What Makes the Web So Attractive to Online Gambling Addicts?
By Mark Griffiths, PhD
Over the past decade I have carried out a lot of research on what factors are important in attracting an online gambling clientele. Research has shown that virtual environments have the potential to provide short-term comfort, excitement and/or distraction — all of which can be highly reinforcing to gamblers and problem gamblers. There are also many very specific developments that have helped facilitate the uptake of online gambling services, including increasingly sophisticated gaming software, integrated e-cash systems (including multi-currency), multi-lingual sites, increased realism (e.g., “real” gambling via webcams, player and dealer avatars), inter-gambler competition (so that gamblers can play against each other) and improving customer care systems.
However, while these very specific developments explain some of the features that facilitate the enjoyment of online gambling, there are a number of more generic factors that appear more important in attracting online gamblers and can help explain why problem gamblers may find the online medium more problematic than gambling offline. Such factors include accessibility, anonymity, affordability, convenience, escape, immersion, interactivity, disinhibition and simulation. These are each briefly examined here:
Accessibility Access to the Internet is now commonplace and widespread and can be done easily from the home, the workplace and (via mobile gambling) on the move. Given that the uptake of consumptive behaviors is strongly correlated with increased access to the activity, it is not surprising that the incidence of online gambling is slowly increasing across different populations around the world. Fundamentally, increased accessibility of 24/7 gambling activities every day of the year enables the individual to rationalize involvement in gambling by removing previously restrictive barriers, such as time constraints emanating from work and social commitments.
Anonymity The anonymity of the Internet allows players (with or without a problem) to privately engage in gambling without the fear of stigma. This anonymity can also provide the player with a greater sense of perceived control over the content, tone and nature of the online experience. Anonymity also has the capacity to increase feelings of comfort since there is a decreased ability to look for, and thus detect, signs of insincerity, disapproval or judgment in facial expression, as would be typical in face-to-face interactions. For activities such as gambling, this may be a positive benefit for problem gamblers — particularly when losing — as no one will actually see their face. Anonymity, like increased accessibility, may reduce social barriers to engaging in gambling, particularly skill-based gambling activities such as poker that are relatively complex and often possess tacit social etiquette. The potential discomfort of committing a social faux pas in the gambling environment because of inexperience is minimized because the individual’s identity remains concealed.
Affordability Given the wide accessibility of the Internet, it is now relatively inexpensive to use online services on offer (including gambling). Furthermore, the overall cost of gambling has been reduced significantly through technological developments, again, rendering affordability less of a restrictive force when it comes to rationalizing involvement in the behavior. For example, the saturation of online gambling industry has led to increased competition and consumers (including problem gamblers) are benefiting from the ensuing promotional offers and discounts available on gambling outlay. Regarding interactive wagering, the emergence of peer-to-peer gambling through the introduction of betting exchanges has provided gamblers with commission-free sporting gambling odds, which in effect means the player needs to risk less money to obtain potential revenue. Finally, ancillary costs of face-to-face gambling, such as parking, tipping and purchasing refreshments, is removed when gambling within the home, and therefore the overall cost of gambling is reduced, making it more affordable.
Convenience Online behaviors usually occur in the familiar and comfortable environment of home or workplace, thus reducing the feeling of risk and allowing even more adventurous behaviors. For both gamblers and problem gamblers, not having to move from their home or their workplace is of great positive benefit and increases the attractiveness of online compared to offline gambling.
Escape For some gamblers – and especially problem gamblers – the primary reinforcement to engage in Internet gambling is often the gratification they experience online. However, the experience of online gambling itself may be reinforced through a subjectively and/or objectively experienced “high,” or positive change in mood state. The mood-modifying experience has the potential to provide an emotional or mental escape for problem gamblers and further serves to reinforce the behavior. In short, online gambling can provide a potent escape from the stresses and strains of real life.
Immersion The medium of the Internet can provide feelings of dissociation and immersion and may facilitate feelings of escape (as outlined above). Immersion can produce lots of different types of feelings that may be reinforcing for the problem gambler, such as losing track of time, feeling like they’re someone else and being in a trance-like state.
Interactivity The interactivity component of the Internet can also be psychologically rewarding and different from other more passive forms of entertainment (e.g., television). The interactive nature of the Internet can therefore provide a convenient way of increasing such personal involvement that in online gambling situations can lead to increased gambling. Furthermore, the alternative methods of peer interaction are available within interactive gambling activities that retain the socially reinforcing aspects of the behavior. Individuals can communicate via computer-mediated communication within the game itself and even post-gambling through involvement in online gambling web communities. Online gambling websites now provide customer forums to facilitate peer interaction and therefore increase the social element of the game. Some companies have even have introduced an Internet radio facility that entertains their customers as they gamble, while simultaneously drawing attention to significant winners within the site.
Disinhibition The feeling of disinhibition is one of the Internet’s key appeals as there is little doubt that the Internet makes people less inhibited when they are online. Online users appear to open up more quickly online compared to offline situations and reveal themselves emotionally much faster than in the offline world. This has been referred to as “hyperpersonal communication.” This occurs because of four features of online communication:
- The communicators usually share social categories so will perceive each other as similar (e.g., all online poker players).
- The message sender can present themselves in a positive light and so may be more confident.
- The format of online interaction (e.g., there are no other distractions, users can spend time composing messages, mix social and task messages, users don’t waste cognitive resources by answering immediately).
- The communication medium provides a feedback loop whereby initial impressions are built upon and strengthened.
For the gambler, being in a disinhibited state may lead to more money being gambled, particularly if they are motivated to maintain their initial persona (e.g., as a skillful online poker player).
Simulation Simulations provide an ideal way in which to learn about something and which tends not to have any of the possible negative consequences. Most online gambling sites have a practice-mode format, where potential gamblers can place a non-monetary bet in order to see and practice the procedure of gambling on that site. Furthermore, gambling in practice modes can build self-efficacy and potentially increase perceptions of control in determining gambling outcomes, motivating participation in their “real cash” counterparts within the site.
Finally, it should be noted that many of these factors help explain individual involvement and potential problems in other online activities (such as online gaming, online shopping, online sex, etc.), although all online addictions have their idiosyncrasies.
Mark Griffiths, PhD
Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Gambling Studies at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He has spent almost 30 years in the field and is internationally known for his work into gambling, gaming and other behavioral addictions. He has published over 500 refereed research papers, four books, 120+ book chapters and 1000+ other articles. He has won 14 national and international awards for his work, including the John Rosecrance Prize (1994), CELEJ Prize (1998), Joseph Lister Prize (2004) and the US National Council on Problem Gambling Lifetime Research Award (2013). He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2500 radio and television programs.