Faster, furi­ous and more dan­ger­ous: how the gam­bling indus­try went hyperspeed

As modern gambling moves away from traditional bookies, towards online casinos, fantasy sports and even gaming, children as young as 11 are ending up in debt. Is it finally time for a crackdown?

This July the gov­ern­ment intro­duced one of the most sig­nif­i­cant anti-gam­bling mea­sures in years, after a hard fought bat­tle to clamp down on the elec­tron­ic slot machines known as fixed odds bet­ting ter­mi­nals (FOBTs).

With their car­toon graph­ics, flash­ing lights and Super Mario-esque sound design (imag­ine the elec­tron­ic clink of gold coins and you get the idea), reports on the high­ly addic­tive machines – often described as the crack cocaine of gam­bling” – have shone a spot­light on the indus­try, pro­vok­ing renewed debate over how it should be regulated.

Restrict­ing the max­i­mum bet from £100 per spin to £2, the leg­is­la­tion could lead to a quar­ter of the UK’s 8,000 plus bet­ting shops to close. It’s a tes­ta­ment to how lucra­tive these machines are to book­ies (they pull in £1.7bn each year), as well as how far our gam­bling habits have drift­ed from the tra­di­tion­al flut­ter on a horse race or a foot­ball match.

The final days of the Great British betting shop: a photo series

A quar­ter of British bet­ting shops are at risk of clos­ing. Here pho­tog­ra­ph­er Danyelle Rol­la delves into the unique cul­ture of the local bookie.

It comes as the scale of prob­lem gam­bling in the UK is just being recog­nised: sta­tis­tics from indus­try reg­u­la­tor the Gam­bling Com­mis­sion show more than 2 mil­lion peo­ple in the UK are either prob­lem gam­blers or at risk of addic­tion.

With the rise of online casi­nos, smart­phone apps, fan­ta­sy sports and a grow­ing num­ber of online games entic­ing play­ers to chance real mon­ey on vir­tu­al loot box­es”, tech­nol­o­gy means that young peo­ple are increas­ing­ly affect­ed too: one in sev­en aged 11 – 16 bet reg­u­lar­ly” and the num­ber of chil­dren classed as hav­ing a gam­bling prob­lem is 55,000. In June, the NHS announced the UK’s first spe­cial­ist gam­bling clin­ic for young peo­ple, part of a net­work of four­teen new NHS clin­ics to sup­port prob­lem gam­blers across the coun­try.

Fears of the social cost of gam­bling may be at a high, but the activ­i­ty con­tin­ues to evolve into new and unfa­mil­iar ter­ri­to­ry for leg­is­la­tors. If gam­bling is an ice­berg then FOBTs are the tip; even if they were to dis­ap­pear com­plete­ly, there’s still a hell of a lot of ice.

One per­son who’s been pay­ing close atten­tion to these changes is Dr Heather War­dle, a pro­fes­sor at the Lon­don School of Hygiene & Trop­i­cal Med­i­cine cur­rent­ly research­ing youth gam­bling behav­iour and its rela­tion­ship with chang­ing technology. 

Every time there’s any change in the infra­struc­ture of tech and com­mu­ni­ca­tion, the gam­bling indus­try expands and you can trace that back to the 19th cen­tu­ry,” she says, describ­ing how the intro­duc­tion of the telegram in the 1840s swift­ly led to the emer­gence of off-course bet­ting, paving the way for the mod­ern bet­ting shop.

If you think about what’s com­ing down the line with tech­nol­o­gy – if it’s any­thing the gam­bling indus­try can take advan­tage of, it will.”

For War­dle, online gam­bling – worth £5.6bn in the UK and anoth­er rea­son high street bet­ting shops are in decline – has already trans­formed the expe­ri­ence and made it even more entic­ing to at-risk players. 

It’s no longer like hav­ing a book­mak­er at the end of your street,” she says. It’s like hav­ing a book­mak­er stand­ing at the end of your bed all night say­ing: Go on, do anoth­er bet.’”

She believes it’s time that gam­bling was recog­nised as a pub­lic health issue. But while the last two years have seen the con­ver­sa­tion move in that direc­tion, large­ly thanks to cam­paign­ing groups like Gam­bling With Lives, led by bereaved par­ents where gam­bling has con­tributed to the deaths of their chil­dren, the indus­try con­tin­ues to flex its muscles.

If you think about what’s com­ing down the line with tech­nol­o­gy – if it’s any­thing the gam­bling indus­try can take advan­tage of, it will.”

When it comes to mar­ket­ing, the Gam­bling Act 2005 was the moment that the UK real­ly opened itself up to indus­try. While the leg­is­la­tion includ­ed require­ments to pro­tect chil­dren and make gam­bling social­ly respon­si­ble, it also dereg­u­lat­ed it, allow­ing casi­nos, book­mak­ers and online bet­ting sites to adver­tise on TV and radio – some­thing that had nev­er been per­mit­ted before. It saw an end to smokey, dark, win­dow­less bet­ting shops and brought gam­bling out into the open. The leg­is­la­tion, which effec­tive­ly treats gam­bling like any leisure activ­i­ty, made the UK one of the most lib­er­al gam­bling regimes in Europe. It’s a big rea­son why gam­bling has become so per­va­sive today. 

One area that has seen the most vis­i­ble con­se­quences of this is foot­ball. When Wayne Rooney returns from the US to play for Der­by FC in Jan­u­ary, he’ll be sport­ing the num­ber 32 on the back of his shirt. It’s a mar­ket­ing stunt bankrolled by the club’s lead spon­sor, book­mak­er 32red. This sea­son alone, half the Pre­mier League foot­ball clubs are spon­sored by gam­bling com­pa­nies, with brands from around the world pay­ing up to £10m at a time to take advan­tage of the UK’s lib­er­al laws, as well as the poten­tial reach offered by spon­sor­ing pop­u­lar teams. 

But as well as going to imag­i­na­tive lengths (and pay­ing huge fees) to plas­ter their logo on kits, and hav­ing adverts shown through­out TV inter­vals dur­ing match­es, sports bet­ting com­pa­nies are offer­ing increas­ing­ly com­plex – and addic­tive – oppor­tu­ni­ties to bet on the action. Smart­phone apps in par­tic­u­lar have enabled this; rev­enue from mobile gam­ing increased from £1.2bn in 2007 to £5.5bn in 2018.

The diver­si­ty is enor­mous and the type of bet­ting has changed,” says Jim Orford, pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­o­gy at Birm­ing­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and founder of Gam­bling Watch UK.

He describes how book­mak­ers work hard to entice play­ers to make com­plex, mul­ti-bets in a quick fire way – dif­fi­cult bets to win that make the book­ies a lot of mon­ey. The inplay on live action bet­ting means it’s not just about whether Chelsea beat Arse­nal, or how many goals, it’s when the first cor­ner appears or the chance of win­ning 2 – 1 in the sec­ond half with a cer­tain scor­er. The odds are on the move con­stant­ly through­out the game.”

He adds: Things have got faster, furi­ous, more acces­si­ble and poten­tial­ly more dangerous.” 

The Gam­bling Com­mis­sion has acknowl­edged that pub­lic opin­ion is hard­en­ing. Gam­bling adverts will no longer be able to appear on child-friend­ly online games and duties on online casi­no style games have been increased from 15 to 21 per cent.

For Eva Kara­gian­ni-Goel, chief com­mer­cial oper­a­tor at online pools bet­ting com­pa­ny Colos­sus, the indus­try could be tak­ing a much more proac­tive – and assertive – approach in the face of such a crit­i­cal media cli­mate. She feels that some types of gam­bling – such as FOBTs or online casi­no style games – are far more risky than oth­ers and reg­u­la­tion should take this into account rather than com­ing up with blan­ket policies. 

It would be a lost oppor­tu­ni­ty if we don’t recast gam­bling to be the poten­tial­ly pos­i­tive enter­tain­ment option it should be in soci­ety,” she says. I’m hop­ing that the future of gam­bling looks like low impact enter­tain­ment peo­ple can opt for, as opposed to high impact prob­lem­at­ic gambling.”

03:46am: I’ve lost all my win­nings – and blown my entire month­ly salary. I have noth­ing in my account for the next four weeks but I have rent and bills to pay, plus pay­day loan com­pa­nies and loan sharks chas­ing me...”

Read the diary of a gam­bling addict here.

Beyond the famil­iar for­mats and plat­forms, a new home for gam­bling – par­tic­u­lar­ly among young peo­ple – has emerged with­in the expan­sive new dig­i­tal realm: gaming. 

One fea­ture of this is the rise of loot box­es and skins gam­bling. Loot box­es, found in games like Star­wars Bat­tle­front, Over­watch and FIFA, are in-game pur­chas­es where a play­er pays real or in-game cur­ren­cy for the chance to win a vir­tu­al item that could ben­e­fit them with­in the game. These include skins”, graph­ic files which can change the cos­met­ic appear­ance of a play­er, or oth­er vir­tu­al goods. 

A bit like scratch­cards, you could spend a cou­ple of pounds on a loot box and get a new item, or spend hun­dreds and gain noth­ing of any worth (though you always get some­thing you can use in the game).

Since it’s not pos­si­ble to cash out your win­nings, loot box­es are not cov­ered by exist­ing gam­bling leg­is­la­tion. How­ev­er, you can prof­it from loot box­es thanks to a lucra­tive online mar­ket where play­ers sell on items they’ve won and with an esti­mat­ed 6bn items list­ed at once, the poten­tial for finan­cial reward is very real. Researchers have found a link with loot box­es and prob­lem gam­bling and have called for it to have age restric­tions in line with gam­bling law.

For Archie Cochrane, who has inves­ti­gat­ed this area for ven­ture cap­i­tal firm Anthemis, where he is an asso­ciate, it rep­re­sents a col­li­sion of two indus­tries that fos­ter very dif­fer­ent per­cep­tions from the pub­lic. While gam­bling, par­tic­u­lar­ly sports bet­ting, is increas­ing­ly seen as prob­lem­at­ic, gam­ing is not tra­di­tion­al­ly viewed as a preda­to­ry prod­uct. Instead, it’s con­sid­ered good clean fun, some­thing that chil­dren do”. As the gam­ing indus­try seeks to mon­e­tise its prod­ucts, the line between the two has become increas­ing­ly fuzzy.

For a long time the gam­ing indus­try wasn’t mak­ing any mon­ey – it was just sell­ing games con­soles, or games,” says Cochrane. But there’s been a mas­sive shift in the busi­ness mod­el. Everything’s online, on the cloud, you can lever­age net­works and com­mu­ni­ties online and you don’t need to sell hard­ware. A lot of the cost has gone and a whole bunch of poten­tial rev­enue streams have shown up.”

He adds: Peo­ple in the gam­ing indus­try have looked to lever­age the learn­ings and tech­niques that exist in the gam­bling indus­try and embed them in their own prod­ucts. Sud­den­ly it looks a lot like the online gam­bling model.”

Last year Juniper Research released a report pre­dict­ing loot box­es and skins gam­bling will gen­er­ate $50bn in world­wide con­sumer spend­ing by 2022, up from around $30bn in 2018. Cit­ing a report from the Gam­bling Com­mis­sion that found 11 per cent of 11 – 16-year-olds in the UK (about 500,000 chil­dren) had engaged in skins bet­ting, it strong­ly rec­om­mend­ed” reg­u­la­tion of this activity. 

This is a con­cern that Cochrane flags up, Things that were pre­vi­ous­ly a gam­bling issue are now a gam­ing issue and gam­ing is com­plete­ly unreg­u­lat­ed,” he says. You have young peo­ple learn­ing how to game and being exposed to gam­bling tech­niques. Then they grow up and have the poten­tial to get involved with main­stream gam­bling. It’s a gate­way drug – it’s teach­ing peo­ple what’s possible.”

He adds: The gam­ing com­pa­nies can take two paths; the first is they make a ton of mon­ey now and then get clamped down on. The oth­er is they reign them­selves in and devel­op their own safe­guards and con­trols, which is more sus­tain­able long term. Then it could essen­tial­ly become the future of gam­bling, where peo­ple gam­ble through these gam­ing environments.”

You have young peo­ple learn­ing how to game and being exposed to gam­bling tech­niques. Then they grow up and have the poten­tial to get involved with main­stream gam­bling. It’s a gate­way drug – it’s teach­ing peo­ple what’s possible.”

So, gam­ing is turn­ing into gam­bling and tra­di­tion­al gam­bling has gone hyper­speed. As the harms begin to be recog­nised – par­tic­u­lar­ly for young peo­ple – is this the moment we see a crack­down akin to the pub­lic health cam­paigns on smoking?

Ulti­mate­ly it all depends on the pol­i­tics. Experts like War­dle and Orford believe the only way sig­nif­i­cant change will come about is if we see com­pre­hen­sive reform on a gov­ern­ment lev­el. We’ve seen the con­se­quences of the lib­er­al­i­sa­tion of gam­bling and now it’s time for the Gam­bling Act to be rewrit­ten to bet­ter reflect the dig­i­tal landscape.

The Labour par­ty – in par­tic­u­lar Tom Wat­son – have shown sup­port for this, as well as cre­at­ing a pub­lic health based approach to gam­bling pol­i­cy, but right now, it’s not in pow­er. And since Boris John­son became PM the chance of stronger reg­u­la­tion is low – he’s already said he plans to scale back on finan­cial tax­es, so the chance of a levy is unlike­ly. As it has done so far, pub­lic opin­ion will con­tin­ue to be a pow­er­ful play­er in the debate. 

Still, the gam­bling indus­try remains under pres­sure. I don’t think they could believe their luck with the 2005 Gam­bling Act,” says Orford. They know they’ve been on bor­rowed time ever since.”

But when you con­sid­er the pace of mod­ern gam­bling, even bor­rowed time means bil­lions gained – and bil­lions lost. 

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