7 September, 2021

Time Spent Playing

Regular Gambling Insider contributor Paul Sculpher asks whether time played should be considered a key metric in the quest to make gambling safer

Gaming Consultant at iGAM Consulting – LinkedIn comment

Speaking from experience, there were players at various casinos in the US that would regularly gamble for periods of over 24 hours. If they were approached  about taking breaks the staff were met with abuse and cursing – something to do with the belief of the player that the machine was either “hot” or “warming up.” Not sure about the case mentioned, but sometimes you just cannot help people no matter what safeguards are put in place.


Guest Relation Executive at Bellagio Colombo – LinkedIn comment

Many addicted players always play over 24-hour periods... I have seen a Korean player who played on the table for three days... His excuse was it's hard for him to take a break from his work...

There’s no doubt that safer gaming is high on everyone’s list of issues for the industry. But we saw something in reply to a Gambling Insider LinkedIn post that, apart from anything else, highlighted how far we’ve come as an industry in the UK.

With this in mind, it’s interesting to look at the current mindset surrounding how long customers can play before some sort of interaction is triggered. The most interesting part of looking at this question has been the difference between the approaches of offline and online operators. I’ve shied away from the word “contrast” because clearly both sides are looking to accomplish the same goal, but their resources are certainly different.

Firstly I spoke with Jon Duffy, SVP of Corporate Assurance and Regulatory Affairs from Genting Casinos, for his view on the offline casino world. He pointed out that, in the bricks and mortar world, it’s more about customer behaviours than simply clocking time spent playing. He told me “we really don’t have a fixed time period after which we will interact. Our team are very experienced in identifying behaviours that represent risk indicators, and those indicators can appear regardless of time spent playing.”

When I asked Jon for some examples, he described some that will be familiar to anyone who has undergone problem gambling awareness training (as has every customer-facing Genting employee). Behaviours like becoming emotional due to gambling results, spending time around the gaming tables after a playing session has finished, and complaining that equipment is “rigged” are all red flags for responsible operators.

He also pointed out that there’s an increasing amount of data available to offline operators – loyalty cards give their team much of the data that online operators can wield, although unless the Gambling Review introduces mandatory carded play this data will always be incomplete. There have certainly been some spectacular failures to act responsibly by operators over the years, and one suspects not too many of them make it into the public domain unless the regulator steps in. If the Australian Daily Mail is to be believed, one of the current licensing challenges facing Crown Melbourne, for example, relates to a baccarat player involved in a 96-hour playing session, along with a host of other unbelievably long sessions.

I think it’s important to note that, particularly playing offline, most of us are used to the feeling that time passes very quickly in a casino, when you’re in perhaps a comfortable seat, with refreshments to hand, and maybe a relaxed atmosphere with friends. Gambling requires just enough attention to keep you interested, but not enough so that it’s draining.  However, there comes a point when a long session passes from, for most of us, “I’ve had (or lost) enough, time to go home” to, for some, something a little more unhealthy.

The equivalent in online play looks quite different from an operator’s point of view.   I spoke with Adele Farrell, Director of Compliance and Safer Gambling at Rank Group, for a view from the online side of things. Adele explained that online operators have more granular data than their offline equivalents (given that she takes care of both for Rank Group). “We have details of every hand, every staking decision, and every game selection for our players, so we are able to make decisions in a much more data-driven way,” she told me.

“As regards Time Spent Playing (TSP), this is one of the things that is fed into our algorithms and safer gambling models to identify customers who may be at risk or experiencing problem gambling. On its own, our players will see a pop-up on their screen once they reach one hour playing, suggesting they take a break, but that’s not the whole story.”

The Gambling Commission’s advice note from June 2020 touched on session length in the context of additional risks posed by, effectively, lockdown boredom and noted that online sessions longer than one hour had increased by 23% on a like-for-like (equivalent pre-Covid month) basis. The conclusion was that, because it is simple enough for players to switch operators in the online world, interactions would be a more robust approach, so I asked Adele about her company’s approach to personal interactions.

Adele explained to me how a range of other factors will feed into the decision to trigger a personal interaction, keyed on changes of behaviour – such as a spike in deposits, velocity of play, frequency of play or indeed playing for longer periods at unsociable hours defined as “late night play.” That interaction might also be influenced by total spend, and the same data collected relating to customer due diligence for anti-money laundering and affordability; this can be useful to feed into customer reviews to help people who may be moving into having issues with their gambling. Rank recently unveiled a new real-time safer gambling monitoring desk, the new “Hawkeye” system will allow it to more quickly identify customer online behaviour that may require intervention.

In summary, Time Spent Playing is only a small part of the puzzle as regards detecting and interacting with people who may be experiencing problems with their gambling. It does seem the offline world and online world are at opposite ends of the spectrum, however. Online, you have access to perfect data, but far less of the softer information, so operators are trying to synthesise behaviour tracking from changes in measurable benchmarks. Offline, experienced team members have their eyes, experience and training to spot troubling behaviour, and are trying to improve the amount of hard data they collect via loyalty cards and other methods. Perhaps over time both ends of the industry will get closer to their shared goal – a blend of soft and hard data to better help the minority of customers who need our help.