While most research into the roots of gambling addiction focuses on risk factors in individual people, psychologist Luke Clark asks this question with a twist: how does the design of the games themselves contribute to problem gambling?
Clark, associate professor and director of the Centre for Gambling Research at the University of British Columbia, believes that understanding the two-way interplay between people and the games they play is key to understanding disordered gambling and decision making.
His work focuses primarily on the psychology of slot machines, and how they can capture the attention of players in an immersive way: players may become absorbed in the game, much the same way as players can lose themselves in a great movie or video game.
Clark says that this may alter the excitement and thrill-seeking patterns that are seen in other similar environments, such as sports betting and casino table games. To test this, he is building a casino lab with real slot machines. During play, several measurements are taken to assess biological responses from test subjects, including heart rate and sweating.
Problem gambling can be severe and debilitating, affecting the brain in similar ways as drug addiction. Clark says that depending on the definition used, it affects between 1-5% of the population.
While it isn’t surprising that gambling addiction can result in overwhelming debt, it can also cause difficulties at work and at home, as well as many mental health problems, including depression and alcohol abuse.
In the long term, Clark hopes to find ways to reduce harm and build evidence-based gambling policy. This shift could help prevent people from becoming addicted to gambling.