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Mass. Gaming Commission launches PlayMyWay at Plainridge Park Casino13 June 2016
The program itself is quite simple: It allows players to set a budget, and then provides popup notifications when they are approaching or have exceeded their spending limit. The program is entirely voluntary.
For now, the program is only available for slot machines. Players are prompted to enroll upon inserting their player's club card into the machine. If they decline, they won't be prompted again for another 30 days. If they elect to enroll, they are given the choice of setting a daily, weekly or monthly budget, or any combination thereof. The first notification appears when the player has lost 50% of the budgeted amount. On physical reel slots, the notifications appear on the small screen below the reels. On video slots, all PlayMyWay programming pops up on the left side of the screen, and the video reels are resized to remain visible on the right side.
"The game never stops running," says Mark Vander Linden, the director of research and responsible gaming at the MGC. "No matter where you are in the process, you can always hit 'Return to Game' at any time."
If players decide to keep playing, additional notifications appear when they've spent 75% of the set budget, then 100%, then 125%, and so on in 25% increments, calculating and displaying the exact percentage at the end of each spin.
The program is strictly for setting loss limits — it doesn't count free play, and it doesn't count playing off any winnings. "You want a real budget," says Vander Linden. "You want to track how much of your money you're actually taking out of your wallet and putting in the machine."
Though it launched a few days later than initially scheduled — a large jackpot hit revealed some hidden technical issues, according to Vander Linden — by the end of the first day, more than 225 people had signed up.
The program is available only to members of the Marquee Rewards program, Penn National Gaming's players' club. While the players' club card is good at any Penn National property, the PlayMyWay system will only work on the machines at Plainridge Park Casino.
An ounce of prevention
PlayMyWay is a part of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission's larger GameSense initiative.
GameSense has its roots in the Expanded Gaming Act, which contained requirements for researching, monitoring and providing services to combat problem gambling, but it isn't targeted toward problem gamblers. Rather, it's aimed at helping recreational or beginning gamblers learn to navigate the ordinary pitfalls of slot machines, which are designed to make it easy for people to lose track of what they're doing. The GameSense Info Center at Plainridge Park is tucked snugly into a corner on the gaming floor and features an array of pamphlets in bright green, white and purple that provide basic gambling information: explanations of RNGs, odds and randomness; common myths about gambling; and tips on budgeting both time and money. The center is also staffed with advisors from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m.
"The purpose of having them on-site at the casino is to make gamblers more informed about what are the odds of their play, how do the slot machines actually work," Marlene Warner, executive director of the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling, told Casino City. "They're not teaching people how to actually gamble, but they want them to understand, so that when they actually walk in front of a slot machine (they know) what they're reading — how they can calculate their odds, credit issues, all that — so that they're more informed about the decisions that they're making at those machines."
The value of information and the importance of allowing players to make their own decisions are running themes throughout the MCG's approach to developing and marketing the PlayMyWay program.
"We wanted to make sure it was all carrot and no stick," Vander Linden told Casino City. He explained that the Commission had considered punitive measures at different points in the development process — such as cutting players off, giving them a 24-hour cooling-off period, or stopping them from earning reward points — but ultimately decided to make every aspect of the program completely voluntary. Like GameSense generally, it's aimed at the recreational gambling audience. The point is to make players aware of their own actions so that they can monitor themselves and, hopefully, be motivated to alter their behavior and make better decisions. "It's a lot like a FitBit," he explained.
"We want to equip our players and the GameSense advisors with tools that are going to be useful in keeping gambling in that healthy and safe realm, instead of getting into the more problematic areas," said Warner, who also compared the program to a FitBit or a calorie-counting app. "Every single employee at Plainridge Park Casino has been trained on this. The Gaming Commission was onsite and continues to be onsite on the floor, explaining it, promoting it, and trying to get people to understand that this is just another tool."
Doing the homework
Information isn't just important for players—it's been crucial for the MGC, and will continue to be as more gaming facilities are built in Massachusetts.
The Social and Economic Impacts of Gambling in Massachusetts (SEIGMA) project is a multi-year comprehensive research project commissioned by the MGC and conducted by a research team at the University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Public Health & Health Sciences.
"The project has its roots in the Expanded Gaming Act itself," Dr. Rachel Volberg, the principal investigator on the SEIGMA study, told Casino City. "There's one particular section of the Expanded Gaming Act that requires the Gaming Commission to carry out a baseline study of problem gambling prevalence and existing programs for the prevention and treatment of problem gambling, and also to conduct a comprehensive study of the social and economic impacts of expanded gaming as that occurs in Massachusetts."
The SEIGMA Baseline Survey found that 1.7% of the total population of Massachusetts were problem gamblers, and another 7.5% could be considered at-risk gamblers. The SEIGMA team presented its findings to the MGC in June 2015, and the MGC leaned heavily upon the information in the report when it decided to develop resources for people who aren't problem gamblers.
Among regular casino-goers in Massachusetts, about 5% are problem gamblers and another 19% could be considered at risk. "Again, we know the tool's not for them," said Warner. "But that still leaves a huge chunk of the population who are curious and interested in gaming, and we wanted to be able to get this in on the ground floor before the big ones open, the Wynn and MGM."
PlayMyWay is what's known in the gaming industry as a precommitment system, which means that players commit to a loss amount before they start playing. It's the first one in the U.S., but other precommitment systems have been tried in other countries, with mixed results.
"These are not simple systems," said Dr. Volberg. "They have to be very carefully designed, as we've learned. Most of my work has been outside of the U.S., so I've seen this kind of system introduced in various ways in Australia, in Sweden, in the U.K. — there are a number of jurisdictions with systems that try to do similar kinds of things that have been introduced. They do tend to be very spirited debates, about what exactly they should look like."
"I think the Gaming Commission and the other folks who have been involved certainly learned from the mistakes that were made in other jurisdictions, so I'm actually very hopeful that it will be an effective tool," she said.
The next step for the program, Vander Linden says, is to track the spending patterns of casino patrons who use PlayMyWay compared with those who don't. The MGC is working with Harvard Medical School's Division on Addiction at Cambridge Health Alliances to evaluate and track the system's effectiveness.
"Once we have some data, we'll know (more)," said Warner. "Right now we just have loss limits. But a lot of the literature in the field now is talking about win limits, and that those tend to prove to be even more successful, so maybe down the road we'll include those. Time was another piece that was talked about — can you tell people who only want to spend an hour gambling that their hour has lapsed? So those are down-the-road possibilities."
For the moment, the pilot program seems off to a strong enough start. And it really does seem instantly familiar to anyone who has used a fitness-tracking or calorie-counting app.
"It's the first program of its kind, and you see it and you think, 'Why isn't this in every casino?'" a Penn National Gaming representative told me. "We're already an informed society; we're used to using these kinds of products."
"Everyone's goal is to build a happy and sustainable customer base," Vander Linden said. "We don't want our patrons leaving with a feeling of regret. We want them to feel they've gotten value on the dollar."
As an added incentive, patrons who sign up for the program are eligible to stop by the GameSense Info Center to pick up a $5 food voucher. ("But only the first time," Vander Linden said. "If you unenroll and re-enroll, you don't get another one.") The voucher is good at any of the casino's restaurants; what patrons spend it on is between them and their calorie counters.
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