Gambling Commission Consultation on Online Slots Game Design and Reverse Withdrawals
By Bahar Alaeddini, Partner, Harris Hagan

On 9 July 2020, the Gambling Commission announced a consultation on online slots game design and reverse withdrawals.  The former follows the work of the Safer Product Working Group, which we wrote about in our blog on 2 April 2020, and the draft Betting and Gaming Council industry code, which is due to be published in September 2020.

In April 2020, the industry and Safer Product Working Group agreed to:

  • A minimum spin speed of 2.5 seconds on all slots.
  • Removal of game features which may encourage intensive play such as slam stops and turbo buttons.
  • Removal of split-screen slots which have been associated with potential loss of control.
  • A more detailed work plan which will include in-game messaging and the creation of a Betting and Gaming Council Testing Lab to investigate other game features.
  • Publication of the final industry code in September 2020.

Reason for the consultation
In its introduction to the consultation, the Gambling Commission explains:

“Our interest in online slots is because it is the largest online gambling product by Gross Gambling Yield (GGY) – played by relatively few but with a high average spend. Structurally it has a number of features which can combine to significantly increase intensity of play. This means it poses a relatively high risk, reflected in its associated problem and moderate-risk gambling rates.”

Slots are the largest online gambling product in Great Britain by GGY. 1.2% of adults participate in online slots and GGY from online slots has grown by approximately 50% since November 2014.  The Gambling Commission believes “this implies a sharp increase in average spend per consumer”.

In a section titled Why are we consulting the Gambling Commission explains the industry proposals are insufficient and the “consultation goes further to keep slots players safe in a number of other additional areas”.  It goes on to add that “the strength in the proposals will come from effective compliance by operators…[and] the industry can expect what [Neil McArthur] has described as “relentless escalation” to continue when [it] see[s] consumers not being protected from harm.”

The Gambling Commission is particularly concerned about the accelerating intensity of slot games which aim to increase the time and spend of players.  The stated aim of the consultation is to make play of online slots safer by adopting an industry-wide and consistent approach, not just an industry code for Betting and Gaming Council members, and going further by implementing additional measures above the draft industry code.

It acknowledges these are not the only ways to improve player protection and invites views on other aspects of game design to consider for future changes.  It refers to its interim Experts by Experience Group, which has suggested stake levels and different product labels to help customers understand potential risk better. The Gambling Commission’s Digital Advisory Panel highlighted the need for friction to reduce the likelihood of players placing impulsive bets.

New controls aimed at reducing potential harm of online slots
The consultation proposes to amend the Remote gambling and software technical standards (RTS) as follows:

  • Insert a high-level definition of slots: “casino games of a reel-based type (includes games that have non-traditional reels)”.
  • Add a new requirement RTS 14C: “The gambling system must prevent multiple slots games from being played by a single account at the same time.”
  • Add a new requirement RTS 14D: “It must be a minimum of 2.5 seconds from the time a game is started until a player can commence the next game cycle. It must always be necessary to release and then depress the ‘start button’ or take equivalent action to commence a game cycle.”
  • Add a new requirement RTS 14E: “The gambling system must not permit a customer to reduce the time until the result is presented.”
  • Add a new requirement RTS 8C: “The gambling system must require a customer to commit to each game cycle individually. Providing autoplay for slots is not permitted.”
  • Add a new requirement RTS 14F: “The gambling system must not celebrate a return which is less than or equal to the total amount staked.”
  • Add a new requirement RTS 2E: “All gaming sessions must clearly display the net position, in the currency of their account or product (e.g. pounds sterling, dollar, Euro) since the session started.”

Licensees must satisfy themselves that they are offering compliant games. Where they are not sure, any existing game will require third party retesting.

All new games published after the implementation date for these new requirements will need to be tested otherwise, they will need to be removed until retesting has been completed.

Although slots are casino games (and therefore not separately licensed), the Gambling Commission plans to stipulate testing reports to declare whether the game is identified as slots.

Reverse withdrawals
On 14 May 2020 we wrote about the Gambling Commission’s new “additional formal guidance” for online operators in response to “evidence that shows some gamblers may be at greater risk of harm during lockdown”.  This included a prohibition on offering reverse withdrawals until further notice.

At the time, we questioned the reliability of the data used by the Gambling Commission because it showed a decrease in reverse withdrawals. It was clear to us that this measure was not based on the data published by the Gambling Commission, and we questioned whether it was necessary and proportionate.  The Gambling Commission, supported by research, already considered reverse withdrawals to be a flag for potential gambling harms; however, action to tackle this through an industry consultation would have been more appropriate than a strict measure introduced under the guise of guidance. The Gambling Commission has now issued the consultation to make the change permanent, but without the evidence to support it.

This consultation will make it a permanent prohibition by adding a new requirement RTS 14B: “Consumers must not be given the option to cancel their withdrawal request.”  Operators will be required to make this withdrawal process as “frictionless as possible”.

Respond to the consultation
The consultation closes on 3 September 2020.