The Addictiveness of Specific Gambling Games


John W. Welte, Ph. D.
Principal Investigator, Research Institute on Addictions, State University of New York at Buffalo

With the growth of legalized gambling in the United States in recent decades, concern about addiction to gambling has intensified. In virtually every U.S. state, and in many other countries, there have been acrimonious debates and political controversies over proposed extensions of legal gambling. Video gambling machines have sometimes been at the center of these controversies, as they were placed in racetracks, and also in such venues as bars, restaurants and veteran’s organizations. Proponents argued that the machines provide much-needed revenue for government and business; opponents argued that they promote problem gambling. 
Video gambling machines have been criticized as one of the most addictive forms of gambling, with critics in some cases referring to them as the “crack cocaine of gambling”.  These devices provide rapid turnaround of gambling opportunities, and also provide a variable reinforcement schedule, so an argument can be made from learning theory that they are particularly addictive. Some research studies have shown that gambling machine players may develop gambling problems more quickly than gamblers who do not play gambling machines. Furthermore, video gambling machines are designed deceptively, so that (for example) the expected return to the player is lower than would be estimated from the external characteristics of the display.
However, caution is necessary when associating problem gambling with a particular type of gambling. It is not sufficient to show that a high proportion of problem gamblers play a particular game, or that a relatively high proportion of those who play a particular game are problem gamblers, because those gamblers will often engage in other forms of gambling as well. My colleagues and I attempted to take the respondents’ total gambling into account when we analyzed data from a national U.S. adult survey and a national youth survey (see The WAGER, Vol. 14(5)). In both studies we examined the following question: Which forms of gambling predicted problem gambling, when taking all forms of gambling engaged in by an individual into account? In our adult survey, the types of gambling most predictive of problem gambling were casino gambling, bingo, and cards, in that order. In the youth survey, it was cards, casinos, and “other gambling” (which included betting on elections, shooting the biggest deer, and betting on fights in school). In both studies we found that playing gambling machines, other than in a casino, was not predictive of problem gambling. There were other examples of the same phenomenon. It has also been suggested that internet gambling is an especially addictive form of gambling. In our youth survey, internet gamblers had more gambling symptoms than those who engaged in any other form of gambling. However, internet gamblers also engaged in the most forms of gambling in total, and internet gambling was also not predictive of problem gambling when the respondent’s entire gambling was taken into account. In addition to these analyses of specific forms of gambling, my colleagues and I also found that the number of different types of gambling in which an individual engaged was highly related to problem gambling, even after taking the frequency of all gambling, and average wins or losses, into account.
These findings contain some relevant messages for those interested in gambling policy and prevention. Problem gambling is probably more related to the gambler’s total repertoire than to any particular game. Gambling on cards, usually a non-commercial gambling activity, may play an important role in the development of problem gambling. And the introduction of a casino into a particular region, with its ability to cater to many gambling tastes, is something that should be considered carefully.

2 thoughts on “The Addictiveness of Specific Gambling Games

  1. David @ Addictions UK Reply

    Some video games seem to have a more addictive quality when they have a simple dynamic, linked to satisfying feedback; Tetris being the classic example and more recently, Peggle.
    If video gambling machines have the potential to create addictive impulses, does this mean that some video games could be viewed as a similar stepping stone?

  2. Jean-François Biron Reply

    I don’t share the views expressed in this article. Taking for granted that what is considered dangerous gaming activities could be a predictor of gambling problems is misleading. It is possible that a gambler is involved in different activities with a general tendency toward abuse. However, it doesn’t minimize the differences reported regarding the threat posed by specific gambling context and activities. In order to make my point, I would first state that in drug related problems, most heroin addicts started to smoke marijuana before getting used to their more dangerous “habit”. Since we have the data to link existing gambling problems to the accessibility of specific gambling activities, in this case video lottery terminals (VLTs), we should consider carefully alternative explanation that tend to portray problem gambling as “a whole”. In Quebec, VLTs are reported to be by far the game that ruins the lives of most problem gamblers. Other activities that share VLT’s features in structure and temporal access are also a public health concern. For example, Internet gambling shares structural features with VLTs as it is possible to actually play “fruit machines” online. Contextual factors are to be considered in order to understand existing data. VLTs are not equally accessible everywhere, same thing applies for casinos. Also, it is well known that a casino’s income comes mostly from slot machines which are to be considered in the same family of VLTs. Accessibility and structure of a given game is a strong determinant of possible harms to a person’s health. By contrast, you can experience problems playing bingo, for instance, and the severity of the problems might be bearable in comparison to those associated with VLTs. That’s what we learn from people asking for help in Montreal’s specialized centers dedicated to treat problem gamblers. In gambling, the recurring “rewards” to keep someone playing and the possibilities of spending big amount of money in a short period of time are more likely to result in negative impacts on a regular user. The problem gambler might start playing “passive lottery” before losing it all on VLTs like a heroin addict first start to smoke pot in his “whole drug experience”.

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