Responsible Gaming Leaders

AGEM Responsible Gaming Director Connie Jones and Alan Feldman, chairman of the National Center for Responsible Gaming, before an interview inside the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Las Vegas.

Focus on Education and Awareness to Curb Problem Gambling

It’s been almost two decades since casino gaming industry leaders in the U.S. determined they did not want to go down the path of the tobacco industry and try to sweep the issue of problem gambling under the rug.

Instead, top gaming industry executives led by former American Gaming Association CEO Frank Fahrenkopf Jr. took a stand that they would instead do their best to address the problem head on with responsible gaming initiatives by helping create an organization—the National Center for Responsible Gaming (NCRG)—to foster independent research into the issue of problem gambling. Back then, gaming had not spread across the country in the dramatic fashion it has today, but it was expanding, and officials knew it would be important to be able to answer questions about the effects of gaming and to separate fact from fiction.

The industry has come a long way since then, and much more research is being conducted into problem gambling. There are now many initiatives to educate and raise awareness of the issue. It remains a major priority for the industry, and organizations such as the Association of Gaming Equipment Manufacturers (AGEM) and the American Gaming Association (AGA) continue to reinvest and recommit themselves to the issue.

Responsible Beginnings
NCRG Chairman Alan Feldman said the public still isn’t paying enough attention to this issue and to what the industry has accomplished.

“I think when anyone in the public pays attention, they’ll see that the industry has acted very responsibly and in fact has moved this entire topic forward almost singlehandedly in the United States because there has been such a dearth of government interest in the topic,” he said.

Feldman, who has been involved with the gaming industry-funded organization since its creation in 1996, draws parallels to how gaming and alcoholic beverage industries handled responsibility campaigns. NCRG is devoted to funding independent peer-reviewed research on pathological and youth gambling.

“For better or worse, we had some good examples of what we were trying to do as an industry,” Feldman said. The industry also knew what it didn’t want to model itself after—and that was the tobacco industry. Instead, the industry took a page from the alcoholic beverage industry and embarked on the responsible gaming path it is still on today.

The alcoholic beverage industry went through a similar path. Beer, wine and spirits companies pulled together to be very upfront about responsible behavior with alcohol and alcoholism. “By the time the whole issue had become more public, there was already a bigger understanding of alcoholism as a disease, and they understood their role as communicators was to tell their customers there is a responsible way to use this product and therefore there are ways that are irresponsible,” Feldman said.

“And that’s been a big part of the work of the NCRG has been, absent government research, of which there was virtually none, into gambling issues, in creating a greater understanding of what the actual problem is,” he said. “And we view the fact that it’s now been named as an addiction in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition) as a huge victory, because scientifically you could see that coming.”

Those early days weren’t easy.“There was a huge amount of skepticism,” Feldman said, noting the NCRG’s first grant recipient Howard Shaffer, Ph.D., Harvard University, “took a lot of slings and arrows toward his reputation and his integrity that were unfounded and unfair, but to his credit he stuck it out.”

“I think early on there was great skepticism, and I think now anyone who looks at the work now sees that it has the utmost integrity,” he said.

One of the advancements NCRG fostered was expanding the field of study, something Shaffer had indicated would be an important benchmark of success, Feldman said.

One way it has done that is to reach out to younger scientists. Several years ago the NCRG’s Scientific Advisory Committee came to the trustees to request funds for “Young Investigator Awards” to encourage young researchers to submit areas of research they would carry out if funded.

“And this past year, we had a special event for young investigators,” that drew some 30 researchers from UCLA, Duke University, University of Washington, Florida State and many other universities. “That’s exhilarating because they have questions that sometimes us who have been around for a while have just not thought to ask, and there’s money out there now for them to get a grant and go figure it out,” Feldman said.

Education and Awareness
In addition to its support of research, the industry has been extremely active with responsible gaming initiatives, including ongoing education and awareness efforts within casinos, communities and jurisdictions where gaming operates.

In January, AGEM appointed its first-ever Director of Responsible Gaming—Connie Jones, a 20-year gaming industry veteran who previously served as Director of Responsible Gaming for International Game Technology.

“Appointing Connie to the position of AGEM Director of Responsible Gaming is a natural extension of our organization’s efforts and a reflection of the growing influence of AGEM,” AGEM President Thomas Jingoli said at the time of Jones’ appointment. “She is widely considered the pre-eminent expert from the supplier side on problem gambling issues and will continue to be at the forefront of an issue our industry is committed to addressing in a smart and thoughtful way.”

Since its formation in 2000, AGEM has contributed more than $1 million to organizations such as the NCRG, the National Council on Problem Gaming (NCPG), The Problem Gambling Center, the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling and GamCare in the United Kingdom.

Jones has been dedicated exclusively to responsible gaming for the last 15 years. Among her tasks for AGEM will be to create the AGEM Responsible Gaming Policy and Plan, quarterly reports on responsible gaming technologies and their business implications, and representation of AGEM at industry events, conferences and trade shows.

Research into problem gambling shows that 2 to 3 percent of the U.S. gambling population is affected by problem gaming, with the other 97 to 98 percent enjoying gambling without negative consequences, she said.

“The best thing I feel in my years of experience to help protect that 2 to 3 percent is education and awareness,” Jones said. “Many people don’t really realize that problem gambling can be as serious as it is, and the National Council on Problem Gambling and the National Center for Responsible Gaming,—that’s the AGA’s charitable arm—do a tremendous job of raising awareness, and there are NCPG affiliate councils in 35 states and we work with those states and with those councils.”

Jones said her role provides a bridge of communication between the gambling industry, specifically the technology providers and the problem gambling and responsible gaming community, which is made up of researchers, treatment professionals and advocacy groups.

“The industry is not expected to solve this problem but we are expected to try,” Jones said. “One  of the interesting things that we’ve seen is that in a jurisdiction where you have gambling expansion, there may be an increase in problem gambling, but then as the population becomes accustomed to it, then the rate drops back down again to about that 2 to 3 percent so it’s kind of logical if you think about it.”

Increasing industry visibility on responsible gaming is important, according to AGA President and CEO Geoff Freeman, who took the helm of the association last summer.

“I’ve been here now about 10 months, and one of the things that has been striking to me is how a lot of antiquated claims about the gaming industry continue to dominate discussion in the media and among critics, things about crime and prostitution and drugs and all this stuff—all stuff that we can easily refute, and the AGA is going to take a much more active role in refuting those claims because the facts speak otherwise,” Freeman said in April. “The one issue that holds merit is the issue of addiction—not for a large population but for a small portion of the gambling public, there’s an issue of addiction, and it’s one that we as an industry need to continue to take head on.”

He noted the AGA is also exploring the possibility of bringing in its own director of responsible gaming to increase its activity in this area.

“This is one area that needs to be taken very seriously to help those in need to make sure the industry has the tools that it needs and to make sure the policy makers are aware of the steps that the industry is taking to make further improvements in this area. I see this as a high priority going forward,” he said, noting it could happen later this year or early next year.

Jones explained that her role in the past has been more global in nature because other jurisdictions have attempted to deploy many more consumer protections involving machines and technology.

“Through AGEM, we work with new gaming jurisdictions to help them understand the technology—this is what it can do; this is what it can’t do,” she said.

It sometimes may seem like a simple fix to those unfamiliar with the technology just to add such features to machines, but it’s often much more complex, particularly when the measures aim for pre-commitment tools about the amount they’re going to wager, net wins and losses and more, she said.

Jones closely monitors proposed regulations in the U.S. and abroad. “We’re seeing now in the United States for the first time attempts to modify the machine to track behavior as a means to protection,” she said. The question is whether measures that affect the gaming machine operations by incorporating tools for “pre-commitment” or other harm minimization measures can be effective tools, she said.

Jones cited as an example Massachusetts’ draft Responsible Gaming Framework. “So very often we’re seeing with responsible gaming efforts that there are noble intentions and unintended consequences,” she said. “It’s one of the most comprehensive research projects in association with this gaming expansion to try to understand problem gambling better, but this framework would require all players to carry a player’s card with responsible gaming tools on them.”

The card could be mandatory or it could be voluntary. “And anecdotally we’re hearing that many of the more enthusiastic and potentially problem players will go to the bother to get a card while many of the casual recreational players will not go to the trouble. This may result in narrowing your player base to being less healthy,” she said.

There are also potential privacy issues associated with such a card, such as who has access to the behavioral information on it. In addition, the framework also is contemplating sending win-loss statements to a person’s home. That too could be problematic, Jones said.

Freeman has been highly critical of the Massachusetts’ proposed framework.

“The Massachusetts Gaming Commission draft recommendations seem to value anecdote and inclination over proven science,” he said in a recent statement. “Not only are these proposals unlikely to aid vulnerable populations, they are likely to negatively impact the playing experience of the more than 97 percent of the Americans that gamble responsibly.”

Jones noted that in Canada, a country that is very forward-thinking when it comes to responsible gaming, there have been efforts to employ machine modifications to help problem gamblers, but the jury is still out on how effective such measures are. “Anecdotally we’re hearing in those jurisdictions where they have required players to carry a player card with the responsible gaming tools in order to play the machines, per machine revenues have dropped more than 17 percent,” Jones said. “And there’s no empirical evidence to really show that that type of machine modification is effective in reducing problem gambling prevalence.”

VLTs in Canada also have responsible gaming features that give players a certain amount of time on the device before they must take a break.

“So when the player sits down, depending how long they want to play up to two hours, there’s a little digital clock that shows the time of day, the credits are all shown in cash amounts so players don’t get confused, and there’s this little pop-up reminder” that tells the player how much time he or she has left to play and do you wish to continue, Jones said. “Has that changed problem gambling prevalence? I’ve not seen any research to show that it has changed or made any difference. At the end of their play time it says you must now cash out, and so then they cash out but then they can just go to the next machine.”

Players do appreciate the fact that protections like that one don’t require the person to be identified, she said. But, Jones explained she spoke with a problem gambler in Las Vegas who scoffed at the notion of such measures, saying if she was nearing an end of a session, it would only compel her to bet more. “She was a retired teacher and she said, ‘If I saw that little clock showed me I had a minute left to play, and I was down $400, I’d double my bet,’” Jones said.

Feldman understands why officials in new jurisdictions act cautiously. “They want to make it safe because they’re public policy people, and after all they’re not looking to harm anyone,” he said. “They want to minimize harm, and, look, that’s a very noble goal. Unfortunately, more often than not, these things have turned out to cause more harm than good.”

Often, Feldman added, licensed operators in markets where there is legal gambling can play a big part in helping define what proper responsible gaming is, through responsible gaming awareness and education efforts.

“I think all companies need to act responsibly. I also think our customers need to act responsibly and I think that we need to help define what that is, and if there are things we can do better,” Feldman said. “I think generally speaking, you do your best to prevent harm while allowing most people to get on with their lives.”

He noted that the NCRG’s Shaffer has studied the effects of adding licensed casino gaming to a new jurisdiction. “What he found was that in markets where there was virtually no gambling at all, there was a very slight increase in reported problems for about the first six months, and then it modulated and went back down to its normal rate,” he said.

Another issue often raised as an area of concern is online gaming. With Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware all now offering online gaming and many other states are considering legalizing Internet gaming, concerns have been raised about problem gambling, Jones said.

In many ways, however, it may be much easier to implement tools for players to control their gambling behavior in the interactive online space. “They can actually self-exclude on the Internet in a legalized program, and that has been one of the arguments for Internet gambling,” Jones said, adding the technology also allows for other tools to prevent unauthorized and underage gambling online.

Concerns have been raised that problem gambling will explode if Internet gambling continues to grow, but that may not be the case, Jones said. “In the U.K. they did a baseline study when they first legalized Internet gambling, and they did a replication study following that a couple years later and there was really no increase in problem gambling prevalence,” she said.

Jones and Feldman agree that treatment is one area that deserves much more attention.

“Personally, I don’t think just awareness and education is enough. You’ve absolutely got to have that treatment piece because awareness and education is the funnel that brings people to the point where they need to go somewhere for treatment,” Jones said.

“Treatment is still an incredibly mixed bag across the country,” Feldman said. The fact that NCRG research has helped get pathological gambling officially recognized as an addiction is a major step, he noted, so that those with the illness can get insurance coverage, he said.

Jones agreed. “I’ve been frustrated that there hasn’t been more money set aside for treatment, but I think that having the compulsive gambling recognized as an addiction will help drive more funding for treatment,” she said.

States, such as Nevada, are setting aside some money for treatment, and there are very successful programs out there, including the nonprofit Problem Gambling Center run by Rob Hunter in Las Vegas, she said.

“Rob’s been a huge advocate for the industry, and Rob was a huge part of getting the state of Nevada to understand that it had a role to play, and he’s absolutely right that treatment works. He was way out in front of that curve,” Feldman said. He also cited the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling and its director Carol O’Hare as playing an important role.

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