What the gaming industry doesn’t tell us about its use of data

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Of all the plans New Labor had for the country, perhaps the strangest was the idea of ​​turning the Millennium Dome into a giant casino. The debate over the “supercasinos” proposed in the Gambling Act of 2005 was a dirty episode for Blair’s government and a gift to the Conservatives – including Boris Johnson, who written at the time that gambling fuels the ‘optimism drug’ for people who ‘make the mistake of believing they can win’. The plan was scrapped in 2008. But in the years since, physical casinos have become increasingly irrelevant as the rapid growth of smartphones has made online gambling one of the most compulsive offerings in the world. attention economy.

Online, the casino never closes, and it is only as far as the phone in your pocket. Since all payments are digital, there is no “pain of paying” associated with delivering cash or physical chips. Staff cannot tell if you are drunk as there is no staff. The gaming industry has long argued that there is one key benefit that outweighs the dangers of online gambling: the ability to track player behavior, spot problem gambling or addiction as it occurs. ‘they emerge and minimize the damage.

But there are clearly powerful financial incentives to use this information for opposite purposes – to identify and market those most at risk – and it is increasingly clear that this is the invisible factor in the rapid and growing success of the business. ‘industry.

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Over the past week, the New York Times and the BBC reported that customers of Sky Bet, the UK’s most popular gaming app, were concerned that data held by the company and third-party data providers had been used to identify them as ‘high value’, but also that their gambling had included loss-seeking behavior or periods in which they had given up gambling.

The two players interviewed had contracted tens of thousands of pounds in debt by the time they approached Ravi Naik, lawyer and founder of the digital rights agency. AWO. Naik has filed a number of data subject access requests and lawsuits with various gambling operators and the companies they work with to try to reveal more information about how they are using the games. player data – especially those at risk for addiction.

“Our clients’ experience is that companies are not transparent,” Naik told me. “They had to go through a complicated process trying to figure out which third-party companies are using their information. […] our clients have to ask company one, which will tell you about companies three and four, who will tell you about companies six and seven – and then they have to get separate ids for each of them to try to put everything together. […] It’s really beyond most people, which is why our clients have had to train lawyers.

These data usage networks make it difficult to say who makes decisions about player behavior and why. For example, companies are supposed to check whether a player can afford his losses. To do this, Naik explains, “Companies provide what they call a ‘road lighting’ system, with a ‘green light’ indicating whether someone can afford to bet. We had a client who clearly couldn’t afford to bet, but was given the green light. Our client was not clear who determined this – who decides what a green light is and what a red light is? Our client could not know the thresholds, nor challenge the decisions made. ”

This is not the first time that requests for data on gambling have raised concerns. Lydia Thomas, producer on Radio 4’s You and yours, testified in a 2019 House of Lords inquiry in which she described receiving data showing “evidence of gambling problems, for example, gambling all night, obscure sports or the use of a range of payment options. [..] You can see the pauses in the game and then the emails arriving in inboxes offering free bets to customers. ”

Thomas also spoke to customers who had been offered membership in VIP programs that made them spend more money on gambling, without checking whether those customers could afford their habit. “Gambling companies don’t know if a player is a player who can afford huge losses, or someone who cannot afford it,” she said. “Customers I’ve spoken to say they feel ‘prepared’ to spend more by the gambling company.”

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Luke Clark, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Gambling Research at the University of British Columbia, studies the effects of gambling addiction on the brains and minds of its victims.

In his research, Clark analyzed data from half a billion bets made by about 30,000 players to predict, with some confidence, which players had a history of self-exclusion.

The most obvious signals are, Clark says, relatively easy to spot. The biggest predictor of problem gambling in Clark’s study was “the variability in the amount bet from session to session.” […] someone who has a frenzy session one day and then plays in a more controlled manner the next day ”. This variability is, he thinks, a sign of “chasing losses” – betting more in an attempt to recoup the losses – or simply a sign that the person is gambling whatever money comes their way.

But the data Clark uses is much less detailed than what operators have.

“A gambling website can see what your average bet size is, what different gambling products you are using, and it can analyze it more in depth to see how you react to big wins or how you react after a long. streak of losses, ”says Clark. “They can see if you’re a gamer who tends to gamble in the middle of the night, if you play regularly throughout the month, or if your play is more sporadic – tied to paydays, for example.”

The way a player plays is only part of the images that operators collect about them. “A gambling operator can see if anyone has accessed any help resources through the website, [such as] a lockout or self-exclusion. They can also see the deposit level data. So when does this person top up their account, how many different bank cards are they using. ”

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Depending on the jurisdiction and operator, the customer may also have submitted their address and other personal information, which would provide even more demographic information about the customer.

Even without any personal data, gaming apps can be perfected, like all other attention economy products, by constant testing to see how it can be made faster, easier, and more compulsive. Clark says casinos have been collecting data on their physical machines for many years to see which is making the most money. But digital gambling makes it much faster, much cheaper, and more consistent to test the “structural features” that make gambling compulsive. This includes the speed of the game – the ability to place a bet every three to five seconds is part of what makes slots so addicting, Clark explains – at “sensory feedback – the lights and sounds, which are highly amplified. in slot machine games. ”To“ the presence of near misses, ”which makes the player believe that he almost won.

“In a sense, they don’t need to approach it in a very scientific way,” says Clark, “because they’re getting all this data. The environment itself allows it […] rapid evolution. ”

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For online gambling companies, 2020 has been an exceptional year. Figures released by the Gaming Commission last year show that 64 percent of regular players spent more time or money gambling last year, while sessions longer than an hour (considered problematic by the Gambling Commission) increased by 23 percent. Google searches for online casinos reached record levels.

Flutter Entertainment, which owns Sky Bet, Betfair, FanDuel, Full Tilt Poker, Paddy Power and PokerStars, among other brands, more than doubled its turnover in 2020, at just under £ 4.4 billion. The company’s share price had risen 126% per year as of March 2020.

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However, the government is also performing an exam in gambling laws that may affect how operators can use their customers’ data in the future.

In response to the NYT report, a Sky Bet spokesperson said: “Sky Betting & Gaming uses a number of third party data providers to support in areas such as fraud detection, age verification and identification, and as part of its marketing activities. The data provided to the customer in this case on request comes from several third parties and includes information to which Sky Betting & Gaming does not have access. ”

Ravi Naik says a fundamental principle is at play: “Data protection is often seen as an exercise in compliance – you tick a box and complete your data protection due diligence. But in fact, data protection is presented as a fundamental human right, ”he says. “It is really important that [companies] are clear and transparent with the people whose data they use because that information gives them enormous power over those people and enormous control over those people.

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