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Man vs. machine

The debate over the role of gaming machines in creating problem gamblers remains lively.

Man vs. machine

In all but a few gaming jurisdictions in Asia, electronic gaming machines are the most popular form of gaming entertainment in casinos. The overwhelming majority of those who enjoy this activity do so responsibly, and numerous studies have shown that, even during an era when the availability of casino gambling has expanded rapidly around the world, global prevalence rates for problem and pathological gambling have been remarkably stable over time, and in some instances have declined.

Still, the debate over the role of gaming machines in creating problem gamblers remains lively. All evidence to the contrary, a number of international regulators, legislators and researchers continue to contend that altering the physical or mechanical aspects of a gaming machine can reduce gambling-related harms.

The most recent salvo in this misguided pursuit is the Poker Harm Minimization Bill of 2008, put forth by the Australian Senate. The bill would impose a number of restrictions on the actual design and operation of gaming machines in the country, including restricting the value of currency that can be accepted by the machines, imposing technologically enforced betting limits, outlawing free spins or games, and limiting the spin rate, number of paylines and jackpot values.

This is scary stuff for those of us in the gaming industry. But more troubling is the fact that technological approaches have been scientifically proven to be completely ineffective at reducing gambling problems. The Canadian province of Nova Scotia limited the maximum bet allowed on its video lottery terminals, restricted the length of each gambling session, and required that both clocks and anti-gambling messages be displayed on VLT screens. The result? There was no reduction in the average amount of money gambled per gambling session.

The province of New South Wales in Australia experimented with reducing the speed of games and imposing electronically enforced betting limits, but research found the efforts would not reduce problem gambling. The same province tried shutting down electronic gambling machines for three hours each day. Again, the impact on problem gamblers was found to be nil. Finally, New South Wales tried requiring a display of anti-gambling messages on poker machine screens. A follow-up study concluded the effectiveness of the messages was “somewhat limited.”

So, why don’t these restrictions work? The answer is simple. Human nature being what it is, players adopt compensating strategies to defeat the technology-based restrictions. Research shows that people can lose control of their gambling when playing very different types of games providing very different experiences. There is, therefore, little reason to expect that changing various rules of a game will ensure that a person predisposed to gambling irresponsibly will not lose control while playing it, or some other game.

Research shows the better approach is to assist individuals directly, and that the malady is far too complicated to be treated with such a “quick fix” solution.

Individuals who are unable to control their gambling are, for example, likely to suffer from a combination of problems. A leading study of problem gamblers reviewed data for more than 43,000 Americans and found that pathological gamblers suffered from other behavioral disorders at alarming levels, including alcohol and drug abuse as well as mood, anxiety and personality disorders. The plain implication of these results is that treatments for problem gambling must also consider whether other behavioral disorders are present and need to be addressed by a therapist, or other treatment method.

Accordingly, simplistic fixes like those proposed in the Poker Harm Minimization Bill, which support tinkering with technology, are unlikely to make any material impression on individuals experiencing such a complex set of interrelated problems.

There also is recent evidence that a substantial number of people who are unable to control their gambling have some success, over time, in changing their behavior and regaining control. While this phenomenon of “natural recovery” is not exhibited in every individual suffering from a gambling disorder, the recovery pattern emphasizes the importance of individual action in controlling the problem.

All this is not to diminish the problem, and disordered gambling is a serious one. But as the global effort to reduce disordered gambling continues, it is vital that regulatory policies be aligned with the medical and public health research into pathological gambling-its causes, patterns, and responses to treatment.

It also is imperative that regulators consider the impact of ineffective “quick fixes” on the entertainment experience of the 98 percent to 99 percent of the global population who safely enjoy casino gambling. Measures to protect the few who may be at risk must be proportionate, and should not unnecessarily disrupt the interests of the vast majority. In that respect, legalized gambling is no different than other forms of human activity-credit card use, eating, consuming alcoholic beverages, driving a vehicle, or surfing on the internet-that can cause injury if done to extremes or in an unsafe manner.

Addressing such a complicated disorder calls for a public health approach in developing
effective strategies for assisting people who are unable to control their gambling. A host of other factors also are involved in the effective reduction of disordered gambling, including public awareness of the disease, how to gamble responsibly and the availability of treatment resources, all of which are the focus of our efforts here in the U.S.

In sum, empirical evidence about pathological gambling provides no real support for legislative approaches like that of the Poker Harm Minimization Bill of 2008. Quick fixes have failed in the past because they are fundamentally inconsistent with what we know about people who cannot control their gambling-and will degrade the gambling experience for the vast majority of people who choose to gamble responsibly.

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