What Makes Gambling Addictive?

Is slot machine gambling more about excitement or absorption? Professor Luke Clark looks at how game design influences gambling addiction.

 |  Transcript [PDF]

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.

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Luke Clark is an associate professor and the inaugural director of the Centre for Gambling Research at UBC. The Centre for Gambling Research was created in 2014 with funding from the Province of BC government and the British Columbia Lottery Corporate, to energize gambling research in British Columbia, reduce the harm associated with gambling, and improve evidence-based gambling policy. Dr Clark’s research focuses on the psychological and neural mechanisms that underlie gambling behaviour, and how these processes are altered in disordered gambling. Before moving to the Department of Psychology at UBC, he was a Senior Lecturer at University of Cambridge, U.K. He has published over 150 papers in peer-reviewed journals, and serves on the editorial boards for the leading journals in his field, including Addiction and International Gambling Studies. In 2015 he received the Scientific Achievement Award from the National Center for Responsible Gaming for his contributions to gambling research. You can follow him on Twitter @LukeClark01 and @CGR_UBC.