Jurisdictions seeking out new technologies and a “seat belt approach” toward curbing problem gaming

Techlink Entertainment's Gameplan


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Toll-free help lines. Responsible-gaming brochures. Employee-education programs. Nothing wrong with any of those. They serve very important purposes, but they’re starting to look a little old-fashioned.

Jurisdictions seeking to get even more serious about responsible gaming are increasingly turning to technology, from facial biometrics that employ complicated algorithms to digital devices that give gamblers real-time data about how much they’re spending.

“There has been a huge trend just in the last couple of years using responsible-gaming technology for what is called a solution, although I would prefer to call it a strategy,” said Connie Jones, director of responsible gaming at International Game Technology.

Bo Bernhard, director of gambling research at the International Gaming Institute at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, calls technology-driven responsible-gaming devices the first “seat belts for gambling machines.” 

Gameplan screen

TAKING STRONG STEPS

While these seat belts are slow to gain a foothold in markets as old and as large as that of Nevada’s, they’re becoming more and more common in government-run markets.

Canada, for one, seems left with little choice but to double down on responsible gaming. Lottery corporations have been hit by lawsuits filed by compulsive gamblers who complain that they were permitted to play even after enrolling in self-exclusion programs. 

Responsible gaming measures “are a necessary part of being in the business,” said Maggie McGee, vice president of marketing for the Nova Scotia-based Techlink Entertainment, which created the responsible-gaming product Gameplan.

Nova Scotia Gaming Corporation recently rolled out Gameplan on each of nearly 3,000 video lottery terminals in 400 locations. The card-based, touch-screen device allows players to pick and choose responsible-gaming features designed to help them monitor and control their gambling behaviors.

Players can choose to limit their play by time or money constraints, and track how much they’re spending, winning and losing in real time. They may also self-exclude.

Players access the system with a swipe card obtained with a driver’s license. The cards initially were optional but were expected to become mandatory this year, McGee said. Optional though the cards were, about 2,000 gamblers had obtained them, she added.

Research and testing conducted prior to the installation showed that players who used Gameplan spent less money but played longer. The most popular features were those that allow players to track spending, wins and losses, McGee said.

Researchers concluded the features had a positive impact on lower-risk and moderate-risk players. But Gameplan in no way is intended to treat compulsive gamblers, McGee said.

“There is no responsible gaming tool in the world that will help someone who has already developed a problem with gambling. The only solution for that problem player is treatment,” McGee said.

Indeed, said Jones, compulsive gambling is a serious mental health issue that is outside the purview of a technology provider such as IGT. While IGT produces responsible-gaming technology at the behest of customers, the company does not invent such devices on its own initiative, she said.

The responsible gaming road can be fraught with landmines. Jones recalled sitting down with a group of compulsive gamblers for a chat about various responsible gaming devices, for example, a pop-up digital clock reminding players they had 15 minutes left to play.

“One lady said, ‘Wow, if I saw that and I was down $400, I would double my bet,” Jones said. “There’s a case of noble intentions, unintended consequences.” 

Jones said she likes Gameplan because it “allows the player to manage their play as opposed to the operator trying to control the play behavior.”

The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation last fall was preparing to install facial biometric video cameras at entrances to each of its 27 casinos in an effort to intercept self-excluded patrons attempting to sneak back in. The primary vendor for the product is the Ontario, Canada-based iView Systems.

The point is not to bust compulsive gamblers who fall off the wagon. “What we want to do is get in to their heads the idea that there will be a consequence to them returning,” said Paul Pellizzari, director of policy for Ontario Lottery and Gaming.

During testing at two Ontario locations (Slots at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto and a charity casino in Sault St. Marie), the system successfully detected 80 percent of people whose images were in a dummy database. “We were very, very pleased with the results,” Pellizzari said.

To achieve that high a percentage, it took a lot of jiggering with camera angles and lighting, and adjustments to choke points at casino entrance so that patrons funneled through single file.

The quality of photographs in the database was key, Pellizzari added. Ontario Lottery and Gaming takes its own, high-quality photos of self excluders.

“You cannot import black and white photos taken by somebody in another jurisdiction and hope it will work,” Pellizzari explained.

Ontario Lottery and Gaming did not enter lightly into the world of facial recognition. The rollout comes after years of preparation, gallons of ink spilled on research and an expenditure of $3 million to $5 million, Pellizzari said.

Much went into solving concerns over privacy, which is a big issue in Ontario. Pallizzari said the technology that Ontario Lottery and Gaming is deploying offers the “gold standard for privacy.” Facial scans of patrons who are not enrolled in self exclusion “get flushed” from the system, Pallizzari said.

If the biometric system falls short of perfect, it would hardly surprise the many critics of facial recognition, who argue that the technology has never lived up to its promise in terms of reliability. True, DNA, fingerprinting and iris scans are more accurate than live facial recognition.

Regardless, facial biometrics should be a whole lot better than the hit-or-miss method it will replace at Ontario Lottery and Gaming. That relied mostly on the imperfect ability of security guards to match photos in a binder with faces in a casino.

Bally Technologies has entered the field of biometrics-aided self exclusion with a product that offers an interesting twist.

Players can enroll in the self-exclusion program without offering up a name or driver’s license, or even talking to anyone inside the casino. He or she goes to a private kiosk to have a photograph taken and inputs a time frame for self-exclusion.

A camera sitting alongside each slot machine automatically captures each player’s facial scan; if a self-excluded patron attempts to play, the machine displays a message and then either locks up or alerts appropriate staff.

It’s anonymous in the same way as Alcoholics Anonymous; others may know what you look like, but nobody is taking down names. The anonymity “eliminates a lot of the stigma” associated with signing up for self exclusion, said Stephen Patton, who directs Bally Technologies’ innovation lab.

Patton said that Bally Technologies had not yet installed its biometric device at a casino but was in talks with several Canadian provinces. The device “has got a lot of possibilities and potentials and we’re starting to get a little bit of traction out there in the marketplace,” he added.

While some jurisdictions are undertaking time consuming and costly machine modifications to fulfill responsible gaming needs and requirements, that all could change with server-based gaming.

Javier Saenz, IGT’s vice president of systems, said server-based gaming lends itself particularly well to responsible gaming features, which tend to be nuanced and vary greatly from one casino to another and one jurisdiction to another.

Server-based gaming will allow individual casino operators to design programs that suit their particular needs without having to mess with big, comprehensive software products, Saenz said.

“What we’ve said is, ‘Let’s get out of the way. Let’s create a platform where operators can hire third parties or decide on their own what their RG needs are and how they want to address those from a software standpoint,” he said.

The idea that IGT could come up with applications to support responsible gaming needs of all its customers is at any rate absurd, Saenz said. “It’s like Apple saying they could build every single application for the iPhone,” Saenz said.

With all those innovative software designers coming up with new and clever responsible-gaming apps, where might they look for future business? How about the same place as everybody else – China.

On a recent visit to China, IGT’s Jones spoke to people involved with small bingo and keno parlors. Their primary concern, she said, was not, “How can you help us make a lot of money?” Rather, it was, “What kind of player protections can you give us?” SlotManager