When I was in Boston last summer to interview the chairman of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, Stephen Crosby, he started to explain, during the course of the conversation, what the state was doing with responsible gaming. It was, indeed, part of the enabling legislation in Massachusetts, so the commission has a statutory obligation to spend money on the issue. The problem was, said Crosby, that there was no direction on how to spend that money.
So the state looked at best practices in all gaming jurisdictions and found an intriguing program in British Columbia called “GameSense.”
But let’s talk about the history of programs designed to curb problem gambling. The most successful is no doubt the self-exclusion option. The onus is strictly on the person with the problem. They reach a point where they realize gambling is a problem for them and ask to be refused entry into the casino. Sure, sometimes it doesn’t work because the excluded player continues to frequent casinos, but it is clearly the most effective.
Others are not so successful, and many contribute to a bad experience for all players, not just those afflicted with the problem. Despite spending millions on problem gambling programs that do get between the players and the casinos, a recent study by the government of Nova Scotia revealed that the levels of the disease have not changed in over a decade. Some of these programs required all gamblers to set a limit, at which time the machine would freeze up and not permit any more play.
Australia is also a hotbed of problem gambling programs that go nowhere. The issue there is that problem gambling research has become a cottage industry and overemphasizes the problem so the government, charities and universities will throw more money at it.
The proclivity for problem gambling is 1 percent to 2 percent of the population. That has been demonstrated in reputable study after reputable study since the National Gambling Impact Study Commission established it as fact in 1999. Now, that’s not to dismiss the problem, because that’s a lot of people even at that small percentage. And we need to find a way to help them without negatively impacting the 98 percent or 99 percent of the people who can gamble without issues.
But problem gambling is probably the most important ongoing challenge the gaming industry will confront over the next decade. Casinos don’t want to make money from problem or compulsive gamblers, so it is to their advantage to keep them out. The U.S. industry has long been proactive in its approach to problem gambling by establishing and funding the independent National Center for Responsible Gaming.
One of the most promising programs around these days is GameSense. MGM Resorts last month contributed $1 million to this system, which informs and educates customers about gambling without putting up any barriers. Founded in British Columbia, GameSense is being used at the only casino in Massachusetts, the Plainridge racino, and will later be implemented at all state casinos.
I met the line workers who administer the programs the day I visited Plainridge, and was impressed with their compassion and enthusiasm for the program. At its root, the casino function of GameSense, PlayMyWay, allows a player to voluntarily set a loss limit while playing slots, and be warned when they approach that limit. Most important, PlayMyWay does not stop a player from gambling, but is a warning that they’ve reached their loss limit. There are still some kinks in the program, but it is working better than anyone had predicted, with thousands of people already signed up. The key word here is “voluntary.” No one is forced to do anything.
Other aspects of the program include education about the real odds on slots and the likelihood (or futility, to be more realistic) of shooting for the big jackpots. They advise players about games that have more volatility versus those that give more frequent paybacks and extend their time on device.
MGM has committed to implementing GameSense and PlayMyWay across its portfolio of properties, so the impact will go far beyond just Massachusetts, where MGM Springfield will open in 2018. So bravo to MGM for forward thinking and taking that first step. Hopefully all casinos, large and small, will think about problem gambling and what they can do to alleviate the suffering of any people who may be afflicted with the disease.