Blog Archives

Time out: Are voluntary self-exclusion services about responsible gambling or problem gambling?

Responsible gambling practices have now become the norm within the gaming industry. One of the first types of responsible gambling practice introduced by gaming companies was the introduction of self-exclusion schemes for problem gamblers, particularly in offline casinos. More recently, online gaming companies have begun to introduce self-exclusion schemes. This blog briefly examines the question of whether such schemes should be underpinned by concerns around problem gambling or whether they should be about responsible gambling more generally. This is a particularly important issue for accreditation agencies who typically recommend to online gaming companies very specific periods that online gamblers should be excluded for.

Self-exclusion initiatives are now very common and although these contracts have some value in containing the harms to established problem gamblers, they could certainly be a lot more effective. There is little research demonstrating whether they stop gambling in either the short-term or long-term as exclusion from one or more venues still leaves opportunities to gamble elsewhere. However, a small proportion of problem gamblers appreciate the opportunity to self-exclude and this is clearly a valuable service for them.

In a 2007 report by Dr. Robert Williams and his Canadian colleagues, they noted that the effectiveness of offline self-exclusion programs can be measured in three ways. These are the: (i) utilization rate, (ii) percentage of self-excluders who successfully refrain from entering the gaming venue during the self-exclusion period, and (iii) impact self-exclusion has on overall gambling behaviour. Utilization rates are typically very low across most jurisdictions (0.5% to 7%) although countries with a proactive self-exclusion program (e.g., Holland) are typically much higher.

There has been only a limited amount of research examining how many self-excluders refrain from gambling at a venue where they have excluded themselves. According to researchers like Dr. Robert Ladouceur, typical rates suggest around 20-25% of self-excluders attempt to re-gain access to the gambling venue they excluded themselves from, although higher compliance rates have been reported in Holland. There have been very few empirical reports of whether self-excluders curtail their gambling behaviour. Some studies report that when gamblers have self-excluded from one venue, they simply go and gamble elsewhere.

The most positive evaluation was a 2007 Canadian study published in the Journal of Gambling Studies led by Dr. Ladouceur and colleagues who examined 161 self-excluders. A year later, researchers from the same university (including Dr. Ladouceur) also reported in the Journal of Gambling Studies some success with an ‘improved’ self-exclusion program but the number of self-excluders in the data set (n=39) was very small. After two-year follow-up, most had significant reductions in urge to gamble, the intensity of negative consequences, and pathological gambling scores using the criteria of the American psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Research examining offline self-exclusion has almost exclusively viewed self-exclusion schemes as being about protecting problem gamblers. However, this is not the necessarily the case with online gambling.

Compared to offline self-exclusion, there has been even less research on online self-exclusion schemes. Here, most of the research has examined what online gamblers actually think about self-exclusion schemes and/or their use of them. The Global Online Gambler Survey (led by Dr. Jonathan Parke and published by my International Gaming Research Unit, 2007) collected data from 10,865 online gamblers. The survey specifically asked about the use of online social responsibility tools. Although no single feature stood out as critically important, 58% stated that they considered self-exclusion as ‘quite useful’ (with 23% saying it was ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ useful).

In a 2009 survey of 2,348 online gamblers published in the journal CyberPsychology and Behavior that I and my colleagues carried out (all clientele of the Swedish gaming operator Svenska Spel) examining online social responsibility tools via the PlayScan behavioural tracking system, we reported that a quarter of our sample used PlayScan. Over one-third of respondents (42%) reported the self-exclusion features to be ‘quite useful’ or ‘very useful’. Just under one in five PlayScan users (17%) had actually used one of the self-exclusion features. In a 2010 study of online gamblers published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, Dr. Tobias Hayer and Gerhard Meyer carried out a follow-up survey one year after the initiation of self-exclusion with a small sub-sample (n=20). They reported that the restriction of access to a single online gambling site had favourable psychosocial effects.

Despite the limited empirical evidence showing whether self-exclusion schemes are effective, gamblers (particularly those online) appear to appreciate short-term self-exclusion facilities even if they do not have a problem with gambling. For instance, in the 2009 study we carried out, online gamblers reported that the most useful self-exclusion feature was the 7-day self-exclusion rated as ‘quite/very useful’ by just under half of respondents (46%). This was followed by 1-month self-exclusion (24%), 24-hour self-exclusion (24%), and permanent self-exclusion (16%). These types of self-exclusion are likely to be associated with non-problem gamblers who may want to restrict their gambling behaviour to a very specific instance.

Given the (presumed) unproblematic nature of internet gambling among respondents, it was unsurprising that only 16% thought permanent self-exclusion would be useful to them personally. If anything, this might appear to be a slightly higher figure than might have been predicted as it could be argued that non-problem gamblers would be unlikely to make use of a permanent self-exclusion.

As noted above, the seven-day exclusion period was the most useful with almost a half of participants endorsing this as their most favoured. This may have been especially useful for those who do not want to gamble for a particular period such as the week before a monthly ‘pay day’. One-month and one-day self-exclusion periods were most popular for around half the participants (approximately 25% each). These types of self-exclusion are more likely to be associated with non-problem gamblers who may want to restrict their gambling behaviour to a very specific instance such as preceding a night of heavy drinking (e.g., 24-hour self-exclusion) or a particular time of the year like the run up to Christmas (e.g., one-month self-exclusion).

Overall, these results suggest that self-exclusion is not a tool for problem gamblers but more generally a tool for responsible gambling This is particularly important point to bear in mind for those agencies that currently accredit online gaming companies in relation to socially responsible practices and procedures. For instance, GamCare will not accredit online gaming companies unless there is a minimum 6-month online exclusion facility. The empirical evidence outlined above clearly shows that short-term self-exclusion options of less than six months are beneficial to online gamblers. Therefore, accreditation agencies need to base their recommendations about self-exclusion on empirical evidence and what is most useful to online gamblers.

Any online gaming company should allow gamblers the opportunity to self-exclude themselves from their gambling site for any period whether it is one day, one week, one month or one year. Compared to offline schemes, online self-exclusion is relatively easy to introduce, and should run for the period requested by the gambler and not an arbitrary limit set by an accreditation agency.

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

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Self-exclusion services for online gamblers: Are they about responsible gambling or problem gambling? World Online Gambling Law Report, 11(6), 9-10.

Griffiths, M.D., Wood, R.T.A. & Parke, J. (2009). Social responsibility tools in online gambling: A survey of attitudes and behaviour among Internet gamblers. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 12, 413-421.

Hayer, T. & Meyer, G. (2010). Internet self-exclusion: Characteristics of self-excluded gamblers and preliminary evidence for its effectiveness. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 9, 296-307

International Gaming Research Unit (2007). The global online gambling report: An exploratory investigation into the attitudes and behaviours of internet casino and poker players. Report for eCOGRA (e-Commerce and Online Gaming Regulation and Assurance).

Ladouceur, R., Jacques, C., Girous, I., Ferland, F., & LeBlond, J. (2000). Analysis of a casino’s self-exclusion program. Journal of Gambling Studies, 16, 453-460.

Ladouceur, R., Sylvain, C., Gosselin, P. (2007). Self-exclusion program: A longitudinal evaluation study. Journal of Gambling Studies, 23, 85-94.

O’Neil, M., Whetton, S., Doman, B., Herbert, M., Giannopolous, V., OíNeil, D., & Wordley, J. (2003). Part A – Evaluation of self-exclusion programs in Victoria and Part B – Summary of self-exclusion programs in Australian States and Territories. Melbourne: Gambling Research Panel.

Steinberg, M., & Velardo, W. (2002). Preliminary evaluation of a casino self-exclusion program. Paper presented at the Responsible Gambling Council of Ontarioís Discovery 2002 Conference, April 2002, Niagara Falls, Canada.

Tremblay, N., Boutin C. & Ladouceur, R. (2008). Improved self-exclusion program: Preliminary results. Journal of Gambling Studies, 24, 505–518

Williams, R.J., Simpson, R.I. and West, B.L. (2007). Prevention of problem gambling. In G. Smith, D. Hodgins & R. Williams (Eds.), Research and Measurement Issues in Gambling Studies. pp.399-435. New York: Elsevier.

Care in the (gaming) community: Social responsibility and the videogame industry

In recent years, the problematic use of online videogames has received increased attention not only from the media, but also from psychologists, psychiatrists, mental health organizations and gamers themselves. A number of studies from different cultures are providing evidence that somewhere around 7 to 11% of gamers seem to be having real problems to the point that they are considered pathological gamers. In extreme cases, some gamers are reported to have been playing for 40, 60, and even 90 hours in a single gaming session.

While it may be difficult to distinguish between a healthy and unhealthy usage of online videogames, there is sufficient evidence to describe some excessive gaming as problematic and/or addictive when it pervades and disrupts other aspects of life making it an issue worthy of extensive investigation. In some cases this leads to symptoms commonly experienced by substance addicts, namely salience, mood modification, craving and tolerance. Research suggests that some gamers are struggling to keep their playing habits under control and consequently compromise their academic achievement, real-life relationships, family relationships, physical health, and psychological wellbeing.

Despite a decade of research, there is significant disagreement on whether pathological gaming can be conceptualized as an impulse control disorder and/or a behavioural addiction such as pathological gambling. While acknowledging the potential for some gamers to engage in pathological use, most researchers argue in favour of creating an official diagnosis for pathological gaming. However, others disagree and advise caution about the potential for exaggeration of a real but uncommon problem. As well as the divergence of opinions in the scholarly community, there is insufficient evidence to reach any definitive conclusions or an operational definition of pathological gaming, its diagnosis criteria and prevalence. While the academic debate is likely to continue for a while, it is clear that for a small minority of gamers, pathological gaming leads to negative life consequences.

Against this backdrop, comparable with the cautionary health messages on tobacco and alcohol packaging, warning messages about risk of overuse have recently started to appear on the loading screens of popular online games. For example:

  • World of Warcraft – ‘Take everything in moderation (even World of Warcraft)’ and ‘Bring your friends to Azeroth, but don’t forget to go outside of Azeroth with them as well’;
  • Final Fantasy XI – ‘Exploring Vana’diel is a thrilling experience. During your time here, you will be able to talk, join, and adventure with many other individuals in an experience that is unique to online games. That being said, we have no desire to see your real life suffer as a consequence. Don’t forget your family, your friends, your school, or your work.’

These and similar warning messages raise the question of why the online videogame industry warns its players not to overuse their product. Does the videogame industry really believe that their products have addictive features that can lead to negative consequences and the functional impairment of gamers’ lives? This leads to the important issue of whether the giving of such messages by online videogame companies means they have done enough to fulfil their social responsibility or do they have they a wider role to play? Furthermore, these warning messages suggest that the online videogame industry knows how high the percentage of over-users is, how much time gamers’ spend playing, and what specific features makes a particular game more engrossing and addictive than others. While they do not directly admit this, by showing these warning messages, they do take some responsibility into their own hands.

Companies in the online video games sector have started to face criticism around the addictive and problematic nature of the use involved with certain online games and their violent content, suggesting that it is a controversial industry. Gaining broader societal acceptance has become a critical factor for companies in controversial industries where failure to meet stakeholders’ societal expectations result in their legitimacy being challenged. Unlike the gambling industry, which has a long history of forced governmental regulation and in which CSR has become a crucial issue, the online videogame industry has, by and large to date, escaped governmental action. However, there are some isolated examples of governmental interventions. For example, China introduced controls to deter people from playing online videogames for longer than three hours, while Thailand’s government banned Grand Theft Auto 4 when a student murdered a taxi driver while trying to recreate a scene from the game ‘to see if it was as easy as in the game’. In addition, the Australian classification board refused the original version of Fallout 3 due to the high level of realistic drug use thus forcing its developer Bethesda Softworks to release a censored version.

In the USA, the sales of ‘Mature’ (M) or ‘Adults Only’ (AO) rated games to minors has been an issue of much concern to public officials, and the Video Games Ratings Enforcement Act introduced to the US House of Representatives requires an ID check for M- and AO-rated game purchases (US Congress, 2006). The majority of game publishers have decided to get controversial games rated by voluntary rating systems. For example, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) rates games in the USA and Canada, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) in the UK, and the Pan European Game Information (PEGI) in Europe. While the ESRB and PEGI ratings are not legally binding, the BBFC ratings are backed up by the British law, thus making it illegal to sell the game to anyone under the indicated age. Few publishers in the online videogame industry have attempted to develop and sell a game with the strictest ESRB rating of AO. While rating systems are helpful, a study commissioned by the UK games industry found that parents let their children play games with adult or 18+ ratings, because they perceived age ratings as a guide but not as a definite prohibition.

Online videogame developers and publishers need to look into the structural features of the game design, for example, character development, rapid absorption rate, and multi-player features, that make them addictive and/or problematic for some gamers. This undertaking falls mainly on the game developers as they hold the codes for making the games less addictive. For example, long quests can be shortened to minimize the time spent in the game to obtain a certain prized item. Blizzard Entertainment, the makers of World of Warcraft, introduced some down-tuning of hardcore game-play mechanisms that encouraged excessive gaming. Initially, a symbolic and unique in-game title was rewarded to players who progress their character to the maximum level of 80 fastest. However, after several pages of forum debate in which players expressed their concern, an official Blizzard representative announced the removal of the title from the game.

Many games make use of variable ratio reinforcement schedules, which provides a very intense experience, thus increasing the addictiveness of the virtual world. Although, the potentially addictive design features of MMORPGs might not be intentional there is an obligation on the developers to consider ways of limiting harm. One way of doing this can be for developers to make design changes on time limits as many gamers schedule and plan according to the in-game periods of time. For example, long quests could be shortened, the amount of experience points needed to reach the next level could be lowered, spawns could be timed to appear more frequently to give gamers increased chances of receiving specifically wanted items and by speeding the processes of difficult task, gamers will be able to leave the game much earlier after completing their tasks. Implementing these changes to MMORPGs would show that game developers are taking CSR seriously and that they are concerned with more than revenue.

In terms of effective care policies for the gamers, the most observable act until now by the online videogame publishers is the initiation of warning messages. Through these messages, the industry is seemingly addressing CSR in the area of excessive use of videogames, albeit to a rather limited extent. Furthermore, some games (such as WoW) have a parental mode that allows parents to restrict playing time for their children.

Online videogame publishers should make provision for suitable referral services. Presently, they provide neither referral services nor customer care with regard to videogame addiction. Although the time constraints policies applied in China might not be a viable option in Europe, companies can potentially identify from their databases extreme or problematic gamers who are spending an excessive amount of time in the game and offer them contact information for a referral service in their country. Empirical evidence from the gambling industry suggests that similar initiatives and other social-responsibility tools are appreciated by players. There is also recent empirical evidence from the gambling studies field that the setting of time limits helps the most gaming intense players the most. In the context of online gambling, I have suggested that it is not the gaming industry’s responsibility to treat gamblers but it is their responsibility to provide referrals for problem gamblers to specialist helping agencies. I have argued that it is better for the industry to refer their problem customers to online help that offers a high degree of anonymity (as this is preferred by online gamblers). This is an important finding for the online videogame industry to take on board, as it seems that it is not currently taken into consideration in their CSR practices. Online videogame companies need to take social responsibility for the extreme and problematic usage of their products. The proportion of gamers who develop problems and/or become addicts may stay roughly constant but as online videogames get better and better, and increasing numbers of people discover them, the number of addicts is most probably going to rise.

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

Additional input: Dr. Shumaila Yousafzai and Dr. Zaheer Hussain

Further reading

Auer, M., & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Voluntary limit setting and player choice in most intense online gamblers: An empirical study of gambling behaviour. Journal of Gambling Studies, DOI 10.1007/s10899-012-9332-y.

Cai, Y., Jo, H., & Pan, C. (2012). Doing well while doing bad? CSR in controversial industry sectors. Journal of Business Ethics, 108, 467–480.

Ferguson, C. J., Coulson, M., & Barnett, J. (2011). A meta-analysis of pathological gaming prevalence and comorbidity with mental health, academic and social problems. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 45, 1573–1578.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Age ratings on video games: Are the effective? Education and Health, 28, 65-67.

Griffiths, M.D., & Meredith, A. (2009). Videogame addiction and treatment. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 39, 47-53.

Griffiths. M.D., Wood, R.T.A. (2008). Responsible gaming and best practice: How can academics help? Casino and Gaming International, 4(1), 107–112.

Griffiths, M.D., Wood, R.T.A. & Parke, J. (2009). Social responsibility tools in online gambling: A survey of attitudes and behaviour among Internet gamblers. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 12, 413-421.

Griffiths, M.D., Wood, R.T.A., Parke, J. & Parke, A. (2007). Gaming research and best practice: Gaming industry, social responsibility and academia. Casino and Gaming International, 3(3), 97-103.

Hussain, Z., Griffiths, M.D. & Baguley, T. (2012).Online gaming addiction: classification, prediction and associated risk factors. Addiction Research & Theory 20(5), 359-371.

King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Video game structural characteristics: A new psychological taxonomy. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 90-106.

King, D.L., Haagsma, M.C., Delfabbro, P.H.,Gradisar, M.S.& Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Toward a consensus definition of pathological video-gaming: A systematic review of psychometric assessment tools. Clinical Psychology Review, 33, 331-342.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Online gaming addiction: A systematic review. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10, 278-296.

Porter, G., Starcevic, V., Berle, D., & Fenech , P. (2010). Recognizing problem video game use. Australia Newzealad Journal of Psychiatry, 44(2),120 –128.

Van Rooij, A., Meerkerk, G., Schoenmakers, T., Griffiths, M., & van de Mheen, D. (2010). Video game addiction and social responsibility. Addiction Research & Theory, 18(5): 489-493.

Yousafzai, S.Y., Hussain, Z. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Social responsibility in online videogaming: What should the videogame industry do? Addiction Research and Theory, DOI: 10.3109/16066359.2013.812203