Research: Pokies apps could be a gateway drug or ‘the methadone of gambling

Researchers are investigating whether wildly popular poker machine apps are a gateway drug to future addiction or a methadone-type substitute to wean gamblers off the habit.
In fact, the boffins at Central Queensland University’s Experimental Gambling Research Laboratory think they could be both. They’re launching a study to find out just what effect faux gambling apps, which don’t let players use real money, have on players.

Matthew Rockloff and his team at Central Matthew Rockloff of Queensland University’s Experimental Gambling Research Laboratory. Matthew Rockloff and his team at Central Matthew Rockloff of Queensland University’s Experimental Gambling Research Laboratory. Photo: Supplied The apps are enormously popular. There are three slot machine apps in the top 10 grossing games on the Google Play Store and two in the top 100 free apps on the Apple App Store.

The concern is whether they’re adding to or alleviating the estimated $4.7 billion of social harm gambling does every year in Australia. After initial interviews, disordered gambling specialist Professor Matthew Rockloff hypothesised the effect could be twofold. Matthew Rockloff and his team at Central Queensland University’s Experimental Gambling Research Laboratory is studying gambling apps, such as Slotomania. Matthew Rockloff and his team at Central Queensland University’s Experimental Gambling Research Laboratory is studying gambling apps, such as Slotomania. Photo: Google Play Store

For young people or novice gamblers, the games would normalise gambling, giving players a false sense of skill and encouraging them to take on the pokies in real life. “They download the apps, become more familiar with how poker machines work and then they assume that skill will translate over into real world gaming where they can actually have the possibility of winning money,” Professor Rockloff said. “Unfortunately that’s not really true.
“Poker machines are truly random such that any skill element is removed from the games But hardened gamblers told the researchers the games acted as a way to protect them from spending real money feeding their habit.

“It has the same sort of rewarding characteristics that machines have,” the Bundaberg-based CQU psychologist explained. “It has intermittent wins. Even if the wins are not real money, people associate those wins with a winning feeling and so it’s sort of like the methadone of gambling. “It’s an activity that is not quite as good as real money gambling but people have some of the same feelings that they associate with these apps as they do with the real thing.”

But because the interviews were nothing more than anecdotal evidence, Professor Rockloff said it was far too early to make conclusions. For more definitive results, the gambling research team will use a randomised trial track how more than 600 young players (18-29) use a CQU-designed app and how that relates to their real-world gambling, via a survey. This will be combined with information from a survey into their gambling app experiences in their adolescence to paint a picture of what sort of influence they may or may not have had. The research is funded by a $200,000 grant from the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation.

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