For our second voyage into the Gambling White Paper, let’s look at stake limits.
Stake limits refer to the financial amount that a bettor is limited to wagering on an individual spin, with the aim being to mitigate the risk of harmful spending.
What has the White Paper proposed?
As with many elements of the White Paper, the specificities are due to be set and in all likelihood reset at consultations with the gambling commission in the coming year, but new stake limits will likely be between £2 and £15 per spin.
It would be wise to expect the lower end, given past precedent; see 2018’s massive reduction on maximum stake limits on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBT) from £100 to £2.
The Commission will also consult on slot-specific measures to give greater protections for people aged 18 to 24, including such options as: a £2 stake limit per spin, a £4 stake limit per spin, or a somewhat customised approach based on individual risk.
But as it stands, there is no firm position on what the currently unlimited boundaries are for online slot games, which themselves carry some of the highest rates of addiction of any gambling operation.
As such, slot products have been a huge success for gambling companies historically, so much so that, in 2021, the UK Gambling Commission (UKGC) decided to implement some key changes to these games.
What measures have been taken already?
These new measures included total bans on autoplay options —meaning a player must now manually select to re-spin rather than having the option to set the game to run continuously — reverse withdrawals, and on slots running any faster than 2.5 seconds per spin.
At the time, the UKGC said that these measures would prevent users entering ‘auto-pilot’ and give them more control over when to stop.
Sound effects or imagery that give the impression of a win when the return is actually lower or equal to the stake were also outlawed, as were ‘speed-up’ features; in other words, the bettor must be fully engaged in the entire spin process, recognise the win or loss post-spin, and then select whether or not to play again in every instance.
Winnings or lack thereof were also made to be more clearly presented.
At the time, the Gambling Commission then-chief executive Neil McArthur said of the new measures: “This is another important step in making gambling safer, and where the evidence shows that there are other opportunities to do that we are determined to take them.”
Have previous legislative changes around slots been effective?
Companies were instructed to have all of these measures implemented and rolled out by October 2021; so, have slots and the way people play them changed since then?
The short answer: no, it turns out people are actually spending more on online slot games than before. Statistics from the UKGC show that online slot games generated £2.9 billion gross gambling yield (GGY) in the year November 2020-2021.
Between November 2021 and November 2022, comprising a year of the new measures, GGY from online slots went up, albeit marginally, to £3 billion.
For scale, this amounted to three quarters of the £4 billion total generated from online casinos and remote football and horse racing betting and online bingo combined.
Correlation is not causation, though. Perhaps gamblers spent more on the online slots but in a more controlled and responsible manner? We can’t know for sure.
How were these new measures received? The UKGC released research alongside the changes to show it had done its homework, conducted by the Experts by Experience group, and bulked it up with data from GamCare and the organisation’s online support forum.
Only 29% of public respondents either strongly agreed or agreed with banning autoplay and, unsurprisingly, an even lower number of operators favoured the proposal at just 18%.
All this is to say that the UKGC was making changes in order to try and make the playing experience safer and fairer for customers, following on from banning the use of credit cards in 2020 and the introduction of tighter protections around age and identity verifications.
And yet an arguably key metric of GGY hasn’t decreased but actually risen from online slot gaming.
What’s the mood around the White Paper’s stake limit proposals?
Lowering stake limits could, in theory, simply shoehorn gamblers into gambling more with less, amounting to potentially equal or larger losses or wins.
As a standalone measure, the idea of reducing stake limits could be considered an ineffective protector. But in the wider context of the White Paper, such as we currently understand it before further consultations, it could be a key cog in the government’s target to mitigate the prevalence of problem gambling.
There are plenty of voices on both sides of the efficacy debate around this measure and the wider, 268-page legislation, but some significant names have raised concerns around the White Paper as a whole.
Iain Duncan Smith, senior Tory and former party leader who chairs a cross-party parliamentary group examining gambling harms, told the Guardian that putting out so many measures in the White Paper for consultation was “tantamount to doing nothing”.
In a report released earlier this month, the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR) said the government’s wider ambition in addressing gambling issues, citing slot game limits specifically, should be “commended”.
However, the report adds that its own research found that the government’s assessment of 0.2% of the UK being problem gamblers was inaccurate, with the figure likely to be around 0.7% or higher.
Therefore: “more consultations mean more combing through research debating over the smallest of imperfections … In doing so the government believes public debate is improved, but the danger is that it distracts from the duty at hand, which is to minimise the harms associated with problem gambling.”
Online slot games have already seen a raft of overhauls to their operations in recent years in an attempt to make their products safer for gamblers. Having the stake limits front-and-centre of the White Paper legislation re-affirms the fact that they remain a source of concern to address problem gambling.
It will be interesting to monitor how the consultations affect the stake limit proposals given the recency with which they have already been subjected to review.
Are there subtler changes operators could make to slot products that could reduce the risk of problem gamblers? If the past is proof, it’s not guaranteed that further consultation will find them.