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No rules of the game – mobile gambling’s Wild West

  • Folkhälsa

Apps that ding to remind you to top up your account. All it takes is one click; you don’t even need to take out your wallet. You can play anywhere, anytime – in the lunch line, during a boring work meeting – for just a minute or two, or for much longer. This is the new reality because the gambling industry has moved into the smartphone and social media markets.

 Gerda Reith, sociology professor at the University of Glasgow, is a researcher who has examined the issue of mobile gambling. She sees some clear differences between mobile gambling and other forms of internet gambling.

“You play differently. You can do it anywhere, and it becomes an integral part of your everyday life. The gambling is more dynamic and faster than ever before. The industry talks about ‘snacking’. You can gamble like this, while you do something else, just for a minute, while you're waiting for your coffee.”

Mobile gambling is more intensive 

The total revenues from mobile gambling have grown steadily over the past decade. This is partly due to the ever-faster pace of the games and increased range.

“In the last seven or eight years, the gambling industry has invested heavily in platforms, such as mobile phones, tablets, and social media. This has caused mobile gambling to increase dramatically,” says Gerda Reith.

This year, turnover from mobile gambling reached around 100 billion dollars per annum. While the largest markets are Europe and North America, the countries of sub-Saharan Africa are emerging as potentially new ones.

Gerda Reith has noticed that, in the relatively few places where it has been recorded, gambling on mobile devices appears to be associated with higher rates of problematic play than on other mediums. To date however, there currently exist very few studies that concentrate specifically on mobile gambling.

An extension of the gambler’s personality 

In particular, Reith emphasises that the personalisation of mobile gambling constitutes a new and growing trend. A person’s mobile phone, where the gambling takes place, also contains a vast amount of personal information about that individual: photos, music, messages and bank details. When we share our personal information (often unknowingly), it gets picked up by the gambling industry and used to customise our gambling experience.

“The gambling becomes an extension of oneself, and achieves a different level of intimacy. The games are designed for smartphones and are linked to social media, where the gambling is interactive,” says Gerda Reith.

Reith sees this as a subtle form of temptation by which companies discreetly manipulate the image of gambling, with the help of social media content. At the same time, these companies exploit content shared by their users to further promote themselves.

“All the gambling companies have to do is cast a little fishing hook and the followers do the rest. They get involved, comment on the content, and pass it on to others. It's a very organic form of promotion and also a very efficient one.

The content doesn’t even need to encourage someone to gamble; the visibility alone increases consumer awareness about the brand.

The Wild West 

The accessibility of mobile gambling games, as well as their speed, ubiquity and potential reach, means that legislation is needed to regulate the market.

“All gambling must be regulated, but this may be a harder nut to crack than other forms of gambling. How do you regulate something that is in constant motion and is thus, beyond the reach of national legislation? In addition, we’ve never really been in a situation where gambling operators can infiltrate social networks to promote their brand in quite the way they do now,” explains Gerda Reith.

Another problematic issue is the user generated content created on the gambling companies' initiative. It is very difficult to regulate users' personal social media content. In this case, the companies' marketing is woven into the content and is created in collaboration with their users or players.

“Should this be up to each individual user, or should there be limits? For example, if people engage in a Twitter discussion, how can one limit that?”

According to Reith, the gambling industry cannot be left to regulate itself. “Just as in the case of other risky products, such as tobacco or alcohol, it simply does not work,” she asserts.

Despite the fact that the gambling industry has become demonstrably aware of the potential of mobile gambling games, virtually no research on the subject currently exists, nor is there any regulation of the industry.

“That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t react. Much of what we fear hasn’t happened yet, but for once, scientists have an opportunity to address a problem in good time,” stresses Gerda Reith.

  • Gerda Reith is a researcher and professor of sociology at the University of Glasgow 
  • Her research focuses on the social and environmental effects of gambling and how they affect public health 
  • Reith’s research on mobile gambling is part of a larger book project on addictive consumption. The book, Addictive Consumption, was released in August of this year

The Nordic Welfare Centre arranged an international conference on gambling, The 1st Gambling Policy Conference: Global Prospects, Nordic Perspectives. It was held in Helsinki on 6-7 November 2017. Gerda Reith participated in the conference.

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