Monthly Archives: November 2011

What is an online gambler? Some surprising findings from the latest British Gambling Prevalence Survey

Things have come a long way since I published my first academic paper on internet gambling back in 1996. Despite a large increase in online gambling research over the last decade, much of the published work to date seems to suggest that differentiating (say) online casino gamblers from online poker players is relatively easy and that there are discrete types of online gambler. However, this isn’t necessarily the case.

Earlier this year, I (along with Heather Wardle who led the research for the latest British Gambling Prevalence Survey) published an article examining what an online gambler actually is. This question may appear somewhat strange and/or self-evident. In fact, many of you reading this may have already reached the conclusion that it is obvious what an online gambler is (i.e., someone who has gambled online). However, those of us who carry out research into online gambling have to be very specific and operationally define what we mean by an “online gambler” in every piece of research that we carry out. For instance, is it right to call someone who gambles a few times a year at an online casino but also gambles on slot machines every week at an amusement arcade an “online casino gambler”?

Most of the published research talks about “online gamblers” as if everyone is totally clear as to what is being referred to when findings are reported. Many of the published research studies in the area (including many of my own) have compared ‘online gamblers’ and ‘offline gamblers’. For instance, in our secondary analyses of the British Gambling Prevalence Survey (BGPS) 2007 data (published in a number of papers between 2009 and 2011), online gamblers were simply defined as anyone who had gambled online (e.g., gambled at an online casino, used an online betting exchange, had made a bet online, etc.) but excluded those who had bought online lottery tickets. Our research reported that the problem gambling prevalence rate amongst those who had gambled online was 5% compared to 0.5% for those who had never gambled online. This led to the conclusion that either gambling in an online medium is more ‘dangerous’ and/or problem inducing for gamblers than land-based gambling, and/or that vulnerable gamblers may be more susceptible to developing problems online because of factors such as 24/7 access and convenience factors.

One of the main problems with this is that online gamblers typically gamble offline also. In the 2007 BGPS, of the 9003 participants, a small minority (476 people) reported gambling online in the past year. Of these, only nine people didn’t take part in any other kind of ‘offline’ gambling activity. In other words, the vast majority of online gamblers (98%) also gambled offline. These data suggest that in Britain, ‘online only’ gambling is a low prevalence activity (i.e. 5% of BGPS respondents had gambled online in the last year but only 0.1% had only gambled online in the past year).

According to the latest BGPS published in February 2011, the number of ‘online only gamblers’ had slightly increased to 2% but our data suggest there are a number of distinct ways to categorize gamblers based on the medium in which they gamble and what activities they gamble on in those mediums. This month, we published our secondary analysis of the online gambling data from the latest BGPS in the latest issue of the journal International Gambling Studies. The 2011 BGPS report surveyed 7756 adult gamblers. Approximately one in seven respondents (14%) had gambled online in the past year (i.e., had gambled on at least one gambling activity such as gambling at online casinos and/or playing the lottery online). However, for the first time ever, we created four new groups of gamblers for comparison. These were those that:

  • Gambled offline only (i.e., had gambled on at least one activity such as buying a lottery ticket in a shop or playing roulette at an offline casino but hadn’t gambled online in the past year)
  • Gambled online only (i.e., had gambled on at least one activity such as gambling on a betting exchange or gambling at an online casino but hadn’t gambled offline in the past year)
  • Gambled both online and offline but on different activities (i.e., had gambled on at least one activity online and one activity offline but were different activities such as gambling on a slot machine in an amusement arcade and playing blackjack in an online casino).
  • Gambled both online and offline but on the same activities (i.e., had gambled on at least one activity both online and offline such as gambling at both an online and offline casino)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, of all gamblers, the largest group were those who only gambled offline only (80.5%) and the smallest group were those who gambled online only (2.1%). Of far more interest were the rates of problem gambling among these four groups. The highest prevalence rates of problem gambling were amongst mixed mode gamblers who gambled on different activities (4.3%), followed by mixed mode gamblers who gambled on the same activities (2.4%), those who only gambled offline (0.9%), and those who only gambled online (0%).

The most interesting statistic is arguably the fact that there wasn’t a single case of problem or pathological gambling among those gamblers who only gambled online. Extreme caution must be given as the player base for ‘online only’ gamblers is very small when compared to the other groups. However, this certainly opens up an area for future research as to whether those who only gamble online are more resilient to developing gambling problems than those who engage in mixed modes of gambling. Socio-demographic information from the BGPS studies suggest that those who gamble online are more educated and in better occupations than those who have never gambled online. Maybe, these demographic factors are also protective factors when it comes to the development of gambling problems?

The more refined analysis that we have carried out using the latest BGPS data demonstrates that direct comparisons between online and land-based gamblers typically ignores the more complex nature of how people gamble in and across different media and gambling activities. However, our secondary analysis aimed to demonstrate that these very basic distinctions, using the mode and type of gambling as the primary discriminators, produces a wide range of gambling sub-types for future analysis and demonstrates that the concept of ‘online gambler’ isn’t homogenous.

At present, policy decisions surrounding online gambling – particularly in relation to problem gambling – are often made by conceptualizing online gambling as a single entity. Our research findings based on just a few basic variables including the medium in which people gamble, the type and number of activities engaged in, and the regularity with which people gamble, produces a complex picture of online gambling and demonstrates its heterogeneity.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, NG1 4BU

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D., Wardle, J., Orford, J., Sproston, K. & Erens, B. (2009). Socio-demographic correlates of internet gambling: findings from the 2007 British Gambling Prevalence Survey. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 12, 199-202.

Griffiths, M.D., Wardle, J., Orford, J., Sproston, K. & Erens, B. (2011). Internet gambling, health. Smoking and alcohol use: Findings from the 2007 British Gambling Prevalence Survey. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 9, 1-11.

Wardle, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Defining the ‘online gambler’: The British perspective. World Online Gambling Law Report, 10(2), 12-13.

Wardle, H., Moody, A., Griffiths, M.D., Orford, J. & and Volberg, R. (2011). Defining the online gambler and patterns of behaviour integration: Evidence from the British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2010. International Gambling Studies, 11, 339-356.

Video game addiction: An unpublished interview (Part 3)

Interviewer: Do you feel that online gaming poses more of an issue than offline?

Mark Griffiths: Yes, but in most cases only to those that have a vulnerability or susceptibility in the first place. The key difference is that in offline gaming a player can typically pause and/or save the game and come back to it a point of their choosing. Online games continue even when the player has logged off and that can lead to some people playing excessively because they ‘don’t want to miss anything’ in a 24/7 playing environment. I’ve argued in a lot of my work that the internet can enhance and/or facilitate the acquisition, development and maintenance of online addictions – but the crucial factor is that somebody would have to have some kind of addiction predisposition in the first place.

Interviewer: Do you feel that ratings systems such as the PEGI system are useful tools to help parents understand the games their children are playing?

Mark Griffiths: Given I was very vocal in the early 1990s for such ratings to be on all games, I am very pleased to see the evolution of ratings over the last two decades. Overall, I am very happy with the PEGI rating system as it is simple and straightforward, and parents can instantly assess whether a game they are buying for their children includes violence, sex, swearing, racism, etc. However, ratings systems can sometimes be a double-edged sword in the sense that putting an age rating on a game makes it more attractive to children who are too young to play it.

Interviewer: Do you feel that the ‘technological generation gap’ can be narrowed and how?

Mark Griffiths: Given that the vast majority of children nowadays play some kind of video game, the ‘technological generation gap’ will naturally disappear over time as the child gamers of today will become the adults of tomorrow. One of the reasons I am pro-gaming with my own kids is that I remember how much fun I had playing Donkey Kong on my Commodore 64 back in the mid-1980s. To eliminate the gap in the short-term, parents need to be educated about the positives of gaming and what it can bring to family life. I’m sure that playing the Wii has brought families together and changed parental attitudes towards gaming in an instant!

Interviewer: Are there any potential problems, in your field or otherwise, that could arise from the rapidly expanding user base of video games?

Mark Griffiths: Obviously this depends on the types of game played and their content. As I said earlier, any activity that has the potential to enhance or facilitate excessive play can lead to potential problems. Depending on the types of game played, this could be in the form of medical effects (repetitive strain injuries, headaches, eye-strains, etc.), chronic health conditions (e.g., obesity), psychobiological effects (e.g., addiction), or alleged behavioural effects (e.g., increased aggression). The good news is that most of these potential effects occur in a very small minority of players and that reducing the time spent playing will almost always alleviate or eliminate such problems.

Interviewer: One of the primary areas you consult on is ‘social responsibility’, what does this involve?

Mark Griffiths: Social responsibility is primarily about gaming companies providing players with as much information as possible so that they can make an informed choice about whether they want to play a particular game in the first place. It is also about designing and non-exploitative way. This has happened in the gambling industry and I think the video gaming industry will follow the same path over the next decade. Video gaming is a consumptive activity that in extreme cases can cause medical, health, psychological and behavioural effects. The video game industry needs to promote responsible playing in the same ways as the gambling industry and alcohol industry. Drinking alcohol and playing on a slot machine are socially acceptable activities. However, most people would freely admit that a minority of people can become addicted to alcohol or gambling. This does not mean that the activities are bad – only that people should be aware that in extreme cases, excessive consumption can occur that may in some cases lead to addiction.

Interviewer: You’ve mainly consulted with the gambling industry, what do you feel your consultancy has achieved?

Mark Griffiths: Things have come a long way since I first started my gaming research in 1987. I was probably perceived by many sectors of the gaming industry as ‘Public Enemy No.1’ because my main research area was gambling addiction. I also think that the industry saw me as ‘anti-gambling’ because my research focus was on problematic players. However, I am pro-responsible gaming and have never been anti-gambling in my life. The thing that interests me is how and why people can become addicted to certain behaviors such as gambling and video gaming. My colleagues who research into alcoholism are never accused of being ‘anti-drinking’! My consultancy has grown exponentially over the last few years and is related to the fact that governments and gaming regulators won’t provide gaming licenses to operators unless all the social responsibility infrastructures, policies and procedures are in place. This means that gaming companies from all around the world now beat a path to my door asking for help and advice into player protection, harm minimization, and social responsibility best practice. This has led to the development of various social responsibility tools that I have co-developed (such as GAM-GaRD – a tool that is now used by many gaming companies all over the world to help them design safer games). I’m incredibly proud of the work that I have done that changes how gaming companies go about their day-to-day working practices, and am so pleased that my research is put into applied practice.

Interviewer: What benefits do you feel that your consultancy can bring to the video games industry?

Mark Griffiths: Obviously I now have a long history of successful consultancy with gaming companies from all over the world. Some of the issues that have been faced by the gambling industry are similar to those experienced by the video game industry – particularly in relation to problematic play by a small minority of players. At the moment, my perception is that the video game industry does not believe ‘gaming addiction’ is an issue and that, even if it exists, the industry feels that the problem lies within the individual and not in the games themselves. This was the position taken by the gambling industry until relatively recently. Although I am the first to admit that individual addiction predispositions exist, the gaming industry still has a responsibility to make sure that vulnerable and susceptible players are not deliberately exploited in terms of how the games are designed or how they are marketed. I am ideally placed to help the video game industry take forward the social responsibility agenda. If they don’t start being pro-active on this issue, my guess is that they will be forced to do it in the not too distant future.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Psychology Division, Nottingham Trent University, UK.

Video game addiction: An unpublished interview (Part 2)

Interviewer: Could you give a bit more of an overview of what the six core components you mention? Are they all required in order to classify something an addiction?

Mark Griffiths: I operationally define anyone as an addict if they display all my six core components of addiction. As with all operational definitions, there may be a few people who you could class as ‘addicted’ without necessarily having fulfilled all the criteria but if someone fulfilled all six I would be confident that they are genuinely addicted. In relation to videogame addiction, I would expect they following.

* Salience occurs when videogame play becomes the most important activity in the person’s life and dominates their thinking (preoccupations and cognitive distortions), feelings (cravings) and behaviour (deterioration of socialized behaviour). For instance, even if the person is not actually playing on a videogame they will be thinking about the next time that they will be.

* Mood modification refers to the subjective experiences that people report as a consequence of engaging in I videogame play and can be seen as a coping strategy (i.e., they experience an arousing “buzz” or a “high” or paradoxically tranquilizing feel of “escape” or “numbing”).

* Tolerance is the process whereby increasing amounts of videogame play are required to achieve the former mood modifying effects. This basically means that for someone engaged in videogame playing, they gradually build up the amount of the time they spend engaged in the behaviour.

* Withdrawal symptoms are the unpleasant feeling states and/or physical effects that occur when videogame play is discontinued or suddenly reduced (e.g., the shakes, moodiness, irritability).

* Conflict refers to the conflicts between the videogame player and those around them (interpersonal conflict), conflicts with other activities (job, schoolwork, social life, hobbies and interests) or from within the individual themselves (intrapsychic conflict and/or subjective feelings of loss of control) which are concerned with spending too much time engaged in videogame play.

* Relapse is the tendency for repeated reversions to earlier patterns of videogame play to recur and for even the most extreme patterns typical of the height of excessive videogame play to be quickly restored after periods of abstinence or control.

Interviewer: Gambling led you in to your studies on videogame addictions. Do you still find that the two overlap?

Mark Griffiths: There is a huge overlap conceptually and behaviourally between video games and some types of gambling – most notably slot machines. Slot machines and video game machines share a number of structural elements in common. Both feature (a) the requirement of response to stimuli that are predictable and governed by a software loop, (b) the requirement of total concentration and hand-eye coordination, (c) rapid span of play negotiable to some extent by the skill of the player, (d) the provision of aural and visual rewards for a win, (e) the provision of an incremental reward for a winning move, (f) digitally displayed scores of ‘correct’ behaviour, and (g) the opportunity for peer group attention and approval through competition.

Interviewer: You speak about the debates around addiction taking place in public spheres, such as in pubs and in the media, and you yourself have been interviewed about your work in a variety of media. What do you feel the value of bringing work like yours to a wider audience?

Mark Griffiths: To be honest I have always wanted to disseminate my work to the widest audience possible. I really don’t see the point of spending months doing a piece of research only for a few other academics to read about in a scientific journal. That is one of the reasons I do a lot of freelance journalism as a way of disseminating my work and ideas to those who I think should hear about it – whether that’s the general public or policymakers. I am very lucky to have won a number of national awards for communicating science to the general public but they have been a successful by-product of what I love doing. I think it’s important for research to be accountable to the wider public and my dissemination strategies help in getting key messages over.

Interviewer: The controversy point is an interesting one; videogames addiction is a fiercely debated topic, a recent example being the ‘Panorama’ documentary on which you appeared as an expert. The documentary presented videogames addiction as a fairly significant problem, do you agree that it is?

Mark Griffiths: Not at all. If you listen to my soundbites that were aired I just said that there was a small minority of players who appear to be genuinely addicted to online gaming and also explained a few of the psychological processes (such as operant conditioning) that help explain the addiction process. I was interviewed by ‘Panorama’ for well over an hour and they aired less than two minutes of my interview. They chose the bits that best fitted the story they wanted to tell. I stand by the things I said but the soundbites weren’t contextualized. Thankfully, most of the feedback about the things I said were positively viewed by the gaming community.

Interviewer: The documentary drew criticism for its lack of understanding about videogames and their players. Do you feel that there is a gap between what players and non-players (including the media) understand videogames to be?

Mark Griffiths: Absolutely. I find this most apparent in the emails and telephone calls I get from parents who tend to ‘pathologise’ their children’s gaming behaviour because they don’t understand it and don’t play themselves. I’ve written about this ‘technological generation gap’ between players and non-players. However, the media have their own agenda. I have probably written as much about the positives of playing videogames as the negative. However, every time I put out a press release that is a ‘good news’ videogame story, it only gets one-tenth of the publicity in the national or international press compared to what I would call a ‘bad news’ story. I can’t stop this but am very aware of it. That’s one of the reasons I prefer live radio and television interviews to pre-recorded ones as I am in total control of how my comments will be received by the listening or viewing public.

Interviewer: So a person could spend a great deal of times playing games without being an addict? Can these excessive behaviours be a problem even though they’re not linked to addiction?

Mark Griffiths: For some people, definitely. Any behaviour that is done to excess – even if it is not an addiction – can potentially take away time from other important things such as job, relationships, and other hobbies. This will depend on the duties, constraints and context of the person in question. A 21-year old man with no partner, no children and no job may have time to play 8-10 hours a day without any negative detriment on their life. However, a married man with three children and a full-time job would find it very hard to play 8-10 hours a day without it seriously compromising some other aspect of their life.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Psychology Division, Nottingham Trent University, UK.

Video game addiction: An unpublished interview (Part 1)

A few months ago I was interviewed by a video game industry insider. For reasons unbeknown to me, the interview was never published so I thought this might be an opportune moment to publish the unedited transcript over three parts.

Interviewer: The focus of your work is mainly behavioural addiction, could you start by giving a brief overview of what behavoural addiction is?

Mark Griffiths: Behavioural addictions are those addictions that do not involve the ingestion of a psychoactive substance such as alcohol, nicotine or heroin. Some people believe that a person cannot become addicted to something in the absence of a psychoactive agent, but it is my passionate belief that people can (and do) become addicted to non-chemical behaviours. I have written a number of papers over the last 20 years that have tried to show that some behaviours when taken to excess (e.g., gambling, video gaming) are no different from (say) alcoholism or heroin addiction in terms of the core components of addiction (e.g. salience, tolerance, withdrawal, mood modification, conflict, relapse etc.). If it can be shown that a behaviour like pathological gambling can be a bona fide addiction (and I believe that it can), then there is a precedent that any behaviour that provides continuous rewards (in the absence of a psychoactive substance) can be potentially addictive. Such a precedent ‘opens the floodgates’ for other excessive behaviours to be considered theoretically as potential addictions (e.g. exercise, sex, eating, computer games, the internet) which is what I’ve been examining in some of my research.

Interviewer: Whilst most of your work is around gambling addictions, you also do work on videogames and internet addiction. What drew you to this area of research?

Mark Griffiths: I suppose the ‘classic’ behavioural addiction is gambling, and it was this type of behavioural addiction that fuelled my interest in other forms of non-chemical addiction such as videogame addiction. Many people might think it’s obvious why a psychologist would be interested in studying behavioural addictions such as videogame addiction. It’s a ‘sexy’ subject, it’s media-friendly, the general public find it interesting, and almost everybody from all walks of life has some kind of view on it, whether it’s rooted in personal experience or in a finely argued theoretical perspective. However, my own interest came about somewhat accidentally.

Like a lot of people, my main research interests developed over time and were not pre-planned. It was during my PhD (1987-1990) that I began to see excessive slot machine playing as theoretically no different from chemically-based drug addictions. Although I am still very much involved in the psychology of gambling, it is the theoretical basis of my work on gambling addiction that inspired me to take a more thorough look at other excessive behaviours such as internet and videogame playing. To some extent, my research has been a natural progression which has seen me go from fruit machine addiction to arcade video game addiction, and then to technological addictions more specifically (e.g. home computer game addiction, internet addiction, television addiction) and to behavioural addic- tions more generally (e.g. exercise addiction, sex addiction).

Now that I appear to be firmly entrenched in this research area, my motivations for continuing are also diverse. I like the fact that my research may be seen by some psychologists as controversial (for instance, many people reading this may think addictions to the internet or exercise are spurious) because this brings with it the chance to debate widely about the theoretical underpinnings of what it is to be addicted to something. My research also brings psychological issues to a wider audience, because the debates surrounding addiction often take place outside academic circles, whether it be in the pub on a Friday night or on a popular television show. I hope that the kind of research I undertake will continue to stimulate the debate – even if people do not agree with what I have to say.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Psychology Division, Nottingham Trent University, UK.

Behavioural addictions can be just as serious as drug addictions

For many people the concept of addiction involves taking drugs. However, there is now a growing number of psychologists like myself who view a number of behaviours as potentially addictive including those that don’t involve drugs such as alcohol, nicotine, cocaine and heroin. These include behaviours diverse as gambling, overeating, sex, exercise, videogame playing, internet use, and work. In fact, if the rewards of engaging in the activity are constant, I would argue that some individuals can become addicted to almost anything.

For the past 25 years I have been studying gambling and I passionately believe that gambling at its most extreme is just as addictive as any drug. The social and health costs of problem gambling are large and show many commonalities with more traditional addictions. These can include extreme moodiness and irritability, problems with personal relationships (including divorce), absenteeism from work, neglect of family, domestic violence, and bankruptcy. Adverse health consequences for gamblers and their partner include anxiety and depression disorders, insomnia, intestinal disorders, migraine, stress related disorders, stomach problems, and suicidal ideation. If behaviours like gambling can become a genuine addiction for some people, there is no theoretical reason why some people might not become genuinely addicted to activities like video games, work or exercise.

Research on pathological gamblers has reported at least one physical side effect when they undergo withdrawal, including insomnia, headaches, loss of appetite, physical weakness, heart palpitations, muscle aches, breathing difficulty, and chills. In fact, pathological gamblers appear to experience more physical withdrawal effects when attempting to stop their behaviour when compared directly with drug addicts.

But when does an excessive healthy enthusiasm become an addiction? Excessive behaviour on it’s own does not mean someone is addicted. In fact, I can think of loads of people who engage in excessive activities but I wouldn’t class them as addicts as they don’t appear to experience any detrimental effects in their life as a result of engaging in the behaviour. In a nutshell, the fundamental difference between excessive enthusiasm and addiction is that healthy enthusiasms add to life whereas addiction takes away from it.

For any behaviour to be defined as addictive, I would expect there to be specific consequences as a result of the person’s relationship with the behaviour. More specifically I would expect to see all the following things:

  • Salience (when a particular activity becomes the most important activity in the person’s life)
  • Mood modification (the use of the activity as a way of either getting a ‘high’ or ‘buzz’ and/or using the activity to escape, de-stress or numb)
  • Tolerance (needing more and more of the activity over time to feel the mood modifying effects)
  • Withdrawal symptoms (psychological and/or physiological consequences such as excess moodiness and irritability if unable to engage in the activity)
  • Conflict (with other activities – such as work and hobbies – and personal relationships, that may lead to a loss of control)
  • Relapse (i.e. returning to addictive patterns of use following a period of abstinence)

The way addictions develop – whether chemical or behavioural – is complex. Addictive behaviour develops from a combination of a person’s biological/genetic predisposition, the social environment they were brought up in, their psychological constitution (such as personality factors, attitudes, expectations and beliefs), and the activity itself.

Many behavioural addictions are “hidden” addictions. Unlike (say) alcoholism, there is no slurred speech and no stumbling into work. However, behavioural addiction is a health issue that needs to be taken seriously by all those in the health and medical profession. If the main aim of practitioners is to ensure the health of their patients, then an awareness of behavioural addiction and the issues surrounding it should be an important part of basic knowledge and training.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Psychology Division, Nottingham Trent University, UK