In Excess

Gambling, Gaming and Extreme Behavior

Aiding and A-betting

What is the gambling industry’s role in the treatment of problem gambling?

Over the last decade, responsible gambling has become one of the major issues for professional gaming operators. Although the gaming industry understandably keeps an eye on their bottom line profits, there is an increasing adherence to social responsibility standards. Evidence for this is demonstrated by the fact that the gaming industry now has formal relationships with numerous organizations that address training, compliance, accreditation, and governance. There is also increasing integration between the gaming industry and a diverse set of stakeholders including government, practitioners, and researchers.

There have been some recent soundings about land-based casinos directly helping problem gamblers through the use of on site treatment specialists (i.e., problem gamblers having access to treatment in the gambling environment itself). Although this sounds like a very socially responsible move on the part of the operators, it is my view is that it is not the gaming industry’s responsibility to treat gamblers but it is their responsibility to provide referral for problem gamblers to specialist third party helping agencies (e.g., problem gambling helplines, counselling services, etc.). It is thought that the number of problem gamblers who actively seek treatment is only a small percentage of the overall number of problem gamblers. This is because problem gamblers may feel embarrassed and/or stigmatized via face-to-face treatment interventions. This suggests that one of the ways forward may be for the industry to refer their problem clients towards online (rather than offline) help.

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Dr Richard Wood and I reported one of the first ever studies that evaluated the effectiveness of an online help and guidance service for problem gamblers (i.e., GamAid) in the British Journal of Guidance and Counselling. The evaluation utilized a mixed methods design in order to examine both primary and secondary data relating to the client experience. GamAid is an online advisory and guidance service whereby the problem gambler can either browse the available links and information provided, or talks to an online advisor (during the available hours of service), or request information to be sent via email, mobile phone (SMS/texting), or post. If the problem gambler connects to an online advisor then a real-time image of the advisor appears on the client’s screen in a small web-cam box. Next to the image box, is a dialogue box where the client can type messages to the advisor and in which the advisor can type a reply. Although the client can see the advisor, the advisor cannot see the client. The advisor also has the option to provide links to other relevant online services, and these appear on the left hand side of the client’s screen and remain there after the client logs off from the advisor. The links that are given are in response to statements or requests made by the client for specific (and where possible) local services (e.g., a local debt advice service, or a local Gamblers Anonymous meeting).

A total of 80 problem gamblers completed an in-depth online evaluation questionnaire, and secondary data were gathered from a further 413 clients who contacted a GamAid advisor. It was reported that the majority of the problem gamblers who completed the feedback survey were satisfied with the guidance and “counselling” service that GamAid offered. Most problem gamblers (i) agreed that GamAid provided information for local services where they could get help, (ii) agreed that they had or would follow the links given, (iii) felt the advisor was supportive and understood their needs, (iv) would consider using the service again, and (v) would recommend the service to others. Being able to see the advisor enabled the client to feel reassured, whilst at the same time, this one-way feature maintained anonymity, as the advisor cannot see the client.

An interesting observation was the extent to which GamAid was meeting a need not met by other UK gambling help services. This was examined by looking at the profiles of those clients using GamAid in comparison with the most similar service currently on offer, that being the UK GamCare telephone help line. The data recorded by GamAid advisors during the evaluation period found that 413 distinct clients contacted an advisor. Unsurprisingly (given the medium of the study), online gambling was the single most popular location for clients to gamble with 31% of males and 19% of females reporting that they gambled this way. By comparison, the GamCare helpline (the UK's national gambling telephone helpline) found that only 12% of their male and 7% of their female callers gambled online. Therefore, it could be argued that the GamAid service is the preferred modality for seeking support for online gamblers. This is perhaps not surprising given that online gamblers are likely to have a greater degree of overall competence in using, familiarity with, and access to Internet facilities. Problem gamblers may therefore be more likely to seek help using the media that they are most comfortable in.

GamAid advisors identified gender for 304 clients of which 71% were male and 29% were female. By comparison, the GamCare helpline identified that 89% of their callers were male and 11% were female. Therefore, it would appear that the online service might be appealing more to women than other comparable services. There are several speculative reasons why this may be the case. For instance, online gambling is gender-neutral and may therefore be more appealing to women than more traditional forms of gambling, which (on the whole) are traditionally male-oriented (with the exception of bingo). Women may feel more stigmatised as problem gamblers than males and/or less likely to approach other help services where males dominate (e.g., Gamblers Anonymous). If this is the case, then the high degree of anonymity offered by GamAid may be one of the reasons it is preferred. Most of those who had used another service reported that they preferred GamAid because they specifically wanted online help. Those who had used another service reported that the particular benefits of GamAid were that they were more comfortable talking online than on the phone or face-to–face. They also reported that (in their view) GamAid was easier to access, and the advisors were more caring.

In their review of preventing problem gambling, Professor Robert Williams and colleagues at the University of Lethbridge (Canada) make several important points that need to be taken on board by the gaming industry (and other interested parties) in relation to problem gambling prevention. These observations are also important for gaming operators when considering best practice in terms of social responsibility.

• There exists a very large array of prevention initiatives.

• Much is still unknown about the effectiveness of many individual initiatives.

• The most commonly implemented measures tend to be among the less effective measures (e.g., casino self-exclusion, awareness/information campaigns).

• There is almost nothing that is not helpful to some extent and that there is almost nothing that, by itself, has high potential to prevent harm.

• Primary prevention initiatives are almost always more effective than tertiary prevention measures.

• External controls (i.e., policy) tend to be just as useful as internal knowledge (e.g., education).

• Effective prevention in most fields actually requires co-ordinated, extensive, and enduring efforts between effective educational initiatives and effective policy initiatives.

• Prevention efforts have to be sustained and enduring, because behavioural change takes a long time.

It would therefore appear that there are many factors that could be incorporated within a gaming company’s framework of social responsibility and that while the industry should be proactive in the prevention of problem gambling, the treatment of problem gambling should be done by those outside of the gaming industry and that one of the ways forward may be online rather than offline help.

References and further reading

Gainsbury, S.M. & Blaszczynski, A. (2011). 'A systematic review of Internet-based therapy for the treatment of addictions', Clinical Psychology Review, 31, 490-498.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Online therapy for addictive behaviors. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 8, 555-561.

Griffiths, M.D. & Cooper, G. (2003). Online therapy: Implications for problem gamblers and clinicians. British Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 13, 113-135.

Williams, R.J., Simpson, R.I. & West, B.L. (2007). Prevention of problem gambling. In G. Smith, D. Hodgins & R. Williams (Eds.), Research and Measurement Issues in Gambling Studies (pp.399-435). New York: Elsevier.

Wood, R.T.A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Online guidance, advice, and support for problem gamblers and concerned relatives and friends: An evaluation of the GamAid pilot service. British Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 35, 373-389.

Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit in the Psychology Division at Nottingham Trent University (UK).

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