Why virtual reality and problem gamblers might not mix

Dr Sally Gainsbury and Professor Alex Blaszczynski investigate the downside of virtual reality and how operators can prepare for it

Virtual reality technology creates an artificial environment that is highly immersive and realistic for the viewer.  Applied to gambling, the effect is to disrupt the monetary value of bets placed, provoke greater degrees of dissociation, and remove the presence of external distractors or awareness of the passage of time that could prompt and promote breaks in play. These factors combined increase the chances of gambling problems, especially if reasonable regulatory measures are not instigated to manage the impact of new technology.

Just as many gambling regulators were initially unprepared in responding to the ramifications of Internet gambling, the specific policies needed for virtual reality in terms of consumer protection and harm minimisation similarly have not been developed or perhaps even considered by many regulators.

Estimates suggest that in 2016 there were already nearly 18 million virtual reality users playing games, even prior to the availability of affordable headsets. Virtual reality technology currently ranges from highly sophisticated equipment, to versions constructed out of cardboard for use with smart phones.

Further commercial developments will lead to increased market penetration with virtual reality gambling expenditure predicted to rise 800% in the next five years. Examples of virtual reality in gambling include experiencing a jockey’s perspective during a race, and watching a live sporting event as though present with friends while being exposed to promotions, live odds, receiving personalised messages and commentary, and, of course, placing bets.

Virtual reality poker rooms allow players to interact with other players in real time, and casino sites can use live dealers and slots to enhance the highly immersive experience. Although only one virtual reality casino has been launched to date, several others are in development and being displayed at trade shows. The intent is not only for users to engage in virtual reality gambling at home, but for casinos to provide the technology to visiting patrons.

Total immersion

The total immersive and artificial nature of virtual reality raises significant concerns related to potential negative outcomes in relation to gambling behaviour and the development of potential gambling disorders. Being totally immersed in an artificial environment may fuel illusions that the behaviour and losses are virtual with no real-world connection and/or consequences. In one experimental study, participants with gambling problems exposed to virtual reality gambling experienced increased urges to gamble that did not diminish after session cessation. This suggests that virtual reality could increase gambling, not only in the virtual but also in subsequent, real-world gambling environments.

Compared to online gambling, there is a significantly greater capacity for virtual reality, through its immersive nature, to narrow the focus of attention and produce heightened states of dissociation. The role dissociation plays in fostering individuals to lose track of time and expenditure has long been recognised. Accordingly, virtual immersive and artificial environments have the propensity to suspend judgment and foster behavioural disinhibition. This may be particularly problematic for those who gamble as a coping mechanism to deal with affective and emotional stresses. The structural features of this mode of gambling means that virtual reality gambling may exacerbate or lead to the development of gambling disorders.

As with most technological developments, few gambling regulators appear to have considered the most appropriate response to virtual reality gambling. It is unclear whether it will be regulated as a form of online gambling, or whether it will fall under existing regulations if offered within terrestrial gambling venues. The one virtual reality casino currently regulated by Malta has the requirement to display clocks at all times to users as a harm minimization measure, despite little evidence of the impact of clock displays on gambling behaviour. There is currently limited evidence regarding the impact of virtual reality gambling, including on vulnerable populations, to inform regulations.

Full circle

But the power of virtual reality means it could also be part of the solution to the problem. For instance, operators could introduce lifelike avatars to interact with gamblers who are identified as having risk factors for gambling problems. They could also increase the use of dynamic and prominent notifications to take a break combined with personal appraisal messages. These can be provided privately, as each user perceives their own environment separately. Virtual reality gambling environments can have non-gambling areas where users can take a break and interact with others. Reminders and messages should be sent advising users of the time and money that they have spent, to counter the potential to lose track and become immersed in the environment.

Virtual reality offers enormous potential and may be in the stage of nascent growth as in the 1990s when academics pondered the potential impact of the “World Wide Web”. Although predictions for virtual reality gambling are strong, several challenges exist. Although inexpensive headsets are available, high quality devices are still costly to purchase and require high-end computing capacity. Among the general population consumer awareness of virtual reality is still low. Identifying the risks associated with new technologies is important to anticipate future issues and minimise gambling-related harm by developing effective responsible gambling strategies and interventions for those with gambling-related problems

Dr. Sally Gainsbury and Professor Alex Blaszczynski are Deputy and Director of the University of Sydney Gambling Treatment and Research Clinic. They have many years’ experience conducting research into the impact of technological advances on gambling.

This op-ed is based on a recently published article: Gainsbury, S., & Blaszczynski, A. (2017). Virtual reality gambling: Implications for regulation and gambling disorders. Gaming Law Review & Economics, 21(4), 314-322. https://doi.org/10.1089/glr2.2017.2145