One of the most psychologically interesting questions concerning poker is ‘Why do so many people play so badly?’ It’s clear that most players know better, but they appear to make the same mistakes repeatedly. Given the hundreds of thousands of poker strategy books that are sold every year, we can only reach the conclusion that just a small percentage of poker players apply the skills they have read about. My hunch is that most people understand what they have read but when it comes to playing a competitive hand it’s simply more ‘fun’ to play badly than to play well. I’m not saying losing is more fun than winning (because quite clearly it isn’t), but the pursuit of profit maximization forces players to do things they don’t like doing. On a psychological level, maximizing profit makes extreme demands. Therefore, only a few, extraordinarily disciplined people play their best game most of the time – and nobody always plays it.
Most economists claim that gamblers are primarily driven by the profit motive. However, the psychological evidence is overwhelming that other desires affect gambling actions. Put simply, for most gamblers, our actions contradict the desire to maximize profits. Whilst I am no Freudian, there appear to be a whole range of unconscious factors at play in gambling situations.
One of the basic mistakes is playing too many hands. All the self-help books warn players against it but it is a common behaviour. In general, poker players find it boring to fold hand after hand. Players become more reckless and instead of folding, risk all in an attempt to get themselves out of a boredom rut. Even after losing, the poker player may ‘congratulate’ their play by defining it as ‘courageous’ when in the cold light of day, it was stupid. This type of adaptive thinking is common amongst gamblers who lose and should be avoided. Poker players often chase with weak hands for the same reason. Players will throw good money after bad in an effort to get even. Occasionally the strategy will pay off, but most of the time it won’t. In these situations, gamblers will invariably focus on the few times that chasing has got them out of a hole – but conveniently forget the many times that it didn’t.
Another common mistake is to playing too aggressively. Not only is this a male characteristic but is often the strategy of the game’s very top players. Again, such tactics occasionally pay off for the player in very tight games. However, in most gambling situations, playing aggressively is simply not called for yet players continue to do it. On the other hand, gamblers can sometimes play too passively. Gamblers constantly find good excuses to justify their playing styles. In these situations, gamblers simply remember the times they saved money by not betting or raising, ignoring the pots they lost by giving away free or cheap cards.
It’s also tempting to show your cards and most players will do it occasionally. If players make a successful bluff, it’s human nature to want to let people to know how smart they are. The golden rule in poker is never to give anything away but the human psyche works in such a way that we usually want to show off once in a while. Our psychological make-up also means that we let pride get in the way of minimizing losses. There are always games that should have been avoided but players end up staying in them long after they knew it was a mistake. None of us like to lose to who we think are weaker players, or admit that the game was too hard. How many times does a player continue playing because they want to try and get the better of a great player or show off because there is someone they are trying to impress? Although it’s a cliché, pride before a fall is commonplace. These short-term psychological satisfactions will almost always have a negative impact on long-term profits.
Because there are many non-financial types of rewards from many different sources while playing poker, some people view losses as the price of entry. To these players, winning may be a bonus. However, most of us don’t like losing – and we especially don’t like persistent losing, regardless of whether there are other types of reinforcement. In the cold light of day, we are all rational human beings. In the height of action, rationality often goes out the window. I’ve done it myself at the roulette table and standing in front of a slot machine. While gambling I have felt omnipotent (and wrote about this experience back in 1990 in an article on the dangers of doing observational research in amusement arcades). It is only after I walk away penniless that the non-financial rewards are short-term and not worth it.
Understanding our own psychological motives is clearly important while gambling. Most players know the strategies they should be adopting but fail to apply them in real gambling situations. Players do not lack the information. It is far more profitable to learn why we don’t apply the lessons we have already learned, then ensure that we apply them. Until we understand and control our own motives – including the unconscious ones – we cannot possibly play to our best ability.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Additional input from the writings of Alan Schoonmaker
Biolcati, R., Passini, S. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). All-in and bad beat: Professional poker players and pathological gambling. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 13, 19-32.
Griffiths, M.D. (1990). The dangers of social psychology research. BPS Social Psychology Newsletter, 23, 20-23.
Griffiths, M.D., Parke, J., Wood, R.T.A. & Rigbye, J. (2010). Online poker gambling in university students: Further findings from an online survey. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 82-89.
McCormack. A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). What differentiates professional poker players from recreational poker players? A qualitative interview study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10, 243-257.
Parke, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Poker gambling virtual communities: The use of Computer-Mediated Communication to develop cognitive poker gambling skills. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 1(2), 31-44.
Parke, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2018). Identifying risk and mitigating gambling related harm in online poker. Journal of Risk Research, 21, 269-289.
Parke, A., Griffiths, M., & Parke, J. (2005) Can playing poker be good for you? Poker as a transferable skill. Journal of Gambling Issues, 14.
Recher, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). An exploratory qualitative study of online poker professional players. Social Psychological Review, 14(2), 13-25.
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.
Wood, R.T.A. & Griffiths. M.D. (2008). Why Swedish people play online poker and factors that can increase or decrease trust in poker websites: A qualitative investigation. Journal of Gambling Issues, 21, 80-97.
A couple of days ago, Simon Stevens, the Chief Executive of the British National Health Service (NHS) said that foreign-owned betting companies who sponsor British football clubs should financially contribute to paying for gambling addicts’ treatment. I am all in favour of this, although I think some money should also be allocated to education, prevention, and (predictably) research. This is also an area that I have written about recently.
More specifically, I and my colleague Dr. Hibai Lopez-Gonzalez published a paper earlier this year entitled ‘Betting, forex trading, and fantasy gaming sponsorships – A responsible marketing inquiry into the ‘gamblification’ of English football’ in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. Using data about sponsorship deals from English Football Premier League, we demonstrated that gambling marketing has become firmly embedded in the financial practices of many Premiership football clubs. We argued that these associations are not trivial, and that the symbolic linkage of sport and newer gambling forms may become an issue of public health, especially affecting vulnerable groups such as minors and problem gamblers.
A major preoccupation regarding gambling intersection with sports has been the marketing of betting as an experience inherently associated with the symbolic culture of sport. By emphasising its connections with sports, the marketing and advertising of betting has been theorised to pursue the ‘sanitation’ of gambling, transferring the health-related symbolic attributes of sport and physical exercise to betting behaviour. In this regard, of great concern is the effects that an excessive volume of betting marketing might have on vulnerable groups such as minors and young adults and individuals suffering or recovering from gambling disorder. Furthermore, additional issues might arise in the event that those new categories that extend the definition of sports gambling (i.e., trading, other gambling forms such as poker, and fantasy games) seeking to market their products in alignment with (or appropriation of) sports’ core values and positive attributes. Early examples of this marketing strategy can be found in the sport stars’ endorsement of poker brands such as the footballers Neymar Jr. and Cristiano Ronaldo, and the tennis player Rafael Nadal.
We asserted in our paper that football shirt sponsorship is arguably a good proxy to calibrate the volume of gambling marketing in English football. Table 1 shows the shirt sponsor evolution over a decade (from the 2007/2008 to 2016-2017 seasons). First team shirt sponsorship with gambling companies evolved from four deals in 2008, six deals in 2012, to ten deals in 2017, accounting for half of the 20 English Premier League teams. The saturation of shirt logos owned by gambling brands has evolved rapidly over a relatively short period of time. However, some industry voices have been anticipating a decline in the numbers of shirts being sponsored by gambling firms due to their incapacity to compete with other business sector, although such a decline has yet to materialise.
In the same vein, it has been noted that most of the football teams with shirts sponsored by gambling companies are among the less powerful in the league, both in terms of economic profitability and sporting success. Analysing the data from end of season table positions indeed demonstrates a bias of gambling companies sponsoring teams towards the bottom of the table. Thus, the four teams (out of 20 in the English Premier League) with gambling logos in 2007/08 finished the league 6th, 7th, 11th, and 15th. In 2011-12, the six teams sponsored by gambling companies finished 10th, 11th, 13th, 16th, 18th, and 20th. In 2016/2017 season, the ten teams with gambling sponsors showed an almost perfect inverse correlation between table position and gambling-origin shirt sponsor, ranking 9th, 10th, 11th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th, and 20th (19th being a money loan company).
This could be interpreted as a nuanced strategy. More specifically, gambling operators might believe they have enough global exposure that the league as whole offers, without needing to pay premium sponsorship deals to attach their brand to the most supported and successful teams (because all the lower ranked teams have to play all the upper ranked teams and therefore get equal advertising exposure during televised games).
Table 2 shows the breadth of the gamblification process by focusing on sponsorship deals running through 2016-17 season in the English Premier League. As can be observed, all teams secured at least one official betting partner, with some of them having multiple partners due to regional deals in strategic markets to provide so-called ‘geo-targeted’ betting experience. An illustration example is Arsenal club’s deals with 12Bet company in Asia, Betfair in Europe, SportPesa in Kenya, and Tempobet in Oceania. Altogether, the 20 English Premier League teams totalled 20 different betting brands, with 12 brands sponsoring only one team, five brands sponsoring two teams, and three brands sponsoring three different teams. Despite how fragmented the betting market might look, these brands represent only a small fraction of the actual number operating in association with the English football. In fact, betting brands are generally considered to offer poorly differentiated products in highly competitive markets. Consequently, marketing plays a significant part in artificially creating singular attributes that facilitate the acquisition and maintenance of customers.
Sponsorship deals with trading companies are not as prevalent as betting sponsorships. However, 14 out of 20 English Premier League teams have linked partnership deals with trading companies – most notably forex trading – for 2016/17 season. Only one trader (EZTrader) sponsors two different teams, while the rest are unique sponsors. Arguably, the same betting market attributes of low product differentiation and competitive environment also applies to trading firms.
Fantasy gaming is rapidly becoming a large component of sports appreciation, especially in the USA where fantasy sports appears to have partially absorbed the consumer base for online sports betting, an illegal activity in most states. Although still in its infancy in Europe, eight out of 20 English teams already have agreements in place with fantasy sports companies, some of which include a deal with DraftKings, the leading company along with FanDuel in USA’s fantasy gaming market. The concentration of brands here is slightly higher than in the case of betting and trading sponsorships, but six different brands still populate the growing fantasy gaming market in the English Premier League.
The detrimental effect on public health of an increase in the sports betting marketing volume is difficult to demonstrate. British data collected by the Gambling Commission is inconclusive due to the lack of definition of what constitutes gambling on sports. In general, research has found difficult to substantiate the causal association between gambling advertising exposure and behaviour, particularly when the effects of such exposure might take place weeks or months later. Despite the difficulties of finding empirical evidence of the real impact of marketing on betting behaviour, many authors have acknowledged that the association between marketing and gambling disorder is plausible, at least theoretically.
The sports betting marketing and advertising growth could be theorised to have two effects. First, an increase in gambling advertising exposure will lead to a higher prevalence rate of problem gambling. Many scholars have indicated that problem gamblers are usually more exposed to advertising (e.g., they visit more frequently gambling websites or watch more sport events), therefore it cannot be established whether they gamble more because they are exposed to more marketing instances or the are more exposed because they gamble more. However, a study I published with my Norwegian colleagues at the University of Bergen conducted among 6,034 Norwegian gamblers found that problem gamblers had a greater involvement with gambling advertising even when they were similarly exposed than regular non-problem gamblers.
Second, an overall rise in the consumption of gambling products following more aggressive marketing strategies, even while maintaining stable the percentage of people experiencing gambling-related harm, would lead to a rise in absolute numbers of people developing gambling problems. Simply put, keeping problem gambling rate constant, the more people that bet on sports, the more problem gamblers.
There is a wide consensus that sports betting marketing (and advertising) must be regulated, and is the case in most jurisdictions including the UK. However, there is no specific protection concerning the marketing of trading and fantasy gaming as a specific product category associated with sports. Finally, our paper noted that although there is no scientific evidence the marketing agreements between football clubs and the gambling industry are actually having a detrimental effect on the aforementioned vulnerable groups, it makes theoretical sense to think that they might potentially cause harm.
Note: This article was co-written with Hibai Lopez-Gonzalez
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Griffiths, M.D., Estévez, A., Guerrero-Solé F. & Lopez-Gonzalez, H. (2018). A brief overview of online sports betting advertising and marketing. Casino and Gaming International, 33, 51-55.
Lopez-Gonzalez, H., Estévez, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Marketing and advertising online sports betting: A problem gambling perspective. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 41, 256-272.
Lopez-Gonzalez, H., Estévez, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2018). Controlling the illusion of control: A grounded theory of sports betting advertising in the UK. International Gambling Studies, 18, 39-55.
Lopez-Gonzalez, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Is European online gambling regulation adequately addressing in-play betting advertising? Gaming Law Review and Economics, 20, 495-503.
Lopez-Gonzalez, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2018). Betting, forex trading, and fantasy gaming sponsorships – A responsible marketing inquiry into the ‘gamblification’ of English football. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 16, 404-419.
Lopez-Gonzalez, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2018). Understanding the convergence of online sports betting markets. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, in press.
Lopez-Gonzalez, H. Guerrero-Solé, F., Estévez, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2018). Betting is loving and bettors are predators: A Conceptual Metaphor Approach to online sports betting advertising. Journal of Gambling Studies, in press.
Lopez-Gonzalez, H., Guerrero-Sole, F. & Griffiths, M.D. (2018). A content analysis of how ‘normal’ sports betting behaviour is represented in gambling advertising. Addiction Research and Theory, 26, 238-247.
“Cash Out lets you take profit early if your bet is coming in, or get some of your stake back if your bet is going against you – all before the event you’re betting on is over. Cash Out offers are made in real time on your current bets, based on live market prices. Whenever you are ready to Cash Out, simply hit the yellow button. Cash out is available on singles and multiples, on a wide range of sports, including football, tennis, horse racing, and many more! You can Cash Out of bets pre-play, in-play, and between legs” (Definition of ‘cash out’ betting on Betfair website, 2017).
Most European sports betting operators now feature ‘cash out’ functionalities in their online platforms. This means that bettors can withdraw their bets before the event bet upon has concluded, obtaining a smaller but guaranteed return if the outcome of the bet is going their way, or, conversely, cutting down the monetary impact of a foreseeable loss. The ‘cash out’ functionality has rapidly become popular among sports bettors that bet in-play (i.e., during the game on things such as soccer matches and horse races) as a way of maximising value on the bets they have made.
Industry voices such as David O’Reilly, from Colossus Bets, have identified four major benefits of cash out features for bookmakers: (i) reducing the volatility of the operator’s revenue; (ii) increasing the recycling of player returns, with more players banking smaller amounts; (iii) enabling players to avoid their ‘near miss’ frustration; and (iv) improving the player engagement with the platform by introducing a mechanism that promotes constant checking. However, for sports bettors, cashing out strategies might typically involve cutting down the profit while being ahead but rarely reducing the loss when going behind. In this regard, cashing out does not appear to differ greatly from other new internet-based betting forms (e.g. so-called ‘exotic’ or multiple bets), which have been found to possess, in general, higher expected losses for gamblers and greater profit margins for operators.
However, beyond the feature’s financial rationale, cash out affects the nature of sports betting in more meaningful ways. It is, arguably, a game-changer, that leads (along with other features such as ‘edit my acca’ features in which specific bets can be removed from ‘accumulator’ bets) to the transformation of sports betting from a discontinuous to a continuous form of gambling. Here, our contention is that cash out is a key component of the contemporary bettor-bookmaker interaction, and that the widespread adoption by devoted sports bettors merits a closer look into the implications of such an interaction from a problem gambling perspective. Such an examination also suggests that regulators and policymakers need to think about how to protect gambling consumers from the potential harm caused by this new type of betting.
Structural characteristics have been proposed as a determining factor that can influence problem gambling behaviour. Structural characteristics are those associated with the design of a gambling product that shape the way gamblers interact with it. Typical structural characteristics include, but are not limited to, bet frequency, bet duration, event frequency, near misses, stake size, jackpot size, probability of winning, and interface design (e.g., the use of music and colour stimuli in the design of slot machines).
The internet has altered significantly the structural characteristics of gambling and sports betting more specifically. For example, in a number of European countries, the football (soccer) pools used to comprise bets placed during a weekday on the outcome of a game played typically on a Saturday or Sunday (i.e., a once a week wager). This reward delay was a major protective factor against excessive gambling, which on a psychobiological level has been theorised as an imbalance in an individual’s dopamine receptors, and therefore, highly sensitive to shorter bet reward periods. Betting via the internet has reduced such delays in receiving rewards from gambling, thus modifying a major structural characteristic of betting from once a week to (in some instances) every few minutes.
In parallel to the increased uptake of Internet betting in many jurisdictions, a second dynamic, namely globalisation, has further widened the possibilities of betting across countries, sports, and time zones, ultimately transforming sports betting into a 24/7 activity where the bookmaker never closes the shop any day during the year. For the first time, if a gambler has a craving to bet, the market is able to respond to that demand anytime and anywhere via a range of Wi-Fi enabled portable devices (e.g., smartphone, tablets, laptops, etc.). Virtual sports have expanded the availability of betting options even more, eliminating the need to bet on real world sport events.
Although the time between bets (i.e., bet frequency) was effectively reduced to near zero, the time within bets (i.e., bet duration) changed little until cash out functionality was first introduced by the gaming operator William Hill in December 2012. With cash out features, sports betting has become a potentially continuous gambling activity, one that resembles the playing mechanics the stock market. As with investing in stocks, bet values in in-play sports betting are re-calculated seamlessly. The outcome of a sport event might not be as relevant for many bettors as the value their bet will acquire in the next few seconds, even if that bet turns out to be erroneous at the end of the game. As in stock market investing, betting becomes continuous because non-actions also qualify as actions in themselves. Every single second that a bettor decides not to cash out, a new bet takes place. Eventually, cash out features introduce the notion that it is the bet itself the commodity that is being traded in the sports betting market. This new continuous type of sports betting raises questions concerning the gambling-related harm that could be associated with it. It also suggests that the kinds of regulation found widely in the stock market investment sector might have some utility if applied to this new form of gambling.
From a marketing perspective, cash out functionality is often advertised as a control-enhancing mechanism for bettors. Given that cashing out is typically presented in television advertisements as a risk-free operation, the product is likely to be perceived as reimbursable if the client is not happy with it, arguably promoting less planned gambling behaviours. Some gaming operators use the alternative name of “edit my bet” to refer to cash out, focusing on the capacity of bettors to correct later possible errors of judgement. The problem is that (and as happens in stock market investing), cashing out is only possible at the current value of the stock (which may be inferior to the purchasing price). Additionally, and contrary to what happens in stock market investing, betting operators automatically devalue the bet price immediately after the purchase. For example, a bookmaker will typically offer to cash out for $0.95 or similar a $1 bet placed one second ago, a price devaluation unmotivated by any new information or event actually affecting the predicted value of such a bet.
Beyond its most apparent attributes, we have demonstrated that cash out within in-play gambling is a pivotal feature that has been introduced by the sports betting industry to transform sports betting from what was traditionally a discontinuous form of gambling into a continuous one. It is contended that, although cashing out presupposes more engaged gamblers that feel more in control of their bets, the emotionally charged context in which it is often used and the structural attributes of the product itself might actually make some bettors lose control over their gambling wagers. Consequently, gambling policymakers and regulators should be cognizant of the challenges of this transformation of sports betting and consider the implications for the protection of gambling consumers.
[Note: This article was co-written with Dr. Hibai Lopez-Gonzalez]
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Betfair (2017). Sportsbook: What is cash out and how does it work? Retrieved March 1, 2017, from: https://en-betfair.custhelp.com/app/answers/detail/a_id/4/~/sportsbook%3A-what-is-cash-out-and-how-does-it-work%3F
Gainsbury, S. M. (2015). Online gambling addiction: The relationship between internet gambling and disordered gambling. Current Addiction Reports, 2(2), 185-193.
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Lopez-Gonzalez, H., & Griffiths, M. D. (2016). Understanding the convergence of online sports betting markets. International Review for the Sociology of Sport. http://doi.org/doi:10.1177/1012690216680602
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Throughout my career I’ve carried out quite a lot of research into the marketing and advertising of gambling and the way in which some gambling operators use psychology to exploit our senses to maximize profit. Connected to this, I’ve also published a number of papers that have examined the role of sound (and particularly music) can influence the way in which individuals gamble (see my previous blog on this and ‘Further reading’ below).
The reason I mention this was that I recently came across an online article by Fast Company entitled ‘The 10 most addictive sounds in the world’ based on some market research carried out by Martin Lindstrom, the Danish ‘neuromarketeer’, author of the book Buyology – Truth and Lies About Why We Buy (I do love a good pun). Lindstrom is known for using neuroscientific techniques to help commercial operators better understand their clientele. One of his collaborations was with Elias Arts (a sound and music design company) who joined forces to examine the world’s most ‘addictive sounds’ in what an article in The Village Voice dubbed a “neuromarketing experiment”.
Obviously, my interest was piqued when I saw the use of the word ‘addictive’ but their working definition of ‘addictive’ had nothing to do with individuals being addicted to sounds but simply referred to an individual’s response to specific sounds. (Even with this explanation, I still can’t see why the word ‘addictive’ was used but its’ use probably guarantees more people – like myself – will want to read about the study). Lindstrom told the media that:
“We have all those top 10s of everything, but most top 10s are based on the visual sense. What we realized in another study is the most prominent sense we have [when we see a commercial] is not the sense of sight or smell, but the sense of sound”.
As far as I can tell, the study Lindstrom carried out has not been formally published in a peer reviewed journal (although he has published academic papers). The study was described in the international media as involving 50 participants and the research team monitored their brainwave, pupil, and facial muscle activity while listening to 50 different everyday sounds (both man-made ‘branded’ sounds and those ‘non-branded’ sounds that occur naturally). Lindstrom concluded that the most ‘addictive sounds’ weren’t necessarily the non-branded sounds of nature because some of the commercial man-made branded sounds (described as “beeps, jingles and ditties”) were more ‘addictive’ than a number of familiar sounds found in everyday life.
Overall, sound of a baby giggling was ranked as the most ‘addictive sound’ (although I’ve not seen the specific methodology employed to ascertain how being the top ‘addictive sound’ was actually assessed. Apparently Lindstrom examined the “dimension of the responses” and the “contrast and balance of all three [brainwave, pupil and muscle] factors” – although he did admit that such factors can lead to both positive and negative reactions). The second and third spots were Intel’s computer startup chime and the sound of a vibrating mobile phone. Other top non-branded sounds were the sound of a sizzling steak and the lighting of a cigarette being inhaled. Lindstrom claimed that the participants “weren’t responding to the structures of the sounds, but what they mean in a greater social context”. In relation to what makes a sound ‘addictive’, Lindstrom did at least make one reference to a classic sign of addiction (i.e., craving):
“It’s not the sound itself, but the consequence of the sound. A laughing (or crying) baby elicits a maternal protection mechanism, a buzzing cell phone prompts a pick-up, a sizzling steak means a solid meal is on the way. For advertisers and consumers, the research indicates a whole new battleground of multi-sensory advertising. Sometimes the sound from one category generates a craving in another category. For example, given the links between tobacco and beverages, the sound of a cigarette being lit could be used in an ad for alcohol. Although sound is more intuitive for people, the field is still quite young. It will be a long time before it will be so prominent”.
In a story for ABC News, other academics were asked for their thoughts on Lindstrom’s study. One American ‘auditory neuroscientist, Professor Barbara Shinn-Cunningham (actually Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Boston University) said that:
“Although the sounds identified by the study are extremely meaningful, with the exception of the giggling baby, most are not inherently addictive. They’re identifiable. They brain responds to repetition. Our brains are good at picking out patterns that repeat. We’ve evolved to do that. If I chose an arbitrary sound, as long as it was clear and distinctive, and then played it 50 times a day for the next five years (as many of the branded sounds have been), it would become attention-grabbing. I don’t think [the sounds on the list are] so much addictive because of their acoustic properties, but because of their ubiquity. There is neurophysiological evidence showing that brain is hardwired to notice certain kinds of sounds. For example, the abrupt, jarring sound of a slamming door could prompt cells in a person’s brain stem to fire even before that person was conscious of it. For early humans, that kind of sound could have meant it’s time to run for the hills. [Also] studies have demonstrated the existence of a so-called ‘cocktail party effect’. At a party, if you hear your name in the background, even if you’re not paying attention, that’s something that will draw your attention involuntarily. Your brain is so exposed to your name and it’s tremendously important to you, so it encodes that so you respond to it”
According to Lindstrom’s research, the most ‘addictive sounds’ in the world (although they are arguably US-centric to say the least) are: (1) baby giggle, (2) Intel chime, (3) vibrating phone, (4) ATM/cash register, (5) National Geographic theme tune, (6) MTV theme tune, (7) T-Mobile ringtone, (8) McDonald’s jingle, (9) ‘Star Spangled Banner’ (tune), and (10) State Farm jingle.
The Fast Company article also noted that:
“Sound is immensely powerful. And yet 83% of all the advertising communication we’re exposed to daily (bearing in mind that we will see two million TV commercials in a single lifetime) focuses, almost exclusively, on the sense of sight. That leaves just 17% for the remaining four senses. Think about how much we rely on sound. It confirms a connection when dialing or texting on cell phones and alerts us to emergencies. When the sound was removed from slot machines in Las Vegas, revenue fell by 24%. Experiments undertaken in restaurants show that when slow music (slower than the rhythm of a heartbeat) is played, we eat slower–and we eat more!”.
These types of findings suggest that ‘audio branding’ is likely to be an increasing topic of academic research given that every company wants an edge in selling their product. While I am totally unconvinced that the word ‘addictive’ should be used in this type of research, that’s not to say that sound doesn’t have an influence in the development of addictive behaviour more generally. It looks like a case of watch (or should that be listen?) to this space.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Bark Soho (2016). 3 of the most addictive sounds in the world. October 16. Located at: http://www.barksoho.co.uk/blog/3-of-the-most-addictive-sounds-in-the-world/
Dixon, L., Trigg, R. & Griffiths, M. (2007). An empirical investigation of music and gambling behaviour. International Gambling Studies, 7, (3), 315-326.
Edroso, R. (2010). “Most addictive” sounds mostly jingles, machine noises. The Village Voice, February 22. located at: https://www.villagevoice.com/2010/02/22/most-addictive-sounds-mostly-jingles-machine-noises/
Fast Company (2010). The 10 most addictive sounds in the world. February 22. Located at: https://www.fastcompany.com/1555211/10-most-addictive-sounds-world
Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2003). The environmental psychology of gambling. In G. Reith (Ed), Gambling: Who wins? Who loses? pp. 277-292. New York: Prometheus Books.
Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2005). The psychology of music in gambling environments: an observational research note. Journal of Gambling Issues, 13.
Heussner, K.M. (2010). The world’s 10 most addictive sounds. ABC News, February 24. Located at: https://abcnews.go.com/Technology/worlds-10-addictive-sounds/story?id=9923506
Lindstrom, M. (2008). Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy. New York: Doubleday
Parke, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). The psychology of the fruit machine: The role of structural characteristics re-visited. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 4, 151-179.
Parke, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). The role of structural characteristics in gambling. In G. Smith, D. Hodgins & R. Williams (Eds.), Research and Measurement Issues in Gambling Studies. pp.211-243. New York: Elsevier.
Spenwyn, J., Barrett, D.K.R. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The role of lights and music in gambling behavior: An empirical pilot study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 107-118.
Last week I was approached by Rupert Wolfe-Murray, a PR representative of a well-known addiction treatment clinic (Castle Craig) asking what my views were on Bitcoin and cryptocurrency trading (colloquially known as ‘crypto trading’) and whether the activity could be addictive. More specifically he wrote:
“I write to you about the research we’re doing into addiction to Bitcoin and cryptocurrency trading. We’ve had an enquiry about this at Castle Craig and they would treat it as a gambling addiction. We think it’s a new type of behavioural addiction and we plan to publish a web page (and FAQ) with the intention of alerting people that the online trading of cryptocurrencies may be addictive. It would be very helpful if we could get a quote from you, putting it into perspective. Do you think it’s a growing problem? There’s very little information about this issue online but there is an active forum of ‘crypto addicts’ on Reddit, where I got some friendly feedback…The therapist I often turn to when writing about gambling and the behavioural addictions told me that it sounds like addiction to day trading. Would you agree?”
In short, I couldn’t agree more although my own view is that this is not a ‘new’ addiction but a sub-type of online day-trading addiction (on which I first published an article about back in 2000 for GamCare, the gambling charity I co-founded with Paul Bellringer in 1997) and/or stock market trading addiction (which I’ve written a couple of previous blogs about, here and here, and an article in iGaming Business Affiliate magazine). However, I decided to do a bit of research into the issue.
A recent January 2018 article in the Jakarta Post by Ario Tamat examined this issue which was a personal account of his own experiences (‘Bitcoin trading: Addictive ‘hobby’ that could break my bank’). He wrote:
“I was always interested in Bitcoin, not that I really understand the technology, but first impressions were appealing: a decentralized currency, mined by solving mathematical equations and potentially accessible to anyone…Fast forward to 2017. Discussions on cryptocurrencies had entered the public consciousness, Bitcoin prices were sky high… A few friends introduced me to a local site on cryptocurrency trading – the most suitable term for the entire affair, actually – bitcoin.co.id. Taking the leap, I took some money out of my measly savings and bought myself some Bitcoin…In three days, I had made 6 percent. I was hooked… I’ve noticed that the whole cryptocurrency trading trend is like placing bets on a never-ending horse race, where new horses are introduced to the race almost daily”.
Another article by Douglas Lampi on the Steemit website noted that “the elements of addiction and gambling are a consistent risk that traders must always be on the guard against” and provided some signs to readers that they may be trading impulsively. These included (i) feeling muscle tension, (ii) feeling background anxiety, (iii) checking the price of Bitcoin and alt coins several times through the day, and (iv) thinking about trading while engaged in other activities. While these ‘symptoms’ and behaviours might be found among those addicted to crypto day trading, on their own they are arguably little more than mildly problematic. These signs applied to gambling or social media use would be unlikely to raise many worries among addiction treatment practitioners.
I also visited the online Bitcoin Forum where one of the topics was ‘Is crypto trading an addiction’ prompted by a Russian who allegedly committed suicide after losing all his money crypto trading. Most of the people on the forum didn’t think it was an addiction and claimed the suicide was reminiscent of the suicides that occurred at the time of the 2009 stock market crash (although a couple of individuals believed that crypto trading was a potentially ‘addicting’ activity). One participant in the discussion noted:
“Yes [crypto trading is] highly addictive, specially formulated if you start to notice that need, urge in side you, to check the price even in the middle of the night. Find yourself skipping your daily routines it is and can be addictive if you don’t know how to control you and your emotions. I have found somewhere that some say that it is like being in casino, betting, playing rules etc. because like every coin was made mostly for pure profit and it’s all speculation rather than to have their own sole purpose which when I think of it can make sense to even why it can be addictive”.
Another individual on the Bitcoin Pub website wrote:
“I think I might actually have an unhealthy addiction to [crypto trading]. I’d say 3/4 times when I unlock my phone I’m checking Blockfolio, when I’m at work, at home, with my girlfriend, or even between sets at the gym. I’m starting to think I need to discipline myself to NOT check it or limit it to maybe 1-2 times a day as its noticeably impacting my passions and in turn my mental state. I’m not a day trader, I hold all my coins in cold storage. So there’s really no reason for me to be checking that frequently, or watching crypto analysis YouTube videos, or reading articles about it several times a day”.
The issue was also discussed in a recent February 2018 article in the Irish Times by Fiona Reddan (‘It’s addictive’: Why investors are still flocking to bitcoin and crypto’). Interviewing Nicholas Charalambous (Managing Director of Alpha Wealth) was quoted as saying: “Previously, I would have described cryptos as ‘shares on steroids’; now I would say they’re shares with jetpacks and boosters and then some”. While Bitcoin shares have fallen, there are plenty of new cryptocurrencies that individuals can dabble buying shares in (ethereum, litecoin, ripple, putincoin and dogecoin) and all can be akin to gambling. Reddan also interviewed Jonathan Sheehan (Managing Director, Compass Private Wealth) who said:
“It has the exact same risk and return characteristics as a naive gambler, who has opened their first online betting account. There is absolutely no valuation metric for these currencies and allocating capital to them is an extreme and unnecessary risk”.
One country that has taken crypto trading addiction seriously is South Korea. Their government’s Office for Government Policy Coordination has introduced new rules to inhibit the speculation on cryptocurrencies. According to a Market Watch article:
“The proposed measures…range from levying capital-gain taxes on trading cryptocurrencies, to restricting financial firms from holding, acquiring and investing in them…The new regulations come amid mounting concern within South Korea about the potential for people to become addicted to bitcoin trading”.
The country’s prime minister Lee Nak-yon went as far as to say that the increasing interest in cryptocurrencies could “lead to some serious distorted or pathological phenomenon”.
I did quickly check what had been written about academically. I came across a couple of papers on Google Scholar that mentioned possible addiction to crypto trading. Justine Brecese (in a 2013 ‘research note’ on the socioeconomic implications of cyber‐currencies for ASA Risk Consultants) asserted that “risks with virtual currency include the potential for addiction and resultant over-spending” (but providing little in the way of empirical evidence for the claim). In a paper by Haraši Namztohoto on ‘cryptocoin avarice’, he noted:
“Reason often discretely quits the cognitive battlefield whenever hoarding tendencies of human beings are coupled with addictive behaviour which financial derivate trading surely is, thus leaving humans prone to caprices of mass psychology”.
Given that addictions rely on constant rewards and reinforcement, there is no theoretical reason why crypto trading cannot be addictive. However, there is only anecdotal evidence of addicted individuals and if they are addicted a case could be made that this is a type of gambling addiction.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Brecese, J. (2013). Research note – Money from nothing: The socioeconomic implications of “cyber-currencies”. Seattle, WA: ASA Institute for Risk & Innovation
Griffiths, M.D. (2000). Day trading: Another possible gambling addiction? GamCare News, 8, 13-14.
Griffiths, M.D. (2009). Internet gambling in the workplace. Journal of Workplace Learning, 21, 658-670.
Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Financial trading as a form of gambling. i-Gaming Business Affiliate, April/May, 40.
Namztohoto, H. (2013). Myth, machinery and cryptocoin avarice. Wizzion.com. Located at: http://wizzion.com/papers/2013/cryptocoin-avarice.pdf
Jeong, E-Y. & Russolillo, S. (2017). South Korea mulls taxing cryptocurrency trade as fears mount about bitcoin addiction, speculation. Market Watch, December 13. Located at: https://www.marketwatch.com/story/south-korea-mulls-taxing-cryptocurrency-trade-as-fears-mount-about-bitcoin-addiction-speculation-2017-12-13
Lampi, D. (2018). Two sure signs YOU are a crypto trading addict. Steemit.com. February. Located: https://steemit.com/cryptocurrency/@ipmal/two-sure-signs-you-are-a-crypto-trading-addict
Reddan, F. (2018). ‘It’s addictive’: Why investors are still flocking to bitcoin and crypto. Irish Times, February 13. Located at: https://www.irishtimes.com/business/financial-services/it-s-addictive-why-investors-are-still-flocking-to-bitcoin-and-crypto-1.3388392
Tamat, A. (2018). Bitcoin trading: Addictive ‘hobby’ that could break my bank. The Jakarta Post, January 8. Located at: http://www.thejakartapost.com/life/2018/01/08/bitcoin-trading-addictive-hobby-that-could-break-my-bank.html
In previous blogs I have looked at the alleged addictiveness of extreme sports including BASE jumping and bungee jumping as well as briefly overviewing so called ‘adrenaline junkies’. Over the last year, a couple of papers by Robert Heirene, David Shearer, and Gareth Roderique-Davies have looked at the addictive properties of rock climbing specifically concentrating on withdrawal symptoms and craving.
In the first paper on withdrawal symptoms published last year in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, the authors highlighted some previous research suggesting that there are similarities in the phenomenology of substance-related addictions and extreme sports. For instance, they noted:
Extreme sports athletes commonly describe a “rush” or “high” when participating in their sport (Buckley, 2012; Price & Bundesen, 2005) and liken these experiences to those of drug users (Willig, 2008). For example, a participant in Willig’ s study described: “It’s like for a drug user, they will take cocaine to get high. For me it’s my addiction, I have to go to the mountains to get high.” Similarly, skydivers have described their sport as “like an addiction,” stating that they “can’t get enough,” and their “relationships suffer” as a result (Celsi, Rose, & Leigh, 1993).”
They also noted prior research suggesting that athletes may experience withdrawal states during periods of abstinence that are also characteristic of those with an addiction. Heirene and his colleagues claimed that this their study was the first to explore withdrawal experiences of individuals engaged in extreme sports. They carried out a study very similar to one of my own where Michael Smeaton and I published a study where gamblers were specifically interviewed about their experiences of withdrawal (in a 2002 issue of Social Psychological Review).
Heirene’s team used semi-structured interviews to explore withdrawal experiences of what they defined as ‘high ability’ and ‘average-ability’ male rock climbers during periods of abstinence (four climbers in each of the two groups). They then investigated the behavioural and psychological and aspects of withdrawal (including craving, anhedonia [i.e., the inability to feel pleasure in normally pleasurable activities], and negative affect) and examined the differences in the frequency and intensity of these states between the two rock climbing groups. Based on an analysis of the interview transcripts, they found support for the existence of anhedonia, craving, and negative affect among rock climbers. They also reported that the effects were more pronounced and intense among the high ability rock climbers (apart from anhedonic symptoms). The authors also noted:
“All participants reported negative affective experiences during abstinence, including states of “restlessness” and being “miserable,” “agitated,” or “frustrated.” Similar dysphoric states have been identified in drug users, exercise addicts, and extreme sports athletes during abstinence…In the present study, both groups reported using climbing to alleviate negative affective states, particularly stress. This finding supports previous research that has reported skydivers use their sport in a self-medicating manner (Price & Bundesen, 2005). Similarly, psychopharmacology literature has found individuals engage in substance abuse as a means of coping with stress…suggesting similar participation motives in both drug use and extreme sports”.
The study concluded that based on self-report, rock climbers experienced genuine withdrawal symptoms during abstinence from climbing and that these were comparable to individuals with substance and other behavioral addictions. In a second investigation just published in Frontiers in Psychology, the same team (this time led by Gareth Roderique-Davies) reported the development of the Rock Climbing Craving Questionnaire (RCCQ). The development of this new psychometric instrument directly followed on from the previous study which had found evidence of craving amongst the rock climbers that had been interviewed.
In the second paper, the research team attempted to “quantitatively measure the craving experienced by participants of any extreme sports”. They claimed that the RCCQ could allow “a greater understanding of the craving experienced by extreme sports athletes and a comparison of these across sports (e.g., surfing) and activities (e.g., drug-use)”. To develop the RCCQ, they utilized previously validated craving measures as a template for the new instrument to assess craving in the sports of rock-climbing and mountaineering.
The second paper comprised two studies. The first study investigated the factor structure of the craving measure among 407 climbers who completed the RCCQ. (One of the limitations of the study was that the participant sample was heterogeneous and included climbers and mountaineers from multiple primary climbing disciplines, including indoor climbing, outdoor traditional climbing, alpine climbing, and ice climbing). Despite the heterogeneity of the sample, the results demonstrated that a three-factor model explained just over half the total variance in item scores. The three factors (‘positive reinforcement’, ‘negative reinforcement’ and ‘urge to climb’) each comprised five items. The second study validated the 15-item RCCQ on 254 climbers using confirmatory factor analysis across two conditions (a ‘climbing-related cue’ condition or a ‘cue-neutral’ condition). The authors concluded that:
“[The first study supported] the multi-dimensional nature of rock climbing craving and shows parallels with substance-related craving in reflecting intention and positive (desire) and negative (withdrawal) reinforcement. [The second study confirmed] this factor structure and gives initial validation to the measure with evidence that these factors are sensitive to cue exposure…if as shown here, craving for climbing (and potentially other extreme sports) is similar to that experienced by drug-users and addicts, there is the potential that climbing and other extreme sports could be used as a replacement therapy for drug users”.
This latter suggestion has been made in the literature dating back to the 1970s and the work of Dr. Bill Glasser on ‘positive addictions’ as well as by psychologists such as Iain Brown who suggested in the early 1990s that gambling addicts should replace their addictions with sensation-seeking activities such as sky-diving and parachuting. Critics will claim that these papers are another example of ‘over-pathologizing’ everyday behaviours, but as I have always argued, if any behaviour fulfils all the core criteria for addiction, they should be operationalised as such.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Brymer, E., & Schweitzer, R. (2013). Extreme sports are good for your health: a phenomenological understanding of fear and anxiety in extreme sport. Journal of health psychology, 18(4), 477-487.
Buckley, R. (2012). Rush as a key motivation in skilled adventure tourism: Resolving the risk recreation paradox. Tourism Management, 33, 961–970.
Castanier, C., Le Scanff, C., & Woodman, T. (2010). Who takes risks in high-risk sports? A typological personality approach. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 81, 478–484.
Celsi, R. L., Rose, R. L., & Leigh, T. W. (1993). An exploration of high risk leisure consumption through skydiving. Journal of Consumer Research, 20(1), 1–23.
Glasser, W. (1976). Positive Addictions. New York: Harper & Row.
Griffiths, M.D. (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.
Griffiths, M.D. & Smeaton, M. (2002). Withdrawal in pathological gamblers: A small qualitative study. Social Psychology Review, 4, 4-13.
Heirene, R. M., Shearer, D., Roderique-Davies, G., & Mellalieu, S. D. (2016). Addiction in extreme sports: An exploration of withdrawal states in rock climbers. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 5(2), 332-341.
Larkin, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Dangerous sports and recreational drug-use: Rationalising and contextualising risk. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 14, 215-232.
Monasterio, E., & Mei-Dan, O. (2008). Risk and severity of injury in a population of BASE jumpers. New Zealand Medical Journal, 121, 70–75.
Monasterio, E., Mulder, R., Frampton, C., & Mei-Dan, O. (2012). Personality characteristics of BASE jumpers. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 24, 391-400.
Price, I. R., & Bundesen, C. (2005). Emotional changes in skydivers in relation to experience. Personality and Individual Differences, 38, 1203–1211.
Roderique-Davies, G. R. D., Heirene, R. M., Mellalieu, S., & Shearer, D. A. (2018). Development and initial validation of a rock climbing craving questionnaire (RCCQ). Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 204. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00204
Willig, C. (2008). A phenomenological investigation of the experience of taking part in extreme sports. Journal of Health Psychology, 13(5), 690-702.
The buying of loot boxes takes place within online videogames and are (in essence) virtual games of chance. Players use real money to buy virtual in-game items and can redeem such items by buying keys to open the boxes where they receive a chance selection of further virtual items. Other types of equivalent in-game virtual assets that can be bought include crates, cases, chests, bundles, and card packs. The virtual items that can be ‘won’ can comprise basic customization (i.e., cosmetic) options for a player’s in-game character (avatar) to in-game assets that can help players progress more effectively in the game (e.g., gameplay improvement items such as weapons, armor). All players hope that they can win ‘rare’ items and are often encouraged to spend more money to do so because the chances of winning such items are minimal. Many popular videogames now feature loot boxes (or equivalents) including Overwatch, Middle-earth: Shadow of War, Star Wars Battlefront 2, FIFA Ultimate Team, Mass Effect: Andromeda, Fortress 2, Injustice 2, Lawbreakers, Forza Motorsport 7, and For Honor. In short, all of these require the paying of real money in exchange for a completely random in-game item. In an interview with Eurogamer, psychologist Jamie Madigan said:
“Whenever you open [a loot box], you may get something awesome (or you may get trash). This randomness taps into some of the very fundamental ways our brains work when trying to predict whether or not a good thing will happen. We are particularly excited by unexpected pleasures like a patch of wild berries or an epic skin for our character. This is because our brains are trying to pay attention to and trying to figure out such awesome rewards. But unlike in the real world, these rewards can be completely random (or close enough not to matter) and we can’t predict randomness. But the reward system in your brain doesn’t know that. Buying [loot boxes] puts them into the same category of packs of Pokémon cards or baseball cards. Unlike gambling in a casino, you’re going to get something out of that pack. Maybe just not the thing you wanted”.
Although there are many definitions in many disciplines defining gambling, there are a number of common elements that occur in the majority of gambling instances that distinguish ‘true’ gambling from mere risk-taking. These include: (i) the exchange is determined by a future event, which at the time of staking money (or something of financial value) the outcome is unknown, (ii) the result is determined (at least partly or wholly) by chance, (iii) the re-allocation of wealth (i.e., the exchange of money [or something of financial value] usually without the introduction of productive work on either side, and (iv) losses incurred can be avoided by simply not taking part in the activity in the first place. Added to this it could be argued that the money or prize to be won should be of greater financial value than the money staked in the first place. Based on these elements, the buying of loot boxes (or equivalents) would be classed as a form of gambling, as would other activities such as the Treasure Hunter and Squeal of Fortune games within the Runescape videogame and online penny auctions (which I have argued in previous papers – see ‘Further reading’).
In the UK Gambling Commission’s most recent (March 2017) position paper on virtual currencies and social casino gambling noted:
“One commonly used method for players to acquire in-game items is through the purchase of keys from the games publisher to unlock ‘crates’, ‘cases’ or ‘bundles’ which contain an unknown quantity and value of in-game items as a prize. The payment of a stake (key) for the opportunity to win a prize (in-game items) determined (or presented as determined) at random bears a close resemblance, for instance, to the playing of a gaming machine. Where there are readily accessible opportunities to cash in or exchange those awarded in-game items for money or money’s worth those elements of the game are likely to be considered licensable gambling activities [Section 3.17]…Additional consumer protection in the form of gambling regulation, is required in circumstances where players are being incentivised to participate in gambling style activities through the provision of prizes of money or money’s worth. Where prizes are successfully restricted for use solely within the game, such in-game features would not be licensable gambling, notwithstanding the elements of expenditure and chance [Section 3.18]”.
Consequently, the UK Gambling Commission does not consider loot boxes as a form of gambling because (they claim) the in-game items have no real-life value outside of the game. However, this is not the case because there are many websites that allow players to trade in-game items and/or virtual currency for real money. The Gambling Commission appear to acknowledge this point and claim that the buying of in-game loot boxes (and their equivalents) are not gambling but if third party sites become involved (by allowing the buying and selling of in-game items), the activity does become a form of gambling. As Vic Hood (in a 2017 article in Eurogamer) rightly notes, this appears to be a case of the law struggling to keep pace with technology. There are also issues surrounding age limits and whether games that offer loot boxes (or equivalents) should be restricted to those over the age of 18 years.
Predictably, those in the videogame industry do not view the buying of loot boxes as gambling either. For instance, Dirk Bosmans (from PEGI [Pan European Game Information], the European-based videogame rating organization) stated in a recent interview with Eurogamer that:
“Loot crates are currently not considered gambling: you always get something when you purchase them, even if it’s not what you hoped for. For that reason, a loot crate system does not trigger the gambling content descriptor. If something is considered gambling, it needs to follow a very specific set of legislation, which has all kinds of practical consequences for the company that runs it. Therefore, the games that get a PEGI gambling content descriptor either contain content that simulates what is considered gambling or they contain actual gambling with cash payouts. If PEGI would label something as gambling while it is not considered as such from a legal point of view, it would mostly create confusion. We are always monitoring such developments and mapping consumer complaints. We see a growing need for information about specific features in games and apps (social interaction, data sharing, digital purchases), but the challenge is that such features are rapidly becoming ubiquitous in the market, yet they still come in very different shapes and sizes.”
This appears somewhat hardline given that PEGI’s descriptor of gambling content is used whenever any videogame “teaches or encourages” gambling. Such a descriptor would arguably cover gambling-like games or activities and the buying of loot boxes is ‘gambling-like’ at the very least. The same stance has been taken by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) which rates videogames in Canada and the USA. A spokesman for the ESRB told Eurogamer that:
“ESRB does not consider [the buying of loot boxes] to be gambling because the player uses real money to pay for and obtain in-game content. The player is always guaranteed to receive something – even if the player doesn’t want what is received. Think of it like opening a pack of collectible cards: sometimes you’ll get a brand new, rare card, but other times you’ll get a pack full of cards you already have. That said, ESRB does disclose gambling content should it be present in a game via one of two content descriptors: Simulated Gambling (player can gamble without betting or wagering real cash or currency) and Real Gambling (player can gamble, including betting or wagering real cash or currency). Neither of these apply to loot boxes and similar mechanics.”
At present, there are a number of countries (mainly in South East Asia such as China and Japan) who do view the buying of loot boxes as a form of gambling and have incorporated such activities into their gambling regulation. However, most countries have either not considered regulating the buying of loot boxes at all, or (like the UK) have ruled out that buying loot boxes does not currently meet their regulatory definition of gambling. Although there has been little published in academic journals on loot boxes, a number of articles in the trade press have claimed that the buying of loot boxes can be problematic and/or addictive because they are designed using highly similar reward schedules to those used in the design of slot machines. This is something that have also pointed out in relation to similar activities to the buying of loot boxes where individuals play for points rather than money. Personally, I view the buying of loot boxes as a form of gambling particularly because the ‘prizes’ won are (in financial terms) often a lot less than that of the price paid. Obviously I am out of step in relation to the regulators in my own country, but if third party websites continue to host services where in-game virtual items can be bought and sold, the activity definitely constitutes a form of gambling by almost any definition of gambling currently used in the field of social sciences.
(N.B. This article uses material from a paper I recently published in Gaming Law Review)
Alexandra, H. (2017). Loot boxes are designed to exploit us. Kotaku, October 13. https://kotaku.com/loot-boxes-are-designed-to-exploit-us-1819457592
Avard, A (2017). Video games have a loot box fetish, and it’s starting to harm the way we play. Games Radar, October 10. Located at: http://www.gamesradar.com/loot-boxes-shadow-of-war/
Gambling Commission (2017). Virtual currencies, esports and social casino gaming – position paper. Birmingham: Gambling Commission.
Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Adolescent gambling and gambling-type games on social networking sites: Issues, concerns, and recommendations. Aloma: Revista de Psicologia, Ciències de l’Educació i de l’Esport, 33(2), 31-37.
Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Is the buying of loot boxes in videogames a form of gambling or gaming? Gaming Law Review, 22(1), 52-54.
Griffiths, M.D. & Carran, M. (2015). Are online penny auctions a form of gambling? Gaming Law Review and Economics, 19, 190-196.
Griffiths, M.D. & King, R. (2015). Are mini-games within RuneScape gambling or gaming? Gaming Law Review and Economics, 19, 64-643.
Hood, V. (2017). Are loot boxes gambling? Eurogamer, October 12. Located at: Located at: http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2017-10-11-are-loot-boxes-gambling
Lawrence, N, (2017). The troubling psychology of pay-to-loot systems. IGN, April 23. Located at: http://uk.ign.com/articles/2017/04/24/the-troubling-psychology-of-pay-to-loot-systems
Perks, M. (2016). Limited edition loot boxes: Problematic gambling and monetization. Cube, October 11. Located at: https://medium.com/the-cube/limited-edition-loot-boxes-problematic-gambling-and-monetization-756819f2c54f
Wikipedia (2017). Loot box (2017). Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loot_box
Wiltshire, W. (2017). Behind the addictive psychology and seductive art of loot boxes. PC Gamer, September 29. Located at: http://www.pcgamer.com/behind-the-addictive-psychology-and-seductive-art-of-loot-boxes/
At the most recent Labour Party conference, the Party’s deputy leader Tom Watson said that if they formed the next Government they would introduce legislation to force gambling operators to pay a levy to fund research and NHS treatment to help problem gamblers deal with their addiction. This is something which I wholeheartedly support and is also something that I have been calling for myself for over a decade
The most recent statistics on gambling participation by the Gambling Commission in August 2017 reported that 63% of the British population had gambled in the last year and that the prevalence rate of problem gambling among those 16 years and over was 0.6%-0.7%. While this is relatively low, this still equates to approximately 360,000 adult problem gamblers and is of serious concern.
At present the gambling industry voluntarily donates money to an independent charitable trust (GambleAware) and most of this money funds gambling treatment (with the remaining monies being used to fund education and research). In the 12 months prior to March 2017, the gambling industry had donated £8 million, an amount still 20% below the £10 million a year I recommended in a report I wrote for the British Medical Association a number of years ago.
A statutory levy of 1% on all gambling profits made by the British gambling industry would raise considerably more money for gambling education, treatment and research than the £8 million voluntarily donated last year and is the main reason why I am in favour of it. Gambling has not been traditionally viewed as a public health matter. However, I believe that gambling addiction is a health issue as much as a social issue because there are many health consequences for those addicted to gambling including depression, insomnia, intestinal disorders, migraine, and other stress related disorders. This is in addition to other personal issues such as problems with personal relationships (including divorce), absenteeism from work, neglect of family, and bankruptcy.
There are also many recommendations that I would make in addition to a statutory levy. These include:
- Brief screening for gambling problems among participants in alcohol and drug treatment facilities, mental health centres and outpatient clinics, as well as probation services and prisons should be routine.
- The need for education and training in the diagnosis and effective treatment of gambling problems must be addressed within GP training. Furthermore, GPs should screen for problem gambling in the same way that they do for other consumptive behaviours such as cigarette smoking and alcohol drinking. At the very least, GPs should know where they can refer their patients with gambling problems to.
- Research into the efficacy of various approaches to the treatment of gambling addiction in the UK needs to be undertaken and should be funded by GambleAware.
- Treatment for problem gambling should be provided under the NHS (either as standalone services or alongside drug and alcohol addiction services) and funded either by gambling-derived revenue (i.e., a ‘polluter pays’ model).
- Given the associations between problem gambling, crime, and other psychological disorders (including other addictions), brief screening should be routine for gambling problems should be carried out in alcohol and drug treatment facilities, mental health centres and outpatient clinics, as well as probation services and prisons.
- Education and prevention programmes should be targeted at adolescents along with other potentially addictive and harmful behaviours (e.g., smoking, drinking, and drug taking) within the school curriculum.
As I have tried to demonstrate, problem gambling is very much a health issue that needs to be taken seriously by all in the medical profession. General practitioners routinely ask patients about smoking and drinking, but gambling is something that is not generally discussed. Problem gambling may be perceived as a grey area in the field of health. If the main aim of practitioners is to ensure the health of their patients, then an awareness of gambling and the issues surrounding it should be an important part of basic knowledge in the training of those working in the health field.
Gambling is not an issue that will go away. Opportunities to gamble and access to gambling have increased due to the fact that anyone with Wi-Fi access and a smartphone or tablet can gamble from wherever they are. While problem gambling can never be totally eliminated, the Government must have robust gambling policies in place so that potential harm is minimized for the millions of people that gamble. For the small minority of individuals who develop gambling problems, there must be treatment resources in place that are affordable and easily accessible.
(N.B. This is a longer version of an article that was originally published in The Conversation)
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