Most people who gamble do it for fun. Sure, they’d like to bag a big jackpot. But win, lose or draw, they can play and walk away.
For others, gambling can turn into a compulsion with potentially grave consequences for their relationships, jobs and finances.
Operators are on order from regulators, lawmakers and health professionals to identify and flag people with signs of a problem. Tools like self-exclusion programs, self-imposed play limits and pop-up RG messages help some people monitor and curb their behavior before they get in too deep. And advances in technology are making it easier to pinpoint these disorders.
But identifying a problem and solving it are two different things. How are these technologies working? Are there any missing pieces?
A new self-exclusion program, PlayPause from Conscious Gaming, would create a cross-jurisdictional database to keep gamblers who can’t play in one place from jumping to another. Conscious Gaming is an independent nonprofit arm of geolocation leader GeoComply.
“We were established during Responsible Gambling Week not even a year ago, and have been building out the technology ever since,” says Seth Palansky, vice president of corporate social responsibility and communications. PlayPause is already in Pennsylvania, with at least one more jurisdiction ready to join.
The technology encrypts data, creating a “unique hash” of each individual player. “Instead of Excel files with personally identifiable information, it’s a digital token that gives everyone a unique identifier,” says Palansky. PlayPause is also a “sports integrity tool” that can block athletes, coaches, referees and other insiders from wagering on games.
Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, agrees with the kind of “seamless safety net” that PlayPause could erect. The current framework is “very Balkanized,” he says, “with a bewildering variety of different limits, settings and programs” that may confuse players. “Our model for the last 30 years has been for states and vendors to voluntarily harmonize.”
The big challenge? “Weaving a national system together,” says Palansky. “Everyone has to be willing to share information.”
And that may be a tough sell. Operators who invest heavily in customer acquisition and retention may be loath to surrender those lists, and varying state regulations and privacy laws also may be impediments.
Big Brother is Watching
When it comes to RG messaging and session limits, the bigger roadblock may be players who reject what they perceive as “nanny state” intervention.
“They want the least amount of what’s been referred to as ‘responsible gaming speed bumps,’ like, ‘Before you play this game, you must set limits,’” says Connie Jones, director of responsible gaming for the Association of Gaming Equipment Manufacturers.
In Canada, for instance, VLTs in pubs and clubs can only be played two hours before players have to cash out, and RG reminders pop up throughout the session.
“Some experts believe this could actually cause a player to chase their losses if, for example, they’re down $400 and only have a couple minutes left before they’re forced to cash out,” says Jones. “Some gamblers may become totally irritated: ‘I’m not chasing, I’m just down and need to recoup my losses.’”
In Europe and the U.K., player protections increased during the pandemic, particularly for iGaming; the U.K. Gambling Commission has announced even stricter features for online slots coming this month.
“Common features will be permanently banned including auto-play, which led to players losing track of time, and spin speeds under 2.5 seconds,” says Jones. Also out: “sounds or visuals falsely suggesting a win.”
Makes sense, but “precommitment features” like time limits, while often mandatory for tech providers to install, are voluntary for players to use, “and research indicates that player uptake is only around 2 percent. That’s also the case in Australia. Players aren’t utilizing the technology that’s available to protect them.” People with a gambling problem may be most resistant to behavior tracking and analysis, and could migrate to unregulated sites to avoid it.
So while all these measures check the compliance box, they may fall short of their stated goal to help vulnerable players.
The PR Problem
“Online Gambling: I Stole £70 to Feed My Addiction.” “Father of Two Took Own Life After Developing Gambling Addiction.” “U.K. Betting Industry Out of Control.”
These headlines—from the BBC, the London Daily Mail and The Guardian—might persuade any reader that the U.K. gaming industry is conscienceless and predatory, out to exploit the helpless for its own nefarious ends.
The perception is widespread in Europe, says Francesco Rodano, former Italian iGaming regulator, now chief policy officer for Playtech. “There’s a huge problem with media scrutiny and political pressure. Every day you read very visible articles with titles like, ‘Gambling Destroys Lives.’ That is the sentiment, and it’s happening more and more in mature regulated markets.
“The question is, has the industry done enough so far to prevent the backlash?”
Playtech’s approach is less reactive and more preemptive. In 2018, it acquired BetBuddy, an analytics program that uses “70-plus variables” to predict risk as people play—an alternative to “one-size-fits-all” messages that address an entire customer base and also put restrictions on responsible consumers.
“Two people diagnosed clinically as problem gamblers might exhibit completely different symptoms, and that’s why universal measures might not be the best solution,” Rodano says. “Essentially, we use artificial intelligence to analyze those variables for the entire player space of an operator. We’re able to predict the probability that a player will become problematic at a very early stage.
“When a problem gambler is diagnosed, it’s already too late; the only way is to treat them,” he says. “The real challenge is to intercept players on the path to becoming problematic and intervening to help them stay inside the right boundaries.”
Around the world, regulated markets are working to find the right solution, or combination of solutions, with varying degrees of success. In Spain, new RG safeguards require players to enter time and spend limits each time they play; if they reach these thresholds, the session automatically shuts down—whether they have a problem or not.
And the U.K.’s ban on credit card use for gambling led to a £500 million drop in share prices among several of the nation’s biggest operators, according to the website NewEurope.com.
Could the U.S. face the sort of inflammatory rhetoric now rife in Europe? Rodano wouldn’t be surprised. “There could be some sort of negative reaction fueled by media that will drive a negative public perception, and in turn make politicians put restrictions on markets they’ve just opened, which doesn’t solve the problem.”
The rumblings are already out there, of course. A 2018 article in the Regulatory Review of the University of Pennsylvania Law School stated, “To attract problem gamblers, casinos employ devices such as flashing lights, unlimited alcohol and stimulating sound effects. And these attractions work: Up to $5.7 billion of total casino revenue can be traced back to problem gamblers, including 60 percent of all slot machine revenue.”
By the way, those figures came from a 2013 study by the Institute for American Values, which it used to fight an expansion of gaming in New York state. The institute rejected research from the American Gaming Association to reach its findings.
AI for Better RG
London-based Future Anthem uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to detect at-risk play from in-game activity, as it occurs.
“When it comes to problem gambling, companies usually try to identify patterns of deposits and withdrawals and people who have previously self-excluded,” says Head of Data Edmond Mitchell. “They create these algorithms that look at behavior of players prior to their exclusion to create predictive models. The problem with that approach is that not everyone who has a problem excludes—and not everyone who excludes actually has a problem.”
For example, he notes, some customers may self-exclude to opt out of promotional messages. Others may just want to take a break. And a £500 loss that is a mortgage payment to one person could be pocket change to another.
The Future Anthem system takes “spin-by-spin information” to capture key markers of harm, “like loss-chasing, playing at unreasonable hours, playing many games in a short period of time,” according to Mitchell. “From these metrics we can extract data to build a picture of what a person’s regular play style is like. When they start to deviate from that, we can detect it almost immediately and then shoot off the required warning signs.”
He says the technology also recognizes occasional indulgences that don’t rise to the level of a problem. “None of us is perfect every day of our lives. If one day I play a bit longer than I should have, the algorithm will recognize it’s a one-off,” and withhold RG alerts, avoiding a cry-wolf scenario. “If you’re consistently annoying customers with messages that don’t apply,” Mitchell says, “when it does matter you won’t get their attention.”
When the time comes to reach out to a player, a personalized approach is best, to the extent of a phone call from a customer service rep, he says. “We’re not going to put a big red hand in the middle of screen to stop a player. We want to give them information, say, ‘We’re worried about you. If you’re having any issues, please contact the operator to discuss what’s going on. If you’re fine, OK.’”
In the face of such messages, some players may decamp to black or gray market sites. At that point, they’re no longer the casino’s problem. But they remain a societal problem. “You don’t want to create a system that makes the black market more attractive than a legal operator,” says Mitchell. “Illegal websites have no concern about player welfare whatsoever.”
One U.K.-based firm, Kindred Group, owner of Unibet, has pledged to eliminate revenues from problem gambling by 2023. In what it calls an “an industry first,” Kindred says it will achieve the zero-revenue goal with a player safety early detection system (PS-EDS) that “uses smart algorithms to identify potentially harmful behaviors as they develop.”
Once a problem gambler has been flagged, it’s important to send the right message in the right voice—and that voice varies widely among consumer groups, according to Sally Gainsbury, director of Australia’s Gambling Treatment and Research Clinic.
According to Gainsbury’s 2018 study of RG messages for BMC Public Health, young adults “were particularly responsive to tone, especially messages that were perceived as condescending” and appreciated “tips to show how they can save money” with linked RG skills and tools.
Older adults rejected messages that sounded like “my mother wagging her finger at me,” and looked for communications that were “clever, upbeat and humorous, with reminders to keep the game fun.” Skill-game players want operators to “call a spade a spade,” with blunt messaging that didn’t dance around the sensitive issue.
Across the board, messages should “promote positive actions—that is, what someone should do, rather than what they shouldn’t do; being empowering—encouraging people to make the necessary changes; and using a positive focus to encourage change rather than a fear-based campaign that shows the severe negative consequences of inaction.”
Messages may be counter-productive “if they depict individuals with gambling problems as being irresponsible or morally weak,” Gainsbury adds. “That’s likely to create stigma and discourage help-seeking.”
The incidence of problem gaming is likely to soar as iGaming and mobile betting expand, says Palansky. “The internet has no borders, and the accessibility (of iGaming) is showing greatly increased gambling harm potential. Michigan launched iGaming in January and calls to their helplines skyrocketed 500 percent. Tennessee’s seen the same signs. New Jersey is showing three times the potential problem gambling concerns than they had with land-based alone.”
But the technology that helped put a casino in every pocket also may hold the seeds of a solution.
A 2016 article in the journal Addiction Research & Theory charged the gaming industry with “a haphazard approach” to responsible gaming, to decidedly mixed results. According to the International Center for Responsible Gaming, installing RG features on games, limiting play and other well-intentioned measures didn’t reliably reduce harm “in a real-world setting.”
Alan Feldman would likely agree. As project director for the International Gaming Institute (IGI) at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Feldman has said RG policies of the past were driven “more by perception than data… (more by) worries or beliefs than facts and scientific methodologies.”
In an age of all things cashless, contactless and remote, responsible gaming policies can’t be hit-or-miss. In 2020, IGI established the Research Collaborative on Responsible and Cashless Gaming Solutions to “analyze and understand player trends to promote responsible gaming.”
Sponsored by payment technology and software providers Global Payments Gaming Solutions and Sightline Payments, the collaborative seeks “a scientific, data-driven foundation” that can inform better RG initiatives.
Speaking to GGB in February, Feldman said most player-data research is based on lab studies, in which researchers create computer-simulated games, give faux cash to study participants, then watch them play. Not quite a real-world sample. A notable exception was a five-year Harvard Medical School study, funded by U.K.-based iGaming firm GVC (now Entain), that began in 2019. GVC turned over reams of actual player data for analysis from its sports betting, online gambling and poker operations to the school’s Division of Addiction. Global Payments and Sightline will do the same to support IGI research.
“You have to start with the basics,” said Feldman. “Who’s using these systems? How are they using them, and how often? How much are they actually transacting? What’s the decline percentage? We need publishable data you can point to and say, ‘This is the reality.’ Absent that, these conversations spin off into political-speak, and that’s not a good way to create public policy.”
Sightline co-founder Omer Satter believes by working together, cashless providers can advance the discussion. “The rapid digital transformation happening in all verticals means we must fully and comprehensively study, understand and act upon what this changing world means for responsible and problem gaming.”
Global Payments President Chris Justice says digital gaming solutions “not only improve the gaming experience, but help create more responsible gaming practices,” yielding data providers can use to make player safeguards more effective.
Gaming critics may look askance at research sponsored by industry stakeholders, and find it suspect by definition. Seth Palansky of Conscious Gaming says the opposite.
“We have the tools to address all these issues, and we’re doing it,” Palansky says. “That says something positive about this industry.”