While the world of smartphone gaming is a multibillion dollar industry, with titles like “Big Fish Casino,” “Doubledown Casino,” and “Slotomania” pulling in huge revenues each year, there’s also a growing subset of that space that involves real money gambling. This is the world of in-app purchases, where players shell out a tiny fraction of their own cash to advance in games or to continue playing past a certain point. It is a world that, some experts fear, may have serious consequences for problem gamblers.
A few states have regulated mobile gambling apps that pay real money to players, and more are on the way. The legal casinos are largely optimized for mobile play and offer the same selection of games as desktop sites, with the added convenience of mobile payments. Several apps, including BetRivers and FanDuel, even feature same-day withdrawals for players.
Unlike other interactive gambling technologies that have been linked to addiction, mobile apps have a more associative basis: their use involves short, interspersed bouts of activity similar to snacking, with reinforcement punctuating periods of no-reinforcement. The behavioural literature indicates that these short, intermittent bouts of engagement may make mobile technology especially perseverative, and that it can accelerate the acquisition of learned behaviours.
This is particularly important to understand in the case of gambling, where a random ratio schedule of reinforcement and non-reinforcement may lead to harmful behaviours that are difficult to extinguish. A recent study using a simulated gambling app found that participants’ persistence during the extinction phase was linearly related to their level of engagement with the app while there was a chance of winning, and that larger rewards predicted longer latencies between gambles.
While many people think of video games as a fun and harmless pastime, there are some who have become hooked on gambling apps and spend hundreds or thousands of dollars each month to advance in a game they never stand a chance of winning. The industry is booming and can be profitable for developers, but critics warn that the games are dangerous to people with gambling problems and pose a significant threat to social welfare.
The mobile gaming industry is not regulated like traditional casinos and has little oversight. Instead, it relies on third-party data collection to create alluring offers that are targeted at specific groups of users. This practice, reminiscent of online shopping and social media platforms, is a major concern for gambling addiction experts. It can create an environment that is hard for problem gamblers to escape from, and that makes it more difficult to get them help. The industry is also increasing its focus on in-game ads, which could be used to target problem gamblers. This is a trend that some regulators are concerned about, but which is difficult to control. It will be crucial for regulators to develop clearer warnings and education about the risks of these apps.