The igaming industry has always been at the forefront of new technology, using it to great effect for innovative product offerings and marketing, but it’s now deploying it to promote the responsibility agenda. Joanne Christie looks at the new wave of tools and apps developed to support operators’ fight against problem gambling against a backdrop of intensifying scrutiny from regulators and the media.
Last year the chief executive of the UK’s Gambling Commission, Sarah Harrison, said the application of big data was one area in which UK operators were failing customers and she questioned why they were not using the same advanced data analytics techniques to detect problem gambling that they used for marketing.
Raian Ali, associate professor in computing and project lead at Bournemouth University’s EROGamb project, expresses a similar view. “This is exactly the point we are making to operators — the data you have for marketing, can you make it available for responsible gambling?
“You are making that available to a marketing person to know how to personalise a promotional offer, can you make that available to us? And not just to us but also to the gambler so they can decide to share that with a responsible gaming app.”
The EROGamb project, funded jointly by the university and Gamble Aware, is aimed at educating gamblers on their behaviour and designing real-time interventions to ensure it does not become problematic.
The project may be in its infancy – so far only one UK-licensed operator has given it access to its application programming interface (API), although a couple of others have also assisted with the research — but the results are encouraging, says Ali.
“The initial findings of our research reveal that a wide range of online gambling behaviour data is indeed useful for tailoring a good plan and guiding gamblers through it.
This includes the history of login and log out, moving between sections and game types, time spent online, offers made to them while navigating, such as cashout, if they navigated through the site and the gambling app while an event with in-play is running, etc.
The research also revealed that streaming this online behaviour to a gambling therapist or to their surrogate responsible gambling software in real time empowers the suitability, the personalisation and the relevance of the intervention.”
A key point for the researchers, says Ali, is the real-time element, and this is something Swedish-listed operator Kindred has also recognised as important in its responsible gambling efforts.
“One area of focus is real-time solutions because it’s critical to take action as soon as a customer shows signs of problem gambling. Our data platform allows us to analyse customers’ behaviour while they are onsite and take action in a fraction of a second,” says Maris Bonello, Kindred’s integrity analytics manager.
Svenska Spel’s CSR director Zenita Strandänger says the Swedish monopoly’s Playscan tool analyses the real-time data it collects to encourage players to stay within safe gambling limits. “Playscan is built on finding people before they develop a problem.
“We send messages saying things like ‘we see you, we see you have changed your behaviour’ to try to motivate people to change.”
Svenska Spel also uses the information collected by Playscan to guide its marketing efforts, she says. “In Playscan we have six levels but you have two in each colour: two greens, two yellows and two reds.
“One thing we are using the Playscan data for is to take the red players away from our direct marketing so we are not sending any direct marketing to them.”
Similarly, Bonello says that at Kindred “when a customer is flagged as a potential problem gambler this is recorded on our central data platform to ensure they don’t receive any marketing communications or promotions”.
But although the efforts of Kindred and Svenska Spel undoubtedly help some people to manage their gambling, in other cases they may come too late.
A 2015 study of Playscan by GamRes experts Richard Wood and Michael Wohl, in which Playscan users were sent behavioural feedback about their gambling, found that such interventions were more useful for those less at risk.
“The main focus should be on assisting at-risk players [ie yellow] to regain control over their playing behaviour, whereas red [potentially problematic] players may already be at the point where RG efforts will be less helpful than more serious interventions such as treatment referral and self-exclusion,” says the study.
Prevention better than cure, education even better?
In an effort to prevent problem gambling, some online operators are taking cues from other industries, using tools such as artificial intelligence and machine learning to help them predict which players may develop a problem.
Bonello says this an area in which she expects further growth: “A development we are seeing across many sectors and industries at the moment is the use of machine learning. At Kindred we see the potential this has to help with problem gambling identification and have a number of initiatives underway.
“The basic idea of machine learning is that you give a computer access to data and let the computer learn for itself using algorithms that you have given it.
“Applying this to responsible gambling means that we try to predict if someone is showing signs of problem gambling based on what we know about other customers who have been flagged up as problem gamblers.
“The benefit of this approach is the more data you give the machine the better it gets at the task in hand.”
Other operators are building out their analytics and data science capabilities. UK operator Rank, for example, has expanded heavily in this area in recent years and has had a dedicated data scientist working on responsible gambling for more than two years.
One of the newest tools in the responsible gambling arena — the SlotGuru app — is using education to try to make sure new players do not develop problems. “SlotGuru is a preventative problem gambling tool,” says co-founder Stuart Armstrong.
“If you look at most environments there is material there for a problem gambler to improve their issues but it is effectively asking that player to recognise they’ve got a problem. With our app the whole purpose of it is to educate people from the outset.”
The app has information about more than 2,700 slot games and includes a speedometer that rates the volatility of games from ultra low to very high.
The idea behind it is that it’s difficult to tell what kind of experience a slot game offers – for example, whether or not a game offers the chance to win big but is correspondingly likely to burn through cash quickly, or if a game is better suited to the type of player who wants to prolong the experience by taking smaller risks and accepting smaller wins.
“You can’t possibly know what kind of experience you are going to have just by looking at a machine itself or looking at the content, because it doesn’t tell you,” says Armstrong.
“The idea is to give players an understanding of the type of experience you can get from different types of slot machines and if you’re aware of what type of experience you are going to get then you are in a position to manage your gambling.
“What I think tends to cause a problem for people is that they have experiences they weren’t expecting and from those experiences they develop frustration and anger and that is where a problem begins.”
Since launching in Aspers Casino in January, SlotGuru has been attracting an increasing amount of interest, but thus far it has mainly been from land-based operators. However, as part of a deal it announced with Genting UK in September, the app is also available on Genting’s online casino.
Armstrong says for the online operators the main concern is customer loyalty. “One of the challenges that the online operators see is that if I log in to a standard online gaming account they clearly don’t want me to move away from that.
“I don’t think it is the fact that the information isn’t pertinent or isn’t valuable, I think it is just the fact that if it allows people to navigate away from that page I don’t think that they are that comfortable with that.
“Going forward, I think it will evolve and we may end up in a situation where we integrate with these operators or offer the same functionality, but as part of their product offer.”
There are also competitive concerns stopping igaming operators providing their data to gambling apps, such as the one that Ali’s team is developing. He says that their fears in this regard are partly understandable.
“They are afraid that if any third party gets this data from a large number of gamblers it becomes a competitive disadvantage because they know their secret.
“For example, if we capture the data about cashout during in-play betting we could reverse engineer the offers being given to a number of users and know their strategy on how they cash out. So we could use it another way and tell the gambler, ‘Wait a minute and you will get a better cashout.’”
But Ali says contracts between providers can easily alleviate these concerns and that, crucially, by allowing responsible gambling apps access to their APIs then public relations disasters, such as the technical failure at 888 that allowed vulnerable people to gamble and earlier this year led to a record £7.8m fine from the Gambling Commission, could be avoided.
“It could have helped 888 because if they have an API that allows a responsible gambling app on someone’s behalf to press that button they will be self-excluded automatically.”
After the 888 fine and the seemingly endless FOBT debate, the last thing the igaming industry needs is more bad press.
However, according to Mark Knighton, the founder of Obsidian Consulting who recently helped Mr. Green launch its responsible gambling tool and who was instrumental in Svenska Spel’s early efforts to market Playscan, although many private operators have not historically done enough to protect their customers, this is slowly changing.
“When we originally went out to sell Playscan there was a huge difference in the mindset of state providers and private operators. The state-run lotteries had more of a vested interest in looking after their own citizens so they understood the whole RG CSR straight away.
“The private sector mindset back then was profit before responsibility. It was about making money now while the sun shines. The feeling within the private sector among the operators was ‘we will do what our regulator tells us to do but we don’t need to do anything more’.
“I think that these days this doesn’t fly. It is not acceptable and that is where you are now seeing a number of private operators going above and beyond regulatory requirements.
“There has been a massive witch-hunt by the media against the gambling companies and I think if they don’t change or they don’t protect themselves they are going to have a difficult future, especially the online sector.”
Long term, there are also commercial benefits, says Knighton. “If you are looking at the sustainability of your revenue and your player base, it costs so much money to buy players these days, and high-risk players or potentially problematic players are a big risk to your business.”
Svenska Spel’s Strandänger has a similar view. “We always said that we should put responsibility before profit. Gaming enjoyment is based on responsibility and in the short term you can lose money on the revenue. But in the long run you have a more sustainable customer.”
Interestingly, it seems to be the Scandinavian operators that are leading in this respect. They are even willing to forge some unlikely partnerships to further the responsible gaming agenda. In Iceland, for example, two rival operators, the University of Iceland and Islandsspil, have joined forces to launch SlotGuru in the country.
But that’s not to say that there aren’t still barriers to getting people to sign up to responsible gambling tools, says Strandänger. “It isn’t always easy to get new customers sign on to Playscan because they have to make a lot of choices.
“They have to say OK to the rules, OK to the marketing and things like that and then they also have to say OK to Playscan and if they are just beginning they might say, ‘Well I’m only joining to play the lottery once a week, I don’t need this tool.’”
Regardless of the challenges of engaging players, SlotGuru’s Armstrong predicts the responsible gambling message is set to become ubiquitous.
“If you look at some of the other major things that you will find in society, such as smoking and drinking, everything about smoking and drinking is now about making people aware of the results of overindulging in those things.
“So everyone is very aware that if you smoke significant amounts it is going to be detrimental to your health. Gambling will go exactly the same way. It has to be that way.”
Given the slew of recent announcements about large igaming operators investing in responsible gambling tools or apps, it does appear that the igaming industry is recognising this.
Whether or not it is doing so quickly enough to appease regulators and the anti-gambling media remains to be seen.