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'Gambling Professor Explains British Casino Culture'

Dr Mark Griffiths on UK Gambling: “We aren’t unique. But we’re relaxed and tolerant.”

Sam Miranda sat down with Professor of Gambling Studies at Nottingham Trent University and co-founder of GamCare Dr Mark Griffiths to discuss the British gambling industry. Topics ranged from casino culture to operator responsibilities. Casino Life’s Sam Miranda has the scoop…

By Dr Mark Griffiths’ own admission, his path into gambling-related academia was “boring.” He was given three options for his PhD – gynaecological psychology, face processing and gambling.

The industry is eternally grateful he chose the latter - in a 27 year career, Dr Griffiths has emerged as Britain’s chief gambling authority, with his personal blog recently surpassing one million unique visitors. A chartered psychologist by vocation, his impressive oeuvre spans slot and video game addiction, adolescent gaming and socially responsible gambling. Dr Griffiths juggles media commitments – he pens regular columns in The Sun and The Independent and recalls a ‘pleasant’ interview with the feisty Jeremy Paxman - with a number of advisory and consultancy roles.

Does Dr Griffiths’ focus on addiction mean he is anti-gambling? No. Any media statements to the contrary have been taken out of context. Dr Griffiths champions a well-regulated, socially responsible gambling industry, where an appreciation for personal liberties and support for an economically empowering sector are coupled with protection for vulnerable players.

Dr Griffiths, thanks for joining us. To start us off, can you summarise the research you do?

I’ve spent the last 27 years studying gambling, mainly problem gambling. Not that I’m anti-gambling in the slightest. People often perceive me as being public enemy number one because I research problem gambling. Yet my friends who research problem drinking – no one accuses them of being anti-drinking.

There is a culture in this country that if you in anyway attack the industry for the products that they put out and highlight the plight of problem gamblers, they take it personally. We should be working together. Problem gamblers don’t support a long-term, sustainable business model because they have a short shelf life. We have a situation where 10 per cent of customers generate 90 per cent of profits. I want to replicate Camelot’s model for the lottery - where the vast majority of the population spends small amounts of money and it still generates huge profits – across the casino and bingo industries.  

What would you say is unique about British gambling culture?

Having travelled around the world, I wouldn’t say we’re unique. But we’re relaxed and tolerant.

The most profound change in British gambling culture came with the introduction of the National Lottery in 1994. Suddenly two thirds of the public were gambling, but there was a mismatch between people viewing playing the lottery as a form of gambling. You would ask people, “Do you gamble?” and they’d say “No.” But then you would ask them, “Do you play the lottery?” and they would say “Yes.”

What followed was a drip drip effect. Football pools and bingo halls were saying, “You’ve taken some of our custom away and you’re not letting us advertise on television. We want an equal playing field.” This prompted a government policy of liberalisation and de-regulation. But then casino and gambling operators asked, “Why are scratch cards being advertised in the middle of Coronation Street? You the Home Office have just defined hard forms of gambling as ones which have high or rapid staking. You are allowing them to be advertised, so why can’t we advertise our products?”

I would say in the past 15 years, gambling has become a socially acceptable activity. Now with remote opportunities, it’s endemic. We were one of first countries that legalised internet gambling. We’ve adopted a proactive, progressive stance. Yes, you still have your faith groups and people who have been adversely affected lobbying against it, but we’re a gambling nation.

“We’re a gambling nation.” Does that translate into high levels of problem gambling and addiction? The press would certainly make us believe so…

The press equates problem or pathological gambling with addiction. The British Gambling Prevalence Survey (BGPS) that we do every few years reveals that 0.9 per cent of Britain’s have a gambling problem. The press have interpreted this as 1 per cent of people are addicted. All addicts are problem gamblers but not all problem gamblers are addicts. Problem gambling could just mean you spend too much of your disposable income on gambling, but this might not be indicative of addiction. The press use and interchange words to suit their story and lose all understanding of context. The number of people who are genuinely addicted is very small compared to, say, alcohol.

So is the British media anti-gambling?

It isn’t anti-gambling per se, but they are running a business. If you’re pointing out bad things like gambling addiction, people will read it. As human beings, we love reading about the suffering of others. It’s called social comparison theory - when you read about the misery of others, it makes you feel better.

You’ve said gambling is endemic in British society. What have you discovered about different gambling demographics? Are people of a certain gender inclined to gamble on certain games?

Men gravitate towards skill games. It’s interesting, because in Britain men are more likely to play slot games than women, whereas in other countries it’s the same. We’re the only country in the world which doesn’t use a random number generator. This means that there’s a level of skill involved – people can watch the machine fill up with other people’s money, then come in and get the pay-out.

We tracked down the machine patent and found out that they use adaptive logic and a compensator. In this country, single site machines are located in chip shops, pubs and cafes, and they’re needed to keep the business afloat. RNG’s work on a yearly cycle, and these places can’t wait that long to recoup profits. So instead of probability cycles based on millions of spins, they are based on hundreds of thousands. This means you can watch a machine fill up with £300 of other peoples’ money, and intervene at the right time. Although chance determined, there’s an element of skill.  Young males see it as a skill-based video game.

Let’s move on to British casino culture. How would you describe the British casino as a social space?

The Gambling Act was a step in the right direction for diversifying the appeal of casinos. I can go in and have a cheap cordon bleu meal – ten pounds for good food. I can enjoy slightly subsidised alcohol and spend a couple of hours at the roulette table. That’s four or five hours of entertainment with friends, and I’ve spent about £40. That’s cheaper than watching Nottingham Forest lose, and cheaper than watching Noel Gallagher at the arena. It’s great value. But the key is, I’m buying entertainment – I’m not going in with the goal of winning money.

Compared to international resorts like Las Vegas, Atlantic City and Macau, our casinos are small and parochial. You could fit 20 or 30 of them into a Las Vegas resort. UK casinos have a hard-core clientele – less than 5 per cent of the British public have visited a casino in the past year.

Why haven’t we seen British casinos branch out into Vegas style leisure and entertainment complexes?

We could have had super casinos. I was part of a committee that awarded a super casino to Manchester, based on the location and operators that offered the best infrastructure in terms of player protection, harm minimisation and social responsibility. But then you had Gordon Brown come in as Prime Minister, and as a Presbyterian he made the top-down decision to veto super casinos, arguing that there were other ways to regenerate local economies.

I think at some point, the government is going to realise the need for super casinos. A cost-benefit analysis favoured a super casino in Manchester. I did some research for Canadian gaming organisations where we talked about a centralised gaming model, which is essentially destination resort gambling. In a way, having a mecca is the most socially responsible way of controlling gambling. People need to make a pre-commitment to go there and gamble. In this country, we have too many ambient gambling experiences. You go into a chip shop, and there’s a slot machine, which means you gamble on impulse. Casinos and bingo halls are dedicated spaces.

Casinos are often described as an exercise in psychology. Can you provide some examples?

Any design of any commercial environment uses psychology. When it comes to design, there are lots of things. Floor plan is key - in Las Vegas, it took me half an hour to get to the auditorium to see a show, by which time I’d passed thousands of slot machines. The sound of winning maximises availability bias, and music with high beats per minute makes people spend more money. In the future, slot machines will look to harvest player data and preferences in order to offer personalise gaming experiences.

We conducted a study at Nottingham Trent University which showed gamblers spend more money under red light than white light. These environmental influences are good at getting you to gamble in the first place, but they have a negligible impact on problem gambling. It’s the structural characteristics of the games that determine that.

You talk a lot about socially responsible gambling. What kinds of measures exist to ensure this? How are operators embracing responsible gambling?

I first coined the term in the mid-1990s. We’re now at a point where you can’t receive an operating license in the UK unless you’re displaying measures for protection and harm minimisation. We’ve come a long way. There are things to help players make informed decisions, and what I call the ‘seatbelt approach’ allows players set limits or temporarily exclude themselves. We want players to pre-commit to how much they want to gamble in terms of time and money.

Online behavioural tracking is now widely available, and in the physical space, Norway and Sweden are leading the way with player cards which log gambling activity. I’ve developed a product called GamGuard – adopted by 30 companies - that assesses the riskiness of a game according to the structural characteristics designed in to it. Companies have a traffic light system for whether their product is likely to be problematic to a susceptible individual. They can make a decision about whether to change its characteristics, and adjust the availability and marketing of the product accordingly.

We’ve seen a radical shift in past ten years, with every major company agreeing to a code of conduct. Protective measures and protocols will become second nature.  

Reporting by Sam Miranda. You can follow him on Twitter.