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No lady luck: A case study of adolescent female slot machine addiction

Based on research into adolescent slot machine playing, all British research has found that most adolescent slot machine players are male and that very few female adolescent slot machine addicts have ever been identified in the literature. The main findings relating to adolescent female slot machine players were published in papers by Dr. Sue Fisher and myself (mostly in the 1990s). In 1993, Dr. Fisher reported the existence of teenage females with no playing skills and little interest in acquiring them, and who gamble on slot machines primarily to gain access to the arcade venue where they can socialize with their friends (calling them ‘Rent-a-Spacers’). Their preferred role is one of ‘spectator’. In an earlier published (1991) study in the Journal of Applied and Community Psychology, I observed that arcades were a meeting place for adolescent social groups in which playing activity was predominantly male-oriented with girls looking on in ‘cheerleader’ roles. In 2003, I published a rare case study of an adolescent female slot machine addict (who I called ‘Jo’) and thought I would share some of the things I found from that study in today’s blog

During a nine-month period, I interviewed Jo three times formally and also maintained regular contact with her on an informal basis. She was confirmed as a probable pathological gambler using the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-IV criteria for pathological gambling.

Jo was brought up as an only child in a seaside town in the South West of England. She described her parents as “comfortable, middle class and loving”. However, she also made reference to the fact that there were reasonably strict rules in the house. Her father was an insurance salesman and her mother was a schoolteacher. She went to a mixed school, and up to the age of 13 years she had good school reports and was in the top 10% of her class academically. She was also very good at sports (and was an active member of the school athletics club) and described herself as “physically stronger” than most of her peers. Jo claims she did not really relate to the other girls in her school and often got into playground fights with them. During her early adolescence she made a few good friends although these were mostly boys of her own age or a little older. She herself described her adolescent years as a “tomboy”. Educationally, she left school when she was 16 years old and got an office job working as an administrative assistant.

Jo started playing slot machines at a young age because they were so abundant in the town where she lived. She described them as “being part of the wallpaper”. To some extent, her parents encouraged her gambling. Like a lot of “seaside parents”, they often took Jo to the amusement arcades as a child for “a weekend treat”. Like many families, they did not see anything wrong with going to the seaside arcade because they felt it was “harmless fun and didn’t cost much.” However, these early experiences coupled with exposure to slot machines in her peer group were instrumental factors in Jo’s acquisition of slot machine playing. Living in a seaside town, access to the machines was widespread, and the main place for “hanging out” was at the local arcades. There were four or five of them because the town was a popular tourist attraction. Arcades provided a meeting point for her friends. She was part of a gang in which hanging around the arcades was one of the few activities that the group could engage in.

At 13 years old, she mainly used to just watch her male friends play on the slot machines and video games. However, within a year, she was playing on slot machines as much as her peers. The arcade was where Jo “felt safe and protected”. She liked it that everyone who worked there knew who she was. In the arcade she was a ‘somebody’ rather than a ‘nobody’. In essence, the arcade provided a medium where Jo’s self-esteem was raised.

Jo gave a number of insights into her motivations for slot machine playing. Skill did not appear to be a motivating factor for continued play. She played to win money (to further her playing rather than fuel any winning fantasies) and did not see the machines as particularly skilful. Although most of Jo’s (male) friends claimed that slot machine playing was very skillful if you were good at it, Jo always believed that slot machines were not like video games and that “winning big” had a lot of luck to it. Knowing her way round a slot machine while helpful, didn’t make her feel as though she was especially skilful except when complete novices would play. Also, being female, the older age women who played on the simple machines would talk to her (unlike the adolescent males who would be shunned by this clientele). This made her feel wanted and needed. However, between the ages of 14 and 15 years, Jo’s slot machine playing became all encompassing. As she explains:

“There was a period in my life between the ages of 15 and 17 where the machines became the most important thing in my life. I didn’t worry about money. I just believed I would win it back or that money would come from somewhere because it always had. I was forever chasing my losses. I would always tell myself that after a bad loss, the arcade was only ‘borrowing’ my money and that they would have to ‘pay it back’ next time I was in there. Of course, that rarely happened but once I was playing again, money worries and losses went out of the window. Gambling became my primary means of escape. On the positive side, at least it helped me to give up smoking and drinking. I simply couldn’t afford to buy nicotine or alcohol – or anything else for that matter. I never believed that gambling would make me rich – I just thought it would help me clear my debts.”

Jo didn’t acknowledge that she had a problem – even when she started to go down to the arcade on her own and using all her disposable income to fund her slot machine playing. However, in retrospect, she realized a problem was developing.

“I used to spend every penny I had on the (slot) machines. It was a good job I wasn’t into clothes like the other girls at school. I couldn’t have afforded to buy anything as I lost everything I had in the long run. I used to wear the same pair of jeans for months. I don’t even think I washed them”.

When Jo was 15 years old, a telephone call from the school headmaster alerted Jo’s mother that her daughter might be having some problems in her life. The headmaster phoned to say that Jo’s attendance had been very poor during the previous three months and that she had stopped attending athletics practice. When confronted, Jo admitted that she had not been attending school but said that all the girls in her class hated her. To some extent this was true (she didn’t get on with any of the girls at her school) but was not the reason she was truanting. Instead of going to school she had been spending her time in the local arcades. For a few weeks she tried to stop her gambling. Now that her parents knew there were problems, she thought this would be the ideal time to give up. However, after 17 days without gambling, her boyfriend split up with her and she relapsed by gambling again. This then carried on for almost two years.

Jo’s parents were very understanding and looked for alternatives to help their daughter. They considered moving classes within the school and moving schools completely. Jo simply said she would try to integrate more. At no stage did Jo’s parents ever suspect that her erratic behaviour was linked to anything other than the problems of adolescent mixing. Jo managed to successfully hide her problem for a further two years before everything came out into the open.

As an only child it was difficult for Jo’s parents to know whether their experience was normal. They hardly saw Jo. At the age of 16 years, Jo upset her parents not only by leaving school but also by leaving home. They knew there was little that they could do. When Jo left home, she assumed that all her problems would disappear. However, she got into more and more trouble and was unable to make ends meet. She lived from hand to mouth. She began to steal from friends, from work and from anyone she met. On two occasions she met males she had never met before that moment, went back to their houses, and then stole their money and/or valuables.

Over this period of nearly two years Jo became more and more withdrawn, lost her friends and ended up resorting to stealing from her place of work. Eventually she was sacked (for taking the petty cash) although her employers were unaware that her problem was gambling (or that she even had a problem). They assumed she wanted more money to supplement her very modest wages. Although she lost her job, the company did not instigate criminal charges.

The first major turning point was being sacked from her first job for theft of the petty cash. She had nowhere else to go but back home. Her parents were a tremendous support although were surprised that slot machines were the heart of the problem. Jo claimed her mother didn’t believe her at first. They wondered how someone could get addicted to a machine. Jo claimed it would have been easier for her mother to accept if she had a drug or alcohol problem rather than a gambling problem.

The cessation of her gambling began when Jo (with her parents’ help) got another job in a remote village in Cornwall (in South West England). There was no arcade, no slot machines in the local pub, and no slot machine within a four-mile radius. She did not drive a car and it was too far to walk to the nearest town. In essence, the lack of access to a slot machine forced her to stop playing. She still got the cravings but there was nothing she could do. She also claimed to have a number of serious self-reported withdrawal symptoms. At work she was short-tempered, irritable with colleagues, and constantly moody. Physically, she had trouble sleeping, and occasionally had stomach cramps, and felt nauseous through lack of play.

Jo eventually joined a local Gamblers Anonymous (GA) that her parents drove her to every week. She only attended a handful of times and stopped attending because she was the only female in the group, the only slot machine player, and also the youngest. Despite the opportunity to share her experiences with eleven or twelve people in a similar position to herself, she felt psychologically isolated. Being able to talk about the problem with people she could trust (i.e., her parents) was a great help. In addition, with her desire to stop and with no access to slot machines, Jo managed to curtail her gambling. She claims she “wasted four years of her adolescence” due to slot machine playing – and she doesn’t want to waste any more of her life. However, there is no certainty that Jo is ‘cured’ – Jo feels a number of triggers could set her off again (like rejection of someone close to her). Talking to people has been Jo’s “salvation” as she calls it. She had always thought that slot machine playing couldn’t be a problem and therefore found it hard that people would accept the “addiction” she had. Other people’s acceptance that she suffered something akin to alcoholism or drug addiction has helped her recovery.

From my own personal research experience, Jo’ account is fairly typical of slot machine addicts. This is an individual who began playing slot machines socially, steadily gambled more and more over time, spent every last penny on gambling and resorted to the cycle of using their own money, borrowing money, and then finally stealing money, just to fund their gambling habit. Criminal proceedings could have occurred but fortunately (for Jo), she was punished by losing her job. The one major difference between this and all other accounts is that Jo happens to be female.

The major limitation of a study such as this is that it relied totally on retrospective self-report. Not only do I have to take Jo’s account as true but it is also subject to the fallibility of human memory. There is also the major limitation that the findings here are based on one person only and there is little that can be said about generalizability.

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

Further reading

Fisher, S. E. (1992). Measuring pathological gambling in children: The case of fruit machines in the U.K. Journal of Gambling Studies, 8, 263-285.

Fisher, S. (1993). The pull of the fruit machine: A sociological typology of young players. Sociological Review, 41, 446-474.

Griffiths, M.D. (1991). The observational analysis of adolescent gambling in UK amusement arcades. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 1, 309-320.

Griffiths, M.D. (1995). Adolescent Gambling. London : Routledge.

Griffiths, M.D. (2002). Gambling and Gaming Addictions in Adolescence. Leicester: British Psychological Society/Blackwells.

Griffiths, M.D. (2003). Fruit machine addiction in females: A case study. Journal of Gambling Issues, 8. Located at: http://jgi.camh.net/doi/full/10.4309/jgi.2003.8.6

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Adolescent gambling. In B. Bradford Brown & Mitch Prinstein(Eds.), Encyclopedia of Adolescence (Volume 3) (pp.11-20). San Diego: Academic Press.

Griffiths, M.D. (2011).A typology of UK slot machine gamblers: A longitudinal observational and interview study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 9, 606-626.

House calls: A look at the rise of online bingo

Yesterday, BBC Online News published a report about online bingo (and which I provided some comments about). Given the popularity of bingo in numerous countries throughout the world, it is surprising how little scientific research has been carried out on the activity. To date, most of the research (including some of my own) has examined offline bingo (which is unsurprising given that playing bingo online is a relatively new phenomenon), and most of the published research is from a sociological perspective typically involving small-scale interview studies and/or observation of players in bingo halls. Research carried out between 1980 and 2005 has tended to report that the majority of bingo players are working class women who play the game primarily to socialize with their friends in what they perceive to be a very ‘safe’ (and somewhat non-masculine) environment.

Research carried out by the American sociologists Constance Chapple and Stacey Nofziger and published in the journal Deviant Behavior confirm these general findings but add that winning money eventually becomes an important motivation as constantly losing leads to the bingo playing ceasing (even if the main reason for playing bingo is sociability). Their research also reported that loneliness and boredom can also be critical factors in why women play bingo. Through the alleviation of boredom, bingo playing leads to the meeting of other like-minded people, and also helps to alleviate the loneliness. Online bingo sites have attempted to facilitate the sociability element by incorporating online chat options, the social rules are different online compared to offline. Whereas in offline bingo chatting is typically forbidden during game play, it is actively encouraged when playing bingo online. Online chat functions appear to be an effective retention tool by online bingo operators, and are specifically aimed at female players.

Online and offline bingo appear to have many similarities in terms of demographics. Online bingo sites (and the marketing and advertising they produce) tend to target women – particularly because bingo is the only form of gambling where women significantly outnumber men. For instance, we found in the most recent British Gambling Prevalence Survey (BGPS) published in 2011, that 9% of the British adult population had played online and/or offline bingo in last year. Although men were more likely than women to participate in most forms of gambling activity, twice as many women (12%) had played bingo in the last year compared to men (6%).

One of the most noticeable trends that I have written about in the last few years is the feminization of gambling. I have argued that one of the reasons that greater numbers of women are gambling is because remote gambling environments (such as internet gambling and mobile phone gambling) are gender-neutral. In the same way that female bingo players view the offline environments in which they play ‘safe’, this is even more so online. While playing online bingo, females do not feel alienated and stigmatized as they sometimes feel in more male-dominated gambling environments such as betting shops and casinos. Furthermore, the perceived anonymity of playing online is another key factor that facilitates the playing of bingo online.

There also appears to be a new type of bingo player – one that only plays bingo online. In our most recent BGPS study, we found that 19% of all bingo players gambled online only (with 4% playing both online and offline, and the majority – 77% – playing offline bingo only). As we predicted, playing bingo was highest among oldest people with 11% of those over 75 years having played bingo in the last year. However, more interesting was the fact that the bingo playing was almost as popular among the young with 10% of those aged 16 to 24 years having played bingo in the 12 months prior to the survey. Interestingly (and perhaps unsurprisingly), this group (being arguably more tech-savvy) was more likely to be playing bingo online, and women were significantly more likely than men to play bingo online at least once a week.

In the same way that online poker sites are now trying to attract more women, some online bingo sites appear to be trying to attract more men. This is being done on many levels including the use of more neutral (unisex) colours in website design, non-cash prizes that appeal across gender lines, and less female-centric marketing and advertising. There are also an increasing number of online casinos that have introduced online bingo to its game portfolio. Such tactics are what we psychologists call ‘foot-in-the-door’ techniques (the most obvious of which are marketing tactics like sign-up cash bonuses or ‘play-for-free and win real money’ offers) where acquisition incentives are given in an attempt to either cross-sell games and/or create longer-term repeat business.

Journalistic stories about the rise in popularity of online bingo sites claim that the most recent statistics suggest that many men also enjoy online bingo and that the numbers of men playing online are on the increase. However, I have not been able to verify such claims, and even if I could, statistics never tell the whole story. As Ebbe Skovdah (a Danish football manager) once stated – “statistics are like mini-skirts, they give you good ideas but they hide the most important things!”.

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

Further reading

Chapple, C. & Nofgizer, S. (2000). Bingo!: Hints of deviance in the accounts of sociability and profit of bingo players. Deviant Behavior: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 21, 489–517.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Online gambling, social responsibility and ‘foot-in-the-door techniques. i-Gaming Business, 62, 100-101.

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Technological trends and the psychosocial impact on gambling. Casino and Gaming International, 7(1), 77-80.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Gambling, stigma, and the rise of online bingo. i-Gaming Business Affiliate, December/January, 34-35.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). The psychology of online and offline bingo. i-Gaming Business Affiliate, October/November, 38.

Griffiths, M.D. & Bingham, C. (2002). Bingo playing in the UK: The influence of demographic factors on play.  International Gambling Studies, 2, 51-60.

Griffiths, M.D. & Bingham, C. (2005). A study of superstitious beliefs among bingo players. Journal of Gambling Issues, 13. Located at: http://www.camh.net/egambling/issue13/jgi_13_griffiths.html.

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.

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

The gender agenda and the feminization of gambling

The deregulation of the gambling industry both in the UK and elsewhere may not only pose a pose a problem to some of the general population but also to specific ‘at-risk’ groups such as women. Women may be equally as susceptible to developing problem gambling as men. Research has indicated that although they tend to acquire the disorder later in life, progression is often much faster.

Given the increase in gambling-related research, it is surprising that the gambling literature tends to focus on male populations to the neglect of women gamblers. This male bias in the literature is problematic and it often leads professionals to wrongly assume that what is true for male gamblers similarly holds true for their female counterparts. Non gender-specific research into gambling may yield findings which are irrelevant to female gamblers that consequently ignore how, why, when and where women gamble.

Findings from studies that have examined men and women concurrently have highlighted the importance of studying both intra- and inter-gender variations in gambling behaviour. For example, men have been repeatedly found to prefer strategic forms of gambling which necessitate a higher element of risk-taking and skill such as casino gambling or sports betting. This is in contrast to women who favour gambling activities that involve less monetary risk, such as slot machines and bingo – although there are cultural differences. Such differences in gambling behaviour between the genders may in part reflect differences in motivations to gamble.

Research has documented that male gamblers find the thrill of gambling, ego enhancement, communing, competitive risk-taking, and asserting their masculinity to be important motivations for gambling. Women on the other hand may be more motivated to gamble to escape from boredom and gain time out from family responsibilities. Furthermore, social interaction, environmental factors, and the perceived male dominance of some gambling environments may also positively or negatively contribute to the attractiveness of gambling for women. However, newer forms of gambling make it possible for females to swap gender (as is the case in online poker) without other players knowing they have done so.

Others have used gender theory to explain differences in men and women’s motivations to gamble in casinos. For example a 2005 study published in the journal Leisure Science by Professor Gordon Walker and colleagues (University of Alberta, Canada) concluded that differences might be attributed to males and females trying to either prove or negotiate their traditional gender roles. Men have been commonly been stereotyped as being more adventurous, assertive, aggressive, independent and task orientated, whilst women are viewed as being sensitive, gentle, dependent, emotional and people orientated. These images of men and women are ubiquitous and have been found to be relatively consistent across cultures. Walker and colleagues’ study found them to effect motivations to gamble such that risk taking/gambling as a rush, learning, and emotional stoicism (not displaying their emotions) were more important for males. Social interaction and being able to display their emotions were important for women. Thus, gender differences in motivations to gamble in casinos reflected traditionally held images of men and women. It was proposed that for some men, casinos provide an ideal place to prove their masculinity. This has also been noted in my own research among adolescent gamblers in British amusement arcades. On the other hand they provide a good setting for women to escape and cope with their everyday problems associated with traditional female gender roles.

The social acceptance of different types of gambling for males and females may also be influential for their gambling preferences. Therefore, differences in men and women’s motivations to gamble, gender roles, and the social acceptability of forms of gambling for men and women may explain why casino gambling remains more popular amongst males than females. Essentially men are greater risk takers, enjoy games of skill, have a necessity to prove their masculinity, and wager greater sums of money. These are all factors that are accommodated for by engaging in casino gambling.

Apart from gambling on bingo and lotteries, gambling has traditionally been a male domain. However, the newer (technological) forms of gambling are gender-neutral and what we seem to be witnessing more and more is the feminisation of gambling. An early (2001) national prevalence study on internet gambling that I published highlighted that female participants said they would prefer to gamble online rather than in a betting shop or casino because they perceived the internet to be a safer place to gamble, less intimidating, less stigmatising, and more anonymous.

As a consequence, gaming operators appear to now be targeting women in a way that just didn’t happen five years ago. The most obvious example is online bingo where online gaming companies have targeted females to get online, socialise, and gamble. Additionally, there are many operators around the world (including those in the lottery sector and television companies looking for other revenue streams)  that are targeting women via its online instant game sites. Although males still heavily outnumber females in both online and offline gambling (as reported in the most recent British Gambling Prevalence Survey), it is likely that the prevalence of female gambling participation (and as a consequence problem gambling) will increase over the next decade.

This brief overview of gender and gambling highlights the general paucity of work that has been conducted in the field and indicates the need to examine female gambling more systematically and in greater detail. Motivations to gamble and gambling behaviour appear to vary as a function of gender and very few studies have examined this in any depth.

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

Further reading

Casey, E. (2003). Gambling and consumption: Working-class women and UK National Lottery play. Journal of Consumer Culture, 3, 245-263.

Dixley, R. (1987). It’s a great feeling when you win: Women and bingo. Leisure Studies, 6, 199-214.

Grant, J.E. & Kim, S.W. (2002). Gender differences in pathological gamblers seeking medication treatment. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 43, 56-62.

Griffiths, M.D.  (2001).  Internet gambling: Preliminary results of the first UK prevalence study, Journal of Gambling Issues, 5. Available at: http://www.camh.net/egambling/issue5/research/griffiths_article.html.

Griffiths, M.D. (2003). Fruit machine addiction in females: A case Study. Journal of Gambling Issues, 8. Available at: http://www.camh.net/egambling/issue8/clinic/griffiths/index.html.

Griffiths, M.D. & Bingham, C. (2002). Bingo playing in the UK: The influence of demographic factors on play.  International Gambling Studies, 2, 51-60.

Hing, N., & Breen, H., (2001). Profiling Lady Luck: An empirical study of gambling and problem gambling amongst female club members. Journal of Gambling Studies, 17, 47-69.

Mark, M.E. & Lesieur, H.R. (1992). A feminist critique of problem gambling research. British Journal of Addiction, 87, 549-565.

Potenza, M.N., Steinberg, M.A., Mclaughlin, S.D., Wu, R., Rounsaville, B.J. & O’Malley, S.S. (2001). Gender-related differences in the characteristics of problem gamblers using a gambling helpline. American Journal of Psychiatry, 158, 1500-1505.

Tavares, H., Zilberman, M.L., Beites, F. & Gentil, V., (2001). Gender differences in gambling progression. Journal of Gambling Studies, 17, 151-159.

Walker, G.J., Hinch, T.D. & Weighill, A.J. (2005). Inter and intra gender similarities and differences in motivations for casino gambling. Leisure Science, 27, 111-130.

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

Wood, R.T.A., Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2007). The acquisition, development, and maintenance of online poker playing in a student sample. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 354-361.