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A five-year monitoring and follow-up study on the effects of product differentiation and stricter admission controls in amusement centres
de Bruin, D., A. Benschop, R. Braam, D.J. Korf
Utrecht, Amsterdam: CVO, Universiteit van Amsterdam, 2006
isbn 90-71772-40-3 . . € 46
Conducted by the CVO Addiction Research Centre and the Bonger Institute of Criminology of the University of Amsterdam
Since the introduction of the Betting and Gaming Act in the Netherlands in 1964, national- and local-level policies on gaming machines have been continuously changing. The act was last amended in 2000, allowing amusement centres to expand their range of products to include gaming machines playable by several people at once (multiplayers) or offering collectively built-up prizes (linked jackpots). These mainly consisted of casino-like games such as roulette and blackjack. At the same time, the centres were required to tighten their admission controls to bar young people under 18, and mutual agreements were made to improve the effectiveness of self-exclusion lists and blacklists. A research study was commissioned by the relevant government ministries (Health, Welfare and Sport; Justice; Economic Affairs), GGZ Nederland (the professional trade organisation of the mental health and addiction sector) and the VAN Speelautomaten Branche-Organisatie (the Dutch industry trade association of gaming machine manufacturers, wholesalers and operators) to evaluate the effects of the statutory changes on the clienteles of amusement centres. The study was carried out from 2000 to 2004 by the CVO Addiction Research Centre and by the Bonger Institute of the University of Amsterdam (UVA).
The research study
The primary research question was whether the product differentiation and the more restrictive admission policies were leading to changes in the size and composition of clienteles, and more specifically to declining numbers of problem players. We addressed this question in a monitoring study using systematic observations, interviews with key informants and customer surveys. As the ‘natural course’ of problem gambling could be critical to understanding the behaviour of problem players, we needed to trace how their gaming behaviour developed over time. We therefore not only studied the clientele at the group level in the monitoring study, but we also kept track of individual customers over time in a follow-up study.
In the monitoring study, researchers from the CVO carried out more than 200 observations (three times a year for five years) in fourteen amusement centres in six Dutch cities and towns, recording characteristics of both the centres and their clienteles. Parallel to the observations, they held interviews with key informants (managers and staff members of the centres). In the customer survey, joint fieldwork by the CVO and the UvA in six selected amusement centres resulted in 2,040 questionnaires completed by customers. Response rates were lower for older and for male customers than for younger or female customers; we weighted the data to adjust for this. During the first three years of the study, we also asked survey participants to consent to taking part in the follow-up study carried out by the UvA. It monitored a total of 226 customers for one to four years. We have no evidence of selection bias in the recruitment towards less problematic players. Although we cannot entirely rule out selection bias with respect to behavioural changes in the course of the study, we note that both positive and negative changes were observed.
The expected or desired changes in the clienteles were formulated as six hypotheses:
1. Product differentiation results in an increase in the number of customers.
2. Product differentiation results in an increase in the number of female customers.
3. Product differentiation results in an increase in the number of older customers.
4. Product differentiation results in decreases in the number and percentage of problem players in the clientele.
5. Product differentiation results in changes in customers’ motives for playing.
6. Stricter admission controls result in decreased numbers of underage people and problem players seeking admission.
Particularly in cases of problem players, the ‘natural course’ of gambling behaviour over time could be a clarifying factor. The research question for the follow-up study was therefore:
7. What changes occur over time in the gambling behaviours of amusement centre customers, and what factors play a role in such changes?
In the sections to follow, we will first address the hypotheses and the research question one for one. The wording of the hypotheses suggests causal relationships that could not be conclusively demonstrated by our study design. We will therefore speak more in terms of associations than of causes and consequences.
Product differentiation and the number of customers
We investigated changes in customer numbers at the amusement centres by carrying out observations in the centres and by conducting the customer survey. In the observations, we counted the numbers of customers present at particular points in time. All customers entering the centres were also asked to take part in the survey. The survey recruitment thereby also yielded estimates of numbers of customers and changes in attendance. The observations showed that the numbers of customers visiting the centres dropped by an average of 28% in 2002, except in one centre whose size was expanded by major alterations. In 2003, a slight upturn occurred in customer numbers, but they still remained lower on average than in 2000 and 2001. Estimates made during the survey recruitment even suggested a decline of 33% from 2000 to 2004.
Analysis of the observation data nonetheless revealed a positive association between product differentiation and customer attendance. Amusement centres with larger numbers of multiplayer positions saw smaller decreases in customer attendance than other centres. In addition, we found an inverse connection between problem gambling prevention and customer numbers – centres undertaking stronger prevention efforts saw sharper declines in custom than other centres. The strongest negative association, however, can be attributed to the introduction of the euro and the simultaneous hike in the price per game from .25 guilders to .20 euros. The years following the introduction of the euro (2002-2004) saw a substantial drop in the number of customers as compared to the preceding years.
In the light of this general decline in custom, the two factors of euro introduction and price rise overshadowed any positive effect that product differentiation might have had on the numbers of customers. Moreover, although familiarity with the new types of games did grow slightly, by no means all customers played the new multiplayer and linked-jackpot machines, and at least half of the survey respondents even claimed they had never heard of them.
Nevertheless, the hypothesis on the effects of product differentiation cannot be rejected completely. Amusement centres with more multiplayer opportunities saw smaller declines in customer attendance than the centres with fewer multiplayer positions. This indicates that product differentiation did hold a potential to boost the numbers of customers.
Product differentiation and female customers
Both the observations and the survey found that the share of female customers varied widely between different amusement centres and between different days of the week. An overall average of one customer in six was female, and no significant variations in this percentage were seen from 2000 to 2004. The absolute number of female customers declined in parallel with the total number of customers. The hypothesis that product differentiation would attract more female customers must therefore be rejected. No demonstrable link was found between product differentiation and the gender distribution in the clientele.
Product differentiation and older customers
From the observations we estimated that about one third of the male and the female customers were younger than age 30; half of the survey respondents were under 30. Both these data sources indicated a decline in the share of younger customers over the years, and hence a rising percentage of older customers. The observations noted the largest growth in the proportion of customers above 50, whereas the survey found a rise in the middle-aged group between 30 and 50 years of age.
Analysis of the observation data shows that the shifting age distribution was linked most strongly to the introduction of the euro (and the simultaneous price hike). The proportion of young adults was smaller in the euro years 2002-2004 than in the preceding years. Two other factors that apparently played a role in the shrinking proportion of younger customers were the problem gambling prevention measures taken by certain amusement centres and the sizes of the linked jackpots. Relatively higher numbers of older customers were encountered in centres with higher jackpot amounts and with more prevention efforts.
Although the euro was the major factor in the growing share of older customers, product differentiation (in the form of increased linked jackpots) was also associated with the age distribution of the clientele. The hypothesis is thereby confirmed.
Product differentiation and problem players
Problem gambling was assessed in the survey using the South Oaks Gambling Screen (SOGS), a standard screening instrument for gambling addiction. On the basis of their scores on the scale, respondents were divided into three groups: recreational players (0, 1 or 2 points), at-risk players (3 or 4 points) and problem players (5 points or more).
The proportion of problem players in the survey sample mounted from 22% in 2000 to 33% in 2004. Even after adjusting the percentage of problem players for frequency of attendance (people with gambling problems are likely to make more frequent visits to amusement centres and hence to be overrepresented in the sample), we still saw an increase from 11% to 23%. If we look at the subgroup of problem players who blame their problems specifically on the amusement centres (and not exclusively on other gambling locations like casinos or slot machines in pubs and snack bars), then we also see a moderate rise in the share of problem players from 16% to 25% between 2000 and 2004 (6% to 17% after adjustment for attendance frequency).
All the same, due to the decline in the total number of customers during the course of the study, the absolute number of problem players visiting the amusement centres remained virtually unaltered during the period in question, notwithstanding their higher percentage within the clientele. Only 2004 saw a slight rise in absolute numbers. These figures suggest that it is mainly the recreational players that were staying away from the amusement centres, thus inflating the proportion of problem players.
Further analysis showed that the growing share of problem players was not associated with product differentiation. Prevention activities did show an inverse relationship with the proportions of problem players. Their share increased less strongly in the amusement centres that put more effort into prevention. This could be a sign of effective prevention strategies, whereby customers are motivated by staff to curb their behaviour; or it could merely reflect an avoidance by problem players of the centres where they feel they get ‘hassled’.
The hypothesis that product differentiation would lead to a decrease in the share of problem players can therefore not be confirmed on the basis of these data. At the same time, product differentiation caused no increase in the absolute numbers of problem players.
Product differentiation and customers’ motives to play
The survey indicated that customers of amusement centres had more positive than negative motivations to play gaming machines. In the course of the study, positive motives like ambience and social contacts increased in prominence, but so did negative motives like wanting to earn money quickly, distraction from problems and boredom.
These results suggest that both positive and negative gaming motives were associated with product differentiation. Although some of the connections disappeared when the analysis was adjusted for other factors, two seemingly contradictory associations remained. On the one hand, the number of customers attracted by the sociable atmosphere increased with the number of multiplayer positions; on the other hand, the number of customers gambling for a quick buck also increased with the multiplayer opportunities.
Besides assessing motives for gaming, we also recorded other motives for patronising amusement centres. Respondents were asked to choose three motives from a list of sixteen, ranging from ‘the pleasant atmosphere’ to ‘anonymity’. In the course of the study, the sum of the positive and negative motives for visiting the centres shifted towards the more negative side. At first analysis, product differentiation also seemed to be associated with more negative customer motivations, but that connection disappeared after adjustment for other factors. It then emerged that motivations for visiting amusement centres actually depended on the size and busyness of the centres – customers of smaller and quieter centres expressed more positive motives.
Product differentiation does not appear strongly related to the motivations of amusement centre customers. Although the hypothesis that differentiation leads to changes in customers’ motives to play does seem plausible from the study findings, the specific effects of the differentiation were equivocal. Evidence showed that product differentiation was linked both to negative motives for playing (quick money) and to positive customer motivations (sociable atmosphere).
Stricter admission controls and numbers of underage people and/or problem players at the door
The main measures introduced by the amusement centres to tighten their admission controls were the issuing of proof of entry to every customer and the relocation of the reception desk to the entrance, thus permitting more surveillance of who entered the premises. This enabled staff to more effectively deny entry to people under 18 and to customers barred from admission.
Our survey found that more than half of the customers had never noticed any kind of age check. Obviously the regular patrons and older-looking customers were not needlessly checked. Nonetheless, the percentage of customers that had become aware of age checks at the door grew in the course of the study, and customers under 21 reported being checked more frequently. Age checks at the door for young people, especially new customers, were already very strict before the study began. No future changes seem likely in the numbers of under 18s gaining entry or turned away. In the five years of the study, our customer survey of over two thousand respondents encountered only one person aged 16 and five aged 17. We also learnt from the interviews with key informants that the numbers of underage people trying to enter the centres had always been low and that the tightening of admission controls had not resulted in more denials of entry.
Amusement centres keep track of customers barred from admission by maintaining self-exclusion lists and blacklists. Blacklists register the bans imposed by an amusement centre on grounds of improper conduct; self-exclusion lists record the voluntary exclusions, mostly requested by problem players themselves. According to the key informants, the stricter admissions policies have improved enforcement of the self-exclusion and blacklists. Some of the information that amusement centres provided on the numbers of people they had on these lists was rather sketchy; more importantly, the lists of the different amusement centres were difficult to compare with one another because the centres used different criteria and procedures for putting people on the lists.
Our survey found that a large percentage of customers were not aware that you could have yourself put on a self-exclusion list. At the same time, we noted in the course of the study that more and more customers – problem players in particular – were voluntarily imposing a temporary entry ban on themselves, and that increasing numbers of customers were also being challenged by amusement centre staff on the grounds of their hazardous gaming behaviour.
Changes in gaming behaviour over time
The follow-up study found that most respondents recruited in amusement centres on randomly chosen days continued to play games of chance over the years, but that many of them stopped visiting amusement centres or went there less frequently. Three years after the first wave of the study, between one quarter and one third of the recreational, the at-risk and the problem players reported that they no longer visited amusement centres at all.
Many of the gambling problems reported during the first wave proved to have been transitory, even in respondents who continued playing. The SOGS scores declined for more than half of the problem players and for three quarters of the at-risk players; the scores of virtually all of the recreational players remained low throughout the study. Occasional upward fluctuations in SOGS scores were seen, but they were mostly temporary. Both the SOGS scores themselves and the variations in them showed associations with ethnicity, positive and negative life events, fruit machine playing, level of gaming expenditures and frequency of visits to amusement centres.
These results are consistent with those in earlier studies. They suggest that gambling problems do not constitute a typical, chronic or progressively worsening characteristic of gaming machine players in general, nor of amusement centre customers in particular. Gambling problems are more likely to be episodic, and they do not inevitably keep worsening as people continue to play. Gambling problems that do occur may well disappear by themselves, even without intervention or treatment. In other words, a considerable amount of self-regulation is practised. Self-regulation is probably triggered by events in players’ lives. Gambling problems tend to diminish after positive life events and to increase after negative events.
This study shows that the stricter admission controls in Dutch amusement centres have been effective, but that the previous admission policies were already so tight that any additional effects were negligible. Product differentiation was seen to contain some potential to boost the numbers of customers as well as the share of older customers. Although the numbers of customers declined and the percentage of problem players grew during the course of the study (because recreational players in particular were staying away), there were no indications that product differentiation was to blame. Other factors, particularly the introduction of the euro and the simultaneous price increase per game, played more decisive roles.
Problem players do not necessarily remain problem players forever. Gambling problems may come and go. Under the influence of negative or positive life events, people may spend more or less money on gaming and may visit amusement centres more or less frequently – and, in so doing, they may increase or decrease their likelihood of developing gambling problems. Multiplayers and linked jackpots apparently play little or no role in such developments. Amusement centres can exert only limited influence over individual processes like these. Placement on a self-exclusion list can reduce the frequency of visits and thereby lower the risk of problems. As many customers seem unaware that such a possibility even exists, the amusement centres could make some improvements in that area. Self-exclusion is a voluntary option, however, and just as with other prevention efforts, a thin line exists between welcome attention and undesired meddling, after which people may seek their fortunes elsewhere.
As long as games of chance are available, there will probably be people who use them in problematic ways. As one person’s problems improve, another’s may worsen. During most of this study, the absolute numbers of problem players visiting the amusement centres showed little change, and problem players continued to be present in the follow-up study. However, such an equilibrium can be disturbed if developments in society, such as the introduction of the euro, trigger changes in people’s sense of the value of money or in their spending patterns. Since gambling problems are to a large extent money problems, macro-level economic changes may also have their impact. Seldom are such changes immediately noticeable. Only in the final stages of our study did we actually see evidence of an increasing number of problem players in the amusement centres. After completion of the study in 2005, media reports began appearing about growing numbers of problem gamblers who were presenting to the addiction services. Our findings indicate that this trend is linked to the introduction of the euro and the accompanying price hikes in the amusement centres.