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Social gambling: Dr Mark Griffiths interview part three

Published by techadmin on 10 Mar 2014 , 12:00 AM

For the third part of Right Casino’s interview with Dr Mark Griffiths, we turn our attention to the phenomenon of social gambling (i.e. real-money gambling via social media platforms.) This new craze has already revolutionised the way we play, but does social gambling pose a risk to minors?

Interview transcript

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, 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 play need not suffer in silence. Their actions are visible for all to see. Where do you stand on these arguments and what do you have to add?

Dr Griffiths: I think both of those are viable. I don’t think it’s an either or situation. You could have a situation like you say. What I love particularly in terms of the online world now [is] I have access to behavioural tracking data sets. We can see for the first time exactly what gamblers do.

For all these years I’ve spent interviewing people, doing surveys, and you ask people what they do online or what they do in terms of their gambling and they say I do this, this, and this and there’s no way of verifying it. Now in terms of whether it’s a social media platform, whether it’s an online roleplaying game, or whether it’s a site like 888.com is that we can follow every single click. Every single thing that the gambler does. From the moment they log onto the site to the moment they log off.

In that sense in terms of transparency companies have that data and I believe they should be using that data to obviously protect players and to minimise harm. In terms of the impact on players themselves well the two positions that you have I think both of them are kind of viable. There’s probably other kind of – well I don’t think they are the only two options. There could be other things in terms of what happens in terms of people’s behaviours. As I say, for youngsters I think that social conditioning that happens with games it looks very innocuous but of course when you add a money element onto it for a small minority it can become something that’s a problem to them.

We know that youth in and of themselves are a vulnerable group. Whether it’s alcohol use, cigarette use, underage sex, gambling. These are all what I would call a lifestyle cluster of risky behaviours that children or adolescence start to engage in. When you find a problem gambler you’ll probably also find somebody that’s taking illicit drugs, start drinking alcohol earlier, engaging in underage sex earlier.

You can’t see gambling in isolation. It’s one of those things that it’s part of an adolescent development. It’s a rite of passage. But a lot of these things if you are a parent that drinks and smokes and gambles in front of your children all the time it should be a surprise that when children reach adolescence they want to do those behaviours as well. It’s what we call social hereditary factors. Social hereditary factors where basically children mimic what their parents or their guardians are doing.