Do American Legislators Need To Step Into The Online Slots World?

Regulators in the UK have installed a new set of rules aimed at curbing problem gambling. Is the U.S. next?
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I played 15 rounds of “Cats,” an online slot, in one minute flat yesterday morning.

It’s aimed at people, I imagine, who love lions and tigers and prefer to lose their money in a jungle-themed atmosphere.

But yes. I spun the wheel — at a penny a spin mind you, as this was for science — 15 times in a minute. I lost every spin, so I’ll be billing the bosses here at US Bets for my 15 cents, but again: Without having to do anything special outside of repeatedly mashing the spin button, I got in 15 rounds.

And then I did it again, but this time, I paused about 2.5 seconds between each spin. And when I did that, my spin rate was cut by more than half. Basically, instead of each round taking between four and five seconds, it would take between six and eight seconds. (I’m adding another seven cents to my expense report.)

Why did I do this? To see what the future of American online casinos might look like.

New rules across the pond

The UK Gambling Commission (UKGC) recently sanctioned a sweeping set of rules aimed to curb problem slot machine gambling in the UK, which has had legalized online casinos since 2005. The changes, which go into effect on Oct. 31, are, on the surface, pretty substantial.

For starters, there will be a 2.5-second delay in between spins, which, as evidenced by my financially ruinous Cats adventure, will result in fewer spins per minute. Additionally, there will be no more reverse withdrawals (once you withdraw, you can’t go back and cancel it), no auto-play, no happy “ching-ching-cha-chinging” when you actually lose money, and a clear display of how much time and money you’ve spent in an individual session.

In short: These changes are going to dramatically change the way people who might have problem gambling issues play slots. Some thought — at least 2.5 seconds worth — is going to have to go into each spin of the wheel.

Of course, the question then becomes: What about the United States, and our baby steps into the legalized, government-sanctioned online gambling world?

Seems like a good idea

We support increasing the time between spins on online slots because it would reduce the massive rate of financial losses that citizens are suffering,” said Les Bernal, the national director of Stop Predatory Gambling, a D.C. 501(3)c that makes its intentions clear in its nomenclature. “But making the time between spins a mere 2.5 seconds still comes out to more than 1,400 wagers per hour. You can’t describe that even as a baby step for reform. It’s more like an ant step.”

OK, so that was a predictable enough response. But still: An ant step is something.

But even more even-handed observers of the space see this as a positive change, albeit one of a small-ish variety.

I think the changes are a step in the right direction and will have some positive impact, but I wouldn’t expect them to make that much of a difference to either problem gambling rates or revenues,” said Alun Bowden, senior consultant of European Markets at Eilers & Krejcik Gaming. “Auto-play is the biggest change and that could have some drag on revenues, and it will be interesting to see how game designers adapt to this. The best way to view this is the first step in the direction of recognizing slots design has a role to play in managing problem gambling and I would expect regulators to take an increasingly closer look at things like speed of play, game mechanics, bonus rounds, and various other aspects in future.”

One point Bowden adds is a fascinating one: The auto-play feature could’ve been a benefit to problem gamblers, not a detriment.

“Personally I think auto-play is a bit of a missed opportunity as it could be used intelligently to force good habits on players such as defined loss and time limits,” Bowden said.

Hard to control

I’ve found in the past my self-control inside a real casino basically consists of me gambling until I lose whatever limit I’ve set on myself. I haven’t been inside a casino in two decades.

So you can imagine my surprise when I now find myself, time and again, dipping my toe into the online casinos, and, occasionally, doing a Martingale off the high dive and nearly drowning.

What got me to the virtual tables shouldn’t be a surprise: It was the come-ons. And to this day, I’m still doing it. BetMGM offers some kind of free play credits every day, and hardly a day goes by when DraftKings doesn’t offer a money-back guarantee (or free credits) for playing $5 on blackjack or on a slot.

And so I’ll 100% take advantage of these legitimately great offers, and 99% of the time steer clear of trouble, but 1% of the time I don’t and next thing you know, I’m ching-ching-ch-chinging 10 rounds of “Scarab,” which is actually a pretty fun slot, all things considered, and before a few minutes have passed, I just watched some money come and go and come and go (and go) before I regain control of the situation and get back to max entering the NBA Four Point Play like a reasonable human being.

I can only wonder what it might be like if I didn’t have the moderate self-control I usually display … and now I’m wondering if the government should take an UK-ian approach to all this. Part of me says, “Hell no, this is America, we’re free to lose as much as we want.”

But another part of me does not feel that way at all.

Will American regulators act?

Some other countries have taken steps in this direction. For example, Australian laws demand every operator have a system in place where players can set limits and time periods for play for each individual session.

But here in America, where rules are set on a state-by-state basis due to PASPA? It’s a lot more Wild West right now than other regulated markets. No states have any rules set up of the sort to limit slot play, and there is zero legislative action on the subject.

Will that change?

“There will be some natural crossover with the same content suppliers serving both markets, and a real desire from some of the European-led operators to not get caught out twice by the same problem,” said Bowden. “But the commercial environment will make it very hard for any company to be too proactive on this point. It will need to be an industry-wide approach, and that is usually regulator led.”

In short: No one is coming after speed-rounds of Cats too quick. Ching-ching-cha-ching away, America.

Photo by Shutterstock.com

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