I wrote a piece for eGaming Review on the RGT research, which went into their most recent issue in the form of a shorter interview. I didn’t want to publish it here until the magazine was out, for obvious reasons, so if you wondered why I didn’t write anything on the topic at the time, that’s why. Here is the full piece now though. Happy New Year, by the way.
Following years of the same old discussions around the topic, it is possible that December has at last seen a paradigm shift in the problem gambling debate. Just as this edition of eGR was going to press, the Responsible Gambling Trust published research that analysed more than seven billion interactions between customers and product. Commissioned from the boffins at Featurespace who specialise in behavioural analytics, its ground-breaking conclusion was that stake sizes are not a relevant indicator for potential issues, and therefore that limiting them is not the silver-bullet solution that some often suggest. The implications of that could be profound.
Given that the research was based on machines found in shops – FOBTs – you might immediately ask what relevance it has to the online gambling sector. Indeed, you might argue that if it has any at all, it is bad news for internet-only operators because the pressure on the Government to introduce a capon stakes is likely to ease. On the face of it, any restrictions on FOBTs should be a boon to internet gaming, which is well-placed to suck up any latent demand; so anything that makes restrictions less likely can hardly be a good thing.
But the oft-repeated truism about FOBTs is that there is limited point in making restrictive rules around what can be done on machines in shops when smartphones allow everyone to carry a host of unrestricted games around in their pocket; and it is because of that, that the research should have everyone in the online industry sitting up and taking note. The reality of FOBTs is that while any stake limit will probably result in a short-term boost for eGaming, the medium-to-long-term prospects are inevitably that restrictive legislation will be carried across. If limiting stakes is seen as a way of protecting the vulnerable in shops, then it will not be long before it is introduced as a protection in cyberspace – a restriction which is no longer difficult to enforce under the new UK licensing requirements. In other words, the RGT research has significant implications for just about anyone reading this magazine.
As with all reports, though, it is what gaming companies do next that will set the landscape. The report’s conclusion that limiting stake sizes across the board is ineffective will doubtless be welcomed across the industry, which will also play down the apparently alarming revelation that 23% of regular gamblers are deemed to have issues with playing. The defence there is simple enough: the number is so much larger than previous ones because it is a percentage of regular players rather than of the overall population.
But while the response from operators is likely to draw on both these facts in the coming weeks, the real prize for them lies in the fact that Featurespace’s research does more than simply improve the diagnosis of the problem. Far from just looking at past data, it also offers a way forward by predicting future behaviour, based on the interactions that it has already observed. That kind of methodology means that the machine it has built will get better and better the more information that is fed into it. It will intelligently design solutions to prevent people from approaching, let along falling into, the problem gambling hole.
This is the really good news for people on both sides of the problem gambling debate. Both sledgehammer solutions – blanket legislation which impacts everyone in order to protect the minority who need it – and unrealistic ones (such as collaboration inter-operator and between them and the banks, mooted on Five Live as I have been typing) have for a long time dominated the political debate.
In response, the industry has really only been able to point at the potential wider collateral impact of introducing such broad solutions, without having a better alternative to offer. But now, for the first time, it can implement something that can make a real difference to the vulnerable without impacting other customers. It should embrace and invest in the new technology that exists, and apply it across the whole spectrum of its online gaming product, grasping what is perhaps the first real opportunity in a decade to get significantly ahead of the game.