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Emily D. Swoboda

Probing the Problem

15 May 2008

A recent Harvard Medical School study into several thousand of Bwin's I-casino customers found that 5 percent exhibited potential problem gambling behavior. The study, product of a joint research project between the Vienna-based operator and the medical school’s division on addiction, follows an earlier study that found just 1 percent of Bwin's sports betting customers exhibited the same behavior.

For the study, researchers narrowed a participant pool of 48,114 -- registered Bwin customers all -- to a slimmed 4,222. Dr. Richard A. LaBrie, associate director of the division on addictions at the Cambridge Health Alliance, an affiliate of the medical school, explained to Interactive Gaming News that the field was narrowed so significantly to reflect the number of customers using Bwin's casino products regularly.

As with the sports betting study, released in June 2007, researchers examined the participants' betting records. And according to the results, over a nine-month period (261 days), the top 5 percent of participants played every fifth day, placing a median of 188 bets at 25 euros, or $38.60, each betting day.

For comparison's sake, 40,499 registered Bwin customers participated in the sports betting study. During an eight-month period (244 days), the top 1 percent of participants -- those being the most heavily involved bettors -- gambled online 219 days, and the average bet per day was 42 euros.

On the surface, then, it appears as if online casino gambling -- when judged against sports betting -- carries a much higher potential for problem gambling behavior. And Kevin O'Neal, a press officer with Bwin, suggested to IGN that the results were not unexpected given the nature of casino games.

"With sports bets, you place your bet, you have to wait, and the bet either works out or it doesn't," he said. "With casino games, you've got a much more rapid satisfaction. That's why the higher percentage was expected. But further research is required to identify the actual problem gamers for these casino products."

Meanwhile, Dr. LaBrie said that based on his previous studies on individuals who seek treatment for land-based gambling addiction, casino games are a common cause for gambling problems.

"To think that it might also be true of Internet gamblers is probably not a big leap of expectation," said Dr. Labrie, who served previously as deputy director of the National Technical Center for Substance Abuse Needs Assessment at Harvard Medical School.

Dr. LaBrie agreed with Mr. O'Neal on the principle that casino games have a rapid cycling gratification rate. He explained that rapid cycling with a variable reinforcement (e.g., slot machines) is a very basic form of operant conditioning -- or voluntary behavior modification -- often associated with addiction.

So, it wouldn't be a surprise if, within the study's sample of 4,222, there was a subset of participants that were susceptible to addiction, Dr. LaBrie said.

"However, we don't know that this extreme group of people that I picked out are really people who are all experiencing problems," he said. "[The group] probably encompasses having problems, but certainly you can spend a lot of time on something and not really cause any kinds of problems.

"People spend a lot of time watching television or going to the movies, but it doesn't mean you are in some sense disordered," he continued. "It (the behavior) becomes disordered when you are spending the time watching television when you're supposed to be taking the kids to school.”

On the other hand, the study -- though it does examine data from actual Bwin customers -- is unable to determine the breadth of the possible problem because the data are anonymous, meaning the researchers are not familiar with the identities of the participants, Dr. LaBrie explained.

"All I have is behavior and that's not the same thing as disordered," he said. "Nevertheless, it gives you some idea. Given that there's no other data in the world like ours it at least gives you some boundary."

Mr. O'Neal said the results do not necessarily send up a red flag, but he is by no means downplaying the seriousness of problem gambling.

"As far as we are concerned, these numbers are still low, but we have to ensure with our corporate social responsibility program . . . that these numbers are reduced even further," he said, adding that Bwin stays in regular contact with Harvard, using the data from the studies to keep its products and customer service standards up-to-date.

"It is an ongoing process and it is lived throughout the organization," Mr. O'Neal said.

Mr. O'Neal explained the genesis of Bwin's relationship with the medical school.

"Were getting tired of all of the unqualified accusations being made about Internet gambling and addiction," Mr. O'Neal said. "We said: 'Let's look into this. Let's do the research.' We know that we have a complete audit trail, a transparent business here and we believe that the Internet is the solution.

“We believe that corporate responsibility and combating problem gambling is so much more possible online than it ever has been -- or is likely to be – offline,” he continued. “We were looking for somebody to independently verify what we believed to be true, and we are finding out that it is true."

Researchers at the medical school’s division on addiction are now analyzing data from registered Bwin customers using the company's poker product, and Dr. LaBrie predicted the results are likely to fall in line with those of the sports betting and casino studies.

"Behaviors of large groups of people tend to be pretty much the same even if you're looking at slightly different opportunities for behavior within that group,” he said. "As we dive into [the poker data] we find there is a certain homogeneity. Given the consistency we've already found with the casino and the sports betting people, it's likely that the poker people are not going to surprise us."

The results of the poker study are due to be released publicly within two months -- Bwin and Harvard have renewed their research contract for another year.

Probing the Problem is republished from
Emily D. Swoboda
Emily D. Swoboda