App snacking consumers change gambling behavior on mobile

App snacking consumers change gambling behavior on mobile

Richard James, a research student at The University of Nottingham, explains how his work has helped identify the difference in player behaviour patterns when they are gambling via mobile.

Mobile gambling has become increasingly popular and evidence suggests that the British public is rapidly adopting it. Approximately 5-6% of the population has gambled on a smartphone in the past month (1), while 66% of the British public owns a smartphone (2).

Mobile gambling is particularly popular amongst adults under 35, and the indication is that there is minimal cannibalisation of retail operations. In other words, the people who are gambling on their mobiles are either doing so in addition to also visiting betting shops, or are new consumers whom retail operations have not previously captured.

People play different gambling games on their phones – in-play betting is heavily advertised and Gambling Commission data suggests it is becoming increasingly popular with younger adults.

Annual reports from British gambling operators identify that betting is the most popular form of mobile play. These reports also highlight considerable growth in casino and gaming offerings as mobile technology has become more sophisticated. Concerns have been raised that some games that are more prevalent on mobile phones may be linked with gambling problems, as has been the case each time gambling has embraced a new technology.

Three sets of analysis by Harvard Medical School of betting data from Bwin suggested that desktop in-play betting may be a key area to look at. One set of analyses found that it had a link with potential problem gambling behaviour (3), which tallies with other reports suggesting that it triggers responsible gambling measures by the operator (4) and, interestingly, by the individual themselves (5).This may be an area where attention is directed in the future by regulators, pressure groups and academic researchers.

The other thing to consider is where people gamble on a smartphone. Mobile gambling will not be played in the carefully designed environments of a casino or bookmaker that are designed to stimulate gambling, but not necessarily conducted in the gambler’s own home either.

Data from The Gambling Commission (1), while noting that the vast majority of online gamblers play at home, suggests there is increasing evidence that people are gambling while on transportation, at pubs or at sporting events, particularly among younger adults.

My research has focused on the role of timing in mobile gambling. Studies looking at mobile phone use suggest that engagement with apps is intermittent – people don’t constantly use a single app, but instead snack on apps on a frequent basis for short periods of time over the course of a day.

Although smartphone owners generally use their phones in excess of an hour per day, each use of an app will only be seconds or minutes long (6). Many games on mobile make this explicit by using stamina systems or cool-offs to force breaks or gaps on players.

Additionally there appear to be relationships between the different apps used – studies have identified that app use tends to be sequential, with use of one app cueing the use of another and another, as well as other uses of the device in turn (7).                                            

What makes this interesting from a psychological perspective is that there are a number of studies in animals and humans that suggest that this is linked with faster acquisition of learned behaviours, gambling being one example of these.

Using simulated slot machines in the lab and apps on participants’ phones, my research has attempted to model these gaps and their effects on behaviour, particularly when participants are exposed to a sequence of continuous losses (8). We have recently shown that a game with longer gaps and a low payout rate is linked with increased gambling in the face of losing outcomes. This means that the cool-off’s seen in mobile gaming may actually be counterproductive for the player.

These things in combination give a preliminary idea of some of the key aspects that might emerge around mobile gambling as it continues to grow. Mobile devices appear to alter user behaviour in a way that might nudge players toward gambling more frequently. This is common to other forms of content that can be delivered via smartphones (e.g. video gaming) as well.

What is true is that the mobile market is changing very rapidly and the prevailing legislative circumstances across the world may affect how mobile gambling develops in individual markets.


1. The Gambling Commission. Commission research features online gambling trends for the first time. 2016 [28/05/2016]; Available from:

2. Ofcom. The Communications Market Report. London, UK: Ofcom, 2015.

3. LaPlante DA, Nelson SE, Gray HM. Breadth and depth involvement: Understanding Internet gambling involvement and its relationship to gambling problems. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. 2014;28(2):396-403.

4. Gray HM, LaPlante DA, Shaffer HJ. Behavioral characteristics of Internet gamblers who trigger corporate responsible gambling interventions. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. 2012;26(3):527-35.

5. Nelson SE, LaPlante DA, Peller AJ, Schumann A, LaBrie RA, Shaffer HJ. Real Limits in the Virtual World: Self-Limiting Behavior of Internet Gamblers. Journal of Gambling Studies. 2008;24(4):463-77.

6. Bohmer M, Hecht B, Schoning J, Kruger A, Bauer G. Falling asleep with Angry Birds, Facebook and Kindle: a large scale study on mobile application usage.  Proceedings of the 13th International Conference on Human Computer Interaction with Mobile Devices and Services; Stockholm, Sweden. 2037383: ACM; 2011. p. 47-56.

7. Oulasvirta A, Rattenbury T, Ma L, Raita E. Habits make smartphone use more pervasive. Pers Ubiquit Comput. 2012;16(1):105-14.

8. James RJE, O’Malley C, Tunney RJ. Why are some games more addictive than others: The effects of timing and payoff on perseverance in a slot machine game. Frontiers in psychology. 2016;7.

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