Track to the future: Online behavioural tracking and problem gambling

Almost everyone reading this will be aware that problem gambling lies towards one end of a continuum that ranges from non-gambling at one end through to pathological gambling at the other. However, it should also be noted that there will always be some behaviours that are typically engaged in by problem gamblers that some non-problem gamblers may also engage in at least occasionally (e.g., chasing behaviour when gamblers try to recoup their losses).

Worldwide, there are many different screening instruments that can be used by clinicians and researchers to help identify problem gambling. One of most regularly used is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fourth Edition (of which the fifth edition has just been published) that includes criteria that can aid the diagnosis of problem and pathological gambling (but now called disordered gambling in its latest incarnation). The previous (DSM-IV) criteria were used in the most recent British Gambling Prevalence Survey published in 2011. If a person answered positively to at least five of the criteria, a diagnosis of pathological gambling would be made whereas endorsement of three or four of the criteria would indicate a diagnosis of problem gambling. Using the DSM-IV, the latest BGPS reported a problem gambling rate of 0.9% among British adults.

In contrast to offline gambling, the use of online behavioural tracking presents an opportunity for researchers to examine the actual and real-time behaviour engaged in by gamblers. Analysis of behavioural tracking data has been carried out by various groups of researchers. For instance, one group affiliated to Harvard University have published a series of papers examining a data set of online gamblers provided by the bwin gaming company. My own research unit has also been publishing data using behavioural tracking data provided by the win2day gaming company.

During my consultancy for various online gaming companies, I have been informed by industry insiders that problem gambling can be identified online by examining the patterns and behaviours of online gamblers. If this is true, it has implications for current problem gambling screens (including the new DSM-V). This is because most criteria found in these screens are associated with the consequences of problem gambling rather than the gambling behaviour itself. Take the DSM-IV. I have argued that only a few of the behaviours in the DSM criteria for pathological gambling can be reliably spotted online using online behavioural tracking (the most obvious being chasing losses, salience/preoccupation, and tolerance). The following list highlights each of the DSM-IV questions for pathological gambling and the component of pathological gambling that each criterion is assessing. This is followed by an assessment as to what extent each criterion can be identified online.

  • Salience/Preoccupation (Do you find that you are becoming preoccupied with past gambling successes or find yourself spending increasingly more time planning future gambling?) – An online problem gambler is likely to spend a lot of time gambling online although this behaviour in itself does not necessarily indicate a problem. Anything above four hours daily play over a protracted period could be considered excessive although some forms of online gambling (e.g., online poker) may take up a lot of time and be played relatively inexpensively.
  • Tolerance (Do you find that you need to increase the amount of money you gamble to achieve the same enjoyment and excitement?) – If experiencing tolerance to gambling, an online problem gambler is likely to have changed their gambling behaviour in one of two ways over time. The first example of tolerance is a gradual increase of daily play in terms of time. For instance, the gambler might start off playing 30-60 minutes a day but over the course of a few months starts to play increasing amounts of time. The second example of tolerance is the act of gambling using gradually bigger stakes over time. An online problem gambler is more likely to experience both of these combined (i.e., gambling for longer and longer periods of time with bigger and bigger amounts of money).
  • Relapse (Have you recently tried to stop gambling but were unsuccessful?) – Although this is difficult to detect with absolute certainty online, a typical pattern would be a gambler who gambles heavily, day-in day-out, for a period of time and then “disappears” for a period of time (which could be days, weeks, and sometimes even months), only to suddenly re-appear and gamble heavily again.
  • Withdrawal  (Do you become moody or impatient when you are cutting down how much you gamble?) This is again difficult to detect with absolute certainty online but is most likely to surface with the use of verbally aggressive comments in those games that have chat room facilities (such as online poker).
  • Escape from reality (Do you ever use gambling a way of ignoring stress in your in life or even pick you up when you feel down?) – This is almost impossible to detect online although those players who play for long hours every day are more likely to experience escape-like feeling.
  • Chasing losses (Do you ever try to win back the money you lost by increasing the size or frequency of your wagers?) – This is one of the key indicators of problem gambling and can be spotted online more easily than many other problem gambling criteria. Typical chasing patterns will include repeated ‘double or quit’ strategies in an effort to recoup losses. Although many gamblers use this strategy on occasion, the online problem gambler will do it repeatedly. This behaviour, above and beyond any other criteria, is most likely to signal problem gambling.
  • Conceal Involvement (Do you ever hide how much or how often you gamble from significant others?) – There is no way that an online gambling operator can spot this during online gambling unless such admissions are given to other players in online chat rooms.
  • Unsociable Behaviour (Have you ever committed fraud or theft to get money to gamble with?) – Again, there is no way that an online gambling operator can spot this during online gambling unless such admissions are given to other players in online chat rooms.
  • Ruin a Relationship/Opportunity (Has gambling ever ruined a personal relationship or an occupational or educational opportunity?) – As with the previous two criteria, there is no way that an online gambling operator can spot this during online gambling unless such admissions are given to other players in online chat rooms.
  • Bail-out  (Have you ever needed others to relieve a financial problem created by gambling?) – When an online gambler has exhausted all their own funds, they will often ‘beg, borrow and (eventually) steal’ money to continue gambling. A player whose account is constantly ‘topped up’ by people other than themselves may be a problem gambler.

This brief analysis of the extent to which each DSM criterion of problem gambling can be identified online shows that only a few behaviours can be reliably spotted via online behavioural tracking. The following list contains a number of behaviours that are engaged in by online problem gamblers. This was devised and based on my conversations with members of online gaming industry. These are additional to those identified above (i.e., chasing losses, spending high amounts of time and money, and increasing the amount of gambling over time). As a general ‘rule of thumb’, it is assumed that the more of these online behaviours that are engaged in by an individual, the more likely that person is to be a problem gambler.

  • Playing a variety of stakes – Playing a variety of different stakes (in games like online poker) indicates poor planning and may be a cue or precursor to chasing behaviour.
  • Playing a variety of games – Evidence from national prevalence surveys (e.g. Wardle et, al, 2011) demonstrates that the more types of gambling engaged in, the more likely the person is to be a problem gambler. Although this factor on its own is unlikely to indicate problem gambling, when combined with other indicators on this list may be indicative of problem gambling.
  • Player ‘reload’ within gambling session – Although any gambler can engage in such behaviour, players who deposit more money within session (‘reload’) are more likely to be problem gamblers. This indicates poor planning and is a cue to chasing behaviour.
  • Frequent payment method changes – The constant changing of deposit payment methods indicates poor planning and is may be a cue to chasing behaviour. This online behaviour usually indicates shortage of funds and need to extract monies from a variety of sources. Such behaviour can also indicate bank refusal.
  • Verbal aggression – Aggressive verbal interaction via relay chat is common among problem gamblers although any gambler losing money may cause such behaviour. Such behaviour may be evidence of gamblers going on ‘tilt’ (i.e., negative cognitive and emotional reaction to losing) or withdrawal effects if out of money to gamble.
  • Constant complaints to customer services – Constant complaints to the customer service department is common among problem gamblers although any gambler losing money may cause such behaviour. As with verbal aggression, such behaviour may be evidence of gamblers going on ‘tilt’ (i.e., negative cognitive and emotional reaction to losing).

Clearly, each of these behaviours needs to be examined in relation to at least three or four other indicative behaviours. Perhaps most importantly, and according to online gambling companies who use socially responsible behavioural tracking tools, it is a significant change in usual online behaviour that is most indicative of a problem gambler. Most statistical modelling of player behaviour predicts future problematic behaviour on the basis of behavioural change over time. The behaviours highlighted suggest that screening instruments in the future may be able to be developed that concentrate on the gambling behaviour itself, rather than the associated negative consequences.

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

Further reading

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Limit setting and player choice in most intense online gamblers: An empirical study of online gambling behaviour. Journal of Gambling Studies, in press.

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). An empirical investigation of theoretical loss and gambling intensity. Journal of Gambling Studies, in press.

Delfabbro, P.H., King, D.L & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Behavioural profiling of problem gamblers: A critical review. International Gambling Studies, 12, 349-366.

Dragicevic, S., Tsogas, G., & Kudic, A. (2011). Analysis of casino online gambling data in relation to behavioural risk markers for high-risk gambling and player protection. International Gambling Studies, 11, 377–391.

Griffiths, M.D. (2009). Social responsibility in gambling: The implications of real-time behavioural tracking. Casino and Gaming International, 5(3), 99-104.

Griffiths, M.D. & Auer, M. (2011). Approaches to understanding online versus offline gaming impacts. Casino and Gaming International, 7(3), 45-48.

Griffiths, M.D. & Whitty, M.W. (2010). Online behavioural tracking in Internet gambling research: Ethical and methodological issues. International Journal of Internet Research Ethics, 3, 104-117.

LaBrie, R.A., Kaplan, S., LaPlante, D.A., Nelson, S.E., & Shaffer, H.J. (2008). Inside the virtual casino: A prospective longitudinal study of Internet casino gambling. European Journal of Public Health, DOI:10.1093/eurpub/ckn021.

LaPlante, D.A., Kleschinsky, J.H., LaBrie, R.A., Nelson, S.E. & Shaffer, H.J. (2009). Sitting at the virtual poker table: A prospective epidemiological study of actual Internet poker gambling behavior. Computers in Human Behavior 25, 711-717.

Wardle, H., Moody, A., Spence, S., Orford, J., Volberg, R., Jotangia, D., Griffiths, M., Hussey, D. & Dobbie, F. (2011). British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2010. London: The Stationery Office.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and 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”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 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 2000 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 June 15, 2013, in Addiction, Compulsion, Gambling, Gambling addiction, Games, Internet addiction, Internet gambling, Obsession, Online addictions, Online gambling, Online gaming, Psychological disorders, Psychology, Social responsibility, Technological addiction, Technology and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: