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Assessment of online games design changes

Gambling Commission report focusing on research conducted into the impact of the online gambling games design changes.


The impact of the changes

Not all the measures introduced in October 2021 will affect the play of all online slots players. There are many people who gambled without using slam stops (the now-prohibited features that speed up play) and played at a slower pace than 2.5 seconds per spin. This group will still benefit from the additional session information and, although they may not consciously be aware of any change, they will also no longer see losses celebrated as wins.

One of the measures banned games with split screen designs. However, it is not possible to prevent gambling behaviour where an individual opens another tab (or browser on a different gambling account) to continue to play multiple slots products simultaneously. Therefore, reports of playing on multiple tabs simultaneously may be accurate, but that does not mean that there has been a breach of regulations. Similarly, the Gambling Commission cannot prevent individuals taking other actions to bypass the removal of autoplay functionality which cannot be detected by gambling businesses. The measures that were introduced in October 2021 still introduced friction to those behaviours.

Limitations of the assessment

In addition to the previously mentioned methodology limitations, there are several other limitations that are worth consideration.

The online tracker information is reported behaviour, which is subject to recall inaccuracies. Inaccuracies are increasingly likely when respondents are trying to think about a prolonged period (in this instance, 12 months).

The survey respondents reported that they engaged in online slots gambling in the last 12 months. For the latter two waves of the survey, we don’t know if the gambling and any reported impacts occurred before the changes, after the changes, or both.

While we would like to see the impact of the changes on sub-samples of slots gamblers (depending on Problem Gambling Severity Index (PGSI) score, for example), this was often not possible to do thoroughly because of small sample sizes.

Some of the outcomes identified in the Theory of Change section of this report would need to be monitored for longer to identify any impact of these changes. By then, it is likely that a large range of variables will make attribution even harder. Further assessment of these metrics is unlikely to be insightful in relation to these game design changes.

As well as the coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdowns, another significant change that is likely to have impacted gambling behaviour is that members of the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC) committed to voluntarily introducing changes as part of their Game Design work, with a Betting and Gaming Council published Codes of Conduct (opens in new tab) (PDF) being established. These changes included many of the features that were subsequently changed for the entire industry as part of these game design changes. The consequence for the assessment is that many of the survey respondents in the baseline pre-change wave(s) may already have been gambling on products that had been changed voluntarily.

The other change that may have had a significant impact is that some gambling businesses voluntarily introduced maximum stakes for online slots products. For those that previously staked at high values, this is likely to have had a greater impact on staking behaviour than the product changes.

The period since the changes were introduced have also coincided with gambling businesses continuing to develop their safer gambling algorithms and conduct a greater number of interactions.

The impact of coronavirus (COVID-19)

The COVID-19 lockdowns that were first introduced in March 2020 have had a significant impact on gambling behaviour and the financial circumstances of players. The Institute for Government website provides a timeline of United Kingdom (UK) government coronavirus lockdowns and measures (opens in new tab) (PDF) and for the impact on gambling behaviour, see the Gambling Commission’s Consumer COVID-19 research.

These changes were introduced by the end of October 2021. Towards the end of 2021, COVID-19 rates had begun to rise again (the preceding lockdown period ended on 19 July 2021) with the spread of the Omicron variant. In early December, the country moved to 'Plan B' measures, meaning working from home was encouraged with compulsory face masks in most public indoor venues and NHS COVID passes for specific settings.

An increase in COVID-19 rates is associated with a reduction in land-based gambling, although the impact would be significantly less for this period compared with the periods with mandatory closures. A simple hypothesis associated with an increased reluctance to gamble in venues due to COVID-19 is that this could lead to some displacement to remote gambling. We did not see a significant increase in online gambling because of the COVID-19 lockdowns.

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