australian punters.

Crown Resorts and pokies manufacturer Aristocrat will vigorously defend the claims. Photo: Josh Robenstone

Crown Resorts and pokies manufacturer Aristocrat will vigorously defend the claims. Photo: Josh Robenstone

But, over the course of the coming month, it will be analysed, scrutinised and talked about like no other machine ever has before.

Read more: $600m put through Illawarra pokies in three months - figures

In the first-ever case of its kind, Australia's Federal Court on Tuesday begins an extraordinary 14-day legal test, against Aristocrat and against James Packer's Crown Resorts, the biggest casino operator in the country.

Former pokies addict Shonica Guy and prominent law firm Maurice Blackburn, representing her pro bono, have launched the landmark action alleging Dolphin Treasure is "misleading and deceptive", violates consumer law, and employs tricks designed to "feed addiction".

Shonica Guy says playing the pokies took over her life. Photo: Peter Rae

Shonica Guy says playing the pokies took over her life. Photo: Peter Rae

"The case is not seeking damages," said the law firm. "It is about making sure that poker machines are designed fairly and that players are genuinely informed about their prospects of winning."

The ramifications could be huge if the case succeeds, either forcing Crown and Aristocrat to remove the machines or change their design. And it could open the door to similar action over the design of many other similar poker machines.

"Australia has strong consumer protection laws," said Tim Costello, of the Alliance for Gambling Reform, supporting the lawsuit. "So putting dangerously addictive pokies on trial for misleading and deceptive conduct has given hope to everyone campaigning to wind back Australia's tragic record of being the biggest gamblers in the world."

At the core of the case will be three key claims. The first is to do with the uneven spread of symbols on Dolphin Treasure's five spinning reels.

On each reel there are many symbols. There are the standard 9s, and 10s; Jacks and Queens; Kings and Aces. Then there are turtles and treasure chests; octopuses and seahorses; and pictures of fish, starfish and sunrises.

While each of the reels appears to be the same size, the first four reels in fact have 30 symbols, while the fifth, and last reel to stop spinning, has 44 symbols, making it harder to win on the final reel.

This, according to Maurice Blackburn, encourages the perception that gamblers have had "near misses" when they lose.

Additionally, the symbols in Dolphin Treasure are not evenly distributed across the five reels, so the symbols do not show up the same number of times on each reel.

Neither of these features, it will be argued in court, is made clear to punters.

The third issue in the case is Dolphin Treasure's information provided to players about the payouts, or "return to player", is misleading.

In different Australian states and territories, the return rates are somewhere between 85 and 90 per cent. Dolphin Treasure's machines in Victoria say the theoretical return is 87.8 per cent, which, Maurice Blackburn alleges, gives the impression the player will retain 87.8 per cent of the money they bet while risking losing 12.2 per cent of the money they bet.

The 85 per cent return figure is calculated over the lifetime of a machine and includes jackpots that occasional players rarely win.

"This again is misleading," principal lawyer Jacob Varghese said last year.

"The so-called 'return to player' is just an average on any given spin. If you play multiple games - as the machines encourage - the return to the player often ends up approaching zero, because you lose an average of 12.17 per cent each spin. Calling it a 'return to player' is just false.

"So if you put money into the machine and have multiple spins, you likely will be left with nothing."

Crown Resorts and Aristocrat deny the allegations and will vigorously defend the lawsuit.

Industry sources said both defendants are treating the case with the "seriousness it deserves", but believe they have walked within the boundaries of the law. All poker machines have to comply with a set of stringent requirements, called the Australia/New Zealand Gaming Machine National Standard, which, for many years now, have contained responsible gambling measures.

The Gaming Technologies Association - the group representing poker machine manufacturers - said the industry firmly stood by the integrity of its products, "which are heavily regulated and comply with strict standards".

"These standards include requirements that gaming machines not give a player a false expectation of odds, they must accurately display the result of a game outcome and not be misleading, illusory or deceptive," chief executive Ross Ferrar said.

"Every aspect of poker machines operation is governed by stringent legislation, regulations and standards to ensure integrity and fairness and that strict oversight is maintained through the life of the machine."

Mr Costello said the Australian public was "never asked if they wanted our pubs and clubs to be laden with the world's most dangerous and addictive poker machines. So let's see what Federal Court Justice Deborah Mortimer thinks after a trail-blazing three-week trial."