Analysis: Cool off system needed trialling before FOBT cut

By Matthew Enderby

Every gambling machine across the UK’s betting shops will soon feature software designed to pick up on signs of problem gambling and prevent it from happening.

If erratic or excessive play is detected, the system will lock players out of machines for 30 seconds. While the machine is locked, it will display warning messages about responsible gambling on its screens. The artificial intelligence (AI) Anonymous Player Awareness System was launched earlier this month and developed by the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC).

The system will detect when players are chasing losses, spending too long on a machine or playing a succession of games rapidly. It is already live in 1,600 Betfred shops and in 3,200 Ladbrokes and Coral shops.

On the system, BGC Interim CEO Wes Himes said: “I see this as an opportunity to champion the highest standards and share best practice on safe betting and gaming, and we hope these new measures are a sign of intent.

“I’m convinced that this approach can help restore public trust, and I look forward to working on further, safer betting and gaming initiatives across our industry.”

While this innovative and creative thinking is welcome to an industry where addiction must be appropriately addressed, it raises questions over the limits set on stakes at fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs).

Why was this system not trialled before the FOBT stake cut? In April, the maximum stakes at FOBTs was dropped from £100 ($129) to £2. Months and months went by with talk of the stake cut growing louder, the mainstream media picked up on the story and suddenly FOBTs were labelled the crack cocaine of the gambling world. Despite all this negative attention it appeared, at one point, the drop would not happen.

Instead of betting on this hope however, retail gambling operators in the UK should have made proactive measures to show the government it was determined to fight problem gambling and would develop innovative ways to do so. Trialling this cooling off system would have been a good start.   

Since the cut in stakes, operators have been eager to shout about their efforts in the fields of compliance and problem gambling. Money is being pumped into these sectors of the industry and associated charities. Hindsight is certainly helpful and businesses must continue to learn from the FOBT saga and anticipate the negative attention that may come their way.  

Operators have definitely felt the loss in revenue since the stake cut drop. Shops have closed across the country as a result of it and even more focus and strategy is now put into online verticals. But all of this could have been avoided if the industry was actively looking for creative and effective solutions in previous years.

So how effective will this system be? To a player struggling with a gambling problem and chasing his losses, 30 seconds will seem like a long time, possibly even an eternity. But will it be enough to deter him from making the same bets once the timer is up?

In the grand scheme of things, 30 seconds is nothing. One TV advertisement or the time it takes to boil a kettle, most people can hold their breath that long. Experts have suggested that cool down window may not be long enough. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction at Nottingham Trent University told the BBC: “This is a step in the right direction but obviously needs to be monitored and evaluated.

“The mandatory break is probably not long enough to have a positive effect.”   

The BGC will have time and opportunity to do as Griffiths suggests and monitor the effects of the system. It will be interesting to see how the council measures the success of this AI-driven system. Will it be focused more on the player or the operator?

There will be serious issues if the results are based on revenue; that is not what the system is here to fix or help with. Instead, players must be contacted and betting shop employees consulted to see if the system has a positive effect on the mental health of players, especially those with gambling problems.


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