Gambling in Australia is everywhere – be it in multi-platform marketing, during live sporting broadcasts, or within apps and games designed for children.
This pervasive marketing has normalised gambling in every corner of Australia and underregulated apps and games have conditioned a new generation of gamblers, leaving in their wake serious health and social problems.
A recurring theme in our research was how young males from late teens to mid-30s were the most susceptible to the lure of gambling, but why and how were questions harder to find answers for.
Medical Forum spoke with experimental psychologist and gambling researcher Dr Alex Russell, from Central Queensland University. He says the delivery mechanisms for gambling are changing with each new generation of gamblers.
“Young people are not taking up the pokies as much these days. A lot of them are, instead, using apps on their mobile phones. With sports betting, in particular, moving to a mobile phone platform through apps and mobile web browsing, it’s really targeting people who spend a lot of time on their phones – and that’s young people.”
“Young men are most at risk of problems related to sports betting because they tend to do it together. It becomes part of hanging out and being part of that group. And it also has a degree of skill and prestige involved. These young guys are always looking to outperform each other.”
“Australia has always had a unique relationship with gambling compared to the rest of the world – we are a nation of gamblers. There’s a weight of evidence to show that we lose the most money on gambling per capita worldwide, by a long way.”
WA isolates pokies
“The figure is put at about $1300 per head each year – it’s a big deal to lose that much money. We also have a less than healthy relationship with the pokies as well, apart from WA, which only allows gaming machines in licensed casinos. Pokies are in pubs and clubs and places that aren’t primarily designed for gambling. WA’s policy reflects how most other countries treat these machines – in places built for gambling.”
When it comes to gambling and sport, the Melbourne Cup is a prime example of how deeply rooted gambling is in Australian culture,
“The nation stops for the Melbourne Cup. Racing wouldn’t exist without gambling and we’re seeing other sport going the same way, particularly televised sport which is targeted by gambling ads. This trend has really taken off over the past 10 years,” he said.
For children who are watching adults, gambling becomes a normal thing.
Pushing this normalisation along is the conditioning that goes along with subtle gambling marketing on devices children and young people use on a daily basis.
Essentially, this is gamifying gambling.
“A lot of apps these days have gambling-like elements in them. Some of them are explicit, such as content on Grand Theft Auto, which has casino levels where gamers can play a type of simulated form of gambling in the game,” Alex said.
Another trick of the gambling trade is the obfuscation of what is a gambling product and what is a game.
“When we think of what gambling actually is, it’s putting money at risk on the outcome of an action, such as spin on a pokie, or on the results of a game – to bet on an uncertain outcome for the chance to grow your money,” he said.
“There’s a lot of games on your phone or device where you can pay a micro transaction during a game of bingo or poker, for example, which will unlock certain features, but you can’t ever win money from it. So, it’s not technically gambling and therefore falls under different laws and the restrictions are different. But it’s an action close to gambling and the behaviour is similar.”
Within some games, there are loot boxes which are, in essence, a habitual chain of activities that are repeated to gain a neurochemical reward. And it is these elements that are conditioning young children to gamble.
“That’s a real concern. Young children can buy entries into a loot box and have a chance of winning something really good. And some games are being sold on the basis of what you win, which technically puts it into the realm of gambling.”
Author and academic Joshua Krook studies gambling design in these games. He explained that some games might not be gambling but they use the same mechanics.
“I would put something like Candy Crush into that category. This is an extremely popular mobile app that you can download for free. The mechanics are exactly the same as a slot machine.”
Within some games and apps are features called progress gates. When a user loses, they can either pay to continue playing or wait for the game to begin again in which time, paid advertisers get their pound of flesh.
Joshua considers these progress gates as a form of gambling.
“As the difficulty ramps up, you lose more often, so the temptation is to pay to play. These never-ending levels, where you pay to continue, are soft gates, similar to that used in casinos, unlike the old arcade games of the 1980s and ‘90s where it was game over.”
Joshua said game developers were hiring psychologists and neuroscientists and former employees of casinos to help them design games to entice people to play their products.
“Their intention is to get people addicted. The randomised nature of rewards you find in certain video games parallels slot machines. You haven’t done anything special to get a reward but that unexpected gratification is an addictive feature of the game. In the same way that the randomised reward system of slot machines is addictive – you can win a lot, you can win a little, or you can win nothing at all.”
Gaming to gambling
The transition from ‘gambling-esque’ type games to actual gambling can be seamless, according to Joshua.
“It’s almost as if the earlier games are priming young people for gambling. They play these games as a child and as they get older and can legally go to casinos, they transition – from spending fake currency in games to gambling real money when they’re older. They are addicted in the same way because the same mechanisms are used.”
Joshua sees children in the firing line of these developers.
“Games like Candy Crush and the major games in any app store, use bright colours and cute animation that makes it very appealing to children. These games act as that first step to get people hooked on that kind of technology. And it’s really a question of what we can do to protect people.”
The Weighing up the Odds study by the Australian Gambling Research Centre surveyed young men between 18 and 35 who watch or play sports. The authors found 23% of the respondents placed their first bets before they were 18; 64% of the respondents said alcohol was a factor in their betting behaviour; 70% of the respondents were found to be “at risk of, or already experiencing, gambling harm”.
The Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation’s report, Gen Bet: Has gambling gatecrashed our teens, found 50% of adolescents have high levels of exposure to sports betting marketing; up to 25% of young people bet on sport; teenagers are four time more likely to develop gambling problems than adults.
To understand young people and gambling from a public health perspective Medical Forum spoke with Dr Melissa Stoneham from the Public Health Advocacy Institute of WA.
While she acknowledges that the most at-risk of problematic gambling are young males between the age of 18 and 34, PHAIWA is most concerned about the industry tactics used on younger people, which almost grooms them to gamble as soon as they come of age, which is 18.
Life starts crumbling
“Younger men are getting into all sorts of trouble in relation to gambling, mostly around loss of money, which can also upset social relationships. What can we do about it? I think people need to start talking about the risks associated with gambling, and that it’s not just fun, there’s some real public health and social and emotional risks associated with gambling,” she said.
“Gambling counsellors are also telling us that they’re seeing an increasing number of young men, most of whom started gambling on sports on their mobile phones.”
The marketing of gambling is no more apparent than when a sporting event is televised.
“When a child is watching sport, either live sport or on television, they’re bombarded with messages – from a logo on the uniform, betting odds running along the screen, advertisements during breaks in the game, it’s on the balls, on the posts. Kids are constantly getting these messages about gambling and about betting odds. And they start to think that this is a pretty cool thing to do.”
Melissa said the gambling industry uses techniques that they know young kids can relate to, such as humour or cartoons.
“When you look at the betting ads, especially on YouTube, which everyone can access, the industry uses a lot of those tactics that young kids actually get hooked on.”
Inducement strategies are another way for gambling companies to indoctrinate users into thinking that gambling is innocuous, such as cash back offers if you add $50 to your account, or a $100 starter kitty when you sign up.
“These inducement strategies actually reduce the child’s awareness to a point where they think gambling has no risks.”
“To a child, this just sounds like, ‘Wow, this is great. When I get older, when I’m allowed to bet, that’s what I’m going to do,’ because it’s clearly an easy way to make money and they are also probably starting to think that betting is a normal thing to do. So, we’re really concerned that when they get to 18, they’re going to start to bet.”
To counter the overabundance of gambling advertising, Melissa suggests that parents of young children need to talk about the real risks associated with gambling when these advertisements come up on their television screen.
It’s a health issue
Gambling, she said, should be viewed through the prism of the negative health outcomes it generates.
“A lot of people have been hurt by problem gambling. Lost money, lost jobs, lost homes. Relationships have broken up,” she said.
She added that gambling, while normalised in our culture, much like anti-social behaviour around alcohol, can still have a stigma attached if problematic gambling behaviour seeps into a person’s life. Then they may not be completely forthcoming about the magnitude of their addiction, which is why Melissa sees gambling education to be something talked about in schools and for doctors to discuss with their patients.
“Gambling is something that schools should be talking about during health subjects or sports subjects. Doctors could also be asking their patients if they have issues with gambling if they feel that it may be contributing to their emotional issues.”
Dr Alex Russell said there were often co-morbid behaviours to look out for in problem gamblers.
“We find people who have problems with gambling tend to have other problems – it’s often alcohol, sometimes drugs, often smoking and mental health issues.”
“Gambling is a bit different as it is a behavioural addiction versus a substance addiction. People understand why people get addicted to alcohol because it makes people feel good. It makes sense and they think the solution is to just stop the alcohol. However, with a behavioural addiction like gambling, there is nothing going into your body.”
“People don’t tend to understand it so much and nor that can lead to the condition being highly stigmatised. There’s this idea of, ‘look, why don’t you just stop? You’re just being an idiot.’ That’s a major difference between the two in terms of how people understand them.”
“But it seems, internally, there’s the same dopamine reward pathways being activated for both problem gambling and alcohol use.”
An awareness of how these games and gambling applications can morph from entertainment and enjoyment to compulsive behaviour will ultimately come down to the user, according to Joshua.
“If at any time you feel like you’re playing something, but you don’t really want to, yet you feel compelled to, that’s when you’ve got to ask yourself questions like ‘what’s driving me to do this?’ ‘Is it something within the game itself that is causing this problem behaviour?’.