Looking For the Problem in Problem Gambling

The time has come for the gaming industry to address gambling addiction. In the long-term there are no absolute solutions, just as there are no solutions to alcohol, tobacco or shopping addictions. Prohibition has been tried and it does not work. Many states are using excessive taxation on alcohol and tobacco, but there are no signs that strategy is working either. Although, the laws prohibiting smoking in public places do seem to be reducing the number of smokers. Does the lack of success with other addictions mean there is nothing to do? No, there are things we can do, starting with better research. A groundbreaking study was just released in England. The researchers had access to the complete data base of some of the country’s bookies. Access to that data base allowed the researchers to really hone in on addictive behavior and separate it from other gambling behavior. English gamblers may be different than American gamblers. Still, there will be things to be learned from the study for us, too.

One of the key partners on the recently published research on FOBTs has said that limiting the size of stakes is not the way to deal with problem gambling issues…. analyzed almost seven billion interactions between gambling customers and category B2 gaming machines and its findings may well transform how problem gamblers are identified and helped…“There have been many fascinating insights that have come from this, the most detailed analysis of how gamblers behave that has ever been undertaken. What we have learned, and the model we have developed, should allow step-changes to be made in protecting those vulnerable to addiction from machines. By using technology to learn the behaviors associated with gambling harm, we can meaningfully impact a social challenge by predicting which players are at risk. Andrew McCarron, SBC News, 12-3-14

Gambling industry regulators have used Cambridge technology for one of the world’s largest ever and most in-depth studies of gambling habits. Now the behavioral analytics deployed by Featurespace for the research could become a key weapon in the ensuing fight to stem addiction… Excell hailed the opportunity to make a step-change in protecting those vulnerable to addiction. He told Business Weekly: “The industry has often discussed wanting to help problem gamblers but has never had tools as effective as those available today. Using predictive analytics software to understand player behaviour an alert can be triggered when operators see that an individual’s behavior is becoming more risky. “There are a range of interventions which are personalized toward the individual player, such as a pop-up that asks them to assess the amount spent all the way up to staff communication. Tony Quested, Business Weekly, 12-3-14

Logically, the next step would be a combined effort of the industry and regulators. A number of different methods have been discussed and tried over the years. Self-exclusion is the most common method that has been adopted. For it to work, gamblers have to acknowledge the problem and place themselves on the banned list. And casinos have to enforce the ban. The method has had a reasonable degree of success.

A scheme to allow gamblers to ban themselves from all betting shops in Chatham has started. Gamblers who wish to have their bets refused will be able to sign a form and provide photos. Previously people could ban themselves from one shop, however, the new scheme allows addicts to ban themselves from all 10 betting shops in Chatham. Medway Council has introduced the scheme in partnership with bookmakers. BBC News, 12-3-14

In the 1990s, Harrah’s adopted a responsible gaming policy hoping to protect its customers and its reputation. The company trained some of its employees to spot potentially addictive behavior and to intervene in ways that did not threaten or anger the gambler. It was an industry first. There have been other attempts to help addictive gamblers deal with their addiction. Recently, an Australian has taken a mixture of AA methodology and some behavior modification techniques that might have been used in the last century to treat other behaviors. His plan is to demonstrate the mathematics behind the games and explain the folly in going against the house. Good luck on that one. In my experience most players know something of the math and house advantage and yet they continue to play. But, in Australia he is guaranteed to find at least one lawmaker ready to give it a try and propose a law that requires every gambler to undergo the training.

A radical new approach to treating problem gambling is using mathematics to prove to punters that they can never beat the system. Researchers at Sydney University’s Gambling Treatment Clinic have been able to reduce their clients’ gambling by 80 to 90 per cent by lifting the lid on how the gambling industry works… “A belief that the more losing that occurs, the closer you are to winning. So when you’re down you continue to gamble because you think a machine is due to pay. “And when you’re up you continue to gamble because you think it will pay more.” He teaches his clients that poker machines are completely random and that chasing your losses is ultimately futile. Ursula Malone, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 12-3-14

Pennsylvania proposed an interesting idea. It was probably the most radical I have seen. However, it never made it out of the legislature. The proposal would have required all casinos to send to each player a monthly report of their coin-in and losses. Research has been conducted on a number of other methods of alerting gamblers to potential problems using available technology. Some foreign jurisdictions have required slot machines to be equipped with technology to inform players of the time and money expended and the accumulated losses.

Penn National Gaming will test a new system to help gamblers set limits on their betting at the slot parlor it is building in Plainville. The voluntary “play management” system would allow gamblers to set a dollar amount they intend to spend during a single session, day or month. On-screen reminders would then provide regulator notifications as gamblers approach, reach and exceed their limits. At each point, the gambler would have to actively acknowledge the message to continue gambling. Associated Press, Boston Herald, 12-10-14

One unique project that never made it out of the testing phase used facial recognition to indentify the player. Messages in the gambler’s own voice could then be played to him/her when they reach self-imposed limits. It was an adaptation of some the current bio-feedback behavioral modification techniques, like the ones used for dieting. That version died in research and development, but Massachusetts is testing a modified version. The Massachusetts version does not use facial recognition or recordings. Instead, the gambler is identified at the time the mandatory players’ club card is inserted in a slot machine. When the gambler reaches the established limits he/she will be notified by the casino.

New Zealand is testing another system. The slot machines will be equipped with technology that will identify potential overspending and then use a “pop-up” notice to tell the gambler how long and how much they have wagered and how much they have lost.

A new study suggests that periodic ‘pop-up’ messages on electronic gaming machines (EGM) could help identify problem gambling behavior. New Zealand is the first country to institute mandatory pop-up messages in EGMs. The Gambling and Addictions Research Center at the Auckland University of Technology (AUT) conducted a study of 521 gamblers to determine their response to the pop-up messages and player information display systems (PIDs) that show the time and money spent during each gambling session. The pop-up messages were found to have no negative impact on players’ enjoyment of gambling. One-fourth of gamblers reported the pop-ups helped them regulate the amount of time and money they spent during their sessions. Those who reported being aware of the pop-ups spent less money on average but the pop-ups were not linked to any decrease in time spent gambling. Peter Amsel, Calvin Ayre, 12-11-14

There is more to be done. We need more research and development into the methodologies and technologies that are applicable. It is imperative that we continue to search for answers. There are two reasons to develop better ways of dealing with people who are addicted to the entertainment that is the foundation of our industry. First, it is the right social and moral thing to do and second, it is essential to the continued success and profitability of casinos. We cannot afford to burn out and destroy our best customers. They like us and we like them and, more importantly, we need them. Protecting our customers is in our best interest.


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