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Odds on: Ten ways to help prevent problem gambling

[Please note: The following article was written with Dr. Michael Auer]

Problem gambling has become a major issue in many countries worldwide. In this short article we provide ten ways to help prevent problem gambling.

Raise the minimum age of all forms of commercial gambling to 18 years – Research has consistently shown that the younger a person starts to gamble, the more likely they are to develop gambling problems. Stopping problem gambling in adolescence is a key step in preventing problem gambling in the first place. Any venue or website that hosts gambling games should have effective age verification procedures.

Restrict the most harmful types of gambling – Most research shows that gambling activities which can be gambled on continuously such as slot machines tend to be far more problematic than discontinuous games such as weekly lotteries. More harmful forms of gambling should be restricted to dedicated gambling venues rather than housed in non-dedicated gambling premises (such as supermarkets, cafes, and restaurants).

Educate players to pre-commit when engaging in the most harmful types of gambling – Ideally, the most harmful forms of gambling should have mandatory limit-setting options for players to set their own voluntary time and money limits when playing the games. Gambling operators can also use mandatory loss limits to keep gambling expenditure to a minimum.

Take responsibility for where problem gambling lies – While all individuals are ultimately responsible for their own gambling behaviour, other stakeholders – including the gambling industry – have control over the structural and situational characteristics of gambling products. Government policymakers and legislators have a responsibility to ensure that gambling products are tightly regulated and to ensure that any given jurisdiction has the infrastructure to keep gambling problems to a minimum. Gambling operators are responsible for all advertising and marketing and need to ensure that the content is socially responsible and promotes responsible gambling. Within gambling venues, all practices and procedures should be socially responsible (such as not giving free alcohol while gambling, and no ATM machines on the gaming floor).

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Put social responsibility at the heart of gambling operating practice – The most socially responsible gambling operators always puts player protection and harm minimisation at the heart of their business. They need to provide all information about their products so that individuals can make an informed choice about whether to gamble in the first place. They should advertise their products responsibly and provide their clientele with tools to aid responsible gambling, and provide help and guidance for those who think they are developing a gambling problem or have one.

Raise awareness about gambling among health practitioners and the general public – Problem gambling may be perceived as a somewhat ‘grey’ area in the field of health. However, there is an urgent need to enhance awareness about gambling-related problems within the general public and the medical and health professions.

Identify at-risk players Big Data and Artificial Intelligence are common approaches applied in behavioural analysis across many industries. Online gambling and personalized land-based gambling operators can detect harmful behavioural patterns such as chasing losses or binge gambling. Such players can be excluded from direct marketing, specific types of games, and/or contacted to prevent the development of problem gambling.

Use personalized feedbackResearch across many areas such as sports, health behaviour, as well as gambling has shown that personalized feedback can effectively change behaviour. Using behavioural data available in online gambling and personalized land-based venues, gamblers can be informed in real-time about behavioural changes in order to make them more aware and use pre-commitment tools such as limit-setting and/or self-exclusion.   

Set up both general and targeted gambling prevention initiatives The goals of gambling intervention are to (i) prevent gambling-related problems, (ii) promote informed, balanced attitudes, and choices, and (iii) protect vulnerable groups. The guiding principles for action on gambling are therefore prevention, health promotion, harm reduction, and personal and social responsibility. This includes:

  • General awareness raising (e.g. public education campaigns through advertisements on television, radio, newspapers).
  • Targeted prevention (e.g. education programs and campaigns for particularly vulnerable populations such as senior citizens, adolescents, ethnic minorities).
  • Awareness raising within gambling establishments (e.g. brochures and leaflets describing problem gambling, indicative warning signs, where help for problems can be sought such as problem gambling helplines, referral service, telephone counselling web-based chatrooms for problem gamblers, and outpatient treatment).
  • Training materials (e.g. training videos about problem gambling shown in schools, job centres).

Educate and training those working in the gambling industry about problem gambling – All gaming personnel in any gambling establishments from shop retailers to croupiers should receive ongoing training regarding responsible gambling and problem gambling.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Behavioral tracking tools, regulation and corporate social responsibility in online gambling. Gaming Law Review and Economics, 17, 579-583.

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, 29, 647-660.

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Personalised feedback in the promotion of responsible gambling: A brief overview. Responsible Gambling Review, 1, 27-36.

Auer, M., Malischnig, D. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Is ‘pop-up’ messaging in online slot machine gambling effective? An empirical research note. Journal of Gambling Issues, 29, 1-10.

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Testing normative and self-appraisal feedback in an online slot-machine pop-up message in a real-world setting. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 339. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00339.

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). The use of personalized behavioral feedback for problematic online gamblers: An empirical study. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1406. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01406.

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Personalized behavioral feedback for online gamblers: A real world empirical study. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1875. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01875.

Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Evaluating responsible gambling tools using behavioural tracking data. Casino and Gaming International, 31, 41-45.

Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Gambling advertising, responsible gambling, and problem gambling: A brief overview. Casino and Gaming International, 27, 57-60.

Griffiths, M.D. & Auer, M. (2016). Should voluntary self-exclusion by gamblers be used as a proxy measure for problem gambling? Journal of Addiction Medicine and Therapy, 2(2), 00019.

Griffiths, M.D., Harris, A. & Auer, M. (2016). A brief overview of behavioural feedback in promoting responsible gambling. Casino and Gaming International, 26, 65-70.

Harris, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). A critical review of the harm-minimisation tools available for electronic gambling. Journal of Gambling Studies, 33, 187–221.

Oehler, S., Banzer, R., Gruenerbl, A., Malischnig, D., Griffiths, M.D. & Haring, C. (2017). Principles for developing benchmark criteria for staff training in responsible gambling. Journal of Gambling Studies, 33, 167-186.

Wood, R.T.A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Understanding positive play: An exploration of playing experiences and responsible gambling practices. Journal of Gambling Studies, 31, 1715-1734.

Wood, R.T.A., Shorter, G.W. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Rating the suitability of responsible gambling features for specific game types: A resource for optimizing responsible gambling strategy. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 12, 94–112.

Eyes on the prize: Is the buying of loot boxes in videogames a form of gambling?

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”.

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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)

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

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/

Dispensing wisdom: ATMs on the gaming floor

The gambling industry has long been trying to perfect techniques that keep players on their premises and gambling on their games longer. In short, their aim is to introduce facilities that maximize their bottom line profits. In super-casinos around the world, restaurants are often positioned in the centre so that customers have to pass the gaming areas before and after they have eaten. Live entertainment areas for music or sporting events (e.g., boxing matches) are also positioned similarly.

This strategy is often combined with the deliberate use of circuitous paths to keep customers in the casino longer, the psychology being that if the patrons are in the casino longer they will spend more money. Large US casinos have got this down to a fine art. A number of years ago I remember going to a live music concert at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and on entering the casino it took me a 20- to 25-minute walk past thousands of slot machines and gaming tables before I even arrived at the auditorium! Although I didn’t gamble during the 45 minutes I was exposed to the slot machines to and from the casino entrance, I did wonder how many of the thousands in the audience had succumbed at some point.

Massachusetts-casinos-ATM-banking-law

UK gambling venues are now increasingly offering other non-gambling services (such as snack facilities and live entertainment) in a bid to either attract new customers or to keep those already in the venue as long as possible. The 2005 Gambling Act allowed even more of this diversification. It is also worth noting that some forms of gambling (such as slot machines) are far more profitable than other forms (such as table games). What’s more, slot machines don’t need a croupier to deal or spin the roulette ball. This means that most casinos worldwide are now dominated by slot machines in preference to other forms of gambling (although there are places like Macao where table games are preferred over slot machines).

Two of the biggest changes that have occurred in casinos worldwide over the last 20 years that appear to aid such a ‘maximisation’ strategy are the introduction of cash machines onto the gaming floors and the introduction of note acceptors to electronic gaming machines. At a very simplistic level, facilities like these create and enhance convenience gambling.

Note acceptors are very popular in countries like US, Canada and Australia. The gaming industry argues that note acceptors are popular with customers and enhance the playing experience in that they make life a little bit easier for the punter when standing in front of a slot machine not to have to keep going to the cashier for change. However, there is a very fine line between customer enhancement and customer exploitation. Note acceptors have the capacity to increase spending in a number of direct and indirect ways. Firstly, note acceptors increase privacy for the punter. More specifically for the punter, it avoids the potential embarrassment of letting gaming staff, friends, family or even other customers know how much they are spending. Secondly, note acceptors can aid in suspending judgment whereby more cash is transferred to credit in one go. Thirdly, note acceptors minimise breaks as players do not need to leave the machine to get change. Not taking breaks minimises ‘time out’ periods where punters can think more rationally about the money they have spent. A study carried out in Canadian casinos showed that the amount initially put into a slot machine by punters was twice as high on machines that had note acceptors. Although this is only one study, it does seem to suggest that gamblers spend more when a note acceptor is present. 

Like note acceptors, the introduction of automated cash dispensers onto the casino floor also increases privacy for the punter. Although studies have found that only a relatively small proportion of casino patrons seldom use cash dispensers at gambling venues, a significantly high proportion of problem gamblers do so. One study in New Zealand carried out by Professor Max Abbott found that only 2% of all adults interviewed in a national survey considered that greater access to these facilities led to an increase in their gambling. Among problem gamblers, this figure was over eight times as high at 17%.

In Australia, a study led by Professor Jan McMillen also found much greater cash dispenser usage at gambling venues by problem gamblers when compared to non-problem gamblers. They also found that problem gamblers withdrew larger amounts.  Money accessed in this way was most often for the purchase of both alcohol and gambling. They concluded that convenient access to cash dispenders in gambling venues contributed to greater expenditure and was a contributory factor in the development and persistence of gambling problems.

A number of other studies have reported similar findings. Problem gamblers frequently mention that adjacent access to cash dispensers is one of the most frequently mentioned reasons for gambler’s exceeding their planned spending limit. Research has also shown that both problem and non-problem gamblers would prefer cash dispensers to be located away from gambling venues. It would seem that the only people who want cash dispensers on gambling premises are the operators themselves, mainly because they know it increases revenue.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addictions, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Abbott, M.W.  (2007). Situational factors that affect gambling behavior. In G. Smith, D. Hodgins & R. Williams (Eds.), Research and Measurement Issues in Gambling Studies. pp.251-278. New York: Elsevier.

Friedman, B. (2000). Designing Casinos to Dominate the Competition. Reno, NV: Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming, University of Nevada.

Griffiths, M.D. (2009). Casino design: Understanding gaming floor influences on player behaviour. Casino and Gaming International, 5(1), 21-26.

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.

Lam, L.W., Chan, K.W., Fong, D. & Lo, F. (2011). Does the look matter? The impact of casino servicescape on gaming customer satisfaction, intention to revisit, and desire to stay. International Journal of Hospitality Management, 30, 558-567.

McCormack, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). A scoping study of the structural and situational characteristics of internet gambling. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 3(1), 29-49.

McMillen, J., Marshall, D., and Murphy, L. (2004). The Use of ATMs in ACT Gaming Venues: An Empirical Study. ANU Centre for Gambling Research, Canberra.

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.

Wood, R.T.A., Shorter, G.W. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Rating the suitability of responsible gambling features for specific game types: A resource for optimizing responsible gambling strategy. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 12, 94–112.

“Just one more thing”: The psychology of ‘Columbo’

My favourite TV detective has always been Columbo (played by Peter Falk). I have watched every single one of the 69 episodes (as my family will attest) many times. While I am working, I will often have Columbo on in the background in the way that other people have music on in the background (although I do the latter as well). For those reading this that have not come across Columbo, here is a brief synopsis from Wikiquote:

“Columbo (1968, 1971-1978, 1989-2003) was an American crime fiction television show about Lieutenant Columbo, a homicide detective with the Los Angeles Police Department. He uses his deferential and absent-minded persona to lull criminal suspects into a false sense of security, by harassing and pestering suspects non-stop – without letting them know that they’re suspects – under the pretense that he’s simply being a pesky detective, in order to spy on them and agitate them into giving up clues”.

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I have asked myself many times why I love the iconic show so much and it’s hard to put my finger on any single reason. One of the things I love about the show is that almost all the episodes are a ‘reverse whodunit’ (often referred to as an ‘open mystery’) in which the viewer knows the identity of the murderer(s) and we watch to see how Lt. Columbo uncovers who the killer or killers are. (I say “almost all” because there are actually a few episodes that are more typical ‘whodunits’ such as 1976’s ‘Last Salute To The Commodore’, 1992’s ‘No Time To Die’ [involving a kidnapping rather than a murder] and 1994’s ‘Undercover’). Another aspect I love is the inherent contradictions in Lt. Columbo’s day-to-day behaviour. His dishevelled clothing (the infamous beaten-up raincoat), his apparently bumbling absent-minded nature, and his habit of going off-topic in conversations, but knowing that he is actually one of the most astute and clever detectives that you are ever likely to meet (he would no-doubt fit the description of the stereotypical ‘absent-minded professor’). As a psychologist I find him fascinating. As an article about Columbo on the Cult TV Lounge rightly notes:

“The emphasis is on the psychological duel between detective and suspect, with (mercifully) no interest in social commentary and few concessions to the ‘realism’ that would become more and more of a fetish in TV cop shows during the course of the 70s. This is pure entertainment and it’s all the better for it”.

And finally, it is Lt. Columbo’s brilliant trademark ‘false exits’ that wrongfoot all the murderers. After most informal interrogations with the murderer, Columbo leaves the scene, only to return a few seconds later with the opening gambit of “there’s just one more thing” (or a variant of the phrase) only for it to be the most important question that he “forgot to ask”. As an obituary at the In The Dark website on Peter Falk noted:

“The more trivial the “thing” is, the more damning it proves. As an application of psychology, it’s a superb tactic and it slowly but surely grinds down the criminal’s resistance. Often the murderer’s exasperation at Columbo’s relentless badgering leads to rash actions and errors; the second murder, if there is one, is never as carefully planned as the first”.

As the selected (emboldened) quotes above show, psychology is an integral part of Columbo’s appeal. I was also surprised to find that clinical psychologists and forensic psychologists have used Lt. Columbo’s modus operandi in their day-to-day work. (In fact, even some writers claim that if you want to be a better writer you should watch Columbo according to an article by Shahan Mufti in the New York Times; also, a number of marketing gurus claim that Lt. Columbo can teach marketers a thing or two – check out ‘10 things marketeers can learn from Columbo’). For instance, in an article on motivational interviewing (MI) via the Australian Mental Health Academy describe the ‘Columbo approach’:

“Proponents of motivational interviewing owe a debt of gratitude to the 1970s television series Columbo…[Columbo] was a master of the skill of ‘deploying discrepancies’, and MI therapists/practitioners can use the same skill to get clients to help them make sense of their (the clients’) discrepancies. With the Columbo approach, an interviewer makes a curious enquiry about discrepant behaviours without being judgmental or blaming. In a non-confrontational manner, information that is contradictory is juxtaposed, allowing the therapist to address discrepancies between what clients say and their behaviour without evoking defensiveness or resistance. Wherever possible when deploying discrepancies, practitioners are encouraged to end the reflection on the side of change, as clients are more likely to elaborate on the last part of the statements”

The article then goes on to explicitly describe specific MI interventions using the ‘Columbo approach’. Another online article by Greg Lhamon (‘A simple trick to make a powerful last impression’) describes the ‘Columbo Technique’. Here is an abridged version:

“One way in which you can leave someone with a powerful last impression is to use…“the Columbo Technique”…named after the lovable yet shrewd TV detective from the 1970s…He was unassuming and appeared almost absent-minded as he questioned a murder suspect. Yet his seemingly random line of questioning was the process by which he built an airtight case against the suspect. At the conclusion of every interview, he did something unique: he’d thank the suspect profusely, step toward the door, stop, and then turn back, and say, “Oh, just one more thing.” Then he’d ask one last question, a particularly damning question that let the suspect know that Lieutenant Columbo was onto him. Like every form of good communication, sincerity is critical. It cannot be contrived. The goal is simply to make a strong, memorable point, not to manipulate someone. The process is simple: (1) hold back a critical piece of information and reserve it for the end of the meeting, (2) right before you part company, share the information or ask a question, and (3) enjoy the response you receive”.

A 2009 article in the American Bar Association Journal reported that the best way to interrogate a suspect is to ‘Think Columbo’. The advice given was that police should focus on what suspects say rather than their behaviour (such as fidgeting, sweating, and averting eyes during an interview). After reviewing interrogation tapes, Professor Ray Bull, a British forensic psychologist told the Times newspaper that British police use an investigative interviewing technique:

“These interviews sound much more like a chat in a bar. It’s a lot like the old Columbo show, you know, where he pretends to be an idiot but he’s gathered a lot of evidence.”

The ABA article also included comments from American psychologist Kevin Colwell, who said that suspects that lie in police interviews “often prepare a script that doesn’t have much detail”. Colwell recommended using interview techniques where the individual undergoing questioning should talk about the event in question more than once “adding details in retelling the event about things such as sounds and smells” and asking the person “to recall the event in reverse” and that:

“Those who tell the truth tend to add 20% to 30% more external detail than do those who are lying. Those who are adept at lying may start to feel more strain if the interviewer introduces evidence throughout the questioning that has been previously uncovered. Detective Columbo, it turns out, was not just made for TV”.

Another reason I love Columbo because a number of episodes featured psychologists and/or psychiatrists as the killer, most of who used their psychological expertise to carry out an ingenious murder. This included the episodes ‘Prescription Murder’ (1968 – the first ever episode; Dr. Ray Flemming who uses his high intelligence rather than his psychiatric expertise to murder his wife), ‘Double Exposure’ (1973; Dr. Bart Kepple, a consumer psychologist who uses subliminal advertising to lure his victim to be killed), ‘A Deadly State Of Mind’ (1975; Dr. Marcus Collier, a psychiatrist who uses hypnosis to make his victim jump from a high rise apartment), ‘How To Dial A Murder’ (1978; Dr. Eric Mason, a behavioural psychologist who uses classical conditioning to train his dogs to kill his victim), and ‘Sex And The Married Detective’ (1998; Dr. Joan Allenby, a sex therapist who uses her knowledge of psychosexual roleplay to ensnare and kill her lover). In one episode (‘How To Dial A Murder’), Columbo and the psychologist Dr. Eric Mason have an interesting exchange:

Dr. Eric Mason: You’re a fascinating man, Lieutenant. Columbo: To a psychologist, sir? Dr. Eric Mason: You pass yourself off as a puppy in a raincoat happily running around the yard digging holes all up in the garden, only you’re laying a mine field and wagging your tail.

As an ex-Professor of Gambling Studies, another aspect that I have noticed is how many episodes of Columbo feature gamblers and gambling that are often integral to the storyline. Gambling is a key feature in the episodes ‘Double Shock’ (1973; the murderer Norman Paris, a banker, is featured at a Las Vegas casino running up gambling debts), ‘A Friend in Deed’ (1974; the murderer Mark Halperin, a deputy police commissioner, is shown in his opening scene to be a regular casino gambler), ‘Uneasy Lies The Crown’ (1990; the murderer, Dr. Wesley Corman is a dentist and a compulsive gambler), ‘Death Hits The Jackpot’ (1991; photographer and murder victim Freddy Brower wins a $30 million on the lottery and is killed by his uncle Leon Lamarr), ‘A Bird In The Hand’ (1992; would-be murderer Harold McCain, a compulsive gambler tries to murder his millionaire uncle, owner of a US football team), ‘All in The Game’ (1993; murder victim Nick Franco is a playboy and high stakes poker player killed by his lover Laura Staton), and ‘Strange Bedfellows’ (1995; Randy McVeigh the murder victim owes money for gambling debts to the Mafia and is killed by his brother Graham who has ‘inherited’ his brother’s debt).

In another episode (‘Troubled Waters’, 1975), it turns out that the killer (Hayden Danzinger, an autocar executive) is also a regular casino gambler but this only comes to light late in the episode when Lt. Columbo talks to his wife (Sylvia Danzinger). Here we learn that Lt. Columbo thinks about slot machines:

Columbo: You see that fellow over there playing the slot machines? Waste of money. I’ve played it 44 times. I won once right at the beginning and I never won again. Sylvia Danzinger: You can’t beat ‘em. I don’t even try. Columbo: You’re not a gambler? Sylvia Danzinger: No, I prefer more quiet activities. Columbo: That’s funny. I was under the impression you and your husband went to Las Vegas quite a few times. Sylvia Danzinger: Oh, no. Hayden goes often but without me. I wouldn’t be caught dead there.

I’ve often wondered if gambling was an important issue (positive or negative) for Peter Falk in his private life, because when he wasn’t playing Lt. Columbo, it wasn’t unusual for him to be in gambling-related acting roles. Most notably, he played an ageing bookmaker Vinnie in the 1988 film Money Kings (also known under the title Vig, a film about the illegal world of gambling), and the 1988 film Pronto he played Harry Arno, a sports bookmaker who stole money from the local mafia boss Jimmy Capatorto. He also played the poker player Waller in a 1960 episode of Have Gun – Will Travel (‘Poker Fiend‘), and in the 1970 film Husbands he played Archie Black, one of three men undergoing mid-life crises following the death of their friend who then who all go to Europe to gamble, drink, and womanise.

If you’ve got this far, I’ll just leave you with the answers to a couple of my favourite Columbo trivia questions. The most asked question concerning Lt. Columbo (like Inspector Morse) is what was his first name. (When asked the same question in the series itself, Columbo would answer ‘Lieutenant’!). Lt. Columbo never once revealed his first name verbally in the series but did once flash his police badge in an early episode (‘Dead Weight’; Episode 3, Series 1) and accidentally revealed his name was Frank. The second most asked question is how Peter Falk lost his eye. Falk had his eye removed at the age of three years (due to cancer) and had a glass eye for the rest of his life. Although Falk had a glass eye, fans debated for years whether Lt. Columbo had only one eye. The answer was revealed in the 25th anniversary episode (‘A Trace of Murder’) when Lt. Columbo asked the murderer (Patrick Kinsley, a forensic expert) to look at something with him because “three eyes are better than one”!

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Burns, S. (2016). The Columbo Episode Guide. Located at: http://www.columbo-site.freeuk.com/episode.htm

Changing Minds (2013). The Columbo Technique. Located at: http://changingminds.org/techniques/questioning/columbo_technique.htm

Dawidziak, M. (1989). The Columbo Phile. Mysterious Press.

D For Doom (2015). Columbo, Season 1 (1971). Cult TV Lounge, July 3. Located at: http://cult-tv-lounge.blogspot.co.uk/2015/07/columbo-season-one-1971.html

Haynes, N. (2012). Guide to TV detectives: No.1. The Guardian, January 23. Located at: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/tvandradioblog/2012/jan/23/natalie-haynes-detectives-columbo

Henley, J. (2013). 10 things marketeers can learn from Columbo – yes, Columbo. Rock The Deadline, November 24. Located at: http://rockthedeadline.com/blog/content-marketing/10-things-marketers-can-learn-from-columbo-yes-columbo/

Mental Health Academy (2015). Principles and techniques of motivational interviewing. January 12. Located at: http://www.aipc.net.au/articles/principles-and-techniques-of-motivational-interviewing/

Mufti, S. (2013). Want to write better? Watch Columbo. New York Times (The 6th Floor), September 25. Located at: http://6thfloor.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/25/want-to-write-better-watch-columbo/?_r=2

Telescoper (2011). In memorium: Peter Falk (1927-2011). In The Dark, https://telescoper.wordpress.com/2011/06/25/in-memoriam-peter-falk-1927-2011/

Weiss, D.C. (2009). The best way to interrogate: Think Columbo. American Bar Association, May 12. Located at: http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/the_best_way_to_interrogate_think_columbo/

Wikipedia (2016). Columbo. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columbo

Wikipedia (2016). List of Columbo episodes. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Columbo_episodes

Wikipedia (2016). Peter Falk. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Falk

Wikiquote (2016). Columbo. Located at: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Columbo

The punch bunch: Aggressive behaviour in adult slot machine gamblers

I was idly looking through some of the academic papers I have published over the last 25 years and I was surprised by how a fair number of them examined aggressive behaviour in some way. Many of these concern the effect of video game violence on aggressive behaviour but I have also published papers examining sexual orientation and aggression, mindfulness and aggression, and gambling and aggression (see ‘Further Reading’ below for a selection of these).

Back when I was doing my PhD on slot machine addiction (1987-1990) I spent a lot of my time in amusement arcades watching fruit machine players. One thing that I noticed during my observational studies is how physically aggressive players could be when they lost (such as kicking or punching the machine if they lost a lot of money or being verbally aggressive towards staff and other players when things weren’t going the way they wanted). A number of studies have reported a link between gambling and aggressive behaviour although most of the research has concentrated on domestic violence between gamblers and their partners (i.e., problem gamblers taking out the frustration of losing lots of money on their partners).

In a paper in a 2005 issue of the Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, Dr. Adrian Parke and I speculated that there are two main types of aggressive act which are prevalent in slot machine gambling based on environmental and structural design factors – instrumental aggression and emotional aggression. Instrumental aggression differs from emotional aggression because there is an ulterior motive behind the act whereas emotional aggression is a result of being unpleasantly aroused. The Frustration-Aggression theory states that a barrier to expected goal attainment generates emotional aggression. Furthermore, the level of aggression is directly proportional to the (i) level of satisfaction they had expected, (ii) more they are prevented from achieving any of their goals and (iii) more often their attempts are resisted. Psychologists such as Dr. Leonard Berkowitz maintains that it is not the frustration that causes the aggressive urges, but the negative affect elicited by the frustration.

Dr. Parke and I also published some other papers on slot machine aggression during 2004 and 2005 in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction and Psychological Reports. We carried out a non-participant observation study and monitored the incidence of aggressive behaviour in 303 slot machine players over four 6-hour observation periods in a UK amusement arcade. We concluded that aggression was prevalent in the UK gambling arcade environment with an average of seven aggressive incidents per hour.

We also reported that the majority of aggressive incidents were verbal. Verbal aggression was directed towards members of staff, other gamblers and also the slot machines themselves. Verbal aggression towards members of staff, from an objective point of view, appeared to be caused by a misinterpretation of staff reactions towards incurred losses. With cues available to determine which slot machine will be profitable to play, selecting a machine with which the gambler incurs a loss can be interpreted as poor slot machine gambling skill. The psychologists Dr. Brad Bushman and Dr. Roy Baumeister argue that threatened egotism (an explicit dispute against one’s self value) is a strong risk factor for aggression reprisal. It is probable that in this situation the gamblers were motivated to rebuke such evaluations through an affrontive reprimand. For example:

“After losing all of the money he entered the premises with, participant 6 becomes verbally aggressive to an arcade staff member: ‘I should bring a bat into this place and break the fucking machine…What would you do? You wouldn’t have the balls to call the police.” (Parke & Griffiths, 2005; p. 53)

Given the apparent disproportionate aggressive reaction to minor provocation from staff members, there is scope to propose that rather than being a primary source of frustration and aggression, the phenomenon is evidence of Triggered Displaced Aggression. Displaced Aggression theory contends that individuals who are provoked but who are constrained against retaliating directly to the primary source may displace such anger onto unaccountable individuals. Triggered Displaced Aggression theory extends this position, by stating that after a preclusion of direct retaliation against the provocateur, minor triggers will produce an incommensurate level of aggression. Applying this theory to the phenomenon of verbal aggression towards staff members, it is probable that the gambler while frustrated and negatively aroused may be motivated to displace disproportionately high aggressive reactions onto staff members based on minor triggers such as amusement at incurred losses.

We also reported that verbal aggression directed towards other slot machine gamblers was probably a response to predatory play from opposing slot machine gamblers. With structural design factors enabling identification of slot machines that are profitable to play, naturally the environment becomes competitive. Gamblers become callous in their machine selection because the most effective way to make profits is to target machines that other gamblers have lost considerably on. Again, for the individual, self-esteem is likely to be diminished by permitting opponents to profit from experiencing loss. As a result it is probable that attempts are made to deflect such predatory behaviour with aggressive reprimands. For example:

“Participant 3 had gambled a considerable amount of money on one machine, and had no funds to continue playing. Participant 4 immediately began to play the same machine and win. Participant 3 retorted in an aggressive tone: ‘You watching me lose my money before. Wait till I lose everything and then play mate?’” (Parke & Griffiths, 2005; p.54)

Verbal aggression towards other slot machine gamblers could be understood from perspective of the Cognitive Neo-associationistic Model. (Fundamentally, this model suggests that aversive events produce negative affect, which transforms all associated stimuli into potential triggers of aggression). Applying this theory to the verbal aggression phenomenon, it is reasonable to propose that the experience of losing transforms environmental factors, such as opposing gamblers, into sources of aggression. Berkowitz has advocated two tiers of aggression activation. The first stage is simultaneous emotions of rudimentary fear and anger. The second stage is a second order evaluative phase where the individual considers the actual liability of environmental factors in anger creation. Naturally, as Berkowitz states, the individual’s attributional processes dictate whether they will actualise aggressive emotions. Put simply, an acknowledgement of the ability to isolate slot machines that are profitable to play based on identifying losing gamblers, is potentially a risk factor for acting aggressively towards other gamblers.

Finally, verbal aggression towards the slot machine is considered to be an emotionally aggressive act as a means to vent frustration rather than instrumentally preserve status as suggested above. Invariably, verbal emotional aggression was expressed through vilification and attribution of negative human characteristics to the machine such as sadism. Interestingly, such vilification was primarily sexually aggressive and constituted a feminisation of the slot machine. For example:

“This bitch is fucking me around…Are you going to fuck me around again this week?” (Parke & Griffiths, 2005; p.54)

We argued that the physical aggression towards the slot machine was believed to be an extension of tension release that was previously observed with verbal aggression towards the slot machine. For example:

“After considerable losses, Participant 8 began to slam the glass of the machine. After experiencing a near miss Participant 8 subsequently kicked the base of the machine.” (Parke & Griffiths, 2005; p.55)

Physical aggression was not directed towards opposing gamblers – perhaps identifying a boundary of conduct in order to remain within the gambling environment, as it was probable that such behaviour would result in getting thrown out of the premises. Essentially this does not equate to gamblers not be motivated to act physically aggressive to other slot machine gamblers, rather it only represents a reluctance to actualise such behaviour in the gambling environment.

It is probable that aggressive behaviour observed in the slot machine gambling environment is not solely based on structural and environmental factors. Individual differences of the gamblers are likely to affect the prevalence of aggressive behaviour, based on propositions of the General Aggression Model that suggests that trait hostility can develop through life experiences. It is possible that the participants in our observational study held aggression-related biases. For example, Dr. Karen Dill and her colleagues argue that trait hostility precipitates a hostile expectation bias (the expectation that aggressive behaviour will be used by others instrumentally) and a hostile perception bias (the propensity of interpreting interpersonal interactions as aggressive). For gamblers, it is probable that trait hostility is exacerbating aggressive reactions towards provocation from environmental and structural game design factors. Overall, our research concluded that gambling-induced aggression is a manifestation of the underlying conflict of engaging in dysfunctional behaviour while consciously acknowledging its detrimental effects.

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

Additional input: Dr. Adrian Parke (University of Lincoln, UK)

Further reading

Anderson, C.A. & Bushman, B.J. (2002). Human Aggression. Annual Review of Psychology, 53, 27-51.

Berkowitz, L. (1993). Aggression: Its causes, consequences, and control. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Berkowitz, L. (1989). The frustration-aggression hypothesis: Examination and reformulation. Psychological Bulletin, 106, 59-73.

Berkowitz, L. (1990). On the formation and regulation of anger and aggression: A cognitive-neoassociationistic analysis. American Psychologist, 45, 494-505.

Bushman, B. J. & Baumeister, R. F. (1998). Threatened egotism, narcissism, self-esteem, and direct and displaced aggression: Does self-love or self-hate lead to violence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 219-229.

Dill, K.E., Anderson, C.A., Anderson, K.B. & Deuser, W.E. (1997). Effects of personality on social expectations and social perceptions. Journal of Research in Personality, 31, 272-292.

Dollard, J., Doob, L.W., Miller, N.E., Mowrer, O.H. & Sears, R.R. (1939). Frustration and Aggression. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.

Griffiths, M.D. (1997). Video games and aggression. The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 10, 397-401.

Griffiths, M.D. (1998). Video games and aggression: A review of the literature. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 4, 203-212.

Griffiths, M.D., Parke, A. & Parke, J. (2003). Violence in gambling environments: A cause for concern? Justice of the Peace, 167, 424-426.

Griffiths, M.D., Parke, A. & Parke, J. (2005). Gambling-related violence: An issue for the police? Police Journal, 78, 223-227.

Grüsser, S.M., Thalemann, R. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Excessive computer game playing: Evidence for addiction and aggression? CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 290-292.

Mehroof, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Online gaming addiction: The role of sensation seeking, self-control, neuroticism, aggression, state anxiety and trait anxiety. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 13, 313-316.

Miller, N. Pederson, W.C., Earleywine, M. & Pollock, V.E. (2003). A theoretical model of triggered displaced aggression, Personality and Social Psychology Review, 7, 75-97.

Miller, N.E. (1941). The frustration-aggression hypothesis. Psychological Review, 48, 337-342.

Parke, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Aggressive behavior in slot machine gamblers : A preliminary observational study. Psychological Reports, 95, 109-114.

Parke, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Aggressive behaviour in adult slot machine gamblers: A qualitative observational study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 2, 50-58.

Parke, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Aggressive behaviour in adult slot machine gamblers: An interpretative phenomenological analysis. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 15, 255-272.

Sergeant, M.J.T., Dickins, T.E., Davies, M.N.O., & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Aggression, empathy and sexual orientation in males. Personality and Individual Differences, 40, 475-486.

Shonin, E.S., van Gordon, W., Slade, K. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Mindfulness and other Buddhist-derived interventions in correctional settings: A systematic review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 18, 365-372.

Against all odds: The rise and rise of gambling

In many areas of the world, gambling has become a popular activity. Almost all national surveys into gambling have concluded that most people have gambled at some point in their lives, there are more gamblers than non-gamblers, but that most participants gamble infrequently. Commissions and official government reviews in a number of countries including the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand have all concluded that increased gambling availability has led to an increase in problem gambling. Estimates of the number of problem gamblers vary from country to country but most countries that have carried out national prevalence surveys suggest around 0.5%-2% of individuals have a gambling problem.

In May 2013, the new criteria for problem gambling (now called ‘Gambling Disorder’) were published in the fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-5), and for the very first time, problem gambling was included in the section ‘Substance-related and Addiction Disorders’ (rather than in the section on impulse control disorders). Also included in the Appendix of the DSM-5 as a potential addiction was Internet Gaming Disorder (i.e., online video game addiction). Although most of us in the field had been conceptualizing problematic gambling and video gaming as addictions for many years, this was arguably the first time that an established medical body had described them as such. For me, gambling and gaming addictions should not be considered any differently from other more traditional chemical addictions (e.g., alcohol addiction, nicotine addiction). Consequently, there is no theoretical reason why other problematic and excessive activities that do not involve the ingestion of a psychoactive substance cannot be deemed as legitimate behavioural addictions in the years to come (e.g., shopping addiction, sex addiction, work addiction, exercise addiction, etc.).

Gambling is a multifaceted rather than unitary phenomenon. Consequently, many factors are involved in the acquisition, development and maintenance of gambling behaviour. Such factors include an individual’s biological and genetic predisposition, their social environment, psychological variables (personality characteristics, attitudes, expectations, beliefs, etc.), macro-situational characteristics (how much gambling is marketed and advertised, the number of gambling venues within a jurisdiction, where the gambling venue is located), micro-situational characteristics of the gambling environment (on-site cash machine, provision of free alcohol, floor layout etc.), and the structural characteristics of the gambling activity itself (jackpot size, stake size, the number of times a individual can gamble in a given time frame, etc.). Most research has tended to concentrate on individual characteristics (personality, genetics, family and peer influence) rather than situational and structural characteristics.

The introduction of national lotteries, the proliferation of slot machines, the expansion of casinos, and the introduction of new media in which to gamble (e.g., Internet gambling, mobile phone gambling, interactive television gambling, gambling via social networking sites), has greatly increased the accessibility and popularity of gambling worldwide, and as a result, the number of people seeking assistance for gambling-related problems. In addition, the rise of remote gambling via the internet and mobile phones has arguably changed the psychosocial nature of gambling. I have also published a number of studies showing that to vulnerable and susceptible individuals (e.g., problem gamblers, minors, the intoxicated, etc.), the medium of the internet may facilitate and fuel problematic and addictive behaviours.

There are many known factors that make online activity potentially problematic to a minority of individuals. This includes factors such as easy accessibility, affordability, anonymity, convenience, escape, and disinhibition. Some of these factors can change the psychological experience of gambling. For instance, gambling with virtual representations of money online lower the psychological value of the money and people tend to spend more with virtual representations of money than if they were gambling with physical money. Also, when people lose money online it is a different psychological experience because no-one can see anyone losing face-to-face. As a result, there is less guilt and embarrassment about losing and vulnerable individuals may be tempted to spend more time and money than they had originally intended.

One very salient trend that has implications for gambling (and arguably problem gambling) is that technology hardware is becoming increasingly convergent (e.g., internet access via smartphones and interactive television) and there is increasing multi-media integration such as gambling and video gaming via social networking sites. As a consequence, people of all ages are spending more time interacting with technology in the form of internet use, playing videogames, watching interactive television, mobile phone use, social networking, etc. In addition to convergent hardware, there is also convergent content. This includes some forms of gambling including video game elements, video games including gambling elements, online penny auctions that have gambling elements, and television programming with gambling-like elements.

One of the key drivers behind the increased numbers of people gambling online and using social networking sites is the rise of mobile gambling and gaming. Compared to internet gambling, mobile gambling is still a relatively untapped area but the functional capabilities of mobile phones and other mobile devices are improving all the time. There are now hundreds of gambling companies that provide casino-style games to be downloaded onto the gambler’s smartphone or mobile device (e.g., tablet or laptop). This will have implications for the psychosocial impact of gambling and will need monitoring. Like online gambling, mobile gaming has the capacity to completely change the way people think about gambling and betting. Mobile phones provide the convenience of making bets or gambling from wherever the person is, even if they are on the move.

One of the most noticeable changes in gambling over the last few years – and inextricably linked to the rise of mobile gaming – has been the large increase of in-play sports betting. Gamblers can now typically bet on over 60 ‘in-play’ markets while watching a sports event (such as a soccer match). For instance, during a soccer game, gamblers can bet on who is going to score the first goal, what the score will be after 30 minutes of play, how many yellow cards will be given during them game and/or in what minute of the second half will the first free kick be awarded. Live betting is going to become a critical activity in the success of the future online and mobile gambling markets.

The most salient implication of ‘in-play’ sports betting is that it has taken what was traditionally a discontinuous form of gambling – where an individual makes one bet every Saturday on the result of the game – to one where an individual can gamble again and again and again. Gaming operators have quickly capitalized on the increasing amount of televised sport. In contemporary society, where there is a live sporting event, there will always be a betting consumer. ‘In-play’ betting companies have both catered for the natural betting demand but introduced new gamblers in the process. If the reward for gambling only happens once or twice a week, it is completely impossible to develop problems and/or become addicted. ‘In-play’ has changed that because there are soccer matches on almost every day of the week making a daily two-hour plus period of betting seven days a week.

New technologies in the form of behavioural tracking have helped online gambling companies keep track of players by noting (among many other things) what games they are playing, the time spent playing, the denomination of the gambles made, and their wins and losses. Although such technologies can potentially be used to exploit gamblers (e.g., targeting the heaviest spenders with direct marketing promotions to gamble even more), such technologies can also be used to help gamblers that may have difficulties stopping and/or limiting their gambling behaviour. Over the past few years, innovative social responsibility tools that track player behaviour with the aim of preventing problem gambling have been developed. These new tools are providing insights about problematic gambling behaviour. A number of European jurisdictions (such as Germany and The Netherlands) are now considering whether such tools should be mandatory for gaming operators to use especially as such tools are already being used in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Austria.

Although gamblers are ultimately responsible for their own behaviour, gambling can be minimised via both governmental policy initiatives (age restrictions, marketing and advertising restrictions, no gaming licenses unless operators display the highest standards of social responsibility to their clientele, etc.) and gaming operator initiatives (self-exclusion programs, information about games so gamblers can make informed choices, limit-setting tools that allow gamblers to set time and money loss limits, staff training on responsible gambling, referral to gambling treatment providers, etc.). Problem gambling can never be totally eliminated but harm minimisation practices can be put in place to keep the problem to a minimum. Treatment for gambling addiction should be free and paid for by gambling industry profits (either in the form of voluntary donations to a charitable trust or – if that doesn’t work – a statutory levy). In short, any jurisdiction that has legalised and liberalised gambling has a duty of care to put a national social responsibility infrastructure in place to prevent, minimise, and treat problem gambling as they would with any other consumptive and potentially addictive behaviour (e.g., drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, etc.)

Please note: A version of this article first appeared in Science and Technology (Pan European Networks) magazine (Volume 15, pages 153-155).

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

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (2003). Internet gambling: Issues, concerns and recommendations. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 6, 557-568.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Gaming convergence: Further legal issues and psychosocial impact. Gaming Law Review and Economics, 14, 461-464.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Mind games (A brief psychosocial overview of in-play betting). i-Gaming Business Affiliate, June/July, 44.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Internet gambling, player protection and social responsibility. In R. Williams, R. Wood & J. Parke (Ed.), Routledge Handbook of Internet Gambling (pp.227-249). London: Routledge.

Griffiths, M.D., King, D.L. & Delfabbro, P.H. (2014). The technological convergence of gambling and gaming practices. In Richard, D.C.S., Blaszczynski, A. & Nower, L. (Eds.). The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Disordered Gambling (pp. 327-346). Chichester: Wiley.

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.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012).  Internet gambling behavior. In Z. Yan (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Cyber Behavior (pp.735-753). Pennsylvania: IGI Global.

McCormack, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). A scoping study of the structural and situational characteristics of internet gambling. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 3(1), 29-49.

Meyer, G., Hayer, T. & Griffiths, M.D. (2009). Problem Gaming in Europe: Challenges, Prevention, and Interventions. New York: Springer.

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.

Pontes, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). The assessment of internet gaming disorder in clinical research. Clinical Research and Regulatory Affairs, 31(2-4), 35-48.

Zangeneh, M., Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2008). The marketing of gambling. In Zangeneh, M., Blaszczynski, A., and Turner, N. (Eds.), In The Pursuit Of Winning (pp. 135-153). New York: Springer.

Coming a part of the themes: The psychology of familiarity in gambling

Have you seen slot machines featuring Spiderman? Or the ones based on the Monopoly board game? Or the slots that have pictures of Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider video game? Most gaming operators will appreciate that all of these images have a strong brand presence, and that it is one of the main reasons for themed games. However, a more basic marketing tactic is being used here – the psychology of familiarity. This is used throughout the gaming industry but is most common on slot machines, online games, and scratchcards. For instance, Camelot’s scratchcards in the UK have featured film tie-ins (e.g., James Bond, Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Wars), and popular games (e.g., Connect Four).

But this wasn’t always the case. Back in the late 1980s I did some research on the names that gaming designers and operators gave their slot machines. One of the more interesting findings I reported in one of my academic papers was that over 50% of all machine names that I came across in amusement arcades had some reference to money on them (such as ‘Cashpoint’, ‘Cashline’, ‘Action Bank’, Piggy Bank’, ‘Money Belt’ etc.). Psychologically, all of these machine names gave the impression that this was where a player could get money from – not where they would lose it! Other categories of machine names included those with some reference to skill on them (‘Fruitskill’, ‘Skillchance’) suggesting that machine playing was a skillful activity and that gamblers could perhaps beat the machine. Other machines had what I called “acoustically attractive” names (Nifty Fifty, Naughty But Nice) or puns (Reel Fun, Reel Money). Since making these observations, I have always been interested in the subtle techniques that the gaming industry uses in getting the punter to play on their products. The psychology of gambling – or rather the psychology of gambling marketing – has come a long way in the last decade.

As I’ve already said, one of the techniques that the gaming industry uses (whether they realise it or not) is the psychology of familiarity. Gaming operators and marketers have realised that one weapon in their marketing armory is to design products which appear familiar before a player has ever even played on them – something that can partly be achieved through the name or theme of the slot machine. The examples I gave above showed that the names of slot machines appear to be important in impression formation. It is highly unlikely that the names of slot machines have any influence on gambling behaviour per se. However, when tied in with recent research on the psychology of familiarity, the names of machines do seem to be critically important – particularly in terms of gambling acquisition (that is, getting people to gamble in the first place).

Nowadays, slot machines are often named after a famous person (the Elvis Presley machines appear very popular in one of my local casinos), place, event, video game, board game, television show or film. Not only is this something that is familiar to the gambler but may also be something that the potential gamblers might like or affiliate themselves with (such as James Bond). This is different from a simple naming effect in that the machine’s theme may encompass the whole play of the machine, including its features, the sound effects (e.g., the theme tune to popular television programmes like Coronation Street or Eastenders), and light/colour effects. By using well-known and common themes, gamblers may be more likely to spend time and money playing them.

Some of the most popular UK slot machines are those that feature The Simpsons. There are many possible reasons why a gambler might be more likely to play on a Simpsons’ machine. The Simpsons have mass appeal and popularity across all ages and across gender. The machines are celebrity-endorsed and players may place trust in a ‘quality’ brand like The Simpsons. Gamblers may also hope that knowledge of the characters will help in the playing of the game. On a basic level, it might simply be that the game play of The Simpsons is more exciting, and that the sound effects and features are novel, cute and/or more humorous than other machines. There are many cases similar to this one where it could be speculated that the slot machine becomes so much more inducing because it represents something that is familiar and/or special to the gambler.

Familiarity is a very important psychological aspect of why themed slot machines have been more prominent over the last decade. Familiar themes have the capacity to induce a ‘psycho-structural interaction’ between the gambler and the gambling activity. This is where the gambler’s own psychology interacts with the machine’s structural characteristics and produces different consequences for each person depending upon what the feature means to them personally. If the themes are increasingly familiar, a gambler might be more likely to persevere with the complexities of a machine. Gamblers may find it more enjoyable because they can easily interact with recognizable images they experience. Therefore, the use of familiar themes may have a very persuasive effect, leading to an increase in the number of people using them, and the money they spend. Whilst there are many other aspects that influence an individual’s decision to gamble, the possible persuasive nature of the themes should not be underestimated.

As you may have already gathered, there is a strong overlap between the psychology of familiarity, branding, and the psychology of persuasion. In very simple terms, a gambler must be exposed to the product and be aware of its presence before they can even make the decision to gamble. This is relatively easy to achieve given the ubiquity of slot machines and the fact that current machines will use any number of techniques to grab a potential player’s attention. These include television or film theme tunes, bright flashing lights, and/or pictures or voices of celebrities. Once a gambler’s attention has been gained, the product must be likeable and familiar enough for them to think about gambling and wanting to interact with the machine further. Immediately familiar images and sounds are likely to lead to a much quicker decision to gamble. All which goes to show – the gaming industry knows what it is doing!

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

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (1993). Fruit machine gambling: The importance of structural characteristics. Journal of Gambling Studies, 9, 101-120.

Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Brand psychology: Social acceptability and familiarity that breeds trust and loyalty.Casino and Gaming International, 3(3), 69-72.

Griffiths, M.D. & Dunbar, D. (1997). The role of familiarity in fruit machine gambling. Society for the Study of Gambling Newsletter, 29, 15-20.

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.

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.

Parke, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). The psychology of the fruit machine: The role of structural characteristics (revisited). 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.

Wood, R.T.A., Griffiths, M.D., Chappell, D. & Davies, M.N.O. (2004). The structural characteristics of video games: A psycho-structural analysis. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 7, 1-10.

Play’s cool? Is the type of game played important in the development of gambling addictions?

Earlier today, I (and my research colleague Michael Auer) had a paper published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology arguing that the type of game that people gamble on is irrelevant in the acquisition, development, and maintenance of pathological gambling. We noted that anyone coming into the gambling studies field from a psychological perspective would probably conclude from reading the literature that problem and pathological gambling is associated with particular game types. More specifically, there appears to be a line of thinking in the gambling studies field that casino-type games (and particularly slot machines) are more likely to be associated with problem gambling than lottery-type games.

We argued that the most important factors along with individual susceptibility and risk factors of the individual gambler are the structural characteristics relating to the speed and frequency of the game (and more specifically event frequency, bet frequency, event duration and payout interval) rather than the type of game. Event frequency refers to the number of events that are available for betting and gambling within any given time period. For example, a lottery draw may occur once a week but a slot machine may allow 15 chances to gamble inside one minute. In this example, slot machine gambling has a higher event frequency than lottery gambling. Bet frequency refers to the number of bets or gambles placed in any given time period. Using lottery playing as example, Dr. Jonathan Parke and I noted in a 2007 book chapter on structural characteristics, that multiple tickets (e.g., 10 tickets) can usually be purchased as frequently as desired before any single lottery draw. In this instance, bet frequency would be equal to 10 but event frequency would be equal to 1. Therefore, event frequency can often be much lower than bet frequency and it is possible for players to spend more than they can afford even with a low event frequency.

Dr. Parke and I have stated that further empirical research is needed into the relationship between event frequency and bet frequency. This is because researchers often assume that event frequency and bet frequency have a strong relationship (i.e., the higher number of betting/gambling events – the higher the frequency of betting/gambling). However, this may not be the case.

Another important gaming parameter is event duration. This refers to how fast the event in question is (e.g., a reel spin on a slot machine might last three seconds). Here, it is important to note that duration of the betting/gambling event is different from event frequency (although they may be inextricably linked in so much as the length of a betting event will obviously limit the frequency with which they can take place). Again, Dr Parke and I noted that a betting event lasting two hours (e.g., a soccer game) could not have an event frequency greater than one in any 2-hour period but could have a betting frequency of over 100 with the advent of in-play betting.

In-play betting and gambling (which I examined in a previous blog) refers to the wagering on an event that has started but has not yet finished. This means gamblers can continue to bet on an event (e.g., a soccer or cricket match) and perhaps more importantly, adapt their bets according to how the event is progressing.  For instance, in the UK, during the playing of almost any soccer match, a gambler can bet on everything from who is going to score the first goal, what the score will be after 30 minutes of play, how many yellow cards will be given during the game and/or in what minute of the second half will the first free kick be awarded. What I argued in a previous blog is that ‘in-play’ gambling activities have taken what was traditionally a discontinuous form of gambling – where a gambler made one bet every weekend on the result of the game – to one where a player can gamble continuously again and again. In short, the same game has been turned from what was a low event frequency gambling activity into a potentially high frequency one (and gone from an activity that had little association with problem gambling to one where problem gambling is far more likely among excessive in-play gamblers).

Another important (and related) structural characteristic is payout interval. This is the time between the end of the betting event (i.e., the outcome of the gamble) and the winning payment (if there is one). The frequency of playing when linked with two other factors – the result of the gamble (win or loss) and the actual time until winnings are received – exploits the psychological principles of learning. This process of operant conditioning conditions habits by rewarding (i.e., reinforcing) behaviour (i.e., through presentation of a reward such as money). To produce high rates of response, those schedules which present rewards intermittently (random and variable ratio schedules) have shown to be most effective. Since a number of gambling activities (most notable slot machines) operate on random and variable ratio schedules it is unsurprising that excessive gambling can occur.

To highlight the irrelevance of game type, consider the following two examples that demonstrate that it is the structural characteristics rather than the game type that is critical in the acquisition, development and maintenance of problem and pathological gambling for those who are vulnerable and/or susceptible. A “safe” slot machine could be designed in which no-one would ever develop a gambling problem. The simplest way to do this would be to ensure that whoever was playing the machine could not press the ‘play button’ or pull the lever more than once a week. An enforced structural characteristic of an event frequency of once a week would almost guarantee that players could not develop a gambling problem. Alternatively, a problematic form of lottery could be designed where instead of the draw taking place weekly, bi-weekly or daily, it would be designed to take place once every few minutes. Such an example is not hypothetical and resembles lottery games that already exist in the form of rapid-draw lottery games like keno.

The general rule is that the higher the event frequency, the more likely it is that the gambling activity will cause problems for the individual (particularly if the individual is susceptible and vulnerable). Problem and pathological gambling are essentially about rewards, and the speed and frequency of those rewards. Almost any game could be designed to either have high event frequencies or low event frequencies. Therefore, the more potential rewards there are, the more problematic and addictive an activity is likely to be and this is irrespective of game type as games such as diverse as lotteries and slot machines could have identical event frequencies and event durations.

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

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (1993). Fruit machine gambling: The importance of structural characteristics. Journal of Gambling Studies, 9, 101-120.

Griffiths, M.D. (1994). The role of cognitive bias and skill in fruit machine gambling. British Journal of Psychology, 85, 351-369.

Griffiths, M.D. (1999). The psychology of the near miss (revisited): A comment on Delfabbro and Winefield. British Journal of Psychology, 90, 441-445.

Griffiths, M.D. (2008). Impact of high stake, high prize gaming machines on problem gaming. Birmingham: Gambling Commission.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Mind games (A brief psychosocial overview of in-play betting. i-Gaming Business Affiliate, June/July, 44.

Griffiths, M.D. & Auer, M. (2013). The irrelevancy of game-type in the acquisition, development and maintenance of problem gambling. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 621. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00621.

Griffiths, M.D. & Wood, R.T.A. (2001). The psychology of lottery gambling. International Gambling Studies, 1, 27-44.

Meyer, G., Hayer, T. & Griffiths, M.D. (2009). Problem Gaming in Europe: Challenges, Prevention, and Interventions. New York: Springer.

Parke, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). The psychology of the fruit machine: The role of structural characteristics (revisited). 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.

Terminal cases: Should virtual roulette machines be banned from high street bookmakers?

A couple of days ago, I took part in a live debate on national radio (BBC 5Live) about whether virtual roulette machines – known by us in the gambling studies field as ‘fixed odds betting terminals’ (FOBTs) – should be banned from high street bookmakers here in the UK. For those who have no idea what I am talking about:

“A fixed odds betting terminal (FOBT) is an electromechanical device normally found in betting shops in the United Kingdom that allows players to bet on the outcome of various games and events with fixed odds. They were introduced to UK shops in 2001. The most commonly played game is roulette. The minimum amount wagered per spin is £1. The maximum bet cannot exceed a payout of £500 (i.e. putting £14.00 on a single number on roulette). The largest single payout cannot exceed £500. Other games include bingo, simulated horseracing and greyhound racing, and a range of slot machine games. Like all casino games, the “house” (i.e. the casino) has a built –in advantage, with current margins on roulette games being theoretically between 2.5% and 5%” (Wikipedia, 2013).

The last decade has seen many changes in the British gambling landscape. The most notable of these include (i) the growth in the availability of remote gambling (via the internet, mobile phone, and interactive television), (ii) the introduction of online betting exchanges,  (iii) an increase in the prominence of poker (both online and offline), (iv) an increase in the number of casinos, and (v) the introduction of FOBTs into most bookmakers.

Relatively little is known about FOBT play among the British population, and the best quality data comes from the British Gambling Prevalence Survey (BGPS), a nationally representative survey that was carried out by the National Centre for Social Research along with a few expert academics in the gambling studies field (including myself). We published the most recent survey in 2011 and we reported that among our 7,756 participants, only 4% had ever played on FOBTs (up from 3% in our previous 2007 survey) with 6% having played FOBTs in the year prior to the survey. Playing FOBTs was more of a male activity with 7% of males compared to 2% females having ever played (with 10% males and 2% females having played FOBTs in the previous year).

The highest participation rates were among individuals aged in the 16-24 year old age group (12%), followed by 25-34 year olds (9%) and 35-44 year olds (3%). Our study also showed that the prevalence of playing FOBTs was highest among those with the lowest personal income (7%) and lowest among those with highest personal income (4%). This was most likely related to the finding that FOBTs were significantly more likely to be played by people who were out of work. More specifically, 12% of those who were unemployed had played FOBTs in the past year compared with 4% of participants overall. Past year gambling was related to marital status, although as we pointed out in our report, this was likely to be a reflection of the relationship between age and marital status. Prevalence of playing on FOBTs was three times higher among those who were single (9%) than those who were married or separated/divorced (3%).

The latest BGPS findings also produced some interesting findings. For instance, although at a population level, the prevalence rate of ever having gambled on FOBTs was very low – compared to lottery gambling (59%) and playing scratchcards (24%) – the majority that did play on FOBTS did so every week (52%). Arguably the most interesting finding was that among those who played FOBTs, the prevalence of problem gambling was 8.8%. The survey as a whole reported that just under 1% of the British adult population had a gambling problem, so there does seem to be an elevated prevalence of problem gambling among those who play FOBTs (in fact, only two activities – playing poker in a pub or club [12.8%] and playing online slot machines [9.1%] – had a higher prevalence rate of problem gambling by type of game played).

However, extreme caution needs to be exercised when interpreting these data because gamblers rarely engage in just a single activity. In fact, those who played poker at a pub/club and played on FOBTs had the highest engagement in gambling activities, participating in 7.6 and 7.2 gambling activities respectively in the year prior to the survey. Among men, the mean number of gambling activities undertaken in the past year was highest among those who played poker at a pub/club (7.9), those who gambled on online slot machine style games (7.4), and those who played on fixed odds betting terminals (7.4). Among women, the mean number of activities engaged in was highest among those who played on fixed odds betting terminals (6.4), and those who bet on sports events (5.8).

Another interesting finding of the BGPS related to the volume of gambling in terms of time and money. Regular gamblers (i.e., those who gambled once a month or more often) were categorized into one of four groups:

  • High-time only gamblers (i.e., those who spent a lot of time but not a lot of money gambling)
  • High-spend only gamblers (i.e., those who spent a lot money, but not a great deal of time gambling)
  • High-time/high-spend gamblers (i.e., those who spent a lot of time and money gambling)
  • Non-high-time/non-high-spend gamblers (i.e., those who spent little time or money gambling)

High-time/high-spend gamblers showed a relative preference for betting on horse races, FOBTs and playing casino games. High-time/high-spend gamblers also had the most adverse socio-economic profile. They were more likely to live in areas of greatest deprivation, live in low-income households and be unemployed.

So, given all these data, should FOBTs be banned from British bookmakers’ offices? In short, no. Even if the data were more robust, I would argue that FOBTs shouldn’t be banned particularly because similar types of game can already be accessed far more easily via the internet and mobile phone in environments that are arguably less protective towards problem gamblers. My own stance is that to help overcome problems and addictions to FOBT, gaming companies should engage in the highest levels of social responsibility and introduce cutting edge protocols to ensure player protection.

Some of the hottest issues in the responsible gambling field concern pre-commitment and limit setting (i.e., giving gamblers the tools that they can pre-commit to how much time and money they want to spend on gambling before they actually gamble, as opposed to making ‘heat of the moment’ decisions in the midst of gambling wins or losses that could seriously affect good decision-making). The most practical solution to the issue of curbing problems with FOBTs would be to make the playing of the machine dependent on the gambler having a player card that (a) allows gamblers to pre-commit to how much time and money they are prepared to spend gambling, and (b) allows gaming operators to track their customers’ behaviour, and – with the appropriate behavioural tracking tools – provide informed feedback to the gambler while they are actually gambling. Such a ssystem already operates on a national level in Norway, so there is no reason why it couldn’t be implemented here. What’s more, such technology could be made mandatory, meaning that any gaming operator who wanted a gaming license would legally have to implement such a system as part of its player protection and harm minimization strategies.

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

Further reading

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Limit setting and player choice in most intense online gamblers: An empirical study of online gambling behaviour. Journal of Gambling Studies, in press.

Griffiths, M.D. (2008). Strategies for detecting and controlling electronic gaming vulnerabilities. Casino and Gaming International, 4(4), 103-108.

Griffiths, M.D. (2008). Impact of high stake, high prize gaming machines on problem gaming. Birmingham: Gambling Commission.

Griffiths, M.D., Wardle, J., Orford, J., Sproston, K. & Erens, B. (2010). Gambling, alcohol consumption, cigarette smoking and health: findings from the 2007 British Gambling Prevalence Survey. Addiction Research and Theory, 18, 208-223.

Orford, J.F., Griffiths, M.D. & Wardle, H. (2013). What proportion of gambling is problem gambling? Estimates from the 2010 British Gambling Prevalence Survey. International Gambling Studies, in press.

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.

Wardle, H., Griffiths, M.D., Orford, J., Moody, A. & Volberg, R. (2012). Gambling in Britain: A time of change? Health implications from the British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2010. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10, 273-277.

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

Wardle, H., Sproston, K., Orford, J., Erens, B., Griffiths, M.D., Constantine, R. & Pigott, S. (2007). The British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2007. London: The Stationery Office.

Wikipedia (2013). Fixed odds betting terminal. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fixed_odds_betting_terminal

Wood, R.T.A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Social responsibility in online gambling: Voluntary limit setting. World Online Gambling Law Report, 9(11), 10-11.

Trivial pursuits: Can playing pub quiz machines be addictive?

This morning I appeared on BBC radio talking about excessive playing of trivia (quiz) machines because there is a story in today’s Daily Mail about a man (Christian Drummond) who claims he makes £60,000 a year from playing pub quiz machines. In the UK, trivia machines are a type of ‘Skill With Prize’ (SWP) machine where cash payouts (the prize) depends (at least in part) on the player’s skill. I certainly spent far too much of my student grant playing the snooker general knowledge SWP game Give Us A Break in the university bar. Quiz machines are the most common form of SWP machine and are known to be very profitable for operators. A Wikipedia entry on SWP machines notes that the SWP game Barber Cut was advertised as “more addicting than any other prize redemption game, and those repeat-plays will land right in your cash box!”.

Here’s a little background for those who are still not sure what I am talking about. SWP trivia machines usually have a pre-programmed set of ‘general knowledge’ questions. The machine game is activated after the insertion of money (now typically 50p or £1, although it used to be 10p-20p when I was a regular player). On answering a pre-determined number of multiple-choice questions correctly, successful players can win money (the most I ever remember winning was £5). In some cases, successful players may also be rewarded with free plays on the machine and/or with the added bonus on some games of being able to record names and high scores electronically on the game’s ‘hall of fame’ (something that I never achieved in all the times I ever played). I still occasionally play (my most recent session losing about £10 playing a Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? trivia game).

On a purely personal level, I love trivia, and it appears that I am not the only one. I came across an online article outlining the top ten “modern human addictions” and was surprised that ‘trivia’ was at No.7. As the article noted:

“Most of us love to learn and understand things, but how often do we absorb tiny little bits of inconsequential trivia? More often than you may think! TV advertisements and billboards coax us with facts and figures, magazines deliver tantalizing tit-bits of scandal and gossip, and the internet fills our minds with thousands of facts…The world is full of trivia. A trivia addict is often someone who’s main pleasure in life is to memorize random facts and spout them off to onlookers in an attempt to make themselves look good, and who often dreams of winning the pub quiz or a game show for a huge cash prize. Trivia buffs often wallow in small-talk, gossip, and rumor and sometimes aggrandize subjects the rest of us care little about”.

On a more academic footing, I wrote briefly about SWPs in both of my first two books (Adolescent Gambling, 1995; Gambling and Gaming Addiction in Adolescence, 2002) and noted that there was some anecdotal evidence of problematic and potentially addictive play. In my first book I also introduced the concept of ‘technological addictions’. I wrote that:

“My own operational definition is that [technological addictions] are non-chemical (behavioural) addictions which involve human-machine interaction. They can either be passive (e.g. television) or active (e.g. computer games) and usually contain inducing and reinforcing features which may contribute to the promotion of addictive tendencies. The category of technological addictions is not mutually exclusive and contains addictive activities that could be located under other kinds of addiction…There is little in the way of academic literature on technological addictions but possible activities that could be included under this category are television addiction, computer addiction (e.g. hacking, programming), video and computer game addiction, fruit machine addiction, pinball addiction, trivia machine addiction, telephone sex addiction and in the (near?) future, virtual reality addiction”.

Basically, I said that it was theoretically possible to become addicted to playing SWP machines, but had yet to come across any empirical evidence that such an addiction genuinely existed. And that’s still the case as far as I am concerned. I am still unaware of any empirical research study examining SWP addiction and problematic play (excluding video game addiction and a case study I published on pinball addiction back in a 1993 issue of Psychological Reports). Having said that, it’s not hard to see the psychological attraction of playing and how excessive playing develops. Like playing slot machines and video games, SWP machines utilize operant conditioning techniques, provide ‘near miss’ experiences, are deceptively inexpensive, simple to play, challenging, competitive, and excellent at modifying mood states. The rewards can be social, financial, psychological, and physiological. All in all, they contain many of the psychological ingredients that can be utilized in the addiction process.

I’ve searched online for any self-confessed accounts of SWP addiction but have found little. Here are a few quotes suggesting that for a tiny minority, SWP playing might be potentially problematic:

  • Extract 1: “I think I might be slightly addicted to these quiz machines. At risk of sounding melodramatic, and to paraphrase the film ‘Fight Club’, after playing a quiz machine, the volume of the rest of life is turned down. Once you’ve played a few times, you no longer feel alive unless you’re playing a quiz machine. All you can see in front of you is victory; the massive debts that are mounting up are hidden behind a veil of aspiration and false hope. I seem to pour in pound after pound in the vague hope of one-upping a computer-controlled device with a fixed payout rate that will control the difficulty accordingly. My struggle transcends any monetary gain from playing these stupid quiz games and it becomes about winning
  • Extract 2: “I’m from England, and a massive fad of us legal to drink teenagers is to waste our money on these ‘Pub Quiz’ machines, to a stupid point of having no money at all left. The only problem is that the pub always closes at some point, and I need to feed my addiction for the games on them”
  • Extract 3: It’s official. I have a new addiction. It has descended upon me in the form of a game. A quiz machine game. And it goes by the name ELIMINATOR! It’s not just any game though. It is the most compulsively obsessive thing I have ever seen in my entire life”

Since November 1st 2010, all SWP machines in the UK must conform to strict guidelines by both the Gambling Commission and BACTA (British Amusement and Catering Trade Association). As the Wikipedia entry in SWP machines notes:

“These guidelines say that there must be NO element of chance within the game that can affect the outcome. There are also limits set on the level of skill needed to play, for example there must be a minimum amount of time for a player to react to the game. This is so that manufacturers and operators can’t be accused of setting ridiculous skill levels that aren’t physically possible…While SWP machines are generally not intended to be winnable by skilled players – otherwise such a player could continue to play and win and causes losses to the operator – it is sometimes possible that player skill, or using the machine in a way not anticipated by the manufacturer, can result in the game becoming winnable. This may result in service updates by the manufacturer to close the exploit”.

As I have noted in many of my academic writings, one of the key trends in the gaming world is convergence. The convergence between gambling and SWP machines means that the British Gambling Commission are frequently asked whether particular skill with prize machines are gambling machines. Their response is always to say that: “the answer to that question depends upon whether any of the games offered on the machine amount to ‘gaming’ as defined in…the Gambling Act” (which is a whole new blog in itself).

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

Further reading

Gambling Act (2010). Is a prize machine a gambling machine? Birmingham: Gambling Commission.

Griffiths, M.D. (1991). Amusement machine playing in childhood and adolescence: A comparative analysis of video games and fruit machines. Journal of Adolescence, 14, 53-73.

Griffiths, M.D. (1992). Pinball wizard: A case study of a pinball addict. Psychological Reports, 71, 160-162.

Griffiths, M.D. (1995). Technological addictions. Clinical Psychology Forum, 76, 14-19.

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

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

Griffiths, M.D. (2008). Digital impact, crossover technologies and gambling practices. Casino and Gaming International, 4(3), 37-42.

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Gaming convergence: Further legal issues and psychosocial impact. Gaming Law Review and Economics, 14, 461-464.

King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The convergence of gambling and digital media: Implications for gambling in young people. Journal of Gambling Studies, 26, 175-187.

Lifeschool (2009). Top 10 modern addictions. Listverse, October 15. Located at: http://listverse.com/2009/10/15/top-10-modern-human-addictions/

Wikipedia (2012). Skill with prize. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skill_With_Prize