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Pavlos Sideris: Reducing online slot stake limits could lead to more problem gambling

Writing for SBCNews, Pavlos Sideris, director at Double Up Media, discusses the effects of stake limits when gambling and the potential side effects of a stake limit being applied to online slots.

2018 saw the reduction of fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) to maximum stake limits of £2. While this saw a limitation in high-street gambling spend, it’s debatable as to the effectiveness of such measures on vulnerable players.

A recent study conducted by the Forensic and Clinical Research Group at the University of Lincoln found “initial support for a new stake-related risk factor for gambling related harm, as it was demonstrated that gambling on a virtual roulette simulation at higher stakes impairs decision-making quality, which in turn may reduce self-control when gambling”.

In isolation, this finding could be deemed evidence to support a reduction in online slot stake size, as has been recently rumoured. However, the same study concluded that “stake size in isolation had no impact on a player’s ability to withhold urges”, arguing that “a faster game may affect response inhibition performance”, thereby suggesting further research is required.

The study also reports over four key markers (reflection impulsivity, response inhibition, arousal experience, arousal as somatic marker) that:-

  1. “After gambling at higher stakes in comparison to lower stakes, participants performed worse in decision-making.”

  2. “Impairment in decision-making was also observed after gambling at the £2 stake condition in comparison to the control condition.”

  3. “When either winning or losing, participants gambling at higher stake sizes did not experience any deterioration in response inhibition in comparison to gambling at lower stakes.”

  4. “There were no significant differences in short-term arousal change from baseline when gambling at different stake sizes, regardless of whether participants were winning or losing.”

Clearly, the effect of stake size is, overall, inconclusive. However, a premature limitation on bet size could have significant side-effects:-

  1. Casual players will be forced to seek out unrestricted alternatives from unregulated slot sites.

  2. At-risk gamblers will play for even more extended periods of time.

  3. Problem gamblers will be pushed towards brick-and-mortar gambling establishments where wagers, deposits, and withdrawals are harder to track.

Recent research by the Betting and Gaming Council has revealed the extent of black market gambling in the UK has more than doubled from 220,000 players to 460,000 players in 2022 with deposit levels reported to be in the billions.

Innovation in online slots is at an all time high, with new and ingenious mechanics, features and bonus rounds being revealed every few months. Players are truly entertained, in much the same way as those playing video games, mobile games and social games are. The sheer volume of new online slots coming to market on a daily basis is evidence alone. Restricting players from doing what they enjoy doing will only push them to black-markets where they’re free to play without restraints, at their own leisure. After all, they’ve already witnessed the recent introduction of ‘speed of play’ limits, removal of ‘auto-play’ and the banning of ‘feature buy-ins’.

Another consideration is that reducing bet sizes not only has no direct positive influence on those suffering from gambling harm, it could even condone or encourage the more frequent placing of small wagers for players without a problem.

Furthermore, a player suffering from gambling addiction would (hopefully) have already been identified, given support and self-excluded from all UK regulated operators, causing the introduction of online slot stake limits to become a moot point.

The counterargument is, of course, that prevention is better than cure. That said, it’s not certain that new players faced with reduced bet levels will be any safer than those who have experienced elevated stake limits.

What could potentially cause a less devastating financial impact by reducing stake levels with emerging problem gamblers is more likely to send players to operators that can facilitate a higher bet level, furthermore driving players towards off-shore unregulated operators.

The fact remains that the vast majority of players already gamble safely and responsibly, and online slots are seen as an exciting and entertaining pastime enjoyed by millions.

In 2021, the UK-wide advice to gamblers was changed from ‘When the fun stops, stop’ to ‘Take Time to Think’. While the initial campaign was judged a success, the current ‘Take Time to Think’ campaign aims to encourage players to make use of onsite responsible gambling tools. Although seen by many as a patronising message, it does raise awareness and make players think.

Action towards gambling cessation needs to first come from the player. By implementing safer gambling tools such as time limits, reality checks, time-out periods, and self-exclusion, the problem gambler is taking the reality of their addiction into their own hands, and taking direct control.

A 2021 study by the University of Sydney highlighted the effectiveness of either setting deposit limits or choosing to ‘opt-out’ of limits, rather than the success of in-game stake limit restrictions.

Lead author, Dr Robert Heirene from the Brain and Mind Centre and School of Psychology said: “We noted a spike in the use of deposit limits, which coincided with a new government policy whereby online gamblers had to opt out or set deposit limits. The uptake is in line with trends in organ donations following the change to an opt-out policy (rather than opt-in), which similarly saw a spike in participation.”

The reduction of stake limits initiated by operators is clearly not a silver bullet and does nothing to reduce the increased frequency of wagering, a key indicator of problem gambling.

Problem gambling is not an issue that can be solved by a nanny state mentality towards online gambling. The real change needs to come in the form of an industry-wide shift in attitude towards problem gambling, rather than restricting players with operator-imposed stake limitations.


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