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Studying the negative consequences of gambling

By Carmen Anderson

“Gambling and video game use is an increasing and prevalent past-time all over the world. While they are both recreational activities, and as such they remain harmless for most people, we know that some can become addicted to them. For this reason, it is very important to understand these phenomena, and reveal what factors differentiate between recreational and problematic use.”

This statement, from Professor Zsolt Demetrovics, Chair of the Centre of Excellence in Responsible Gaming, recently established at the University of Gibraltar, provides the underpinning proposition behind the centre’s research which aims to establish a better understanding of addictive behaviour associated with gambling and video gaming.

Understanding disorders

A particular focus for the CERG will be the study of gambling behaviour and video game use. A wider interest for the CERG is the understanding of the mechanisms of addiction more broadly.

To complement this work, the CERG will also conduct studies to understand the nature and the mechanisms of addiction and the harms related to addictive behaviours.

Harms might be considered physical or mental and can be identified at various levels, individual, familial, and societal.

The study of the potential risk factors and harms is expected to help differentiate harmful from non-harmful forms of these behaviours and to assist in the identification of effective ways to reduce those harms.

An expert team

Professor Demetrovics is a psychologist and cultural anthropologist, receiving a doctorate in Clinical and Health Psychology (Addictive Behaviours) from ELTE Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, going on to become a licensed clinical psychologist at Semmelweis University, and applied health psychologist at the University of Szeged.

His work has led him to serve as president of the Hungarian Association on Addictions.

He is also the current president of the International Society for the Study of Behavioural Addictions, serving as board member in other international societies, and is the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Behavioral Addictions. He is especially interested in researching the correlates of substance use behaviour and behavioural addictions which include gambling, video game use and problematic internet use among others.

At CERG, he heads a team of researchers which includes Research Manager, Dr Andrea Czakó, Senior Researcher, Dr Carrie Shaw, and Associate Researcher Dr Chanel Larche.

Safer gambling focus

Dr Shaw, whose most recent post-doctoral work has been a three-year appointment as the project manager for the Alberta Gambling Research Institute’s National Project, which studied problem gambling in Canada, elaborated on the CERG’S safer gambling focus.

“We want to assist in evaluating and potentially developing evidence-based tools that are effective in harm reduction. It is a minority of players that do develop problems, but for those individuals who do gamble recreationally, the more that they play, the more risk that they have of experiencing harms and potentially gambling problems.”

Studying video game use is also essential as there seems to be an increase in convergence between this activity and gambling.

“Gambling incorporates some video game features and there are more gambling features being included in video games. It can be observed that there are increasing numbers of microtransactions involved in online video games, where at one time, there was just the single cost of acquiring the game,” Professor Demetrovics explained.

“It is essentially important to understand the effect of these processes in order to understand how they modify video gaming and gambling behaviour.”

The team elaborated on some of the centre’s plans for the research. Initially they will seek to understand the general profile behind problem behaviours including personality, decision-making processes, the social aspect and so on, in order to identify the combination of factors that might contribute to developing problematic behaviours at the individual level.

From here, the team will explore where the thresholds might lie for the development of low, medium and high levels of risk of gambling addiction.

Research directions
This detailed research is expected to uncover the necessary understanding that will lead the CERG team to find ways to identify those most at risk and then to develop methods for both prevention and treatment.

“We want to identify prevention methods and assist the individuals before they become problem gamblers,” said Professor Demetrovics, “and we will also find ways to help them if they do develop serious problems. This is a particularly important aim, with a special focus on harm minimisation and increasing the effectiveness of interventions intended to reduce gambling related harm."

"This vital approach takes into account the understanding that gambling is a recreational activity, it is not something that we should just stop, but we should find ways to gamble with reduced harm, especially for those at risk. It is already known that attempts to educate people and minimize the risks they are facing is not enough."

"It is also very important that there’s a wide acceptance by gambling operators that they should contribute to the overall effort by introducing interventions, regulations and other actions that lead to the provision of safer products. In themselves, products can be risky, but risks can be handled in different ways, and these are the features that we are trying to identify with our research."

"And this, most importantly, is a point where we could successfully collaborate with operators.”

Research-informed regulations

Comprehensive, scientifically sound research is essential to identify what measures are genuinely effective. It is this research element that will be the overall aim of the CERG, however, it will be up to the gambling operators to decide whether to use the evidence to alter their policies and introduce appropriate measures.

CERG’s team understands that to prevent or treat addictive behaviour in gambling, there needs to be a combination of these two elements.

“The industry can have policies in place, but if the individual is not engaging in the harm reduction tools provided for them, then we are missing the mark,” Dr Shaw said. We need to understand what it is, on the individual level that will induce players to engage in those harm reduction measures. On the part of the industry, we need to know that the harm reduction measures being used are effective. So research is needed on both of these elements because, without that dual focus, we are not going to be able to reduce harm in general.”

High ambitions for the Centre

The CERG has high ambitions to produce top quality research that is recognized internationally and is published in scientific journals, a goal for any respected research centre. The team is expecting the results of their research to have practical applicability as well.

They expect that their study findings will be translated into preventive measures or treatments to assist people involved in gambling, and to provide data that the operators can use to develop protective measures.

In order to attain these aims, the CERG team is planning a number of activities such as conferences that will include research centres from other jurisdictions and a series of open lectures and seminars that will be delivered as a way of reaching out to the general public.

International links

The CERG will not exist in a vacuum; working internationally is an essential element of the study of gambling behaviour. pointed out:

“Research centres working across borders can strengthen each other’s efforts,” Professor Demetrovics said.

“Already, since news about the existence of the CERG became publicly available, I have received many emails from colleagues across the world who are keen to talk about possible collaborations. As researchers we are bringing together our own networks from past work to form a comprehensive network that will be part of the CERG as an institution. This, in itself, raises international interest in the CERG.”

There are some associated activities that are powerfully linked to gambling, although perhaps less discussed publicly as they are largely a result of more recent and arguably less mainstream activities.

The CERG plans to include an in-depth examination of esports both as a type of gaming engagement (i.e., professionalised gaming) and a type of gambling (i.e., betting on video gaming) along with the intersection of gaming and gambling that is found within esports.

Of particular interest will be the gambling components that are embedded in video gaming and esports. Furthermore, they plan to extend their exploration of online gambling to include the use of cryptocurrencies and its association with video game use, online gambling, and online trading.

This is something that is more recently emerging as a societal issue, the day trading of cryptocurrencies which is considered a different form of gambling.

It is only relatively recent that gambling disorder, as it is officially known, has been reclassified from impulse control disorders to addictive behaviours, and specifically a non-substance related addictive behaviour.

Its impact on society, communities and individuals is known to be devastating at times. The CERG’s work will therefore provide vital knowledge, and evidence-based understanding of mechanisms, with which to mitigate the negative effects of gambling.

Studies of behaviour, individual beliefs, and the mechanisms through which those beliefs lead them to addiction, along with other detailed research into this fascinating subject is expected to make a positive impact.

“If we understand those mechanisms then we can actually target interventions and responsible gambling tools which can mitigate those problems or hopefully, prevent them,” CERG researchers said.

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