How behavioural science can contribute to responsible online gambling

Spark interview with Marilisa Boffo
Marilisa Boffo
Jan van der Ploeg

How can you use digital measures to promote responsible online gambling and prevent online players from becoming 'problematic players'? Marilisa Boffo's research project focuses on this question.

Boffo is an associate professor of clinical psychology and eHealth at Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR). She is involved in the master's in Health Psychology and Digital Interventions at Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences (ESSB). She has a background in digital interventions for behaviour change, especially in the field of addiction.


Her approach to the project can be called daring, to say the least. From the EUR, she has sought collaboration with two major gambling companies for her research: Holland Casino Online and Playtech. The reason for this collaboration is largely because it is quite difficult to reach online players for scientific research. "By cooperating with the business community, we have access to this research target group all at once, and we can use science to make online gambling more responsible," says Boffo. She sees responsible online gambling as a shared responsibility of players, operators, government, researchers, and people involved in public health.


Immediately, it is also clear where Boffo's intentions lie with this research project: she wants to help the gambler. "I am and remain a clinical psychologist and have seen what it does to lives when online gambling becomes an addiction. It can devastate lives: from sky-high debt and job loss to criminal behaviour and severe family problems, such as child displacement, severe depression and even suicide.I hope this research contributes to making gambling safe and preventing problematic gambling behaviour for individuals and society. And I hope we feel a shared responsibility."

Remote Gaming Act

That Holland Casino Online and Playtech want to cooperate with Boffo for this research does not come out of the blue. On 1 October 2021, the Remote Gaming Act (Koa) came into force in the Netherlands with rules for online gambling. This requires all providers of high-risk games of chance to take measures against online gambling addiction with the advice of experience and addiction experts. In practice, this amounts to monitoring gambling behaviour and intervening if a player shows irresponsible risk behaviour. Gambling companies may have experience in this area in physical locations; taking that responsibility online is an entirely different story. Players gamble from home, without control and often alone. Moreover, you play much faster than in the casino and can do it 24/7. Holland Casino Online and Playtech say the partnership aims to invest in scientific data analysis, and theory- and evidence-based digital solutions to promote responsible gambling.

Stepped Care model

According to Boffo, a lot of research has already been done on players who are or are at risk of becoming gambling addicts. What is unique about this new research is that the target group is broader: all online players. So it also includes the relatively largest group of recreational players. Boffo: "It would be good if operators intervened according to a 'Stepped Care model' when online gambling in a player threatens to get out of hand. A player with low-risk behaviour can be actively encouraged to stick to that lower, responsible risk behaviour. On the other hand, suppose an online gambler takes larger, irresponsible risks. In that case, the key is to change that behaviour through effective, more targeted intervention." Intervention can be subtle (via a pop-up, for example) but also strict: for example, the application of stringent limits on deposits, session durations, and losses, or even the freezing of an account for a fixed period when necessary. Besides what measure to implement, Boffo says it matters at what point you do so. Intervening is most effective when the player is not yet fully engaged in the game. During this so-called cold state, players are better able to make rational decisions and, for instance, agree to a limit with themselves.

Student engagement

Boffo enjoys involving ESSB students in her research. For instance, a group of her students in the Health Psychology and Digital Interventions masters worked on a case study on 'responsible gambling and gaming', and a PhD candidate is currently involved in the research. Boffo: "This project inspires us to engage with students on topics such as scientific integrity and ethics and our social responsibility as behavioural scientists. I want students to think critically about how scientists can responsibly collaborate with the industry."

Related education
This master is aimed at forming science-informed practitioners in digital behaviour change.

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