Looking Back at Responsible Gaming, Looking Ahead to Safer Gaming

As we move on from Responsible Gaming Education Week, we should not move on from the topic, according to the founders of Spectrum Safer Gaming Advisors. The issue should remain front of mind for all gaming operators, vendors and participants so we can recognize and treat those who have problems.

Looking Back at Responsible Gaming, Looking Ahead to Safer Gaming

Responsible Gaming Week has ended. Tributes, promises and plans were made, and many stakeholders in the gaming industry indeed learned a bit more about what is being accomplished and what still needs to be accomplished to address problem gambling.

One point that we learned is that addressing this issue is a 52-week business that demands more than paying simple homage to an essential principle. Making a promise to advance this universal cause is no longer enough. Rather, we must think of ourselves as versions of Janus, the Greek god with two heads, one that is always looking forward—and one that looks backward, never forgetting the paths already traveled, while learning from past successes and failures.

Today, the goals are:

  1. Leverage and advance technology and data to ensure that gaming is an activity that is practiced safely by adults, and
  2. Reframe the previous language to delineate roles in addressing this issue.

Data is king. We know that any behavioral action and patterns can be enumerated, traced, predicted, or sold. Gaming is no different. Casinos, sports betting operators, and even freemium games can track your previous play and anticipate your next move and spend. With that data and the associated technology comes great power.

Gaming companies can use data in their marketing efforts to reach players, but also to build algorithms and messaging that can offer customized messages and pathways that are less tempting and more protective of players that have shown a history of riskier play against their normative behavior. Data also empowers operators to give real-time information for their players: a digital dashboard that offers realistic touchpoints based on money (not tokens) spent, time dedicated to each gaming session, a glossary of games, and tips on how to play accurately and that debunk myths, and personalized/localized resources that are personalized to the players needs when they proactively ask for them.

In addition to data and technology, it will take a refresh on currently assumed language to broaden the approach to the shared solutions. The industry once only referred to this issue as pathological, compulsive, or problem gambling. And that was a scientific step from when we once labeled people as degenerate or deadbeat gamblers. Thanks to academic research, particularly the Reno Model, we now understand that this is an issue that will be tacked by the operators, regulators, players, and the community. No single entity or individual is solely responsible. We’d like to suggest that we take the idea of responsibility out of the equation: it feels full of morality and judgment. The more appropriate language now is to say label the protections and efforts as Safer Gaming. This allows people to determine how to keep it at the right level depending on the at-risk factors of the individuals or the environment.

The May 2018 US Supreme Court decision that overturned a ban on sports betting unleashed a torrent of interest in the expansion of sports betting and iGaming, and this was further fueled by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, this issue is not new to public policy, clinical consideration, or academic rigor. Since Dostoevsky described in great detail the struggle he had with his gambling in the novel The Gambler or Dr. Robert Custer first started treating people for their gambling problems in 1981, we’ve known that this was more than a moral issue. It was and is an addiction that has ruined lives and livelihoods. In fact, when Custer began to treat people, society still labeled people as compulsive gamblers, and that felt like a real step forward due to the need of casinos, that had grown in less than two decades to become a multi-billion-dollar enterprise, to have help with players that were out of control and they didn’t know how to handle it.

But we have learned a great deal. Addiction can be addressed, and we can avoid stigmatizing language that shames the individual. Data and technology that were once singularly used to promote and activate games can now be used to keep players on a healthy track.

As we say farewell to Responsible Gaming Education Week 2021, we encourage you to think beyond slogans and lip service to the utilization of data and technology and to consider how to make Safer Gambling a focus in the future for all.

We have been around long enough to know that legal gaming has been part of our lives much longer than the phrases, slogans and terms that we have since assigned and later discarded.

In closing, we note that, in May 1984, a man killed himself in an open courtroom as he was about to be sentenced to prison for embezzlement. At the time, he was labeled in newspapers as a “compulsive gambler,” which was itself a rather new, clinical phrase. Today, that label is gone. Today, that man’s life might have been saved by a combination of technology, insight, experience and simple compassion. Today, let’s keep moving forward.

Articles by Author: Marlene Warner and Michael Pollock

Michael Pollock and Marlene Warner are founders of Spectrum Safer Gaming Advisors. Pollock is managing director of Spectrum Gaming Group who has won awards, dating back to the early 1980s, for his studies of problem gambling. Warner is executive director of the Massachusetts Council on Gaming and Health, and has led the development and implementation of responsible gambling programs for Wynn, Penn National and MGM properties.