A couple of days ago, I took part in a live debate on national radio (BBC 5Live) about whether virtual roulette machines – known by us in the gambling studies field as ‘fixed odds betting terminals’ (FOBTs) – should be banned from high street bookmakers here in the UK. For those who have no idea what I am talking about:
“A fixed odds betting terminal (FOBT) is an electromechanical device normally found in betting shops in the United Kingdom that allows players to bet on the outcome of various games and events with fixed odds. They were introduced to UK shops in 2001. The most commonly played game is roulette. The minimum amount wagered per spin is £1. The maximum bet cannot exceed a payout of £500 (i.e. putting £14.00 on a single number on roulette). The largest single payout cannot exceed £500. Other games include bingo, simulated horseracing and greyhound racing, and a range of slot machine games. Like all casino games, the “house” (i.e. the casino) has a built –in advantage, with current margins on roulette games being theoretically between 2.5% and 5%” (Wikipedia, 2013).
The last decade has seen many changes in the British gambling landscape. The most notable of these include (i) the growth in the availability of remote gambling (via the internet, mobile phone, and interactive television), (ii) the introduction of online betting exchanges, (iii) an increase in the prominence of poker (both online and offline), (iv) an increase in the number of casinos, and (v) the introduction of FOBTs into most bookmakers.
Relatively little is known about FOBT play among the British population, and the best quality data comes from the British Gambling Prevalence Survey (BGPS), a nationally representative survey that was carried out by the National Centre for Social Research along with a few expert academics in the gambling studies field (including myself). We published the most recent survey in 2011 and we reported that among our 7,756 participants, only 4% had ever played on FOBTs (up from 3% in our previous 2007 survey) with 6% having played FOBTs in the year prior to the survey. Playing FOBTs was more of a male activity with 7% of males compared to 2% females having ever played (with 10% males and 2% females having played FOBTs in the previous year).
The highest participation rates were among individuals aged in the 16-24 year old age group (12%), followed by 25-34 year olds (9%) and 35-44 year olds (3%). Our study also showed that the prevalence of playing FOBTs was highest among those with the lowest personal income (7%) and lowest among those with highest personal income (4%). This was most likely related to the finding that FOBTs were significantly more likely to be played by people who were out of work. More specifically, 12% of those who were unemployed had played FOBTs in the past year compared with 4% of participants overall. Past year gambling was related to marital status, although as we pointed out in our report, this was likely to be a reflection of the relationship between age and marital status. Prevalence of playing on FOBTs was three times higher among those who were single (9%) than those who were married or separated/divorced (3%).
The latest BGPS findings also produced some interesting findings. For instance, although at a population level, the prevalence rate of ever having gambled on FOBTs was very low – compared to lottery gambling (59%) and playing scratchcards (24%) – the majority that did play on FOBTS did so every week (52%). Arguably the most interesting finding was that among those who played FOBTs, the prevalence of problem gambling was 8.8%. The survey as a whole reported that just under 1% of the British adult population had a gambling problem, so there does seem to be an elevated prevalence of problem gambling among those who play FOBTs (in fact, only two activities – playing poker in a pub or club [12.8%] and playing online slot machines [9.1%] – had a higher prevalence rate of problem gambling by type of game played).
However, extreme caution needs to be exercised when interpreting these data because gamblers rarely engage in just a single activity. In fact, those who played poker at a pub/club and played on FOBTs had the highest engagement in gambling activities, participating in 7.6 and 7.2 gambling activities respectively in the year prior to the survey. Among men, the mean number of gambling activities undertaken in the past year was highest among those who played poker at a pub/club (7.9), those who gambled on online slot machine style games (7.4), and those who played on fixed odds betting terminals (7.4). Among women, the mean number of activities engaged in was highest among those who played on fixed odds betting terminals (6.4), and those who bet on sports events (5.8).
Another interesting finding of the BGPS related to the volume of gambling in terms of time and money. Regular gamblers (i.e., those who gambled once a month or more often) were categorized into one of four groups:
- High-time only gamblers (i.e., those who spent a lot of time but not a lot of money gambling)
- High-spend only gamblers (i.e., those who spent a lot money, but not a great deal of time gambling)
- High-time/high-spend gamblers (i.e., those who spent a lot of time and money gambling)
- Non-high-time/non-high-spend gamblers (i.e., those who spent little time or money gambling)
High-time/high-spend gamblers showed a relative preference for betting on horse races, FOBTs and playing casino games. High-time/high-spend gamblers also had the most adverse socio-economic profile. They were more likely to live in areas of greatest deprivation, live in low-income households and be unemployed.
So, given all these data, should FOBTs be banned from British bookmakers’ offices? In short, no. Even if the data were more robust, I would argue that FOBTs shouldn’t be banned particularly because similar types of game can already be accessed far more easily via the internet and mobile phone in environments that are arguably less protective towards problem gamblers. My own stance is that to help overcome problems and addictions to FOBT, gaming companies should engage in the highest levels of social responsibility and introduce cutting edge protocols to ensure player protection.
Some of the hottest issues in the responsible gambling field concern pre-commitment and limit setting (i.e., giving gamblers the tools that they can pre-commit to how much time and money they want to spend on gambling before they actually gamble, as opposed to making ‘heat of the moment’ decisions in the midst of gambling wins or losses that could seriously affect good decision-making). The most practical solution to the issue of curbing problems with FOBTs would be to make the playing of the machine dependent on the gambler having a player card that (a) allows gamblers to pre-commit to how much time and money they are prepared to spend gambling, and (b) allows gaming operators to track their customers’ behaviour, and – with the appropriate behavioural tracking tools – provide informed feedback to the gambler while they are actually gambling. Such a ssystem already operates on a national level in Norway, so there is no reason why it couldn’t be implemented here. What’s more, such technology could be made mandatory, meaning that any gaming operator who wanted a gaming license would legally have to implement such a system as part of its player protection and harm minimization strategies.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
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Wikipedia (2013). Fixed odds betting terminal. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fixed_odds_betting_terminal
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