May the odds be ever in your favour

Are smartphones, gaming and the internet contributing to the growing gambling addiction crisis?

23rd January 2019

“Most of the people who come to me are using mobile phones all the time,” explains Andy Margett, a former gambling addict. “There [has been] a massive culture change, especially in the UK in the last five to 10 years. I work in a warehouse and when I see people on their breaks they are all gambling on their phones.”

Margett runs a niche vlog channel called #mynameisAndy that is dedicated to breaking stigmas and raising awareness of problem gambling — the urge to gamble continuously despite negative consequences or the desire to stop. #mynameisAndy is both a chronicle of Margett’s experiences, and a place where those facing similar issues can turn for support and advice.

“I think it is here to stay for now,” he says. “I go to the football to watch a match where people are standing around me on their phones checking their bets. It’s more dangerous because it’s so easy to do.”

Typing the word “gambling” into any Appstore reveals a swarm of apps (slots, casinos, sports — take your pick) and within a few clicks you can be signed up and betting away. No restrictions, no checks. This increase in apps reflects overall trends in the growth of online gambling, and considering the ubiquity and 24/7 availability of mobile devices, which allow for gambling on the go — even in the intimate and private spaces of your home — it is little wonder this sector is predicted to expand rapidly in the future. But what does this accessibility mean for a generation of youngsters who are consistently connected to their mobile devices?

Data collected by the National Problem Gambling Clinic (NPGC) shows that while nearly a quarter (24%) of their patients had problems with mobile gambling in 2012-13, this figure rose to almost two-thirds (63%) in 2016-17.

The new norm?

Recent findings from the Young People & Gambling report, released by the Gambling Commission in 2018 and based on a survey of 2,865 11 to 16-year-olds in the UK, indicate that the rate of children who are considered problem gamblers has steadily increased from 0.4% in 2016 to 1.7% in 2018. Over half of those young people (54%) who recently played a gambling-style game had done so via some kind of app and, more so, the report reveals that 18% of them access online gambling-style apps via social media, allowing them to bypass age verification processes.

Speaking to the Guardian, Dr Marcus Carter, a former president of the Digital Games Research Association of Australia, says it’s like “having [a] slot machine in your pocket that actively encourages you to gamble at your most vulnerable moment”.

The statistics confirm the overall agreement among regulatory bodies and organisations that priority needs to be given to children and young people based on the developing risks of online gambling. The parallel between the rising rates of children problem gamblers and the online environment is striking, especially considering the smartphone apps offering a constant temptation to take a spin or have a bet among friends.

“The landscape has significantly changed over the last few years in relation to gambling, with technological developments and increased betting options,” says senior policy officer Chris Buttenshaw from the Christian Action Research and Education (CARE). “Our laws are not keeping pace with these changes. This puts the onus on the government to urgently review what more can and should be done to protect our children and young people.”

Is it all fun and games?

In this mobile realm, betting apps with casino games or fruit machines don’t appear to be making the most headway among younger crowds. Influxes of video gaming applications have hit the market in recent years, many of which offer “skins” or “loot boxes” and the ability to purchase in-game items or trade prizes with real-world currencies. In Australia, a 2018 parliamentary report concluded that loot boxes were psychologically similar to gambling, specifying that children and young people are particularly susceptible.

Seemingly innocuous games like Candy Crush can be a “gateway to gambling”

According to the Responsible Gambling Strategy Board (RGSB), children and young people are the most vulnerable group for gambling-related harms based on “their stage of physiological and psychological development, their inexperience and their position in society”. Even widely popular games like Candy Crush are considered a gateway to gambling. The “social” gameplay style closely resembles slot machines and, more specifically, the app incorporates micro-transactions as well as other mini-contests that use features like roulette wheels to gain bonuses, which are practices that heavily imitate gambling scenarios.

Certain studies have indicated that games like Candy Crush are just as addictive — if not more — than regular betting applications, due to the array of dazzling animations, characters and a narrative structure that allows for players to “level up”.

When you start winning, you start thinking, ‘If I was playing with real money I could be doing quite well’

Speaking to the Times Educational Supplement, Professor Mark Griffiths, director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University, said: “Those games should be for adults only because of the research showing that simulated games are a risk factor for problem gambling. Children who play these free games are more likely to gamble and more likely to develop problem gambling behaviours. These are gateway activities that can lead people down the gambling road. When you start winning, you start thinking, ‘If I was playing with real money I could be doing quite well.'”

Advertising is a major sticking point, and gambling-related apps on mobile devices are proving to be no exception. Apps on smartphones are just another platform companies can use to push and promote ads to consumers, which alongside features such as loot boxes work to normalise gambling behaviour — especially for children and young people.

“It’s normalised now. Gambling has been normalised in this country and it’s so in your face,” explains Andy Margett. “Since I’ve started the vlogging I’ve had over 600 people message me for help. I could tell you know over 80% of them are males under the age of 21.”

Looking abroad

When asked for comment, the Gambling Commission referenced their Virtual Currencies, Sports & Social Casino Gaming Discussion Paper, which notes: “The boom in ‘skin’ gambling has attracted the attention of law enforcement and regulatory bodies around the globe.”

However, international communities remained divided on how to tackle this issue. In 2017, the UK government was petitioned to consider the issue of gambling mechanics in games, reaching a similar conclusion to the New Zealand Department for Internal Affairs and noting that loot boxes do not constitute gambling if the items are unable to be traded for real-world money, linking their decision to the definition of gambling under the Gambling Act 2005.

Although the Gambling Commission states that any gambling facility or software offered to British customers requires a licence, there is no specific legislation or case law covering gambling applications or games on mobile devices like smartphones. In 2018, Hawaii became the first state to put forward legislation to help tackle gambling behaviour within games, proposing that people aged under 21 should not be able to access video games that include loot boxes. Nevertheless, these bills currently appear to be dead in the water.

Gambling via casino games can create a sense of detachment from the value of money 📸 BagoGames

China is taking an active lead ensuring digital publishers disclose the win rates of loot boxes in games, and recent cases in Belgium and the Netherlands found that loot boxes within certain video games do break national gambling laws. To date, no legislation has been passed in any of these countries, with Dutch and Belgium authorities encouraging games developers to self-regulate as they seek to hold discussions with relative companies before legal action is taken.

In Australia, a parliamentary report has recommended tougher classifications be imposed on these types of games alongside a warning label, which would restrict sales to those over 18. Again, these proposals have not been enshrined in legislation. A commission of 15 gambling regulators from across Europe (including the UK’s Gambling
Commission) and one from the US has also been set up to investigate the issue further. It has said it will “thoroughly analyse” the growing use of loot boxes in video games to ensure they comply with national gambling laws.

Nevertheless, there doesn’t appear to be any focus on gambling or gaming applications — particularly those aimed at young people — or how regulators are intending to deal with this issue in the future.

Where to now?

There are self-exclusion apps like Gamban on the market, which aim to block access to many online gambling sites and applications. Banks like Barclay’s are also assisting by allowing customers to prevent certain transactions on their accounts, such as those at gambling sites or bookmakers. But, then again, there have been instances where those attempting to use these schemes have still been able to access online gambling sites or, alternatively, they’ve been hit with targeted ads trying to entice them back.

In 2017, the Gambling Commission became the first regulator in the world to prosecute the operators and advertisers of FUTGalaxy, which was an unlicensed website offering gambling facilities, many of which were being utilised by children. In this case the judge imposed “significant” financial penalties, but the commission remarked that unlicensed sites and apps are “wholly unregulated” and it is hard to put a figure on the plethora of black market operators that may be targeting patrons in the UK.

The Gambling Commission has said it is working at “strengthening” its rules and policies surrounding online gambling. “We have just ended consultation on strengthening age verification online and putting free to play
operator games behind age verification to protect young people,” says a spokesperson. “From October 2018 new rules mean we can take action — including imposing fines against gambling businesses that break the advertising rules such as advertising that appeals particularly to children or glamorises gambling.”

However, as mobile technologies continue to develop, it is unlikely this explosion of gambling applications or “gambling-play” will decline, signifying that a concerted effort between industry and government is required to help protect young people from gambling-related harms in this online environment.

You can see the problems with drugs and alcohol in people’s faces and in people’s health. Gambling, you hide it. That’s why they call it the silent addiction

Andy Margett believes gambling addiction should be a made a public health issue on the NHS, which follows closely in the footsteps of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) decision to recognise gaming addiction as an official mental health condition. “That will be a massive stride forward and it might help with more treatment services,” he says. “You see loads of drug and alcohol clinics across the country where you can get rehabilitation. There are two clinics for gambling addiction in the UK. Extra clinics would help to break the stigma. You see the problems with drugs and alcohol. You see it in people’s faces and in people’s health. Gambling, you hide it. That’s why they call it the silent addiction. No one knows about it.”

Prof Griffiths believes more needs to be done in the classroom to ensure young people are aware of the associated risks that come with gambling apps, which will ultimately allow them to make informed decisions about what they choose to download or play. “Teachers should start talking about these sorts of things… There’s nothing wrong with kids playing gambling-type games, but you have to accompany it with education.”

Margett agrees that specific focus should be made towards providing adequate education throughout UK schools. “At schools, you get taught about the dangers of drugs, alcohol, smoking, STIs. You go through the English school system and there’s nothing about gambling at all.”

23rd January 2019