Researchers Argue Integrated Player-Tracking Best Approach to Challenge Problem Gambling Harms

Gambling operators track players’ activity in detail for marketing purposes, so why shouldn’t regulators do the same to mitigate the industry’s harmful impacts? A recent opinion piece in the peer-reviewed journal Addiction argues that universal player-tracking systems could help regulators or other organizations tasked with harm reduction.

The authors—Dr. Philip Newall of the University of Bristol and Ph.D. candidate Thomas B. Swanton from the University of Sydney—argue that the harm-reduction potential of such systems increases if they span multiple gambling channels and are monitored by independent groups rather than the operators.

Newall and Swanton said their intention in writing the piece was to prompt international debate. Specifically, to cue conversations around “optimal design, implementation, and administration of player-tracking systems for gambling.”

Gambling operators have historically been reluctant to share data, even with entities outside the competition. This year, West Virginia and Maryland have become the first states to consider requiring legal operators to share anonymized data with academics for research purposes. Sharing non-anonymized data with an organization that can intervene in suspected problem gambling cases would be a much larger ask.

National implementation of data sharing in the US would be even more complex. Without universal collaboration, the best possible outcome would be state-level insights.

However, it’s worth noting recent efforts of the National Council of Legislators from Gaming States (NCLGS) to develop model iGaming legislation. NCLGS’s partnership with the United Kingdom Gambling Commission (UKGC) on the policy effort could bring player-tracking data-sharing to the fore.

Conversation Starter

Technology, write the authors, has dramatically changed the nature of gambling products, particularly electronic gaming machines (EGM) and online gambling. Both of which, they remind, are “strongly associated with gambling-related harm.”

Only recently, they counter, have policymakers turned to technology to help address these harms.

The study notes how the earliest player-tracking systems made it easy for operators to personalize marketing offers to incentivize and retain players. However, users can now wield the same tech with new objectives.

In Norway and Finland, state gambling monopolies primarily use player-tracking to limit deposit amounts. However, in Australia and the United Kingdom (UK), the authors point to a growing interest in using player-tracking systems for gambling harm reduction.

Given this interest, the present work aims to discuss various practical and ethical issues related to player-tracking systems in gambling in the hope of fostering greater international debate about ways to maximize their potential net benefits.

Single-Customer View and Cashless Gaming

The UK’s impending single-customer view (SCV) approach seems particularly interesting to the authors.

SCV offers data aggregation, providing a complete picture of an individual’s gambling activity across operators. Proponents of SCV note the average UK gambler bets with two operators, while the highest spenders hold up to six accounts.

As identified in the paper, these stats mean any one operator sees only a” fraction” of each player’s spend, especially for the highest-rollers.

However, after a successful SCV pilot facilitated by the UK’s Betting and Gaming Council (BGC), the Information Commissioners’ Office (ICO) approved the concept for a UK launch. Still, the timeline for the rollout of the effort (now branded GamProtect) is unknown.

The paper also notes efforts in Australia to implement player-tracking for EGMs, which account for almost half of the country’s gambling losses.

Similar to multi-operator online environments, the ubiquity of EGMs in Australian casinos and community venues means an individual operator can’t monitor customer spending reliably. The inability to get a clear picture is also “compounded by the cash-based nature of most land-based gambling.”

As a result, several Australian states have proposed mandatory player-tracking cards as a solution.

One proposal, explain the authors, relies on an approach similar to the smartcards implemented in many public transit systems. The study also notes that shifting to cashless gaming would boost efforts to curb money laundering. However, integrated limit-setting and self-exclusion capabilities would be necessary to reduce land-based gambling harms.

Potential Benefits and Drawbacks

Player-tracking tech offers solutions for an industry looking to curb its harmful effects. But, as the authors note, player-tracking could “involve new risks or downsides for gamblers.”

In Australia, people are concerned cashless gambling would assert “excessive restrictions on their freedom of choice.” Additionally, the authors relay fears of reduced privacy and more difficulty controlling gambling spend.

In the UK, data suggests most land-based customers don’t trust operators will handle their data ethically, particularly in relation to targeted marketing campaigns.

However, the article also points out that player-tracking could benefit customers, allowing them to track overall spending easily.

Additionally, well-designed tracking systems could monitor indicators of gambling-related harm and facilitate actions to lessen harmful impacts.

Paper Urges Independent Universal Approach

In their conclusion, the authors note that while enjoyable for many, gambling is harmful to some.

As a result, stakeholders have aimed to understand the particular harms affecting individual jurisdictions with the intent to curb those problems. They also seek to develop an evidence base for successful harm reduction strategies.

While the paper acknowledges none of these goals necessitates integrated player-tracking systems, the authors urge consideration of a more universal approach:

Our final point is twofold. Many of the benefits outlined in this article would be maximized by a player-tracking system that is as universal as possible, covering to the fullest extent possible all regulated gambling activity within a given jurisdiction (i.e. across different venues, operators, activities and modes).

With greater consistency across the sector, a more complete picture of the patterns of gambling behaviour and harms that are occurring can be gained, gamblers can be provided with better tools to track and manage their overall gambling and a higher-quality evidence base can be built regarding what works to reduce gambling-related harm.

Secondly, many of the potential concerns of gamblers, the research community and other stakeholders could be reduced by a player-tracking system that is implemented independently of the gambling industry.

About the Author

Robyn McNeil

Robyn McNeil

Robyn McNeil (she/they) is a Nova Scotia-based writer and editor, and a lead writer at Bonus. Here she focuses on news relevant to online casinos, while specializing in responsible gambling coverage, legislative developments, gambling regulations, and industry-related legal fights.
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