The Great Britain Gambling Commission’s consultation on remote player interaction has mostly attracted attention because of its proposals for affordability limits.
While Broadway Gaming chief operating officer Mark Cleary (pictured) has expressed reservations about those potential limits, he said among the most concerning features in the consultation was something it lacked.
Alongside the affordability proposals were proposals about time indicators for interaction. But Cleary was concerned that these lacked a way of differentiating between different types of gambling products, and most notably between bingo and slots.
The Commission did point out in the consultation that bingo and poker are more likely to see sessions of more than an hour, and that this time spent gambling “will not in and of itself be harmful”.
However, Cleary notes that the proposed changes in the call for evidence currently do not actually make a differentiation between types of games offered. If not clarified, he warned, this could see operators left to implement new restrictions on play beyond an hour for all types of game.
“It doesn’t seem to apply a differentiation between any form of gambling,” Cleary says.
Cleary – whose business operates both online bingo and casino games including slots – says that he’s seen enough to know that those two types of games are simply too different to lack specific indicators.
“We hold both a casino licence and a bingo licence and the games are fundamentally different,” he says. “If you want to place a wager on a slot game, it takes three seconds to place a wager. But if you wanted to play a game of bingo, it takes – on average – three minutes.
“We see that a bingo player’s average wagering in an hour is significantly less than a casino player. Their average wagering days are less than a casino player. The idea that an hour is the same between both types of games just doesn’t stand up.
“The characteristics of those games are different. The types of players attracted to those games are different. The level of spend people have, the averages, the time spent: all of those are different.”
Instead of differentiating between games specifically, the Commission said operators should take actions “linked to the nature of the gambling provided”.
This could offer some leeway for operators of slower-paced games, but Cleary said a lack of specificity was not going to help create a framework where gambling can be safer for all.
“It really lacked definition for some of the concepts, so you’re really being asked to give your opinion about something, but exactly what you’re asked isn’t defined,” he says. “That means you sort of have to interpret what they mean.”
This lack of specificity, he notes, extended to the term “time spent gambling”, which he says has a number of plausible definitions and no guidance on which one to use.
“They talk about time spent gambling, which could be defined in so many different ways,” he continues. “It could be time logged in, it could be time spent within the banking client, it could be active gameplay, there’s a lot of different ways of defining it.”
Again, Cleary warns that the way the consultation is worded risks placing especially strict limits – which may be more appropriate for online slots – on bingo. As bingo’s more social gameplay
differs from the relatively isolated nature of slots, time spent in the bingo client may include as much interaction with other players as it does gambling.
“It’s not just how you play and how much you spend,” Cleary says. “In bingo there’s a lot of social interaction, a lot of time spent just in the chat and that isn’t gameplay: it’s just social interaction.
“People have been starved for social interaction lately too; that definitely needs to be considered.”
A question of implementation
Stronger differentiations between games need not only make sense, however, they must be able to be implemented by operators.
Sweden has shown that limits on certain types of game could potentially be troublesome. There, many in the industry decried the challenges of bringing in a SEK5000 (£428/€476/$540) deposit cap that applied only to online casino games, and operators including ATG have faced discipline for inadvertent loopholes that allowed the limit to be easily circumvented.
Yet Cleary is confident that rules dealing mostly with one specific type of game can be implemented smoothly.
He notes the example of £2 stake limits for fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) as one example of the Gambling Commission creating rules for only one type of gambling already.
“It’s been done before,” he says. “A couple of years ago the gambling commission delved into the world of FOBTs and came up with new rules just for those, and those rules were probably appropriate for the time.
“So, it can be done, you can create rules just for one type of gambling. You don’t need to treat every type of gambling the same way and in fact if you do so it doesn’t recognise that these games are fundamentally different.
“Yes, that was in a retail environment, but I don’t think that matters. The game design changes set to come in are all about online slots, a particular type of online activity. Where there’s a will there’s a way, and just because there’s been challenges elsewhere, I don’t think they have to be repeated here.”
Like many who have raised concerns about potential affordability thresholds, Cleary warns that the black market may stand to benefit from stricter regulations, meaning players may be placed at greater risk.
Yet there may be signs already that this risk may be stronger in bingo that with other game types.
Professional services firm PriceWaterHouseCoopers’ BGC-commissioned report into the British online black market found not only an increase in unlicensed play, but also that this increase was fastest in bingo.
According to the report, bingo saw a more rapid increase in the number of players using unlicensed sites than any other vertical, and a larger percentage of bingo spend, at 4.3%, came from these sites than in any other game category.
Cleary says the fact the report showed an increase in overall black market play was worrying. He adds that he’s concerned the unintended consequences of the proposed limits could be harmful to player protection if his warnings aren’t heeded.
“There’s a real risk here that we drive more and more people to unregulated, illegal black market gambling sites,” Cleary said. “The risks of this have possibly been downplayed by politicians and the gambling commission as this latest report indicated a significant rise in the total number of people playing with illegal sites.
“There can be unintended consequences so what’s designed to improve the area of responsible gambling can end up having the opposite effect.