For those of us who watch football on the television in the UK, it is almost impossible to watch a game without seeing the many gambling adverts alerting us to the fact we can now bet on over 60 ‘in-play’ markets while watching the game. Should I wish to, I can bet on everything from who is going to score the first goal, what the score will be after 30 minutes of play, how many yellow cards will be given during them game and/or in what minute of the second half the first free kick will be awarded.
‘In-play’ betting is arguably the fastest growing form of gambling in the UK and the UK’s leading ‘in-play’ bookmaker Bet 365 made over £500 million last year. One of the issues I have been asked by the press is to what extent ‘in-play’ betting can be problematic. One of the interviews I did recently was with the Mail on Sunday who published some of my comments yesterday in an article entitled ‘Risky business: With the advent of online gambling, are we creating an epidemic of addiction? ’I was quoted as saying:
‘What the in-play markets have done is take what was traditionally a discontinuous form of gambling – where you make one bet every Saturday on the result of the game – to one where you can gamble again and again and again. You cannot become addicted to something unless you are constantly being rewarded. If the reward only happens once or twice a week, it’s impossible to become addicted. In-play has changed that”
This indeed was a good summary of the interview I did. In-play betting is something that many of us in the problem gambling field are keeping an eye on because it’s taken something that has traditionally been a non-problem form of gambling to something that is more akin to betting on horse racing. At a typical Gamblers Anonymous group, you will get horse racing addicts, slot machine addicts, casino addicts, but it was rare that you got anyone ever having problems with things like football betting, mainly because football betting opportunities were once a week on the pools or betting before the match on a Saturday afternoon.
As I noted in my published quote above, if the reward for gambling only happens once or twice a week, it is completely impossible to become addicted. In-play has changed that because we now have football matches on almost every day of the week making a daily 2-hour plus period of betting seven days a week. As a psychologist who has researched problem gambling for over 25 years, I would assess the structural characteristics of this type of activity and associate it with the type that causes problem gambling for those that are vulnerable and susceptible. So why do I think this?
When considering speed and frequency of gambling in relation to problem gambling, concepts such as event duration, event frequency and payout interval can often be misunderstood and applied in the wrong context. Often, these are mistaken for having the same meaning. Furthermore, concepts such bet frequency and event duration are often ignored despite their importance of their role in the speed and frequency of betting. All of these terms refer to slightly different aspects of gambling although they are all implicated factors that affect speed and frequency.
Event duration essentially refers to how fast the “event” is (i.e., the speed of a gambling activity such as a reel spin on a slot machine that typically lasts for a few seconds). Professor Alex Blaszczynski and his colleagues at the University of Sydney (Australia) noted that gamblers prefer faster speeds and find fast speeds while playing more enjoyable. Therefore, they argued that gamblers’ motivation to play could encourage more persistent gambling activity. Another study by Professor Ladouceur and Dr. Serge Sevigny at the University of Laval (Quebec, Canada) investigated the effects of slot machine game speed on concentration, motivation to play, loss of control, and number of games played on people randomly assigned to either a high-speed (5 seconds) or a low-speed (15 seconds) gambling condition. Their results showed that high-speed gamblers played more games and underestimated the number of games played more than low-speed gamblers. However, speed didn’t influence concentration, motivation, or loss of control over time or money. Despite many methodological limitations they concluded that speed had limited impact on occasional slot machine gamblers.
A paper by Dr Kevin Harrigan and Dr. Mike Dixon (University of Waterloo, Canada) estimated the speed of slot machine play on slot machines. On a machine with a reel spin of every six seconds, players can play 10 times per minute, (i.e., 600 spins per hour) whereas those on a machine with a reel spin of every three seconds, players can play 20 times a minute (i.e., 1200 spins per hour). I also found similar results in research I carried out on British slot machines in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
It is important to acknowledge that duration of the betting event is different from event frequency. However, they may be inextricably linked in so much as the length of a betting event will obviously limit the frequency with they can take place. For example, a betting event lasting two hours (e.g., wagering only on the final outcome of a football game) could not have an event frequency greater than one in any 2-hour period, but a roulette spin (lasting approximately 5-6 seconds) may have an event frequency of several hundred in the same two-hour period. Furthermore, as a result of the introduction of in-running or situational betting (i.e., ‘in-play betting’) this relationship is even less clear.
Event frequency refers to the number of events that are available for betting in any given time period. For example, a lottery draw may occur twice a week but an electronic keno lottery draw may occur 100 times per hour. In this example, a keno lottery draw has a higher event frequency. Bet frequency, on the other hand, refers to the number of bets or wagers placed in any given time period. Using the lottery again as an example, multiple tickets (e.g., 10 tickets) can usually be purchased as frequently as desired before any single lottery draw. So here bet frequency would be equal to 10 but event frequency would be equal to 1. Therefore, bet frequency can often be higher than event frequency and hence, it is possible to spend more than one can afford even with a low event frequency.
The relationship between bet frequency and event frequency needs further empirical investigation. As researchers and clinicians, we often make the assumption the two have a strong relationship; the higher number of betting events – the higher the frequency of betting. Until more research is forthcoming a definitive answer is currently not available. Although, players can place many bets on just one gambling event, the outcome of this event can influence future betting activity. By outcomes, we are essentially referring to winning or losing. Losing can often create financial and emotional motivation to continue betting (i.e. chasing). It could be speculated that the satisfaction from winning may reduce motivation for further betting in the short-term, or it may increase betting as a result of increased bankroll, illusions of control and/or cognitive biases. Therefore, a higher event frequency not only offers more opportunity and choice for betting, but also affects motivation for betting through revealing consequential wins and losses at the end of each event. However, it should also be noted that betting frequency is also impacted by other factors (e.g., peer pressure, time constraints to gamble, etc.).
So does the speed of a game influence the prevalence of problem and pathological gambling? Based on the relationship between event duration, event frequency, bet frequency, and payout interval, empirical research has consistently shown that games that offer a fast, arousing span of play, frequent wins, and the opportunity for rapid replay are those most frequently cited as being associated with problem gambling. The actual prevalence rate of problem and pathological gambling will of course depend on many other factors than speed of the game alone, but games with high and rapid event frequencies such as slot machines are most likely to impact on increased rates of problem and pathological gambling. In-play betting appears to be an activity that is starting to blur the lines between continuous and discontinuous forms of gambling.
Frequency of opportunities to gamble (i.e., event frequency) also appears to be a major contributory factor in the development of gambling problems. The general rule is that the higher the event frequency, the more likely it is that the activity will result in gambling problems. Addictive behaviours have been shown to be associated with the rewards and the speed of rewards and payout rates. Therefore, the more potential rewards there are, and the higher the amount of the rewards, the more problematic the activity is likely to be. Given the time, money and resources, a vast majority of gambling activities are “continuous” in that people have the potential to gamble again and again. Therefore, in relation to problem gambling, in-play betting is an activity that we really need to keep an eye on.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Additional input by Dr. Jonathan Parke (Salford University, UK)
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