Getting Real: Gambling technology, addiction and mental health

24th November 2020 about a 6 minute read

Read the latest installment in our short story series by Keith Brookes here. 

This month’s Sci-Fi story Vigorish by Keith Brooke provides an insight into gambling addiction, mental well-being, and adoption of a range of technologies in the gambling industry. It also explores the use of technology for addressing, or at least managing, addiction and problematic gambling behaviour 

 The story was published last week, which coincided with the gambling industry championed initiative, “safer gambling week”. The gambling industry is often seen as controversial, and reports have accused the industry of targeted approaches to opening betting shops in deprived areas. The industry has previously commissioned a counterview study, demonstrating “62 percent of all of the British betting shops are found in areas with lower-than-average poverty levels”. Betting shops are often considered a place of congregation in a community and were specifically highlighted in the updates to COVID-19 restrictions in October. As a response to the restrictions introduced, the Shadow Health and Care Secretary Johnathan Ashworth made clear the contribution the gambling industry makes to jobs, with personal reference to his father working in a casino in Manchester.  

 Gambling technology and mental health 

Many of the stories we have explored in these ‘Getting real’ blogs have considered the impact of technology on mental health and how digital technology can affect mental well-being. ‘Vigorish’ is the furthest a story has gone so far in developing a narrative about the interaction between algorithmic processes and mental health. The main character in the story, Danny, is suffering from addiction and the algorithmic management and treatment certainly seems to have an interaction effect with his wellness. Gambling addiction is a clinical disorder as defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5 of mental disorders. Danny discusses gambling running in the family, with references to his father and grandfather. The overall sex split in gambling activity is not hugely different in the UK, however when you look at the differences for problem gambling, men are 7.5 times more likely to develop a problem than women. 

 When monitoring and managing addictions, there are different policies and approaches in place to address problem gambling. These include self-help tools, recently introduced gambling addiction clinics, as well as medication 

 Earlier this year, the gambling commission released a surveybased report on the prevalence of gambling and problem gambling in the UK, contextualised with wider population statistics, alongside in-year comparisons of measures. The headline findings, relating to a pre-COVID-19 context, show that many areas of gambling, such as the frequency of people gambling on mobile phones and in the workplace had increased over the previous year.  

 There were also areas of improvement, such as the proportion of respondents having seen fewer adverts for gambling in the preceding month, which would probably be due to tougher standards on advertising being introduced in the previous year. The next installment of the report will likely feature analysis relating to problem gambling during COVID-19, as addiction researchers have raised concerns about the effects of social isolation on rates of problem gambling.  

 The survey also demonstrated that a growing proportion of people (43% compared to 38% the previous year) believe gambling is associated with crime, with crime being cited as a way for individuals to fund problem gambling.  

 In the story, Danny places hidden bets on the dark web, to avoid surveillance from industry algorithms. It is easy to imagine how, without the intervention and addiction therapy, Danny, or others in his position, could start using the dark web to conduct illegal activity to fund a gambling addiction, rather than just avoiding surveillance. To read more about algorithmic surveillance an interested reader may wish to revisit the follow-up to “Life’s Lottery”, where we explored Artificial Intelligence (AI) surveillance in a national healthcare system. 



"As part of the post-pandemic recovery effort, healthcare policy makers will need to think carefully about the research required to inform the development of initiatives to help people who have developed problematic habits during lockdown." Dr Peter Bloomfield

In Vigorish, there are ways of placing very personalised bets on day-to-day occurrences, for example when Danny orders a pizza and pays for it with a bet on the arrival time predicted by the delivery app. In researching for this post, I have not been able to find a service allowing these sorts of bets, and it’s hard to imagine how such a platform could operate successfully, if you know of one, do let us know 

 It is interesting to consider how technology can be used to develop more tailored betting experiences, whether incorporating everyday events, or using complex models to predict how many times an individual needs to win to stay engaged and continue to place bets. Many AI and datacentric companies focus on process optimisation, although it seems most use cases so far in the gambling industry are for fraud detection. In time we will no doubt see many more use cases for this industry.  

 Throughout the story, the main character is clearly paranoid about being surveilled and does not trust how the system is treating him as an individual. The therapy delivered by Dr Sansom is perceived to be part of the overall system keeping Danny healthy enough to play, but still addicted to the platforms and being parted from his personal funds. 

Surveillance and mental health 

This raises a point to consider about surveillance and AI being used for behavioural monitoring and personal well-being. Currently we do not know exactly how being surveilled by an AI system will affect mental health, however it seems unlikely to be hugely beneficialcertainly if the imaginings in our fiction series are anything to go by. Most surveillance systems we see in the news or as a part of science fiction are stateoperated mass control platforms, whereas the present one is an industry specific profit optimisation feature, which significantly impacts the main character’s health, this is not an area which has been regulated or discussed in detail so far. 

Personal well-being has been dramatically affected by the pandemic. Several problematic activities and behaviours appear to have increased through the course of the year so far, including alcohol and recreational drug consumption. Full data on problem gambling during the pandemic are not readily available at present, although early survey results have suggested a reduction in certain areas of gambling behaviour. However, this may be a result of fewer sporting events and betting opportunities. The same survey reveals, “More than six in ten [gamblers] (62%) have increased either the amount of time or money they have spent on at least one gambling activity” 

As part of the post-pandemic recovery effort, healthcare policy makers will need to think carefully about the research required to inform the development of initiatives to help people who have developed problematic habits during lockdown. This will ensure a healthy population emerges after COVID-19 and that efforts are focused on tackling harmful behaviour and improving mental health.