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Don’t Forget Responsible Gaming

As Covid-19 protocols are put in place, let’s not look beyond the problem gambler

Don’t Forget Responsible Gaming

As the gaming industry begins the process of reopening, it’s easy to be hyper-focused on the changes that need to occur in both the physical gaming spaces and the policies designed to facilitate social distancing, monitoring and response to Covid-19. All are necessary to protect the health of team members, guests and the community, and provide an environment where returning patrons will feel both safe and entertained.

It is equally critical to the mental health of team members, patrons and the community that adherence to strong responsible gaming standards not be neglected, especially now.

Covid-19 introduced itself to the world in late 2019, and over the course of just a few months showed its capacity to wreak havoc not only on human health, but also on the ways in which people have had to reevaluate their social interactions, work environments and pursuit of leisure activities. The worldwide economic fallout has been extreme, with many divergent opinions from economists and pundits on how bad things really are, and prognostications about how bad it will get before things begin to turn around.

Questions abound about how to time the reopening of various sectors of the economy. How soon is too soon when considering public health? How late is too late when considering economic health? The gaming industry is a microcosm of how these issues and more are playing out across the private sector.

MGM Resorts and Wynn Resorts each proactively announced closure of their Nevada properties prior to Governor Steve Sisolak’s announcement requiring the entire industry to do so. Placing public and team member health above profits will undoubtedly put them in good stead with the majority of returning patrons and employees.

Additionally, Wynn has been a leader in developing strategies to reconfigure the gaming space and policies to decrease the spread of Covid-19 among employees and guests. These policies have been touted by many in commercial and tribal gaming, and were reflected in policies approved by the Nevada Gaming Commission, charting the path properties must take to safely reopen.

Although responsible gaming was absent from the first draft of the commission’s requirements for reopening, a number of public comments urged the commission to, at a minimum, include language recognizing the importance of reinforcing responsible gaming messaging.

These comments were submitted from stakeholders across a wide spectrum, including current and former gaming executives, academia, treatment providers, prevention and awareness advocacy organizations and the recovery community. During a public workshop of the Gaming Control Board, Chairwoman Sandra Douglass Morgan announced that language on responsible gaming would indeed be included in the final language, which was ultimately released on May 27.

While the added section on responsible gaming contains only two sentences, they are very important sentences indeed. They require licensees to reaffirm their commitment to responsible gaming measures as part of their formal reopening plans, which were submitted to the commission for review and approval in advance of reopening. They read as follows:

  • Responsible Gaming. Plans must include the licensee’s commitment to and implementation of responsible gaming measures. Licensees are encouraged to enhance their responsible gaming measures, including, without limitation, providing enhanced training to employees and creating specialized messaging for patrons.

So, why should we care about responsible gaming as much or more now than before? And why is it important to consider implementation of enhanced training for employees and new measures and messaging for patrons?

The answer is simple. The financial, emotional and psychological impacts brought about by isolation, trauma and financial or personal loss due to the events of the past several months are known risk factors for problem gambling and other addictive disorders. They create a dangerous cocktail for people who may be predisposed to problem gambling, and not cognitively equipped to make healthy decisions with regards to their personal gambling behaviors.

This group includes not only people who may have begun to experience gambling problems or who were in early recovery prior to the pandemic, but also people who, because of personal experiences caused by the pandemic, are for the first time at higher risk for developing a gambling disorder.

For the near term, perhaps even until a reliable vaccine has been developed and becomes widely available, the makeup of early returnees to the physical gaming space is likely to include a higher than usual percentage of individuals who are already suffering from a gambling disorder, and others who are suddenly at higher risk for developing a gambling problem specifically because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Additionally, studies show that casino team members may be at higher risk for developing a gambling disorder than the general public, and they will have experienced the same types of impacts to their lives as returning patrons, heightening that risk. Returning employees have many concerns about their own safety related to their risk of contracting and transmitting Covid-19 to their families or others, and these risks should be both addressed and mitigated to the extent possible.

While responsible gaming practices may not be uppermost on team members’ minds at this time, reemphasizing the importance of maintaining these practices while reopening will give them a refresher course on the resources available to them and their colleagues who may develop a gambling problem. Team members who feel both safe and comfortable in their new environment will convey that feeling, both consciously and unconsciously, to the returning patrons.

During the pandemic there has been a significant increase in the use of online gambling and gaming platforms worldwide. The increasing ability to enjoy wagering from the safety and privacy of one’s own home or hotel room is a way to socially isolate while still engaging in this form of entertainment. However, while these options provide additional means of mitigating the transmission of Covid-19, isolation is, in and of itself, a risk factor for developing a gambling disorder.

Operators of purely online wagering sites as well as brick-and-mortar operators who offer the ability to wager online while in-house or in-state should be aware of the potential for increased problem gambling at this time and in the near future, and look for innovative ways to enhance messaging to these consumers in particular.

Finally, as licensees work to recreate the gaming space and implement new measures to curb the spread of Covid-19, there is also the opportunity to explore innovative responsible gaming messaging and access to that messaging. As gaming environments transition to increasingly “touchless” and “cashless” operations, some traditional responsible gaming tools such as physical brochures, which may in and of themselves create an undesirable “high-touch” area may, at least in the near term, need to be replaced by touchless electronic messaging on the gaming floor and associated spaces.

Additional important considerations are the inclusion of regular responsible gaming messaging and easily accessible tools in the apps on personal electronic devices that patrons use to participate in gaming on and off the floor and transfer personal funds into property accounts.

The responsible gaming requirements and guidance offered by the gaming commission offer a framework to address these concerns in new and potentially more effective ways.

Las Vegas’ major gaming properties have for many years exceeded Nevada’s state regulations on minimum responsible gaming standards, and most adhere to the principles outlined in the American Gaming Association’s Code of Conduct. Responsible gaming has long since transcended its early focus on regulatory requirements addressing those with problematic gambling behavior to include practices designed to prevent underage gambling, maintain responsible alcohol serving and consumption, and uphold a strong employee training ethic.

In spite of great strides in the area of responsible gaming in recent years through introduction of its GameSense program to properties worldwide, MGM Resorts International recently took the surprising step of eliminating its director of responsible gaming position. In general, the elimination of middle-management positions, and even some upper-level positions industrywide, comes as no surprise, as properties look for means to stem the bleeding caused by the financial impact caused by Covid-19 shutdowns. However, the elimination of responsible gaming positions sends exactly the wrong message, and at the worst possible time.

Experts often talk about the need to avoid working in silos. I would argue that new policies on reconfiguration of the gaming spaces and new procedures to mitigate the potential spread of Covid-19 within those spaces are possibly best viewed through the lens of responsible gaming, which is ultimately all about creating an entertainment environment that is safe for both patrons and team members.

This may be a radical idea, but these are radical times that require constant innovation and thinking outside the box as we continue to move forward into uncharted territory.

Adherence to existing responsible gaming standards and exploration of potential enhanced messaging is more important than ever before. The commission’s inclusion of language requiring recommitment to responsible gaming practices and encouragement of innovation of these practices is a win not only for patrons, team members and the recovery community but also for the industry and the state of Nevada. It ensures that the great desire and need to have patrons back on the gaming floor will not overwhelm the commitment to responsible gaming practices designed to keep individuals at a healthy level of gambling, and facilitate connections to resources for those who are unable to do so.

This views in the article are the author’s and the author’s alone and are not necessarily the views of any group with which he is involved.

Ted Hartwell is a research scientist at the Desert Research Institute of the Nevada System of Higher Education in Las Vegas. He has consulted for years with the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling and the larger gaming industry in the areas of problem gambling and responsible gaming.

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