Land-based casinos: Dr Mark Griffiths interview part four

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Land-based casinos: Dr Mark Griffiths interview part four

In this, fourth part of Right Casino’s extended interview with Dr Mark Griffiths, we focus on traditional, land-based casinos in Britain. We ask Dr Griffiths, why do only 5% of Britons visit casinos annually? Is there any possibility of a domestic gambling resort – a Vegas UK – on British shores?

Interview transcript

Right Casino: Okay. So now I’m going to ask you a few questions about physical casinos in Britain. What is your view on British casinos branching out into Vegas style leisure and entertainment complexes? How do you feel the British casinos [have] evolved as a social space?

Dr Griffiths: The only stance there is here where I’m lucky because I travel all over the world and I see lots of casinos all over the world. When my international visitors come over here and I have to take them to a British casino, Nottingham here we’ve got five casinos. We’re actually very lucky. We have outside London I think the biggest proportion of casinos outside of London. They cannot believe how small our casinos are, how limited it is in terms of what you can do in our casinos.

Of course if we want to compete on the international stage and bring in the kind of Atlantic City or Las Vegas type experience we’re going to have to radically change our casino structure because at the moment even the biggest ones you could fit twenty or thirty of them into a typical type Las Vegas type casino.

Now obviously what the Gambling Act did, that was a step for me in the right direction in a sense that casinos became a place where people go to do lots of different things. Now I go – I now probably go to my casino once every six months. I do it less now. But when I go I go in and have my cheap cordon bleu meal, okay? It might be a tenner for really good quality food at a really cheap price. Slightly subsidised pints. They’re cheaper than in the pub. I’ll have two hours at the roulette table. When I walk out at the end of the evening I may have been in there four or five hours usually with friends, often with international visitors when I go. I walk out at the end of the night and I’ve probably spent £35, £40. That’s actually cheaper than me watching Nottingham Forest lose. It’s actually cheaper than me watching Noel Gallagher at the area. For a night out to be fed, drunk, and have a good time £35, £40 compared to the things that I do is actually really good value. But I’m buying entertainment.

The thing is there is difference between those people who go casinos because all they want to do is win money and people like myself who want a lovely social experience with friends that if I win is a complete bonus. We’re in a situation now in this country where we could have had super casinos in this country and it was all because when Gordon Brown came in he was basically anti-gambling and decided that the one super casino that had been given to Manchester was going to go by the wayside.

Now people were really surprised that the super casino was even going to go to Manchester in the first place. But I think one of the reasons it went to Manchester because people like me, myself and a guy called Paul Bowring. We were the co-founders Gam Care. We designed their social responsibility policy. I think the Labour government didn’t want to bring in a super casino and have loads of people ending up with problems. They chose the site and the operators that would have the best infrastructure in terms of player protection, harm minimisation and social responsibility.

I was very proud to be part of that bid and everyone thought it would go to Blackpool or it would go to Sheffield or whatever. It went to Manchester and I think people actually did read the bids and they thought about the longer term psycho-social impacts of casinos.

Now I think at some point any government is going to realise if we want people to come to Britain and we want to compete on the international stage is that we’re going to have to have super casinos. People do like to gamble. Now what I’ve said is that what you don’t have is super casinos built right in the centre of a town. One of the things that Blackpool things that are going against their bid was that the casino where it was going to be placed was in one of the most socially deprived areas.

For me you have to have an out of town thing that people have to make a dedicated decision that they want to go. Now when I go to Las Vegas, okay I’m lucky that I go there for academic reasons as well. Basically most people that go to Las Vegas they know that they’re going there to gamble. When you walk into a casino, you know that you’re going to gamble. People have made a pre-commitment, a previous decision that’s what they’re going to do.

So in terms of this country I can see definitely a future Conservative or Labour government introducing maybe four to six super casinos across the country as something that will bring in tourists and actually will be something that will regenerate some of those areas.

As I said, I’m not anti-gambling in the slightest and if you like, if there’s a – what can you call it? If there’s a desire for people to gamble and they want to gamble on those types of things – why do we have so many people going to Las Vegas? Because we don’t get that over here. It’s a completely different culture experience. My guess is if we had those super casinos here people would go in droves to gamble there.

Right Casino: I mean the word on the street seems to be actually that people are gambling less in Vegas. They’re still going. The number of tourists every year is actually increasing since the doldrums of 2008. But the motivation behind the visits are less gambling and more sort of holistic travel entertainment family holidays.

Dr Griffiths: No, I went there for a family holiday. Obviously my kids couldn’t gamble so what did we do? We went to the Grand Canyon. We went to the Hoover Dam. There are loads of things around there that don’t involve gambling. But I was there on Memorial weekend. Of course that was mostly young people age eighteen to thirty who were just there to gamble and that’s all they were there to do. But of course there are other places.

I went to Macao last year. That is just – that is not a place in recession. Every year, year on year [an] increase in terms of people going there to gamble. What do Macao do differently? They have far more table games in proportion to slots whereas in Las Vegas it’s predominately slot machines. Maybe it’s the case people want different types of gambling experience and Las Vegas has to move and realise there are different ways that people gamble now.

Traditionally it’s always been that slots make the money. But Macao has shown you that you can have a much, much greater proportion of table games and still be highly profitable.

Right Casino: Okay.

Dr Griffiths: We did some research for some of the Canadian gaming organisations back in the mid-2000s. We talked about what we called a centralised gaming model, which is basically destination resort gambling. Saying it in a way that probably the most socially responsible way of controlling gambling is having a Mecca for people to come where there are just dozens and dozens of casinos. That’s what people go to Las Vegas for is to see all the sights and sounds and experience the culture.

We could do something like this in this country but my kind of proviso that is has to be outside of a major city. It has to be somewhere that people effectively have got to travel to so they make a pre-commitment to do it. For me I think it’s much better for instance to have maybe a thousand slot machines housed in a small number of locations rather than having two or three in lots and lots spread all over a particular city.

I think the problem we’ve got of course we’ve got lots of what I call ambient gambling experiences now. Where you could be going into one premises, so let’s say to get some chips but you end up gambling. You didn’t go in there to gamble but because there happens to be a gambling opportunity in there you take that kind of impulse of I think I’ll have a go on that.

The thing about a casino or a bingo hall or amusement arcade or a bookmakers [is] when you walk in you know that you’ve gone into that particular location to gamble. So the idea of having a destination resort that has maybe fifteen to twenty different casinos I’m not anti that at all.

What you do have to think about though is the local indigenous population because those people are going to live there all the time. What are you going to do to protect those people in terms of gambling problems? You look at Las Vegas, why do the people who actually live in Las Vegas have the highest proportion of gambling problems in the world? Because they have absolute accessibility and saturation of gambling products in that area.

Right Casino: As you remember the Labour government’s 2005 plans for a series of super casinos would have precipitated a shift to Vegas style complexes but these plans were shelved due to concerns over the social impact of these kinds of resorts or these complexes. You sort of already touched on it but I hoped that you could elaborate on your thoughts vis-a-vis this position?

Dr Griffiths: Well to be honest the real reason why super casinos were stopped is Gordon Brown - it was his first decision when he took over from Tony Blair. As a Presbyterian he was basically anti-gambling and that was a classic top down decision that was made. I know for a fact that Gordon Brown knew the head of Manchester City Council who got the super casino, basically told him this is what I’m going to do. We’ll have to think of other ways that we can regenerate money in Manchester.

I’m sorry there’s no – I don’t think there’s anything else but basically a single decision made by the top man for there not be a super casino. He probably thought that was a vote winner. Obviously I know in the run-up to the decision about who was going to get the super casino the papers were full of gambling stories.

I know in terms of the proportion of the media I did in the four years pre September the 1st right up to when the Gambling Act came in is that people wanted to know what the consequences of a super casino was going to be in their particular area. Of course I think a lot of people whether it was a faith group, whether it was anti-gambling groups who were basically saying this is going to cause mass problems on our doorstep.

My argument was there could be a potential to do that but I think there are lots of ways that we could minimise harm, bring in protective measures to minimise any of those people developing a problem.

In terms of regeneration of an area as well is that my guess is that the overall benefits would probably be more than the disadvantages. But of course we have to weigh up whether do we count is as in terms of number of people or the amount of money or whatever? There’s different ways of working out a cost benefit analysis of doing something like that.

But yes, the decision not to go forward with the super casinos because each year the plans were revised. Initially it was going to be over twenty super casinos then it was down to eight then it was down to four then it was down to one. It just seemed to me that there was a lot of public pressure that communities were saying we don’t want these casinos. But to be honest people didn’t want the lottery. People did not want the national lottery. If you said now we’re going to get rid of the national lottery now there would be a public outcry. It’s so embedded within British culture. My guess is if you add a destination resort again what you’d have is something that England would probably be proud of.

Again even though I’ve spent my lifetime researching problem gambling doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have a super casino. I’d say I’d be a hypocrite because I do gamble myself. I do go to destination resorts. I do gamble at destination resorts. Why shouldn’t I have the opportunity to do that here in my own country?

As long as the operator is socially responsible in terms of how they advertise and market their products, decide what they’re going to do in terms of protecting their clientele I’ve got no problems with that whatsoever.

Right Casino: Again, this draws on things we’ve been discussing without. But how do you think British casinos and British casino culture compares to that across the world? I know you’ve already said that you don’t really feel that British casino culture is distinct?

Dr Griffiths: No. The problem with British casino culture is that we’ve not really got a British casino culture in a sense that our casinos are so small, parochial. Yes they offer – we’ve obviously got a hard-core clientele that goes to those casinos. But what’s amazing is that here in Nottingham for instance. Our biggest casino when you walk in even on a Friday or Saturday night it still looks relatively empty. We haven’t got a culture in this country that people go to casinos regularly.

We probably have a lot of high rollers in London etc. want to gamble high stakes and go out again. The typical kind of city casinos - my guess is it attracts a very small proportion of those local communities. They’re not seen as a kind of destination. They’re probably just not very exciting. You could walk past a lot of these casinos and not even know they were there. You can’t walk past a Las Vegas or Atlantic City or a Macao casino without realising it’s a casino.

I really – in terms of the prevalence of people that go in a casino, less than 5% have visited a casino in the last year. Those people may have visited just once. The number of regular casino goers is minimal. Now obviously that minimal amount is generating a lot of profits for the casino industry across the country. It means they’re spending a lot for those that do go in there. But we really haven’t got what I would call – we’ve got what…a hundred and twenty casinos approximately in this country? If we had ten super casinos I think that would probably generate more money and bring in more visitors and tourists and what have you. But I don’t there is an identifiable British casino culture.

My guess is you ask a casino gambler and they’d disagree with me. I’m one of those 3% or 4% that go I do go more than once a year to a casino. Yes it’s probably part of my job because obviously when I go in I play a slot machine in a casino I call it research. But the fact is that in terms of the British population they’re not really a nation of casino gamblers, at least not yet.

Right Casino: And moving away from British casinos and British casino culture, if there is a British casino culture more generally. Casino design is often described as an exercise in psychology. What is your perspective on this?

Dr Griffiths: Well, any design of any commercial environment uses psychology, okay? When it comes to casino design and just basic gambling venue design, there are whole loads of things that are used in terms of basically either to get you into the casino in the first place and once you’re in the casino to get you gambling more and more.

So for instance, tactics that are used in US casinos involve giving free drinks. That’s an on floor situational characteristic that is used to keep people gambling. Now we don’t have it here in this country and in fact it’s against Gambling Commission Guidelines to offer free alcohol.

But things like floor layout. Like if you go into say the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, okay? If you want to go and watch say, which I did, REM in the arena there. It took me half an hour from when I walked in the entrance to get to the auditorium. In that half an hour I must have passed ten or fifteen thousand slot machines before I got there. Of course I had to pass it. When I came out I had to do it all the way back again.

In terms of what’s happening as I’m walking through. Every time somebody wins on a slot machine, it plays a musical tune or hear the chunk, chunk, chunk. But the thing is of course you’ve got a thousand machines there maybe twenty of them are paying out and all you can hear is the sound of winning. The nine hundred and eighty machines that you can’t hear the sound of losing.

This is all psychology that is used to maximise what we psychologists call the availability bias. It’s about emphasising wins and de-emphasising losing. On the lottery show each week when it first started people like Dale Winton used to say hey, we’ve got Mrs Jones on this week. She won three point four million last week. Here’s Mr Evans. He won two point one million last week. What they didn’t show is here’s the twenty nine point nine million people that didn’t win a single thing last week.

Now that said there’s another example of the availability bias. But things like the refreshments being on site, things like live entertainment. These are all designed to get people in. People might have come in to watch a show but of course they want you to have a gamble while you’re there. They brought you into a fantastic restaurant to eat but while you’re there they hope you’ll spend some money gambling. These are all kinds of lost leaders but in terms of the way that it’s designed, casino design is absolutely critical.

There’s been a whole load of research on what we call service-scapes. Is looking at what the best environments are to take money off people in terms of lighting and colour. Things like colour are very important. Reds, oranges, yellows – these are exciting colours that are very much associated with gambling. It’s ironic actually that someone like Gala Casino that I gamble at, their corporate colour is blue. From a psychological perspective that is a really calming colour. It’s not probably the best in a gambling environment.

Things like we’ve done experiments here at Nottingham Trent University. For instance I’m very interested in how music affects gambling. What we’ve shown is if you play high beats per minute music while people are gambling they spend more money. We’ve manipulated light. We’ve shown that gamblers spend more under red – they’ll gamble faster and spend more under red light than they will under white light.

In Las Vegas a number of experiments show that if you spray machines with certain types of odour they can increase the takings on the machine. These are all examples of environmental influence, okay? Now most of those actually I don’t think have a massive impact on addiction. Don’t have a massive impact on problem gambling. What these have an impact on is usually getting people to gamble on something in the first place. Okay? It may be a little bit in terms of maintaining but really it’s the structural characteristics of the activity itself that dictate if you’re vulnerable or susceptible whether you’ll develop a problem.

But of course you get all these stories of supposedly casinos pumping oxygen in to keep people in. The fact that there’s no clocks around so the people can’t tell what time it is. All these things happen. There are psychological reasons why they happen. Most of those I don’t think have a massive impact in terms of problem gambling. But they may actually keep someone like myself who is a social gambler in there a little bit longer, spending a little bit more money but it probably won’t turn me into a problem gambler. It’s more likely to be the structural characteristics.


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