Should adverts for social casino games be covered by gambling regulations?

Lord of the Rings slot machines at the Flamingo, image by jenneze (Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0). Unlike gambling played for real money, “social casino games” generally have no monetary prizes.

Social casino gaming, which simulates gambling games on a social platform such as Facebook, is a nascent but rapidly growing industry—social casino game revenues grew 97 percent between 2012 and 2013, with a USD$3.5 billion market size by the end of 2015. Unlike gambling played for real money, social casino games generally have no monetary prizes and are free-to-play, although they may include some optional monetised features. The size of the market and users’ demonstrated interest in gambling-themed activities mean that social casino gamers are an attractive market for many gambling operators, and several large international gambling companies have merged with social casino game operators.

Some operators consider the games to be a source of additional revenue in jurisdictions where online gambling is largely illegal, or a way to attract new customers to a land-based gambling venue. Hybrid models are also emerging, with the potential for tangible rewards for playing social casino games. This merging of gaming and gambling means that many previously established boundaries are becoming blurred, and at many points, the two are indistinguishable.

However, content analysis of game content and advertising can help researchers, industry, and policymakers better understand how the two entertainment forms overlap. In their Policy & Internet article “Gambling Games on Social Platforms: How Do Advertisements for Social Casino Games Target Young Adults?“, Brett Abarbanel, Sally M. Gainsbury, Daniel King, Nerilee Hing, and Paul H. Delfabbro undertake a content analysis of 115 social casino gaming advertisements captured by young adults during their regular Internet use. They find advertisement imagery typically features images likely to appeal to young adults, with message themes including a glamorising and normalisation of gambling. Notably, nearly 90 percent of the advertisements contained no responsible or problem gambling language, despite the gambling-like content.

Gambling advertisements currently face much stricter restrictions on exposure and distribution than do social casino game advertisements: despite the latter containing much gambling-themed content designed to attract consumers. Given the receptivity of young people to messages that encourage gambling, the authors recommend that gaming companies embrace corporate social responsibility standards, including adding warning messages to advertisements for gambling-themed games. They hope that their qualitative research may complement existing quantitative findings, and facilitate discussions about appropriate policies for advertisements for social casino games and other gambling-themed games.

We caught up with Brett to discuss their findings:

Ed.: You say there are no policies related to the advertising of social casino games—why is this? And do you think this will change?

Brett: Social casino games are regulated under general consumer regulations, but there are no specific regulations for these types of games and they do not fall under gambling regulation. Although several gambling regulatory bodies have considered these games, as they do not require payment to play and prizes have no monetary value they are not considered gambling activities. Where the games include branding for gambling companies or are considered advertising, they may fall under relevant legislation. Currently it is up to individual consumers to consider if they are relevant, which includes parents considering their children’s’ use of the games.

Ed.: Is there work on whether these sorts of games actually encourage gambling behaviour? As opposed to gambling behaviour simply pre-existing—i.e. people are either gamblers or not, susceptible or not.

Brett: We have conducted previous research showing that almost one-fifth of adults who played social casino games had gambled for money as a direct result of these games. Research also found that two-thirds of adolescents who had paid money to play social casino games had gambled directly as a result of these games. This builds on other international research suggesting that there is a pathway between games and gambling. For some people, the games are perceived to be a way to ‘try out’ or practice gambling without money and most are motivated to gamble due to the possibility of winning real money. For some people with gambling problems, the games can trigger the urge to gamble, although for others, the games are used as a way to avoid gambling in an attempt to cut back. The pathway is complicated and needs further specific research, including longitudinal studies.

Ed.: Possibly a stupid question: you say social games are a huge and booming market, despite being basically free to play. Where does the revenue come from?

Brett: Not a stupid question at all! When something is free, of course it makes sense to question where the money comes from. The revenue in these business models comes from advertisements and players. The advertisement revenue model is similar to other revenue models, but the player revenue model, which is based largely on micropayments, is a major component of how these games make money. Players can typically play free, and micropayments are voluntary. However, when they run out of free chips, players have to wait to continue to play, or they can purchase additional chips.

The micropayments can also improve game experience, such as to obtain in-game items, as a temporary boost in the game, to add lives/strength/health to an avatar or game session, or unlock the next stage in the game. In social casino games, for example, micropayments can be made to acquire more virtual chips with which to play the slot game. Our research suggests that only a small fraction of the player base actually makes micropayments, and a smaller fraction of these pay very large amounts. Since many of these games are free to play, but one can pay to advance through game in certain ways, they have colloquially been referred to as “freemium” games.

Ed.: I guess social media (like Facebook) are a gift to online gambling companies: i.e. being able to target (and A/B test) their adverts to particular population segments? Are there any studies on the intersection of social media, gambling and behavioural data / economics?

Brett: There is a reasonable cross-over in social casino game players and gamblers – our Australian research found 25% of Internet and 5% of land-based gamblers used social casino games and US studies show around one-third of social casino gamers visit land-based casinos. Many of the most popular and successful social casino games are owned by companies that also operate gambling, in venues and online. Some casino companies offer social casino games to continue to engage with customers when they are not in the venue and may offer prizes that can be redeemed in venues. Games may allow gambling companies to test out how popular games will be before they put them in venues. Although, as most players do not pay to play social casino games, they may engage with these differently from gambling products.

Ed.: We’ve seen (with the “fake news” debate) social media companies claiming to simply be a conduit to others’ content, not content providers themselves. What do they say in terms of these social games: I’m assuming they would either claim that they aren’t gambling, or that they aren’t responsible for what people use social media for?

Brett: We don’t want to speak for the social media companies themselves, and they appear to leave quite a bit up to the game developers. Advertising standards have become more lax on gambling games—the example we give in our article is Google, who had a strict policy against advertisements for gambling-related content in the Google Play store but in February 2015 began beta testing advertisements for social casino games. In some markets where online gambling is restricted, online gambling sites offer ‘free’ social casino games that link to real money sites as a way to reach these markets.

Ed.: I guess this is just another example of the increasingly attention-demanding, seductive, sexualised, individually targeted, ubiquitous, behaviourally attuned, monetised environment we (and young children) find ourselves in. Do you think we should be paying attention to this trend (e.g. noticing the close link between social gaming and gambling) or do you think we’ll all just muddle along as we’ve always done? Is this disturbing, or simply people doing what they enjoy doing?

Brett: We should certainly be paying attention to this trend, but don’t think the activity of social casino games is disturbing. A big part of the goal here is awareness, followed by conscious action. We would encourage companies to take more care in controlling who accesses their games and to whom their advertisements are targeted. As you note, David, we are in such a highly-targeted, specified state of advertising. As a result, we should, theoretically, be able to avoid marketing games to young kids. Companies should also certainly be mindful of the potential effect of cartoon games. We don’t automatically assign a sneaky, underhanded motive to the industry, but at the same time there is a percentage of the population that is at risk for gambling problems and we don’t want to exacerbate the situation by inadvertently advertising to young people, who are more susceptible to this type of messaging.

Read the full article: Abarbanel, B., Gainsbury, S.M., King, D., Hing, N., and Delfabbro, P.H. (2017) Gambling Games on Social Platforms: How Do Advertisements for Social Casino Games Target Young Adults? Policy & Internet 9 (2). DOI: 10.1002/poi3.135.

Brett Abarbanel was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

Is internet gaming as addictive as gambling? (no, suggests a new study)

New research by Andrew Przybylski (OII, Oxford University), Netta Weinstein (Cardiff University), and Kou Murayama (Reading University) published today in the American Journal of Psychiatry suggests that very few of those who play internet-based video games have symptoms suggesting they may be addicted. The article also says that gaming, though popular, is unlikely to be as addictive as gambling. Two years ago the APA identified a critical need for good research to look into whether internet gamers run a risk of becoming addicted and asked how such an addiction might be diagnosed properly. To the authors’ knowledge, these are the first findings from a large-scale project to produce robust evidence on the potential new problem of “internet gaming disorder”.

The authors surveyed 19,000 men and women from nationally representative samples from the UK, the United States, Canada and Germany, with over half saying they had played internet games recently. Out of the total sample, 1% of young adults (18-24 year olds) and 0.5% of the general population (aged 18 or older) reported symptoms linking play to possible addictive behaviour—less than half of recently reported rates for gambling.

They warn that researchers studying the potential “darker sides” of Internet-based games must be cautious. Extrapolating from their data, as many as a million American adults might meet the proposed DSM-5 criteria for addiction to online games—representing a large cohort of people struggling with what could be clinically dysregulated behaviour. However, because the authors found no evidence supporting a clear link to clinical outcomes, they warn that more evidence for clinical and behavioural effects is needed before concluding that this is a legitimate candidate for inclusion in future revisions of the DSM. If adopted, Internet gaming disorder would vie for limited therapeutic resources with a range of serious psychiatric disorders.

Read the full article: Andrew K. Przybylski, Netta Weinstein, Kou Murayama (2016) Internet Gaming Disorder: Investigating the Clinical Relevance of a New Phenomenon. American Journal of Psychiatry. Published online: November 04, 2016.

We caught up with Andy to explore the broader implications of the study:

Ed.: Is “gaming addiction” or “Internet addition” really a thing? e.g. is it something dreamed up by politicians / media people, or is it something that has been discussed and reported by psychiatrists and GPs on the ground?

Andy: Although internet addiction started as a joke about the pathologising of everyday behaviours, popular fears have put it on the map for policymakers and researchers. In other words, thinking about potential disorders linked to the internet, gaming, and technology have taken on a life of their own.

Ed.: Two years ago the APA identified “a critical need for good research to look into whether internet gamers run a risk of becoming addicted” and asked how such an addiction might be diagnosed properly (i.e. using a checklist of symptoms). What other work or discussion has come out of that call?

Andy: In recent years two groups of researchers have emerged, one arguing there is an international consensus about the potential disorder based on the checklist, the second arguing that it is problematic to pathologise internet gaming. This second group says we don’t understand enough about gaming to know if it’s any different from other hobbies, like being a sports fan. They’re concerned that it could lead other activities to be classified as pathological. Our study set out to test if the checklist approach works, a rigorous test of the APA call for research using the symptoms proposed.

Ed.: Do fears (whether founded or not) of addiction overlap at all with fears of violent video games perhaps altering players’ behaviour? Or are they very clearly discussed and understood as very separate issues?

Andy: Although the fears do converge, the evidence does not. There is a general view that some people might be more liable to be influenced by the addictive or violent aspects of gaming but this remains an untested assumption. In both areas the quality of the evidence base needs critical improvement before the work is valuable for policymakers and mental health professionals.

Ed.: And what’s the broad landscape like in this area—i.e. who are the main players, stakeholders, and pressure points?

Andy: In addition to the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-5), the World Health Organisation is considering formalising Gaming Disorder as a potential mental health issue in the next revision of the International Classifications of Disease (ICD) tool. There is a movement among researchers (myself included based on this research) to urge caution rushing to create new behavioural addition based on gaming for the ICD-11. It is likely that including gaming addiction will do more harm than good by confusing an already complex and under developed research area.

Ed.: And lastly, asking the researcher—do we have enough data and analysis to be able to discuss this sensibly and scientifically? What would a “definitive answer” to this question look like to you—and is it achievable?

Andy: The most important thing to understand about this research area is that there is very little high quality evidence. Generally speaking there are two kinds of empirical studies in the social and clinical sciences, exploratory studies and confirmatory ones. Most of the evidence about gaming addiction to date is exploratory, that is the analyses reported represent what ‘sticks to the wall’ after the data is collected. This isn’t a good evidence for health policy.

Our studies represent the first confirmatory research on gaming addiction. We pre-registered how we were going to collect and analyse our data before we saw it. We collected large representative samples and tested a priori hypotheses. This makes a big difference in the kinds of inferences you can draw and the value of the work to policymakers. We hope our work represents the first of many studies on technology effects that put open data, open code, and a pre-registered analysis plans at the centre of science in this area. Until the research field adopts these high standards we will not have accurate definitive answers about Internet Gaming Disorder.

Read the full article: Andrew K. Przybylski, Netta Weinstein, Kou Murayama (2016) Internet Gaming Disorder: Investigating the Clinical Relevance of a New Phenomenon. American Journal of Psychiatry. Published online: November 04, 2016.

Andy was talking to David Sutcliffe, Managing Editor of the Policy blog.