Dr Mark Griffiths on gambling: RightCasino interview
Gambling addiction has been the subject of academic and scientific study for many years. Experts in the field of psychology, economics, neuroscience and cognitive behaviour have researched the phenomenon extensively in hopes of finding out how and why gambling addiction takes root and how to prevent it.
RightCasino sat down with Dr Mark Griffiths, a psychologist and and the Director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University, to give us and our readers some insight into the world of gambling research and what these findings can tell us.
Over the course of a long discussion, Dr Griffiths speaks about gambling in the media, in British culture, on social media platforms, in traditional casinos and in legislature. He also describes the psychological appeal of particular games and clears up misconceptions about problem gambling and addiction.
British Gambling Culture
Dr Griffiths has spent nearly thirty years studying addictive behaviours, with a focus on problem gambling. He believes that problem gambling is a far-reaching problem that touches a cross-section of interests, from public policy makers to mental health services to gambling operators themselves.
He highlights the rocky relationship that research has with the British media, who seem hellbent on publicising negative stories at all costs, without giving positive findings their due attention or appreciating nuance in the stories. Research shows that a small minority (0.9%) of British gamblers are problem gamblers but this was presented to the public as ‘nearly 1% of Britons addicted to gambling’. This is factually incorrect – it’s 0.9% of gamblers, not the general population – and ignores the nuanced understanding that problem gambling is not necessarily indicative of addictive behaviour.
Expanding on his academic interests, Dr Griffiths says that he researches all manner of behavioural addictions, including video game addictions, alcohol addiction and others. His work has helped to inform government policies on curbing obesity.
He reflects on the Gambling Act, legislation that regulates the UK gambling industry, and calls it progressive. Instead of trying to ignore the fact that gambling is a popular form of entertainment for Britons, successive governments have strengthened regulation in an effort to protect players as much as possible.
Gambling is a fairly socially acceptable form of entertainment, a view that was helped in no small way by the appeal and acceptance of lotteries. Dr Griffiths says that many people do not equate playing the lottery with gambling – a sign of how innocuous this activity is perceived to be.
In terms of demographics, Dr Griffiths shares some statistics. In all gambling activities except bingo, it is men who make up the majority of players. Lotteries and scratch cards see an equal number of male and female participants. He does make a point of saying that this is the trend at the moment and is likely to change over the coming years.
As gambling has moved into the virtual world, the way people interact with games has changed. They no longer have to leave their house to gamble and online gambling can be extremely fast-paced. British slot machines (the real-world kind) are based on an adaptive logic mechanism, unlike online casino slots which use random number generators. This means that there is an element of skill in using real slot machines unlike online slots, which are 100% chance-based.
Of course operators are sensitive to the realities of their audiences. While a young adult might be comfortable in gambling online, an older individual, who may not be as confident using the internet, will still be more likely to gamble on real-life machines.
A hot topic in the conversation about gambling is social gambling. This is where players take to social media platforms like Facebook to play games, with or without real money. Dr Griffiths explains that such a popular site as Facebook was always going to appeal to operators hoping to expand their player base.
By using free online games as a stepping stone, operators have been able to guide players towards paid, real money casino games on their sites. The addition of paid perks, accessories and enhancements is also a money spinner for operators. Free games also allow players to familiarise themselves with a game, making it more likely that they will feel confident enough to play for real.
All human beings will abandon an activity if there isn’t reinforcement or reward – that’s true for all things from exercise to friendships. This reaction is exploited all the while someone is gambling but a small percentage of gamblers are unable to disentangle themselves, so to speak, from the pursuit of that reinforcement and this is where gambling becomes a problem.
It’s not just casino games that utilise this knowledge. Games that use the so called freemium model, such as Candy Crush, let players play for free with the option of spending money to claim extra lives or levels. This model makes the game more approachable to players who do not want to spend money as well as offering those that do the chance to better their scores.
Dr Griffiths goes on to make a comparison between UK-style and based casinos and the ones found in American cities like Las Vegas and Atlantic City. For one, British casinos are a lot smaller than American ones, with even the largest UK land-based casino totally dwarfed by Vegas resorts.
He also makes the distinction between how English punters and American ones interact with land-based casinos. For English gamblers, a trip to the casino is more of a social experience than purely an opportunity to gamble. You can eat and drink fairly cheaply at a casino, then enjoy a few hours of gambling. Overall, a night out at the casino is comparable in price to going to watch a football game or heading down the pub.
Dr Griffiths talks about his contribution to UK gambling policy, namely through GamCare; the problem gambling support and resource group. Collaborating with other academics, Dr Griffiths helped to draw up the social responsibility charter, which helps land-based casino operators by providing them with ethical guidelines for their casinos.
It’s not just gamblers that land-based casinos need to treat fairly. Dr Griffiths refers to ‘the indigenous population’ – the people who lived in an area before a new casino appeared and thus have become newly exposed to the opportunity to gamble. He makes the distinction between places like Las Vegas, where people travel far and wide, specifically to visit casinos and to gamble, and to proposals for casinos in economically deprived areas in English towns and cities. The sudden exposure to intense marketing forces can lead to difficulties for already vulnerable populations.
Overall however, the British are not keen casino goers. Only 5% of gamblers reported visiting a casino in the past year. Even with casinos up and down the country, that Las Vegas-style cult status is simply not there.
A fascinating part of the casino experience is how psychology is used to entice players or potential players. Dr Griffiths recalls attending a concert in the MGM arena in Vegas. Getting to the venue, he passed thousands of slot machines and casino games. After the concert was over, he had to go past all of them again. Casinos even use colour to inspire positive feelings in their players, with red and yellow eliciting joyful or excited emotions. Slot machines are programmed to make loud noises and flash lights when a player wins, so spectators are made aware that someone has just won. The aim of the process is to emphasise the potential of winning while de-emphasising the overwhelming probability of losing.
Psychology of Casino Games
Over his long career, Dr Griffiths has done a lot of research on slot machines – how they’re built, what makes them so enticing to players and how problem gamblers interact with these machines.
He first makes a point of dispelling the idea of ‘addictive personalities’. “There’s no such thing,” he says, explaining that he does not believe that a specific set of personality traits leads to addiction.
There are a multitude of factors that contribute towards someone developing a problematic relationship with gambling. These include genetic factors. Previous studies showed that about 50% of pathological gamblers had a particular genetic variant, known as DRD2. 25% of non-pathological gamblers also has the gene. This tells us that genetics is not the only factor that determines a person’s likelihood of developing a gambling problem but it does play a role.
His research has led Dr Griffiths to consider the idea that the type of game – whether it’s slots or poker or roulette – does not determine whether an addiction will develop. He believes it is how a game is built and how it rewards players that is more influential. Dr Griffiths uses the example of the national lottery. He says that he has never met or heard of anyone addicted to the national lottery. This is because the reward element of the gamble only takes place twice a week, when the numbers are drawn. That does not provide the gambler with enough positive reward to trigger excessive gambling. Activities like wagering on horse races or slot games – where bets can be made over and over in a short space of time – tend to be more troublesome.
Dr Griffiths uses the lottery game Keno as an example of how it is structure and not type that matters most. Keno is an extremely popular, mini-lottery of sorts, with numbers drawn every few minutes. It can be played in shops, bars and post offices, and is definitely a gambling activity that can lead to addiction. Keno and the national lottery work on a similar concept but the timing of the reward makes all the difference.
Gamblers also undergo physiological changes when they play. Dr Griffiths and his team hooked heart rate monitors up to players while they were playing. They noticed that heart rates spiked not only when a win happened but also when a near-miss took place. The level of physiological arousal is the same, even if a near-win is, by definition, a loss. This helps to understand how gamblers continue to wager even though they lose over and over. To them, a loss is just a near-win, something derailed by external factors.
Over time, Dr Griffiths has noticed a shift in how slot games are presented to the player. Back in the 1980s, slot machines focused on what you could win, with names like Cash Point, Piggy Bank and so on. Interesting sounding names like Naughty But Nice and Nifty Fifty were deliberately memorable. In the 2000s however, the industry seemed to change tack. More and more games were designed to elicit familiarity, with themes based on popular films or television shows like the Simpsons, or even well known games like Trivial Pursuit and Monopoly. This built-in familiarity helps make the games more approachable and friendly.
The parallels between gambling addiction and video game addiction are often discussed nowadays but in his early research, Dr Griffiths came under fire for suggesting a similarity between the two. He postulated that video games are essentially gambling without money. This may seem counterintuitive as the core of gambling is winning money but he argued that the reward mechanism in both the activities is the same, even if the potential reward itself is different. It’s small, unpredictable rewards – a coin win, beating a video game boss – that keep players interested.
It is important to differentiate between game types when we talk about psychology. Dr Griffiths says that there is no one, unified model of psychology across all kinds of games and that each one is different. In games like blackjack, memory is an important tool and table games, aside from roulette, rely on some form of skill, which in turn requires practice. It makes sense that these games have a different psychological impact on a gambler to, say, keno or slot machines.
Dr Griffiths explains an important term next – the gambler’s fallacy. These are a set of beliefs that many gamblers have that determine the choices they may next. A gambler will look back on past experiences or outcomes – three consecutive losses when betting on black in roulette, for example – and decide that the law of averages or Lady Luck or something else entirely demands that red is more ‘lucky’ at this time. This is of course untrue. Every spin of the roulette wheel has the exact same odds of landing particular colours or numbers. But a gambler’s fallacy has no predictive power. You can only be certain about what happened in the past and that knowledge has no bearing on what happens next.
Problem gambling or gambling addiction can be hard to categorise. Dr Griffiths explains that many use the criteria set out by the American Psychiatric Association. There are nine in total and meeting four or more of these criteria classifies someone as a pathological gambler. Those meeting between two and four criteria would be described as problem gamblers and those who tick just one or no boxes at all are considered as non-problem gamblers.
Dr Griffiths points out that this kind of categorisation may not work accurately in all cases, with people meeting three criteria not necessarily having a problem. The British Gambling Prevalence survey is built around a different model, one with six criteria that Dr Griffiths feels is more sensitive to nuance and that can be applied to any behaviour, be it sex, video games, gambling, or any other activity that can develop into an addiction.
He goes on to make the distinction between problem gambling and compulsive gambling. The latter term suggests an inability to control the activity – someone gambling because they feel they need to, even if they don’t want to do it. Most problem gamblers, he reports, gamble because they want to. This highlights how difficult it is for academics and researchers to agree on classification at all.
The issue of the social burden of gambling is also discussed. While gambling may not have consequences as visible as those of say, alcohol addiction, it does create a strain on public health services and can lead to criminal behaviour. A gambling addiction may not result in an overdose but it can lead to depression and anxiety. Dr Griffiths feels that more needs to be done to recognise that a gambling problem can cause as much damage as a drug or alcohol problem and the legal system should be cognisant of that.
Dr Griffiths suggests that cutting-edge technology is the next step in player protection. Casino operators, at least those licensed by the UKGC, are already expected to prove that they are doing certain things to keep player protected. Dr Griffiths would like to see machine learning put to use in helping operators make informed decisions about the games they offer, as well as the kind and frequency of their marketing and their placement within the brand.
Griffiths compares player protection features to seat belts – they will hopefully never be needed but will do the job if an accident were to happen. Features like betting limits, self-exclusion and so on may not be needed by casual gamblers but would help a vulnerable person immensely should they require help.
Dr Griffiths believes that British gambling policy is, overall, moving towards liberalisation and taxing gambling is an easy way to fill the state’s coffers without attracting too much negative attention. He does point out, however, that poorer people gamble more of their disposable income, so one could argue that taxation hits lower income earners disproportionately at the end of the day.
With regards to bookmakers – the ones with a physical presence within a neighbourhood – Dr Griffiths argues that a change in their numbers, a decrease or an increase, would have little impact on problem gambling because so many gambling opportunities are available remotely, over the web.
Most people who gamble, just like the majority of those who drink alcohol, do not have a problematic relationship with the activity. Dr Griffiths feels that the UK government’s gambling policy does a lot to prevent those vulnerable to developing a problem from being exploited and helps bring in tax money.
With regards to anti-gambling organisations or groups, Dr Griffiths explains that these are, more often than not, guided by religious belief or through negative personal experience. The UK is a nation of gamblers and casual gambling is accepted and maturely discussed. Imposing rules that make gambling harder will only force it underground. Dr Griffiths believes that if the British public wanted to prohibit gambling, they would show that sentiment at the ballot box. He says that there is a generally neutral sentiment towards the activity, as evidenced by the fact that it has gained little public opposition over the years.
On the subject of fixed odds betting terminals, Dr Griffiths says that bookmakers have been responsive towards the fact that such gambling opportunities can cause people to lose huge amounts of money in a very short space of time. He feels that the addition of fixtures that limit how much players can lose at any one time have helped make it easier for gamblers to keep their spending under control.
The way gambling activities are advertised continues to be a hot topic – such as it being part of a lifestyle or if gambling can help your career e.t.c. Dr Griffiths suggests that an outright ban on advertising is not the answer but rather an ethical, realistic approach should take the lead. Gambling should never be portrayed as a way to solve financial or emotional problems. He is confident that, as long as advertising only reaches an adult audience and it is factually correct, that audience can be trusted to make the right choice.
Dr Griffiths believes that parents need to take some responsibility for helping their children understand the pitfalls of gambling, as it is not possible to completely block out advertising from their view. While television adverts are limited to later hours, there’s no guarantee that a youngster will not see a billboard, flier or ad in a newspaper.