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Time to Shift Gears? Looking Ahead at the Industry's Next Phase in Responsible Gambling

This article is part of the Perspective series by the Responsible Gambling Council, which is intended to inform policy makers and industry leaders as they consider changes to the responsible gambling safety net.

Also in this series: RG = Prevention = Persuasion | Working with a Creative Agency

By Jon Kelly, Ph.D.

Over the past 50 years, and most notably in the last two decades, there has been a surge of energy in the effort to curb problem gambling within the gaming industry. As I see it, we are at a critical juncture in the evolution of how that industry thinks about responsible gambling.

Twenty years ago, when I first joined the Responsible Gambling Council, things were quite different. While the term “responsible gambling” had been in the industry lexicon for some time, the early years were largely characterized by resistance and denial.

To be fair, North American gaming providers introduced the first self-exclusion programs in response to petitioning by problem gambling advocates. And some, like Harrah’s, acknowledged problem gambling, investigated ways to address it and began to finance charitable efforts to provide counselling and support.

From Denial to Compliance

The widespread expansion of gambling, driven in part by governments’ need for new sources of revenue, generated many forms of backlash from the general public, and from a large variety of religious and community groups.

As a result, the notion gradually emerged that gambling providers require a social licence to operate, and that a large element in that licence is meaningful effort to address problem gambling. This led to the expansion of RG programs—typically where innovations developed in one jurisdiction or company and then were adopted by others. During this era, for example, most gaming providers established an RG Director position in their organizations. The onsite RG centres are another example that appeared in Australia and across Canada after being pioneered at the Crown casino in Melbourne.

At the same time, regulators in places like Queensland, Australia and Holland stepped in more aggressively to require increasingly prescriptive RG programs. Jurisdiction-wide self-exclusion programs spread rapidly from state to state in the U.S., and into Canada, after their introduction by the Missouri Gaming Commission.

Over time, more and more regulators stepped into the field, leading to the widespread adoption of a compliance model that remains the common approach to responsible gambling today. Regulators create the rules; operators follow them.

The era of compliance accomplished several things. It generated a reasonably consistent set of best practices, codes of conduct and standards, and in general elaborated what the range of RG programs should look like. (The standards that form the basis of RGC’s RG Check accreditation program are one example of such codification of RG.) The compliance model also led to growth in experimentation and applied research, with research centres opening around the world.

It also spawned a new generation of RG professionals within gaming operations: people focused on player protections who became increasingly influential in their organizations, and the industry more generally, through groups like the Canadian Partnership for Responsible Gambling, which was founded in 2001. This era also generated the virtually universal view that all staff should be trained in RG and sensitized to the issue of problem gambling.

From Compliance to Integration

Once you begin to talk more openly about problem gambling, sensitize your staff to the issues and generate large numbers of professionals in the field of RG, a number of things can happen.

Staff training leads to expectations. Do our leaders walk the walk? Professionals begin to take their jobs seriously and seek better ways to do their jobs. They want to know if their programs work. They talk to each other. They seek guidance. They build a body of expertise and internal advocacy.

Over time, the internal professionals, supported by external experts, like-minded regulators and a few visionary CEOs, began to see that the model of RG as a separate, isolated function designed primarily to meet the demands of the regulator, was not sufficient. Rather, player protections needed to be integrated across all lines of business and units of operation. They began to realize that RG does not need to be the adversary of marketing or sales but is, rather, a contributor to business sustainability.

Staff training leads to expectations. Do our leaders walk the walk? Professionals begin to take their jobs seriously and seek better ways to do their jobs.

Many gaming providers are now engaged in the effort to make the protection of the player everyone’s job, rather than just the RG group. Some have been pressing further toward what some call an “RG culture,” or perhaps more appropriately the inclusion of RG in the business culture. This way of looking at RG goes even beyond the concept of integration—into the development of a RG mindset.

The Evolution of the Gaming Industry’s Approach to RGTracking the Evolution of the Gaming Industry's Approach to RG

Needless to say, if you are in the business of promoting strong play safeguards, as we at RGC are, this evolution is a good news story—an excellent trend. But, obviously, this is not a universal direction. And a trend is not a promise.

The question we will continually ask is: What supports, information, or nudges might bolster the industry’s resolve to continue its progress toward a well-integrated RG culture?

What can we do to facilitate that progress? What will help make the future of player protections more promising?

What supports, information, or nudges might bolster the industry’s resolve to continue its progress toward a well-integrated RG culture?

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Here are 4 Keys to Continued Progress

1. Reposition the Role of the Regulator

Regulators have been a very important driver in the development of RG programs and will continue to play a vital role. What is critical to the next phase is that many regulatory leaders are shifting their approach from prescriptive or compliance-based regulation to risk- or outcome-based regulation. This direction will continue to have significant long-term influence on RG programming.

This shift requires gaming providers to think creatively about their RG programs, rather than simply comply. It encourages them to create their own strategies, to figure out how RG fits with their core business model and enables providers to put their own stamp on their RG programs. This sense of “ownership” of RG by operators will foster creativity, competition and innovation in RG programs, led by the professionals that have arisen out of the integration model discussed above.

2. Understand — and Document — the Link Between RG and Value

Many of us in the RG profession now talk about the importance of RG not only as a benefit to the player but also to the operator. Potential benefits such as player and employee satisfaction, customer sustainability, risk management, and reputation building have cropped up in many of our research projects. Could it be that we have understated, rather than overstated, the value of strong player protections? If we are going to talk about such benefits, we need to investigate these questions much more rigorously to ensure we are on solid ground.

3. Adopt the Prevention Lens

Responsible gambling is, first and foremost, about prevention—about helping people avoid a gambling problem. (Yes, some of what we do under the banner of RG is intended to assist people with problems in getting help. But that is a relatively small part of the RG umbrella.)

Most RG programs are preventative strategies, such as communications to keep gambling safer, or more active strategies like moving ATMs off the gaming floor—nudges intended to influence behaviours while leaving the ultimate decision to the individual.

These kinds of prevention activities come with their own lens that is quite different from the problem gambling lens, which is largely a treatment lens.

The problem gambling lens is primarily concerned with helping people who are experiencing problems, and its primary tool is counselling. The prevention, or RG, lens is concerned with the person who does not have a gambling problem but who is gambling in a risky way. The primary tool of the prevention lens is persuasion.

The prevention lens has a wide audience that includes people who do not (and may never develop) a gambling problem. As a persuasion activity, it needs to draw on a research base that includes marketing, behavioural economics, influence and consumer behaviour.

The prevention lens means aligning messaging more with players’ experiences and perspectives. It means, for example, making play safeguards as simple to use and as seamlessly part of the gaming experience as possible.

We have witnessed this type of transition in the efforts to reposition the on-site RG information centres in Canada. Beginning with the move in British Columbia toward GameSense, Canadian gaming operators are in the process of rethinking the labelling, look and feel of such centres. How can we attract players to the centres? How can the experience fit with the mindset of people who gamble?

The prevention lens has a wide audience that includes people who do not (and may never develop) a gambling problem.
4. Move Toward a Safety Paradigm

A big part of aligning with the customer experience involves a close examination of how we communicate gambling, problem gambling and responsible gambling concepts. We know that many gamblers believe the term “responsible gambling” is a proxy for the term “problem gambling,” which has considerable stigma associated with it.

We need to address both the message itself and the audience’s disinterest. Why would anyone listen? How do we get their attention? We cannot sound preachy. We cannot present information in a way that suggests that we do not understand gambling.

Many of the words we use present problems in themselves. Words like “problem gambler,” “compulsive gambler” or “pathological gambler” are shortcuts in language that are sometimes useful, but often appear unnecessarily labeling and judgemental. Even the term “responsible gambling” implies that if you don’t do as we suggest you are irresponsible.

When it comes down to it, shifting to a prevention lens means more than avoiding certain terms. What we may need is a new paradigm—a new way of framing RG: the safety paradigm.

Safety is positive term, and it’s also familiar, because it fits within a broader context of the many industries and companies that have already adopted it.

We have already begun to hear terms that reflect the safety paradigm, like “player protections” and “play safeguards.” These terms avoid the PG/RG baggage and take the gaming industry down a road that is much more even-handed. Safety is positive term, and it’s also familiar, because it fits within a broader context of the many industries and companies that have already adopted a safety paradigm, such as the car or airline industries.

Consider cars for a moment. Decades ago, industry leaders like Volvo began to see safety not as a liability but as an opportunity. (Not “harm minimization” or “responsible driving” but safety.) The company began to pursue safety as a core component of its culture, and expressed it to customers as a key part of Volvo’s unique value proposition.

Today, safety is a critical part of the competitive mix. It is featured heavily in advertising and promotions not just for Volvo but for virtually all car manufacturers. And more than that, there has been a huge growth in safety features and technology, from anti-lock brakes to air bags to back-up cameras.

Driving the RG Train Forward

To sum up, the concept of “responsible gambling” has been a great vehicle to drive improvements in play safeguards over the last two decades. There has been great progress. And there is a trend toward greater adoption of strong measures to curb problem gambling. But a trend is not a guarantee.

To reinforce and extend the positive trends we have seen, we need to:

  • Reposition the role of the regulators from prescriptive to outcome-based standards
  • Understand and document the link between RG and value
  • Adopt a prevention lens when building RG programs
  • Move toward a safety paradigm, adapting our terminology along with it.

The 4 Directives for the Future of RG

4 Directives for the Future of Responsible Gambling

Taken together, these 4 directives represent a continued path forward for a sector that has seen enormous change in recent decades, with plenty more to come. The evolution of responsible gambling—perhaps into something that doesn’t even call itself RG—is, and will continue to be, a critical piece of the social responsibility foundation that underpins the gaming industry’s social license to operate.