Industry focus: Is free play a ‘gateway’ to problem gambling?

Industry focus: Is free play a ‘gateway’ to problem gambling?

Thursday, June 25, 2015 Totally Gaming
Auckland's SkyCity has defended its free play games

There is no such thing as a free lunch, but is there such a thing as a free spin?

The debate over the issue of gaming without financial cost has been reignited in New Zealand after Auckland’s famous SkyCity Casino launched an online gaming offering with a selection of free-to-play slots, poker and blackjack games.

While SkyCity defended the online offering by pointing out that it has not advertised the site beyond its existing customer base and has no plans to move to a 'real money' gaming site, Andree Froude of the country’s Problem Gambling Foundation (PGF), told that studies show free play can actually be a more harmful introduction to gambling for young players than real money.

“Problem gamblers often report an experience of ‘winning big’ or ‘hitting the jackpot’ early in their gambling careers,” said Froude, who is a spokesman for the Ministry of Health-funded non-profit organisation.

“It is thought that many problem gamblers are motivated by the desire to ‘relive’ this winning experience, as seen in the Griffiths and Wood study of 2000.

“A Sevigny study in 2005 examined 117 online roulette sites and reported that 39 per cent of sites provided inflated payout rates during the ‘demo’ session of play, creating the impression that the game is highly profitable. Free games should have the same return to player ratio as a paid for game.”

The SkyCity website was launched earlier this month as an added benefit for customers of the casino’s Premier Rewards loyalty scheme and, although any New Zealander over the age of 20 can play, it was aimed at regular customers, a spokesman said. Spot prizes of SkyCity gift vouchers or bonus loyalty points could be won through the online gaming platform but these must be redeemed at SkyCity and only members of the loyalty scheme could redeem a prize.

Such prizes are problematic to the PGF, with Froude concerned that players are given a clear path to real money gaming.

“Free games should be just that – free games,” Froude said. “They should not act as ‘gateways’ to other gambling sites, or in SkyCity’s case, a ‘gateway’ to the casino.

“If you win a ‘random’ prize on the SkyCity gaming site, you need to join their premier rewards programme in Auckland, Hamilton or Queenstown before you can redeem a prize. It also provides an opportunity for marketing material to be emailed out to people that sign up to play on the gaming site.”

The PGF states that its mission is to build “healthy communities together, free from gambling harm”, and identifies slots, or ‘pokies’ as they are known in Australasia, as the main concern in New Zealand. 

Froude added: “The story of problem gambling in New Zealand is pokie machines. Over 60 per cent of people that present for help with a gambling problem do so because of pokies. Yet only 16 per cent of the population ever uses pokie machines in pubs and clubs.”

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