I recently read an article in another magazine by Simon Burridge, the CEO of Virgin Games. In the article, Burridge laments the fact that gambling businesses are often perceived by the public and portrayed by the media to be dirty and evil, despite the fact that the gambling industry has much tighter controls than other ‘vice industries’, such as the alcohol and the tobacco businesses. For example, you can self-exclude yourself from a chain of bookmakers if you are a problem gambler, but can you self-exclude yourself from purchasing alcohol at Tesco if you’re a problem drinker?
Burridge also argues that the National Lottery is unfairly perceived as more reputable than other types of gambling (especially casino games), and doesn’t have the same stigma attached, despite the fact that it is available to children as young as 16, from a diverse range of outlets, with no control to prevent problem gamblers from taking part.
There is a difficult truth to gambling and other so-called ‘vice industries’ however. Any business, be they a clothes retailer, an eBay seller or a car dealership, wants loyalty and repeat business. The easiest way to assure repeat business is to have a product that your customers can become addicted to – which is something that the alcohol, tobacco and gambling industries have – but of course the social consequences of addiction are extremely severe. What is unique to the ‘vice industries’ is that we must find a way to retain customers and ensure repeat business without causing addiction.
While I strongly agree with Burridge that the gambling industry’s controls are significantly stronger than those of alcohol and tobacco, and that the public’s perception is extremely unfair, I also believe that there is more that we can do, and that frankly the responsible gaming systems of even the best operators today are still only in their infancy.
Today’s responsible gaming methods are mostly retroactive, which is probably because online gaming operators have a difficult quandary to resolve – on the one hand, we must not accidentally exclude good customers with responsible gambling habits; but on the other hand, we must be seen to give problem gamblers help and the tools to control themselves. The problem with retroactive methods is that the player is already experiencing a problem by the time they are exposed to the controls. For example, by the time a player reaches their deposit limit or table limit, they have probably already lost a sum of money which would be considered highly significant to most people; and using the self-exclusion tools requires a player to first admit that they have a problem and should take a break from the games.
What I’m going to suggest is not an expansion of retroactive methods (although, as I have argued for security purposes, I believe that competing companies should work together to share a blacklist of self-excluded players), but the introduction of proactive methods that would allow us to detect the signs of problem gambling before the player caused themselves significant harm. In the online sector we are uniquely positioned to do this as we have access to a wealth of information about a player’s financial and playing habits, and can easily process this data en masse.
The benefits to detecting a problem gambler early are obvious. First and foremost, protecting players who are at risk is simply the right thing to do. By stopping somebody early, you might prevent them from harming themselves or others, and you might be able to offer them help and advice that will help them to control their addiction. If nothing else, this should help you sleep at night.
Stopping problem gambling early also helps safeguard the reputation of your brand, and the entire industry, in particular by guarding against the type of media stories that we see all the time in the Daily Mail, of people who destroyed their families by running up gambling debts that they couldn’t afford.
Another less obvious benefit to detecting a problem gambler early is that you can guard against fraud and chargebacks. Problem gamblers are much more likely to chargeback on transactions as their losses inevitably mount, and are also more likely to attempt to use credit cards belonging to other people to finance their addiction. Detecting a problem gambler early ideally allows you to prevent such issues in the first place, but at the very least allows you to implement greater security controls and perform KYC checks in advance of any problems rather than cleaning up afterwards.
But how do you detect problem gambling proactively, without negatively impacting players who are able to gamble responsibly? Simple – you look for the tell-tale signs.
Gamblers Anonymous famously has a list of ‘twenty questions’, to which problem gamblers are expected to answer positively to at least seven. This isn’t a 100% scientific method of determining whether somebody has a problem, but simply something predictive, built on years of experience. The questions are:
1 Do you lose time from work due to gambling?
2 Is gambling making your home life unhappy?
3 Is gambling affecting your reputation?
4 Have you ever felt remorse after gambling?
5 Do you ever gamble to get money with which to pay debts or otherwise solve financial difficulties?
6 Does gambling cause a decrease in your ambition or efficiency?
7 After losing, do you feel you must return as soon as possible and win back your losses?
8 After a win do you have a strong urge to return and win more?
9 Do you often gamble until your last pound is gone?
10 Do you ever borrow to finance your gambling?
11 Have you ever sold anything to finance gambling?
12 Are you reluctant to use gambling money for normal expenditure?
13 Does gambling make you careless of the welfare of your family?
14 Do you gamble longer than you planned?
15 Do you ever gamble to escape worry or trouble?
16 Have you ever committed, or considered committing an illegal act to finance gambling?
17 Does gambling cause you difficulty in sleeping ?
18 Do arguments, disappointments or frustrations create an urge within you to gamble?
19 Do you have an urge to celebrate any good fortune with a few hours gambling?
20 Have you ever considered self - destruction as a result of your gambling?
These questions can give us clues as to the type of behaviours to look for. The fact that the list contains 20 questions, of which problem gamblers are expected to answer with 7 or more with ‘yes’, also suggests that detecting only one type of behaviour probably isn’t enough. Instead, as with the detection of collusion, bot use, and other types of unethical play, detecting problem gambling is best done by automatically searching for multiple types of behaviour, scoring each one, and then flagging the highest-scoring accounts for manual investigation and follow up by a trained professional.
The types of behaviour to look out for might include:
· Unhealthy Session Times: The Gamblers Anonymous questions suggest that playing during working hours (question 1) or playing when you should be sleeping (question 17) are signs of problem gambling. A simple way to detect this would be to look for players who are playing during the typical working or sleeping hours in the country that they are based in. For example, in the United Kingdom, a player who plays at 3pm on a Monday afternoon will typically be playing in working hours, and a player who plays at 2am on a Thursday morning will be playing in normal sleeping hours. These types of session, when combined with other factors, could be indicative of problem gambling.
· Unhealthy Session Length: A player who plays excessively long sessions is clearly not playing responsibly, and Gamblers Anonymous suggest that gambling longer than planned (question 14) is a sign of problem gambling. So scoring a player progressively based on the length of their session (i.e. a 14-hour session scores higher than a 12-hour session) could be a good way to identify unhealthy playing habits.
· Destructive Playing Habits: The Gamblers Anonymous questions identify several types of destructive playing habits. For example, a player who plays until their account is empty is effectively answering ‘yes’ to question 9. A player who loses all their money and then immediately deposits to try and win it back, or who chases their losses by moving up in stakes, is answering ‘yes’ to question 7. Even moving up in stakes after a big win could be indicative of a problem.
· History of Self-Exclusion: A player who has a history of excluding themselves or imposing betting limits may be experiencing remorse over their gambling (question 4 of the Gamblers Anonymous questions). Such a person may suspect that they have a problem but be having difficulty controlling it – something which they could use your help with.
· Indicative Chat: As any experienced operator will know, players make some very extreme admissions in the chat – everything from suicide threats, to sexual fantasies, to gambling problems. Monitoring the chat for certain key words and phrases associated with an unhappy home life (question 2), remorse (question 4), or problem gambling generally could help to identify players who are having difficulties.
· Financial Habits: Monitoring the financial habits of your players can help you to detect tell-tale signs that something might be wrong. A player with a history of chargebacks is more likely than usual to be a problem gambler. A player with a large number of failed deposits, or any attempts to deposit with a card belonging to another person, could be indicative that a player is turning to fraud to fund their habit (question 16). Similarly, receiving a large number of inbound transfers from other players could indicate that the player is borrowing money from friends to finance their gambling (question 10).
As should be obvious, few of these factors are strong indicators of problem gambling when seen in isolation. For example, a player receiving lots of inbound transfers could simply be being staked, and a player who plays at 3pm in the afternoon could simply be unemployed, retired, or a professional gambler. However, in combination with each other, these indicators can add up to make a convincing case. It can’t hurt to call a player on the phone if they are showing some of the signs of an impending problem, and check that everything is alright. If doing so prevents even one player from experiencing the nightmare of a fully-fledged gambling addiction, it would be worth it.