“I can’t believe it’s not a flutter”: Are television quizzes and television game shows a form of gambling?

Yesterday the front page of the Mail on Sunday led with the story that “Hit game shows like Deal or No Deal and Play Your Cards Right could be forced off the air after gambling watchdog claims that they break the law”. I was interviewed at length for this particular story but as usual my long interview was reduced to a few soundbites. I argued that a lot of television quiz game shows feature different forms of gambling. Even if the contestant starts of with no money, once they have won some money in the programme, the money becomes theirs and they are (to all intents and purposes) gambling with their own money. I also argued that the boundary between gambling and games is blurring all the time and that there is a growing trend of convergence between gambling and other media.

Over the past decade I have written a number of papers on various forms of television gambling. I have noted that various interactive television (i-TV) services are increasingly being linked to actual television programmes. Over the last few years in the UK, there has been a significant increase in the number of television shows raising revenue through the use of interactive programming. One of the most popular methods has viewers call into the television show using a premium-rate telephone service to either answer simple quiz questions. I have argued that this form of television programming is gambling in another guise.

This innovative form of interactive viewing experience raises many questions about whether viewers are being exploited or whether such programming is just another enjoyment-enhancing dimension of the viewing experience. However, there is a fine line between customer enhancement and customer exploitation. Programmers will argue that when viewers ‘put their money where their mouth is’ the viewing experience is enhanced. This is very similar to the gambling industry’s maxim that ‘it matters more when there’s money on it’. However, callers are charged at a premium rate (usually between 75p and £1.50 per call) even if they fail to get through to register their answer. Typically, on failing to connect, callers get a recorded message saying, ‘Even though you haven’t got through this time, we still want you to be a winner’. There are two possible routes that i-TV gambling/gaming can take. Firstly, there is television quiz show participation, which may feature gambling and/or gambling-like experiences. Secondly, there is the option of using the television as a medium on which to gamble.

To grow fast in an evolving digital landscape, television companies are formulating strategies for targeting particular segments of the industry. Platform operators appear to be deploying consumer-driven applications such as gaming (including both i-TV participation quizzes and more traditional forms of gambling via the medium of television). An environment has been created where content originators and channel operators can innovate and profitably create interactive broadband content. I-TV is seen as a way of rapidly expanding gaming and gambling because of its naturalness and ease of use. I-TV gaming can span a wide range of activities. This includes non-gambling activities such as playing video games like Tetris on the television, playing along with game shows like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? via television remote control, and directly gambling on sports events such as horse racing and football via television remote control.

I-TV quiz shows share many of the dimensions of i-TV gambling and also raise the same concerns when talking about vulnerable and susceptible populations. The combination of gambling’s impulsive nature, the general public’s appetite for quiz trivia, and the ubiquity of television may prove hard to resist for many viewers. There are two main reasons why i-TV quiz shows could be viewed as a form of gambling.

Firstly, at a very simple level it could be argued that in many i-TV quizzes, viewers are participating in a lottery. For instance, viewers are typically asked to call a premium-rate telephone line to answer a very simple question (e.g., ‘Rearrange the following letters to make the name of a top rock group—STOLLING RONES’). A winner is then chosen from all those viewers with the correct answer. This, to all intents and purposes, is a lottery. However, unlike lotteries, those participating do not know what their probability of winning is. Secondly, it could also be argued that viewers are staking money (through the cost of the premium-rate telephone call) on the outcome of a future event (i.e., whether they will get the correct answer). Such a scenario could be defined as a form of gambling.

Whether i-TV quiz participation is a bona fide form of gambling or not, there are a number of reasons why the social impact of i-TV quizzes should be monitored. For instance, i-TV quiz shows appear to be being introduced with little concern for the psychosocial implications that may affect a small percentage of the population. Bringing such activities to a television set in the home carries with it a special social responsibility. For instance, there are issues about consumer protection for vulnerable populations, e.g., adolescents, problem gamblers, and the intoxicated.

It could be argued that the viewers who participate in late-night and ‘through-the-night’ interactive quiz programming (like The Mint, Make Your Play, Quiz Call, The Great British Quiz) may be some of the most vulnerable and susceptible. These viewers are more likely to be those who do not work and therefore are on low incomes and can least afford to participate (e.g., the unemployed, the retired and elderly). Viewers may also be making decisions to play in an intoxicated state (as these programmes typically start just as people get in from an evening’s drinking) and/or in a state where they are not fully alert (i.e., at 3 in the morning). They may also be participating because they think their chances of winning are better in the belief that there are very few other people awake at 4 a.m. In fact, this latter point highlights the fact that no-one participating has any idea what the odds are of winning.

As there is little to stop innovative developments in i-TV gaming from moving forward, all interested stakeholders must start to think about the potential psychosocial impacts, and all companies (who, in effect, are gaming operators) must have social responsibility codes in place to ensure that viewers are not being exploited, that games are fair, and that there are protective measures in place for vulnerable individuals. I-TV gaming and gambling (including both i-TV quiz participation and more traditional i-TV gambling) are likely to bring about new and more immediate interactive opportunities. Viewers will eventually be able to make spontaneous bets during sporting events, everything from whether someone will score from a penalty in the World Cup final through to whether someone will sink a particular putt in the US Open Golf Championship.

A 2002 ‘white paper’ (Design guidelines for interactive television gambling) by Stephen Voller of TV Compass at least try to address some of the issues raised by the introduction of interactive gaming services. As Voller notes, when interactive gaming technology is brought into households, the operators have a duty to act responsibly. This applies equally to i-TV quiz participation. Voller has argued that systems that allow gaming access should have a particular requirement to provide controls that reduce the risk of gaming-related social problems. The six broad design criteria are access, reality checks, separate payments, messages, information, and self-exclusion periods.

In future, television viewers are more likely to participate in a much wider array of events than interactive quizzes and sporting events. This is likely to be via credit payment directly through their digital interactive service. This may include popular UK television events like betting on who will win the Eurovision Song Contest, who will be evicted from the Big Brother house, or who will pick up an Oscar. Such non-sport gambling may also bring in new clientele such as female television viewers. The take-up of i-TV quiz participation and/or i-TV gambling may also be very popular with those people who would not dream of going to a casino or betting shop. The use of i-TV quiz participation and/or i-TV gambling may help change people’s attitude about gambling by destigmatizing and demasculinizing it. These new types of gambling and gaming experiences could lead to a more social experience shared by clientele across the demographic spectrum.

The issue of i-TV quiz participation can also be framed more widely in a contemporary society that is increasingly governed by virtual processes. The kind of manipulation that is involved in getting people to respond to an event, even if they have to pay to respond, is achieved by offering a prize that the individual is very unlikely to win. In getting people to respond through this kind of process, the entrepreneurial operators are assured that they will have increased financial revenue through the money they raise by facilitating people to voluntarily behave in these ways. This opens up a discourse examining the ways that people are intentionally manipulated to behave in ways that cost while promising an improbable outcome. This may help us construct useful models which could help us understand and provide insight into gambling behaviours. It also invites discussion of what policies should inform the ways that media such as television and the Internet engage and prime people who have become ‘enchanted’ by a theatrical experience to behave in ways that, if not inevitable, are statistically predictable. There may even be factors of vulnerability that correlate with the likelihood that people will act that way.

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

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Interactive television gambling: Should we be concerned? World Online Gambling Law Report, 3 (3), 11–12.

Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Interactive television and gaming. World Online Gambling Law Report, 5 (2), 12–13.

Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Interactive television quizzes as gambling: A cause for concern? Journal of Gambling Issues, 20, 269-276.

Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Interactive television quizzes as remote gambling. World Online Gambling Law Report, 6(4), 14-15.

Griffiths, M.D. (2008). Convergence of gambling and computer game playing: Implications. E-Commerce, Law and Policy, 10(2), 12-13.

Griffiths, M.D. (2008). Digital impact, crossover technologies and gambling practices. Casino and Gaming International, 4(3), 37-42.

Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2010). Adolescent gambling on the Internet: A review. International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health, 22, 59-75.

Griffiths, M.D. & Wood, R.T.A. (2000). Risk factors in adolescence: The case of gambling, video-game playing and the internet. Journal of Gambling Studies, 16, 199-225.

King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The convergence of gambling and digital media: Implications for gambling in young people. Journal of Gambling Studies, 26, 175-187.

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Gaming convergence: Further legal issues and psychosocial impact. Gaming Law Review and Economics, 14, 461-464.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. In 2013, he was given the Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 800 research papers, five books, over 150 book chapters, and over 1500 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 3500 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on March 12, 2012, in Addiction, Competitions, Gambling, Games, Marketing, Online gambling, Online gaming, Popular Culture, Problem gamblng, Psychology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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