RG Week special: The nuts and bolts of RG

13 November 2019

As the industry take steps to make gambling safer, Jake Pollard talks to the tech specialists to find out how their solutions can drive the industry towards this goal.

The fact that responsible gambling is front and centre of how the industry wants to be viewed is no surprise. Increasingly strident public and political condemnation of operating practices and damning reports of internal failings have hit the headlines with unnerving frequency in recent years.

This article is about the technology suppliers and specialists that sell their wares to gambling companies, but responsible gambling dominates how operators are perceived by the media and large chunks of society. And in this vein, it’s no overstatement to say bookmakers and casinos have taken a beating from press critics and the general public recently.

The media have had little difficulty in portraying operators as unscrupulous profit seekers willing to exploit the weakest and most vulnerable in society. The public has read the articles about gamblers losing thousands as they chased losses, with operators seemingly happy to look on and take in the money.

This applies to the (now infamous) saga over fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) that ended in in April with the UK’s high street bookmakers having to reduce the maximum bets on the terminals from £100 to £2. However, for all the print acreage they received, responsible gambling is not confined to FOBTs and how much punters spent and lost on the terminals.

Matt Zarb-Cousin was a leading critic of FOBTs when he was heading up the Campaign for Fairer Gambling and played a significant role in what eventually led to the reduction of the maximum stake on the terminals.

The challenge for operators
However, he recognises that there is a place for a well-regulated industry and says there is a growing acceptance within the remote gambling sector that too high a proportion of revenues potentially could originate from people experiencing gambling harm.

As founder of the gambling blocking app Gamban, the challenge is, “for individual operators to reduce that proportion without unscrupulous competitors taking advantage,” he says.

“This is why, while operators should be involved in working up solutions, the role of the regulator is crucial in levelling the playing field by ensuring those solutions are enacted by all licensees.”

Zarb-Cousin’s mention of the role regulators can play in the debate is on a par with that of banks and financial institutions, data and open banking.

“The technology has undoubtedly developed significantly,” he adds, “but there are limitations in both their application across the sector – largely due to commercial obligations – and the scope of the data any one individual operator has access to.”

For Annika Hjälm, pictured, head of Playscan, the responsible gambling unit of Sweden’s state operator Svenska Spel, the technology “has come far enough to be able to act and care for players in their day-to-day gambling.

“In real time we can now track and intervene on risky behaviours like an escalating loss of control in a gambling session,” she explains. 

However, she adds that the sector “still can’t classify with high certainty whether a player is or is not experiencing gambling problems by only looking at gambling behaviours.

“Due to several reasons it is likely we never will. First, it is hard to imagine a setting where such a classifier [operator or responsible gambling service provider] could get hold of all the gambling [transactions] a player makes. Second, there are more factors to gambling problems than gambling behaviours, such as vulnerability from various environmental factors and genetic predispositions.”

Industry momentum needed
An operator’s view of a player’s activity will always be limited to what happens on their site, but even with these limitations risk segmentation is relevant.

“By adding personal risk rating of gambling behaviour to player segmentation, we can structure a customer experience that supports control,” adds Hjälm.

“Just like our smartphones now help us control screen time, the gambling site can help players understand how they’re gambling in terms of time and money spent. Depending on the risk level of the player, the tone, placement of advertisements and content marketing can be adjusted to fit the players’ need.”

This enhanced access to intelligence enables the sector to analyse data efficiently, while many large operators now have dedicated teams and providers improving their solutions thanks to investments in research and development. In addition, the industry’s expectations are more realistic.

However, for all that progress, there is still some holding back. Simo Dragicevic, pictured, CEO of Playtech-owned Bet Buddy, says: “Progress on delivering quantifiable results has been slow.”

He puts this down to three reasons. The industry has to develop new processes and KPIs to quantify the success of these initiatives, which can be complex – “measuring harm reduction is not easy,” Dragicevic says – and requires new mindsets and skills.

Due to commercial sensitivities, he continues, operators are unlikely to share data with their competitors. Finally, the rate of adoption and deployment of analytics remains in its infancy.

The use of responsible gambling analytics and “evaluation of quantifiable benefits is required as part of the UK Gambling Commission’s Social Responsibility Code 3.14”, Dragicevic points out.

“The regulator will likely give the sector time to implement new systems and processes, [but the] industry will still need to evidence progress and KPIs during this adjustment period.”

Harnessing the data
What is undeniable is that in 2019 there is much more data that is available and can help produce cohesive responsible gambling policies for the industry.

“We are in a much better place as we have access to larger data sets and more customers deploying the solution,” Dragicevic says, but he adds that the “industry needs to contribute more research as they own the customer and the data”.

When it comes to harnessing the power of artificial intelligence, virtual reality or predictive tech in real life scenarios, Zarb-Cousin says: “Many of the responsible gambling policies adopted by the sector are theoretically good ideas that, in principle, can be effective — such as deposit limits. But to be truly effective they need to be strengthened.

“Advances in technology that allow swift affordability checks through open banking, for example, would ensure that when an individual reaches a deposit threshold, their salary and gambling transaction data can be assessed by an operator and they are not permitted to gamble what they cannot afford to lose.”

Such a comprehensive approach would of course require serious movement from the major players in the fintech sector, but points to an environment where all those key components potentially would link up and work effectively.

At an individual level Dragicevic says: “If your architecture is open and modular and enables integration of data insights you will gain significantly from them.

“For example, integrating responsible gambling analytics with gaming content management systems, CRM platforms and data warehouses makes it more useful for operators and ultimately the end customer, as the insights can be truly integrated into day-to-day processes and customer touch points.

“And because AI solutions are only as good as the data available and the domain expertise of the team extracting insights from that data. If the AI cannot learn the right behavioural patterns it will be less effective.”

Playscan’s Hjälm adds that the sector is now much more aware of the uncertainties that come with gambling risk classifications.

“We have definitely improved prediction techniques and we rely less on research and more on empirical data,” she says. “In this shift we have been able to find some new angles to explain high risk gambling and a general trend has also been that the total expenditure of time and money is not as important than we previously thought.

“We now see that a mosaic of different behaviours can be at least as important as losing a lot of money.”

Reaching equilibrium
All the work done by these companies is beneficial to the igaming sector’s advocacy projects when it comes to responsible gambling, but of course there is also a glaring paradox at the heart of the issue.

Responsible gambling slows down margins and puts a cog in how quickly operators can generate profits. How does the industry reconcile these two contradictory tendencies?

“By preventing an individual from gambling an operator is foregoing profits, which is why it’s so important that regulators ensure a level playing field by mandating that all operators properly enforce effective responsible gambling policies, such as affordability checks,” says Zarb-Cousin.

“Failing to do so will not protect players, it will merely shift them to more unscrupulous operators, and the benefits of a more sustainable sector — that’s less reliant on revenue from those experiencing harm — will not be realised.”

“This is a central and important issue for the industry,” Hjälm says. “Good responsible gambling measures will probably impact revenues in short term. If we are serious with preventing problem gambling, we need to acknowledge that responsibility measures cost money.

“Because of this there are a number of tools in the market, from relatively simple CMS tools to advanced analytics tools. What the ‘gambling company’ chooses to implement is in direct relation to its overall business strategy and position in the market.”

Dragicevic adds that for an operator looking to make positive changes to its company culture, engaging with their regulators is a key part of this. It can then ensure that the most effective practices become licence conditions and are enforced across the sector.

Achieving this equilibrium remains the biggest practical hurdle the industry needs to overcome. This will not be made any easier by recent pronouncements from the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) of MPs. It is calling for the introduction of a £2 maximum stake on online slots and a raft of new measures such as a credit card ban, restrictions on “VIP” accounts and a complete overhaul of the Gambling Act 2005.

These regulatory trends apply to virtually all regulated markets at the moment and more broadly issues of brand sustainability and image also come into play. Which is why the other vital, and arguably, harder task the sector must accomplish is persuading the press and public that it is operating as a truly trustworthy corporate actor.

Having the regulator onside helps, but as the old saying goes ‘if it bleeds, it leads’. If media outlets are given reasons to write negative stories about the sector, the most well-meaning campaigns and all the data in the world will be pointless. The sector must achieve clear and quantifiable progress if it is to succeed in getting the message across.

To find out more about Responsible Gambling Week and the resources available, please visit the website