Watch RightCasino.com's editor, Joe Attard, interview academic and gambling expert, Dr Mark Griffiths.
In 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.
You can watch the entire interview below. Alternatively, scroll down to view different parts of our conversation, in which Dr Griffiths focuses on specific topics.
Part 1: gambling in the media
Part 2: British gambling culture
Part 3: social gambling
Part 4: traditional casinos
Part 5: psychology of casino games
Part 6: UK gambling policy
Part 7: problem gambling and addiction
Right Casino: Hi! Today we’re interviewing Dr Mark Griffiths at Nottingham Trent University. Just to start us off Mark, I was hoping you could briefly summarise the kinds of research you do.
Dr Griffiths: Okay. I’ve spent the last twenty seven years studying gambling. My main areas [have] looked at problem gambling. Not that I’m anti-gambling in the slightest. Obviously I think the gaming industry and we as researchers should be concerned about those where gambling affects their lives, their finances, everything that people do. I think what’s amazing in this country is that people often perceive me as being public enemy number one because I research problem gambling. Yet my friends that research problem drinking, no one ever accuses them of being anti-drinking.
There is a culture in this country that if you in any way attack the industry for the products that they put out there and people get into problems, they take it personally. Of course I think we should be working together. Surely in terms of a long term business model, problem gamblers are not good in terms of making profits because they’ve got such short shelf life. I also think that the kind of business models that gambling operators should be doing is instead of using the kind of 90/10 rule where 10% of the customers generate 90% of the profits, they should be going for – if you look at Camelot for instance. They’ve got the vast majority of the population spending small amounts of money and making huge profits and I would like to see that convert to the slot machine industry in the casino sector, bingo sector because I think that would be better for all of us.
Right Casino: Wonderful. Well, we’ve touched on quite a few core points of the interview so let’s try and list those one by one. First off, I’d like to start with some questions about the perceptions about gambling in British media. Over the past year, the mainstream media has been pretty vocal in its criticisms of the gambling industry. The Guardian went with a headline ‘Roulette Machines: The Crack Cocaine of Gambling,’ while the Daily Mail reported ‘A Terrifying Parable of the Addictive Power of Internet Gambling.’ What do you make of this criticism and do you feel it is any way justified?
Dr Griffiths: I think when you talk about the media is that the media’s job is to report news but they like to report bad news. It’s amazing. Whenever I do a piece of research if it’s a good news story, maybe 10% of the papers will pick it up. If it’s a bad news story 90% of the papers will pick it up. Basically misery and bad things sell newspapers.
I don’t think it’s actually they’re anti-gambling. It’s just that they’re anti-everything if it does something wrong within society. Of course there’s some papers like the Daily Mail who the editor’s got a particular thing about gambling and is very anti-gambling. It doesn’t surprise me that the Mail consistently come up with negative stories.
But to be honest it’s very hard to have a positive gambling story. I mean a positive gambling story is usually reflecting big lottery winners, something that usually the companies want to put into the papers. But it doesn’t surprise me that addiction is what sells newspapers. If it’s a gambling addiction then they hope that readers will want to actually read those kinds of things.
Right Casino: Following from that, if it’s the case that it’s substantially harder to put out a positive gambling story versus a negative story, [does] that in any way suggest that negative content is justified? Does it suggest there are fewer positive stories to tell about gambling?
Dr Griffiths: The bottom line is that all research consistently shows that a small minority of gamblers do get into trouble with the activity they’re engaged in. The consequence of that means that the vast majority of people who gamble don’t have any problems at all but that doesn’t sell newspapers. A story that says most people enjoy gambling is not going to make news. Whereas 1% of the population addicted to gambling. I mean I don’t believe there is 1% addicted to gambling. One of the problems we’ve got is when we do studies we actually rarely mention the word addiction. We’ll talk about things like pathological or problem gambling and the press then equates that as equalling addiction.
For instance what’s called the British Gambling Prevalence Survey, which we do every few years’. The latest survey said that 0.9% of Britons have a gambling problem. Press interpreted that as nearly 1% are addicted. The thing is that all gambling addicts are problem gamblers but not all problem gamblers are addicts. Problem gambling could just mean that you spend far too much of your disposable income on gambling but it may not be indicative of addiction. That is one of the problems we’ve got is that the press will use and interchange words to suit their story. I do think we have to contextualise this. I’ve spent over a quarter of a century researching gambling problems and yes we know that a small but significant minority have problems. The number of people that are genuinely addicted in the same way that people are addicted to alcohol or heroin and other things is actually very, very small because there are very key criteria to what addiction actually is.
But of course if somebody turns around and says I’m a problem gambler and then that problem might be that it’s causing relationship problems or it’s causing financial problems that would be defined within the British Gambling Prevalence Survey probably as a problem. But you’d be amazed that the number of problem gamblers who are genuinely addicted to gambling, at least how I define it is actually very, very small.
Right Casino: Okay. Well, we’re going to touch on that issue of addiction. That’s fantastic that we have this kind of summary. Do you think the media is categorically anti-gambling or is it merely critical of the gambling industry in its current form? Is there a capacity for the media to be positive about gambling if it were to change?
Dr Griffiths: I don’t think that the national British press are anti-gambling per say but at the end of the day they are running a business and they have to sell newspapers or they have to get subscriptions online. As I say, I think if you’re pointing out really bad things have happened more people are likely to read that. We as human beings we always like to compare ourselves to other people. In psychology terms we call it social comparison theory. It’s a bit like keeping up with the Jones’. When you read about the misery of somebody else, it makes you feel better and in fact most newspapers stories are about death and destruction and misery and addiction.
These are the kinds of things that editors believe people want to read because it makes people feel better about themselves. I don’t think the British press on the whole is anti-gambling but that’s not to say there aren’t some editors out there that have an anti-gambling stance. I think most people would agree if you look at the Daily Mail coverage over the last six or seven years, it has been really anti-gambling and it really tries to make a mountain out of a molehill.
I’ll give you an example. In 2006 I ended up on the front page of the Daily Mail and the headline was Gambling with a Generation. The first line basically said British psychologist says millions of children will become addicted to gambling. Right now this was just total poppycock.
The journalist was a guy called Tim Shipman who now works at the Washington Post. I said to myself I’m not going to be interviewed by – for instance one of my findings, which was in a study that we did. We found that 4% of all juvenile crime in one particular city was related to slot machine playing. That was then reported as one in four youngsters had committed crimes because of gambling. To take 4% and make it one in four it’s just shocking journalism.
Now as I say, Paul Decker, the editor of the Daily Mail is consistently being kind of anti-gambling and I’m sure that’s why a lot of anti-gambling stories get into the Daily Mail. That doesn’t stop me from being interviewed by them because I like to get my point across. But again if you look at all the stories I personally have been involved with the Daily Mail over the last year, nearly all of them involve things like gambling via Facebook and it’s all about trying to point out that millions of women or children are going to have problems with this activity. Of course I never said that at all but of course one quote can be taken out of context to actually sell that particular story.
Right Casino: The problem is to steer away from any apocalyptic prophesies.
Dr Griffiths: No.
Right Casino: Okay, why do you think gambling is so heavily demonised when arguably more destructive vices like alcohol and junk food escape the same level of scrutiny by the media?
Dr Griffiths: I actually disagree with that. I don’t just research in gambling addictions. I research in most behavioural addictions including things like video game addiction, exercise addiction, sex addiction. My work touches on things like obesity. I was part of the government’s working group on sedentary behaviour.
In terms of what comes out in the papers I can tell you now obesity is one of those things that is just as lambasted as gambling. I don’t believe that gambling is demonised any more. Obviously I think most people accept that alcohol when taken to access is problematic. Most people know that alcohol is potentially an addictive drug.
Now that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be doing it. I mean I drink alcohol. I love drinking alcohol. I think most people who partake actually like that particular activity. But I know that a small proportion of the population get into trouble with it. Gambling is another one of those consumptive behaviours. Like alcohol it’s kind of socially condoned, socially accepted but when taken to access can lead to problems. But I think most people’s conception of alcoholism and heroin addiction versus things like gambling addiction is that I think alcohol and heroin might be seen as more medically legitimate than gambling. I think there are some people out there that would probably say that gambling is that person’s own fault. It’s due to weak will or whatever and they don’t think it’s a genuine problem.
But I would argue is that just like alcohol, gambling is one of those activities. Yes there are individual risk factors but the way that gambling is marketed or advertised, the way the games are actually designed and developed does mean that vulnerable and susceptive individuals can get into problems.
Right Casino: Okay. Why do you think the media is apparently unwilling to regard gambling in moderation as a legitimate form of entertainment? Why isn’t it willing to take that stance?
Dr Griffiths: Again I would disagree that it isn’t willing to take that stance. I think there are loads and loads of gambling stories as I say but most of them tend to be more negative because I believe that’s what they think will sell papers or what people want to read. Sorry, what was the – don’t know where I was going there. What was the question again?
Right Casino: Why do you feel that the media is apparently unwilling to regard gambling in moderation as a legitimate form of entertainment?
Dr Griffiths: Okay. I suppose gambling in moderation is one of those activities that because it costs money for people to do, particularly in the time of the recession where I suppose there’s not a lot of money about. Is that spending your, if you like, your finite leisure pound on gambling rather than something that’s more productive or at least what the papers see as more productive would lead to people viewing that negatively. Now of course in the recession, there are two views about what happens to gambling in a recession. Some people argue that because it’s a recession there’s not a lot of money around so people try to maximise their kind of financial outlay by actually gambling and trying to win more money because they can’t get it through their job.
For other people because they haven’t got much money gambling is an activity that would just drop out of their kind of leisure repertoire because they can’t afford to do it. My guess is both those things cancel each other out. However if you look at for instance the number of new book makers that have sprung up in the last couple of years does suggest that gambling is one of those things that might be recession proof but it doesn’t seem to be negatively affected by the recession.
Right Casino: Having said that, that might very well be true in the UK. We’ve done a separate study – we looked at travel to Las Vegas and they’ve taken an absolute nosedive since the global recession in 2008. It does seem to indicate that casino tourism if you like isn’t recession proof in the way that perhaps…
Dr Griffiths: Oh, there’s a difference between being you know, the example of Las Vegas. I went to Las Vegas in June and I took whole of my family to Caesar’s hotel, Caesar’s Palace and we stayed there. The thing about that of course that cost me £4,000 just to get there before I’m even gambling. If there was a kind of Las Vegas type casino on somebody’s back doorstep, I think even in a recession people would actually flock to go to there. The fact that the number of trips to Las Vegas is down is just the pure prohibited costs of actually getting to Las Vegas in the first place. It’s not to do with gambling in itself.
Right Casino: Okay, last question about media coverage.
Dr Griffiths: Okay.
Right Casino: What do you make of media outlets, such as The Sun, that condemn gambling in its coverage but sanction it as a business opportunity by running a bingo platform? Isn’t this just blatant hypocrisy?
Dr Griffiths: Okay, well it’s just totally hypocritical. Any newspaper that’s anti-gambling and then actually profits from people gambling either through their website or through some kind of their product is just – I can’t think of another word other than hypocrisy.
Right Casino: That was what we felt as well. Glad you agree there.
Right Casino: Now we’re going to ask a few questions about gambling and popular culture, particularly in Britain. What do you feel is unique about gambling culture in the United Kingdom?
Dr Griffiths: To be honest, I’m very lucky that I travel around the world and I see lots of different gambling cultures and I wouldn’t actually say Britain is unique in any way. Right Casino: Really?
Dr Griffiths: I think the perception from abroad is that Britain has always been a nation of gamblers.
Right Casino: Really?
Dr Griffiths: Now, yes. The most interesting and most profound change that I’ve noticed since I came to this area was when the national lottery was introduced in 1994. We suddenly had an activity that two thirds of the British public were gambling on. Even though most people if you say to them do you gamble? They’ll say no. And say do you play the lottery and they say yes. It’s quite obvious there is a kind of mismatch between people viewing playing the lottery as a form of gambling.
But what the lottery did is it made gambling more socially acceptable. It made it more socially condoned and what you got was this kind of drip, drip, drip effect. The lottery came in and of course immediately the football polls and the bingo were basically saying you’ve taken some of our customers away. You’re not letting us advertise on television. We’ve got to have an equal playing field. So the government in terms of liberalisation and deregulation allowed bingo and football polls to advertise in print media, radio, TV.
Then of course you’ve got other parts of the industry saying hang on a minute. Why are scratch cards being advertised in the middle of Coronation Street? You the Home Office have just said, the hard forms of gambling are those which have high or rapid staking. Well scratch cards can have high or rapid staking. You’re already allowing that to be advertised every half an hour on ITV so why can’t we advertise our products?
Of course this led then to the Gambling Act. There were many, many years of people like myself being interviewed about various aspects of things. Gambling now I think is a highly sociably acceptable activity. Of course now with online opportunities the fact that people can gamble remotely from their mobile phones, from interactive television, through the Internet. It’s absolutely everywhere. It’s actually endemic within British culture now.
We were one of the first countries that actually legalised Internet gambling. We’re actually saying that we are a progressive, proactive nation. We can’t put the genie back in a bottle. This idea of America trying to ban Internet gambling was just absolutely ludicrous. Britain has actually taken a very progressive stance, a proactive stance. It’s tried to literally grab the nettles and try to sort this problem out.
It’s quite clear that we are a gambling nation because our successive governments have basically said people do want to gamble. We’ll give them opportunities to gamble. But you as operators now have to put into place harm minimisation measures, player protection measures, responsible gambling features so that the harm can be kept to a minimum.
My perception is that I don’t think we’re unique. I’m very lucky because I do travel from country to country seeing gambling cultures. I think what we do have in this country is that we’re a lot more relaxed and tolerant of other people gambling even if we don’t gamble ourselves. There’s a big anti-gambling significant minority faction out there. They’re often a lot of faith groups. People that have been affected by gambling themselves. You’ll get that with alcohol. You’ll get that with other kinds of illicit drugs. Gambling is no different. But I think honestly in twenty years, the nation’s heartbeat on gambling has really softened. Most people now, if you include the lottery, most people gamble rather than not gamble.
Right Casino: Okay. I suppose this is somewhat related to the previous question. How do you think the public perceives different forms of gambling? Is our perception of bingo and poker different say to our perception of roulette and slots ? Do people have different feelings towards different games, different practices?
Dr Griffiths: We know for a fact that people think differently about different games. Of course there are some people that for instance play the lottery that never dream of engaging in any of the gambling activity apart from maybe a once a year bet on the Grand National. There are some things that are perceived as kind of bringing people together. Buying lottery tickets, buy the odd scratch card, betting on the Derby or the Grand National.
Those kinds of things we’re almost expected to have aflutter on. The amount parents that give their children say right, here’s one pound to gamble on the Grand National. Which horse do you want to choose?
Right Casino: Mine did.
Dr Griffiths: Yes, those kinds of things are socially acceptable. People do them. There is a big difference between that and for instance going into a casino and spending all night playing poker or blackjack or sitting there playing a slot machine. We know that a number of people that frequent casinos is very, very small.
Less than 5% of the British public will have gone into a casino in the year. It just shows you that’s a very low prevalence activity. Although of course casinos in and of themselves are generating lots and lots of profit, which suggests that a small amount of people are generating this profit of which a proportion will obviously be problem gamblers as well.
Now in terms of how the public think about different activities, of course I do think this is where the media can have a role sometimes. For instance we’ve seen a lot of stories over the last year about fixed all the betting terminals in betting shops. They have been painted out by the media to be the most addictive things ever and it will all probably put some people off ever wanting to play those things in the first place because of the amount that it could cost them and how much money you can lose very, very quickly.
Now the thing about this is that my attitude is if you’re a gambler and you want to gamble on something, you should have all the information up front to make an informed choice about whether you’re going to play or not.
Now I’m sure when I talk later about how and why some people become addicted, there is quite clearer an association between problem gambling and fixed odds betting terminals. But we have to take the point that it’s not the game itself, it’s how those games are designed. I’ll come to that later on in the interview because I know we’re going to cover that.
Right Casino: Thank you very much! In your research, what have you learned about different gambling demographics? Are people of a certain age or gender inclined to gamble on certain games? Dr Griffiths: I think when we look at anything to do with the demographics of gambling is that what we know is that it differs [from] culture to culture. Here in the UK what we tend to find is that the only activity that’s played more by women than men is bingo. There are two activities - lotteries and scratch cards - that are played equally by men and women. Every single other activity tends to be played more by men than women.
Having said that I think those kinds of differences between the games are going to diminish over the years and will become a bit like alcohol. Forty years ago most men drank. It was mostly men that were alcoholics. Now what we see is just as many women drink as men. The only difference is the types of drinks that people tend to get addicted to and I think this is what will happen in gambling. I think what’s happening now there’s a real push to bring for instance women to play online bingo. We know that women love playing bingo so what the online firms have done, they’ve decided we don’t want to alienate half of our potential customers. So why don’t we bring them into game? We know they like playing offline and bring an online dimension, allow them to chat to each other. Make it kind of a social fun.
But of course in terms of online is that the games tend to be a lot faster. The event frequency is higher. There is actually a more potential for people to develop problems in those kinds of online environments because of the event frequency. We also know that men kind of gravitate more towards skill-based games and women tend to prefer chance-based games. But again this is cultural. Now in this country for instance, we are the only country in the world where men are more likely to play slot machines than women. You go to most other places and it pretty much is equal in terms of the number of males and females gambling say in America on a slot machines. The thing about our slot machines over here of course is that we are the only country in the world that actually have slot machines that don’t use a random number generator and for people that know what they’re doing there is a small element of skill in playing a British slot machine. People can literally watch the machine fill up with other people’s money, then come in and actually get the pay out from it.
We actually tracked down the patent in this country and found that British slot machines use what’s called adaptive logic. They have what’s called a compensator. Now the reason for this is that in this country particularly kind of what we call single site machines. The machines that are at cafes, chip shops, movie foyers, etc. These single site machines were often what kept the business afloat. Now if you use a random number generator, kind of RNG techniques that are used abroad, they’re on kind of a yearly pay out cycle.
The thing is the shops, chip shops, cafes can’t wait a year before they get profits back. They have to have a regular set of profits being paid back. What happens instead of the kind of cycles of probability being based on millions and millions of spins, here in this country they are on hundreds of thousands, which does mean if you watch a machine fill up with £300 of other people’s money that machine does have to pay out in the short term and so called sharking, backstabbing, skimming, a whole load of names is built up with people that come in and basically take those people’s money.
For me that is a skilful element even though essentially slot machines are still on the whole chance determined. If people understand British slot machines versus American slot machines is you will realise there’s an element of skill, which is why I think here in Britain young males like playing slot machines because they see it as akin to a kind of videogame. It’s a skill based game that if you know everything you can do better. But abroad these are totally chance determined, which is why both men and women will play them.
What we know is that culturally there are differences based on how particular products are designed. We know that males and females tend to gravitate towards different types of activity with men more skill based and women more chance based. There’s also an age factor as well. We know for instance that online gambling is very much the domain of those aged between eighteen and thirty four. You get a much higher proportion of younger people gambling via the Internet. Of course these are people that have been brought up in this technological culture.
I look at my three screen-agers. They have never known a world with the Internet, without mobile phone, without interactive television. My children will be the gamblers of tomorrow, they will actually partake in gambling in areas where and [through] mediums with which they’re familiar. The typical fifty year-old either doesn’t trust or is not very familiar with the online world.
My mother before she died she still couldn’t even program the video. She never even turned on a computer. Someone like her is not going to be able to gamble online. Of course all people, like my own kids, were using state of the art technology from three or four years old, you can imagine them being the gamblers of tomorrow and wanting to gamble with the things that they find most comfortable and actually trust.
Right Casino: Absolutely. In your view is there disparity between the way the gambling industry represents female gamblers throughout advertising and the actual gambling habits of women? Does this come down to a degree of chauvinism inherent in gambling culture?
Dr Griffiths: It’s quite clear that traditionally females have not been big gamblers. Even when they do gamble, if they go along to bingo it’s more for the social element rather than to win money. What bingo halls have done, they’ve kind of got linked jackpots now. They’ve made the jackpot prize much bigger. What that has done is brought younger females into play who are actually more money motivated than being socially motivated. But interestingly it’s brought more men in.
Again by increasing a jackpot size, if you go into a typical bingo hall now you’d probably around about a fifth of the people in there are actually males. Twenty years ago it was probably 99% females and what was stereotypically called the Blue Rinse Brigade. You go in now and you see the spread of females is right down to kind of eighteen right up to those in their mid-seventies. This is all because if you like the structural characteristics of the activity have changed. Whereas before you might win the equivalent to a can of beans now you can win thousands and thousands of pounds through a linked jackpot playing right across the country.
Obviously if I was running a gambling operation what I don’t want to do is alienate half of my potential customers. Of course what people are doing now is feminising their products. What are the bookmakers doing? Instead of having a bet on who’s going to win a particular league it’ll be who’s going to be next evicted from the Big Brother house? Who’s going to win an Oscar this year? Who’s going to be evicted from I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here! They’re going to choose activities that they think females will have an opinion on and might actually want to have a bet on as well.
It’s not just a case of bringing in online bingo and actually catering for activities that females traditionally play anyway. You’ve got to bring activities that you think females might actually have a view on and actually want to engage in. I think we’ll see this right across the industry.
The real blocks for or one of the barriers for women at the moment is that there are a lot of gambling environments [that] are seen as very male biased and male based. If you walk into a typical casino if you look at the people actually gambling probably 90% of them are men. There may be other women around watching, having a drink, watching their partner play or whatever. But people find those environments very male dominated. As a result of that, women actually gambling in what they perceive to be male environments like a bookmakers or like a casino is something that women may feel stigmatises them, or they feel alienated from it.
Of course what some casinos are doing and we’ve noticed it here in Nottingham they have female nights, women nights only. Women can come in. They get a free meal if they come and then they can play and gamble in the casino. I do think most sectors within the industry are starting to realise there are 100% of people out there. Why are we only catering for 50% of them? I think you’ll find lots and lots of advertising, marketing, just different ways of gambling to bring that female audience in.
Right Casino: Okay. How is the increase in the number of celebrity endorsements affecting the gambling industry? Take Shane Warne’s affiliation with 888 casino. Ray Winston’s voiceover for Bet 365. Does the fact that a known figure is openly endorsing gambling, say on television or the Internet, through various media outlets make gambling seem acceptable?
Dr Griffiths: Certainly celebrity endorsement in any area of selling something is seen to be something that will bring the punters in or bring the buyers in some way. To be honest firms wouldn’t spend hundreds of thousands of pounds paying people to do it if they didn’t think it had an effect. Now with gambling it can work very well for you and it can actually go really wrong.
The most classic case where a celebrity was used where actually resulted in people having a downturn in gambling is when Billy Connolly advertised the national lottery. At the time he was purple bearded. He was somebody that was in a series of commercials wanting people to play lottery. What Camelot found in their research was that yes, there was high recognisability and high recall for the advertising campaigns but it actually put people off wanting to gamble on their products.
Now obviously people like Shane Warne and 888.com is that they’re trying to portray a particular image. Here’s somebody that is well known all around the world, international star, okay? It’s basically saying if you come to 888 you’re identifying with Shane Warne as an individual. In effect you’re trying to say I want to be something like Shane Warne. A successful man who’s wealthy, got a beautiful girlfriend, etc., etc.
Ray Winston. If you look at him in terms of the typical sports better they probably chosen Ray because he’s got that kind of regional dialect, London accent. He’s basically Joe Public in terms of how he comes across but he’s been incredibly successful.
The in play betting market is the fastest growing market in this country. Who are the most successful firms? It’s Bet 365. Even my twelve year old son, right? When we’re watching a sports match now, what does he do? He tries to guess what Ray Winston’s bet is going to be during the halftime. He’ll go ‘I bet he’s going to say that Rooney’s 2 to 1 score the next goal.’ That has become so endemic that even my own teenage children recognise him, recognise what he’s doing. So they’re an important part.
Now for some people there are always going to be celebrities that put them off gambling on a particular product and also there are things when things go horribly wrong. We had the example for instance, Churchill Insurance and we had Vic Reaves who was the voiceover. Then he was done for drink driving. Of course being in the insurance firm the Churchill were paying out on car accidents. They couldn’t have him as the voice anymore.
There’s always a thing in terms of reputation management. There’s an old cliché that reputation takes a lifetime to build up but a second to destroy. Whenever you get any kind of celebrity endorsements yes they can have a real halo effect for a while but if something goes wrong then that might actually hit on the product as well. Gambling is always going to have that image problem.
My guess is that Shane Warne is not somebody that is controversy free. There are things around him in terms of wild nights and spending too much, blah, blah, blah. Now that might actually be appealing to a small amount of audience and maybe 888 have done their research and realised that he’s going to attract the kind of customer that they want. But celebrity endorsements are here to stay. There’s nothing that’s going to stop them doing it. People do believe that it makes a massive difference in terms of uptake and acquisition of that activity. It’s not something I condemn. All I would say is I’m not anti-gambling in the slightest but I am anti-adolescent gambling. I think where you’ve got celebrities – my son’s a cricket fan. Knows who Shane Warne is. We sit and for many years now and watched IPL cricket. Shane Warne was captain of Rajasthan Royals.
But him promoting gambling if it’s done during a time where children are actively watching I think that has negative effects for children. As far as I’m concerned gambling is an adult activity. It’s got a right to be marketed and advertising but it should be done and targeted at times where adults are watching rather than children.
Right Casino: Right. Now we’re going to move onto a pretty hot topic, especially in online gambling and that’s social playing or social gambling. For users social gambling is services where you gain real cash using social media platforms. So popular games are poker, bingo , online slots and so on and so forth. Social gambling is a relatively new phenomenon. How do you feel that it will develop? Do you think it will remain limited to relatively few services or does social play represent the future of online gambling?
Dr Griffiths: I think looking at social gambling everybody’s watching everybody else at the moment. When Bingo Frenzy was launched in August 2012 almost every sector as looking to see whether this particular game was going to take off on the Facebook platform.
Now I looked at a crystal ball and say what I think is going to happen in the future but I think the issue is actually bigger than social gambling / social gaming. What is happening of course is that almost every area that you work in now people are trying to monetise their products. What we’re seeing now is convergence between lots of different platforms. I was writing articles ten years ago [where] I was predicting that gambling companies were going to start using videogame technology. That videogame companies were going to start bringing gambling elements into their game and that’s starting to happen.
The fact is that Facebook is another platform that’s kind of come to the floor in the last few years. Of course if you’re an operator and you know that there are millions of people spending lots of time every day on a particular platform anyone with any nous about them would think ‘we need to get our products in there.’
Now in a way what a lot of the companies do particularly on social gaming platforms is that they use foot in the door techniques. They get people used to playing particular types of games. For instance something like Zynga’s Texas Hold ‘Em Poker, one of the most popular games on Facebook, around about thirty five million people playing it every single month. I know that’s a worldwide figure but that’s a huge amount of people playing basically playing for points, okay? They buy their virtual cash and then they play poker.
Now to me this is a psychological masterstroke. The idea that you get people to pay for virtual currency to then play a game and we know that millions of people do it. If I was saying the kind of next thing to add on is look, you’ve been buying all this virtual currency. We can give you an opportunity now to actually use your real currency and you might even – by using virtual currency you know you’ve lost that money. There’s no way of getting it back. But of course bringing in real gambling, people have the chance to win that back.
Now what’s bizarre is when you see things like PKR who started having virtual accessories that people could buy. So while people were playing poker you could buy credits to have people buy alcohol while around the table. This is happening in all forms of online gaming social gaming - the virtual accessory market is worth millions and millions. This is a case where people will gladly pay money to dress their avatars up in particular types of clothing. This could easily be transferred to online poker rooms for instance where you create your avatar and you get people to start playing.
Of course to bring in the real money element in is something that every operator would want to do because that’s where the biggest profits will be. Now [the problem with] saying ‘where do I think things are going to be in twenty years time’ is that ten years ago I could not have – things like Facebook - I would never have dreamed that something like a social networking site would have taken off in the way that it has and revolutionised gaming [and] has the potential to revolutionise gambling. It’s just one of those things again in terms of marketing, it’s a marketer’s dream because here’s a platform where we know lots of women predominate. We know that loads of women spend loads of time on Facebook chatting to their friends, playing Candy Crush or whatever.
What we’ve got is a situation that if we want to bring out a gambling product, we can use one of these foot in the door techniques to get people who are already gaming and playing for free and playing for points, we can also offer them opportunities to gamble as well. Of course what companies are starting to do is play the game for free but win real money.
Again a classic foot in the door technique is getting people familiar to the game. Getting people in a no risk situation where they can play for nothing and potentially win prizes. When they win prizes they feel great. That reinforces them.
The whole thing about human behaviour is we actually stop engaging in behaviour unless we get constantly rewarded for it. Now every social game that I can think of from Candy Crush through to Texas Hold ‘Em Poker is a game that’s full of reinforcement and rewards. Now for most people that will result in persistent play and for a small minority persistent play might lead to problems.
As a psychologist I can see how psychological techniques can be exploited and a small proportion of people that are vulnerable and susceptible can be sucked into that and develop problems. Now that’s a kind of moral question whether you should be doing that or not but we get that in all walks of life.
Now your basic question: is social gambling going to take off? The answer we just don’t know yet but my guess is that you’re going to see more and more convergence just between gaming and gambling anyway. There’ll be lots more opportunities for people within gaming environments to have a little flutter and there’ll be lots more gambling environments, sorry a lot more videogame environments that will start to introduce those gambling type elements. The kind of cannibalisation of all these fields.
When I started researching back in 1986 – 1987 I was researching gambling addiction. Early nineties I started doing videogame addiction. Then 1994 Internet addiction. Now video-gaming, gambling, Internet they’ve all combined. Everybody can do it on the same device. I remember in 1990 talking about something I called the teleputer that people carried around with them that they could phone on, that they could do everything in terms of what a computer could do. To watch television. I said you know maybe one of these would be available in fifty or a hundred years’ time. It’s basically taken twenty years for this technology to be there.
People talk about Internet gambling even that now is just an obsolete term. We’re talking about remote gambling that can be done on any tablet, any mobile, any device. Anyone got online capability that’s linked up to a social networking platform and you can advertise to people on the move. The basic rule of thumb is where you increase accessibility not only do you increase the number of regular users of an activity but you increase the number of problems as well. What we need of course is a kind of social responsibility infrastructure in place that can help us with those vulnerable and susceptible individuals. I really wish I could give you a definitive answer on whether social gambling is going to be a big thing in ten or twenty years. We just don’t know. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is but my guess is that the gambling and gaming field will have moved on by then anyway.
Right Casino: Okay it’s almost a shame you didn’t take out a patent on the invention of the tele-computer twenty years ago. Of course media convergence is a process that’s happening across all entertainment industries. It was predicted in the eighties. I was interested though, you’re talking about the kind of natural logical progression between these foot in the door game services where you begin playing free, become familiar with the rules of play, transitioning seamlessly or ideally seamlessly to real money play where you’re actually rewarded for your play. But one of the biggest players in free to play online poker, Zynga exited the market with their tail between their legs after attempting to obtain a real money gambling license. Now they’re completely pulling back on plans to expand into real money play. So it seems like the market isn’t yet as stable as it should be, which as you say it seems like it should be a match made in heaven but it doesn’t seem to be as straightforward as that. Do you have any idea why that might be the case?
Dr Griffiths: Comes down to jurisdiction by jurisdiction in terms of what they’re prepared to allow. Britain as far as I’m aware is the first country in the world that’s legally allowed gambling companies to operate products through Facebook. Every other jurisdiction is looking to us in terms of whether this is causing any legal problems, whether there’s any psychosocial impact. That’s why we can’t kind of second guess.
The bottom line is that anyone operating in any sector, whether you’re the mobile gaming sector, mobile gambling, Internet, interactive television is it’s all about monetising the products you already have. Obviously the freemium models with games like Candy Crush for me this was where gambling is going to go because what you’re going to do – you going to give people hours and hours of fun playing for absolutely nothing. But of course if people want those extra levels or those extra experience they have to pay for them. Of course what the gambling operator will start to do is you’re already paying for these extra levels for effectively a virtual asset or something that’s virtual. Why don’t we give you a chance to win the money back that you’ve played with?
I can see companies if they’re allowed to do it and being able to do that. But like you say, there will be some jurisdictions that just decide we’re not going to allow that. This is the thin end of the wedge. We don’t believe – they might take the view that social networking environments are basically predominated by adolescents. Therefore we don’t want if you like adult activities on those. I think that’s going to be very hard to do.
I do foresee a time in twenty years’ time that social networking as we know it now is still around. Gambling will be endemic. But my guess is that the types of gambling that people do will probably have changed and evolved. We couldn’t have imagined twenty years ago that we’d have things like in play betting. That simply couldn’t happen without something like cloud computing. The fact that Bet 365 can take two or million calls in an ad break during a football match, there just wasn’t the technological capability to do that. Not even five years ago.
And now of course in a way I’ve always said this. In terms of technological revolution the two industries that always capitalise on it first are the sex industry and the gambling industry. They learn how to use these new technologies to monetise their products. Of course as soon as we had the Internet, it was online porn and online gambling that were the first two activities to basically monetise their products and everything that they do.
Right Casino: Obviously social gambling is a young industry so this might be hard to answer and leads to speculation here. But how has social gambling impacted on gambling habits in general?
Dr Griffiths: Right. In terms of how social gambling might impact on habits there aren’t enough people doing it at the moment to make any kind of guess about how it’s impacting in other areas of their lives. With all of these things there seems to be tipping points. In terms of social networking and the whole phenomenon, obviously when it was just operating within a kind of college university environment on a very local level, it came to a point where suddenly it just tipped out of that particular domain and went almost exponential.
That could happen in terms of social gambling. I don’t see it happening any time soon just because the number of companies that are investing in wanting to move their products from the pure social gaming market into the social gambling market. They’re still very much looking around thinking - you pointed out with Zynga. Well, in fact take someone like Bet Win for instance. They put fifty million dollars aside to set up their social gambling division. As far as I know they’re not being allowed to do it at the moment. In fact I did hear one report they were thinking of not even going with that market at all now. In terms of what happened in Britain with Bingo Frenzy, it didn’t really take off in a way that people thought it would.
The bottom line is if companies can make money from games where people are not actually gambling, they’ll continue to do that. But my guess is that you always want as many products in your portfolio as possible. But really those kinds of questions are best to ask someone in the industry rather than somebody like myself, outside looking in. Yes, I can see trends that happen but there are things like social networking that honestly ten years ago I could never have seen coming.
Right Casino: Well in that case hopefully this question will be – more within your arena to answer.
Dr Griffiths: Okay.
Right Casino: Is there any proof that free casino style games on social media act as a gateway to real money gambling? And moreover are children that play these free games more likely to gamble in later life?
Dr Griffiths: Okay there’s a number of issues there. The first one and there’s at least three or four studies now showing that one of the major risk factors for children gambling and children’s problem gambling is playing free games. That’s both free games on for instance a legitimate online gambling site that allows kids to play demonstration mode or a free play practice round. Also games like Texas Hold ‘Em Poker on social networking sites. Parents will often buy credits for their children, let them play and they’re actually not winning any money. But of course what they are doing [is] those kids are being socially conditioned, behaviourally conditioned to actually know all the rules of the game, know how to play.
Of course anecdotally I know a number of children who just can’t wait to be old enough to play on poker sites for instance. They’ve been playing for points for so long, being very good at it at least in their opinion and wanting to be able to monetise their skills and make money from that.
Going back to the original point, is there any evidence that playing free games is in any way dangerous? All the studies that I’m aware and okay there’s only been three or four. But all of them have showed that playing free games is the number one risk factor of problem gambling in adolescence.
It’s one of the things I work with many, many online gaming companies and what I’ve told them is that even for their free games it should actually be high in the registration process. There’s been a feeling that we shouldn’t worry that kids are playing for free. You’re not losing any money but they’re learning the rules of the game. They’re being socially and behaviourally conditioned to play gambling type games and of course what we know is that some companies they operate what I would call a socially irresponsible process. They’re making the kind of free and practice demonstration modes the chances of winning there are much higher than when you actually gamble on the real site.
There’s two things that I’ve said to operators they need to do. One is whatever the odds of playing your real games they have to be reflected in the free play games as well. People play them all day and they realise I only win 20% of the time that has to be transferred between the free play and the real play. The second thing is that when you register is that even free games should be behind the registration. Even to play the free games you have to register. Most companies particularly the ones I work with have very strict age verification techniques. It’s very hard for children to actually gamble on their own.
Having said that we know that there are parents out there that happily let their children gamble along with them. While that’s happening of course children learn the passwords and whatever for adult’s accounts. We also know there are some evidence that younger children use the debit and credit cards of older siblings to gamble on these types of things.
For me having written two books on adolescent gambling. I’ve spent well over twenty years studying adolescent gathering in all its forms. Social gambling and social gaming and being able to play for free is one of the things that I do have concerns about because it does seem to be that playing free games is as you as a gateway for some people to develop problems with gambling.
Right Casino: And for the sake of lay-people, I know you say that there have already been a small number of studies conducted but without having if you like empirical addiction figures given that social gambling is quite a new industry, how are these risk factors measured?
Dr Griffiths: Right. We do an adolescent national gambling survey. Typically [we] survey around about between eight thousand and eleven thousand children. It’s done on a representative school-based survey. We ask them about their lottery playing habits, their slot machine playing habits, we ask them about their social media use, social networking, etc. What we do then is that we can obviously separate out people into different risk groups of non-gamblers, social gamblers, at risk gamblers, and problem gamblers. We use what’s called the DSM criteria, which is the American Psychiatric Association criteria to measure problem and pathological gambling. Obviously this has been adapted for a child or adolescence audience.
The current figure, I mean the great news in terms of adolescent gambling is that the trend is downwards. For instance in the year 2000 the number of problem gamblers amongst the adolescent community and that is eleven to fifteen year old age group is 5%. In 2009, sorry in 2006 it had gone down to 3%. The latest survey showed it’s down to 2% in terms of problem gambling. Of those thousands of children that are interviewed for those national studies the current rate is down from what it was ten years ago but it’s still 2%, which is more than twice the adult problem gambling prevalence rate.
But when we look at those 2% of children that have problems, what we do we use a technique called multiple regression where we throw everything into the mix. We throw their socio-demographic features. Everything that we can think of is thrown into the mix and what comes out of that is the things that basically predict what is causing or has an association with problem gambling. The number one risk factor for problem gambling in the eleven to fifteen age group is playing free games. Either through a legitimate gambling website where they’re playing a demonstration game or playing free games via Facebook.
Right Casino: Isn’t there a slight contradiction there? It seems that the prevalence of free online games is adversely proportional, sorry. Inversely proportional to the number of younger adolescent people with a prevalence or predilection towards problem gambling? I mean you’d think that given that are a greater variety of free games now available, we’d see an increase.
Dr Griffiths: Increase in?
Right Casino: In the number of adolescent problem gamblers.
Dr Griffiths: The problem gamblers – we’re only looking at two main activities, which is the lottery and slot machines.
Right Casino: Oh I see, okay.
Dr Griffiths: The issue there is one of the things I’ve argued is we may be starting to witness a displacement effect of children not going into amusement arcades or trying to buy a scratch card or a lottery ticket from a newsagent. They do things from their tablet, from their mobile phone. But the problem is that the way that particular survey is done. It’s funded by the National Lottery Commission. They’re most interested in children’s lottery playing. Slot machines have always been examined because they have been the activity in terms of commercial activity. The only activity that they can legally do in terms of playing at seaside towns and family leisure centres.
When we’re talking about problem gambling, we’re not measuring problem gamblers in terms of their social gaming because that’s not an activity that’s even looked at at the moment in the context of those studies.
Right Casino: So do you feel if those figures were factored in then we would have a more realistic view of the gaming habits of the youth in Britain? The figures might paint a different story.
Dr Griffiths: Well no because children are still in a position they can’t really gamble through social media yet. There’s just not – we wouldn’t have a higher – at the moment we don’t have a higher prevalence of problem gambling.
My guess is that what kids do now is they do lots of things on Facebook. I look at my own kids. I get all my best ideas from my kids. I can’t see any of my three kids at the moment would find gambling something they would want to do but they would definitely play lots and lots of games and want money to download apps. I think that the gambling add-on is something that will come to them when they’re older.
But no, I don’t think – I think those figures are representative of the fact that lots of companies like Camelot for instance have really tightened up in stopping children being able to gamble. There are now less opportunities for children for instance to gamble on slot machines. A lot of the single site premises have disappeared. You would expect to find a decrease.
But of course I think what’s happened is that we’ve also seen that the prevalence of children playing the lottery, children playing slot machines has diminished over the last ten years. My argument for that is it’s being displaced by children playing videogames, playing online roleplaying games, playing games on social media platforms.
Right Casino: In an essay on livecasino.co.uk we put forward two perspectives. On the one hand social gambling normalises gambling, thrusting an obscene vice into the public domain. But on the other hand you could argue that this more transparent social experience means individuals with a tendency towards problem pl