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GameSense: Changing the channel on responsible gambling

Originally published in Responsible Gambling Review, January 2014, Vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 6-15

Abstract

Many players are reluctant to access responsible gambling (RG) educational resources because of the perceived association (stigma) with problem gambling, undermining prevention programming efforts. In an effort to separate the two streams (education and treatment referral), BCLC undertook to develop and execute a new branding approach that entails the elimination of any reference to responsible gambling with players. Experience to date indicates this approach appears to increase the likelihood that players will access RG tools and programming, and raises awareness and appreciation of BCLC’s RG efforts.

Background

The British Columbia Lottery Corporation (BCLC) is a Crown corporation mandated to provide gambling entertainment on behalf of the government of British Columbia, Canada. It offers a full range of gambling options including traditional lottery, casino and bingo as well as North America’s first full (lottery, poker and casino games) internet gambling site, PlayNow.com. Video Lottery Terminals (VLTs) are not permitted in British Columbia. Net income of just over $1.1 billion flows directly to the provincial government for distribution to, among other programs, charitable and community organizations, government-­‐operated problem gambling prevention and treatment programming, and general revenue. BCLC’s responsible gambling programming endorses an approach consistent with the framework outlined by Blaszczynski, Ladouceur and Shaffer in A Science-­‐Based Framework for Responsible Gambling: The Reno Model (Blaszczynski, Ladouceur, & Shaffer, 2004). Responsible gambling is seen as the programming focused on educating consumers about gambling and supporting healthy choices about their gambling. Generally the target audience comprises those who would be deemed as either low-risk or at-risk players. Problem gambling programming is developed to support those with identified gambling problems, and includes information and referral to treatment and voluntary self-exclusion. BCLC is not involved in the delivery of problem gambling treatment.

The problem: Nobody wants to talk to us

“Right now the tone [of RG materials] is more authoritative, like you guys are the police … the gambling police.” ‐ Casino patron

In 2008 BCLC’s responsible gambling team recognized that there were issues with how it was presenting its responsible gambling programming to consumers. For example, very few casino visitors were interested in accessing printed materials dedicated to responsible gambling information tips, information about how gambling works or reference to problem gambling support services like the voluntary self-exclusion (VSE) program. Nor were they particularly interested in engaging in conversations with the specially trained Responsible Gambling Information Officers who staffed the casinos’ Responsible Play Information Centres. These observations were confirmed through quantitative research undertaken among 1000 British Columbians about their awareness of responsible gambling programs and resources. When presented with a list of such resources, 66% indicated they were aware of such resources but had not accessed them and 16% had accessed at least one of them.

Interviews with casino patrons highlighted concerns by players that the information, though recognized as positive and useful, was really only intended for those who had a problem with their gambling. They also felt there was a level of stigma associated with the program materials, so that even if they had some interest in the program content, the mere act of accessing it would send a signal to others that they were experiencing problems with their gambling.

Of even greater concern was that many players associated negative imagery with the materials or programming, including:

  • invisible, boring, and conservative; or worse,

  • impersonal, overbearing, and authoritarian.[1]

Subsequent research revealed an interesting irony. The vast majority of BC adults (79% in Q2 F14) feel it is important that BCLC educates the public on playing responsibly. Further, 80% of British Columbians feel it is important for BCLC to “increase awareness that help is available for problem gamblers.”[2] But when asked who they thought such information should be directed at, 73% suggested that they are for “anyone who gambles” while 54% felt they were for people at risk of developing a gambling problem or who have a gambling problem already. Only a small minority, 16%, agreed that that the programs were for them specifically.[3]

In short, most felt everyone who has, or might develop, a gambling problem should be able to access responsible gambling information. But, since they themselves don’t have a problem, it’s not for them. This poses an obvious problem. BCLC’s responsible gambling program is intended to be prevention-focused. Yet, the very audience at which it was being targeted, at risk players, were refusing to engage with the resources provided because they were perceived to be addressing only problem gamblers. Responsible gambling programming was missing its mark.

The good news was that the same survey revealed there was appetite for responsible gambling information: 82% of respondents indicated they would be comfortable accessing brochures that show how the games work and 80% were comfortable with materials that discuss how to gamble responsibly. So the BCLC responsible gambling team found themselves in an interesting position: they knew the information they tried to provide about how to gamble responsibly was valuable but few were interested in accessing it because it was perceived as being intended for problem gamblers. This highlighted the presence of social stigma attached to problem gambling and a level of concern about being perceived as having difficulties. Responsible gambling had an image problem.

Changing the channel

With the support of Identica, an agency that specializes in brand strategy and design, we engaged business skillsets more typically associated with marketing consumer products than promoting healthy gambling choices. We began by defining an overall brand positioning, a statement that identifies what the brand stands for: To whom are responsible gambling programs targeted? What does responsible gambling do? And how? As we debated these questions, we recognized that while we needed to keep our programming focused on players, we also had a broader audience that needed assurance we were paying attention to the potential of gambling-­‐related harms: the general public. Ultimately, we landed on a brand positioning statement that captured the need to address players’ while communicating our efforts more broadly:

“We promote a positive approach to play with our customers and peace of mind with the general public.”

We knew how responsible gambling was being perceived, but it took some time to define how we wanted it to be perceived in the future. We no longer wanted to be considered the “gambling police” and instead favoured images of “friendly helper” and “supportive peer”. Our communications in future would be marked by a tone that was friendly and caring, not dictating or seen as being from government. We wanted to be perceived as approachable, particularly when it might be time to engage in a difficult conversation. In essence, we wanted our responsible gambling brand to be:

  • trustworthy, proactive, effective, and transparent

  • friendly, genuine and helpful

Finally, we restated our purpose: “We should be all about educating people and helping our players make informed, responsible decisions.” This work formed the foundation around which we tackled the real challenge: creating a brand that at once let players know what it was all about (responsible gambling) but without actually referencing responsible gambling. Using the agreed-upon brand positioning, Identica was asked to come up with a list of possible new brand names.When they came back to us a week later with a list of 20 alternatives, a favourite surfaced fairly quickly: GameSense.

Despite skepticism among some on our working group, including myself, about finding a term to replace “responsible gambling” the new name was quickly and enthusiastically endorsed by both the members of the group, and subsequently by key members of the BCLC executive team. We felt we had come up with a winner. Within weeks Identica’s design team had developed a logo, colour scheme and graphic standards consistent with the GameSense brand as we had defined it. To make sure we weren’t completely missing the mark, a series of focus groups were convened to test the look and feel of the new brand before a final decision was made to launch.

Launch: Do we have lift-off?

In April 2009, all existing responsible gambling materials were removed from all 35 BCLC gaming facilities, including signage, brochures, posters, and digital kiosks, and replaced with a completely redeveloped suite of GameSense materials. By the end of that month, all use of the term “responsible gambling” was banished from consumer-facing communications and a new web site, http://www.GameSense.ca was launched. Even our Responsible Gambling Officers, who staffed the Responsible Play Information Centres, were renamed GameSense Advisors and operated what had now become the GameSense Info Centres. Programming at the centres evolved from passive provision of information to the execution of new interactive educational initiatives with names like The Reel Deal (how slot machines work), Risky Business (interactive game highlighting notion of risk) and 12 Days of GameSense (series of educational initiatives leading up to Christmas), reflecting the friendly and approachable personality of the GameSense brand.

Later that summer we introduced our first-­‐ever advertising focused exclusively on responsible gambling messages that challenged those who gambled to think about gambling differently. Rather than depict specific gambling scenes, the creative used analogies drawn from everyday life experiences. For example, a young man repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, approaches an attractive woman in a bar in an effort to buy her a drink. After the third such rebuff the voiceover advises “No matter how many times you try, the odds are always the same” while the GameSense logo appears on the screen. Another spot depicted a scene in which a singer/guitarist entertains his friends who are gathered around a warm campfire. At the end, he removes his hat and passes it around among his surprised companions. The GameSense message becomes obvious: “Play for fun, not for money”. (See examples of GameSense marketing materials here.)

So how did our two intended audiences, players and the general public, react to our new brand? BCLC commissioned an independent research organization to conduct two waves of internet-based surveys with British Columbia residents, aged 19 or over. For each wave data was compiled for 1000 respondents. The first wave was conducted in March 2009, just prior to the launch of GameSense. The second wave was conducted in early September the same year, approximately five months after the completion of the GameSense rollout, and after the launch of the television advertising.[4] All participants who indicated past year participation in some form of gambling were administered questions for classification within the Canadian Problem Gambling Index.

The first issue we were keen to get feedback on was the name GameSense itself. Did the public understand what we were trying to do with the brand? Survey participants in the second wave were asked if they were familiar with GameSense and then were asked an open-­‐ended question, “Whether or not you have heard of GameSense, what do you think it refers to?” Figure 1 provides a summary of the results:

Figure 1: Whether or not you have heard of GameSense, what do you think it refers to?     [5]

Figure 1: Whether or not you have heard of GameSense, what do you think it refers to?[5]

The results surpassed our expectations on two fronts. Firstly, it was clear that even without having heard the term before, nearly 90% were able to ascertain an appropriate interpretation of what it meant. Secondly, only 7% of the total responses associated the term with problem gambling, and this dropped to 3% for those who were actually aware of GameSense. This means a clear majority associated the term GameSense more positively with responsible play. This is significant because for the first time we were able provide responsible play messaging without necessarily invoking the stigma associated with problem gambling. Other data provided more good news. Nearly half (49%) of respondents from the second wave survey stated they were aware of programs or initiatives that promote responsible gambling, up from 43% in the first survey. Awareness of at least one program to promote responsible gambling offered by BCLC increased from 66% to 70% in the six month post-launch period. Those who indicated awareness of GameSense also indicated higher usage levels and awareness of responsible gambling initiatives than those who were not aware of GameSense:

  • 18% compared to 12% had accessed at least one program; and

  • 77% compared to 68% were aware of specific RG initiatives.

Respondents aware of GameSense were also more likely to believe that the various RG programs are intended for them (25% compared to 14% of respondents not aware of GameSense). Again, this seems to confirm that GameSense is perceived as more than just problem gambling focused. Awareness of GameSense had grown to 21% over the six months post launch for the general population, but significantly higher for two key subgroups:

  • Moderate problem gamblers’ awareness had doubled from 16% to 32%, and

  • At-risk players had tripled from 9% to 27%.

When we looked at those who participate in casino gambling, awareness was at 21% for all respondents, but was substantially higher for casino patrons:

  • 30% for slot machine players, and

  • 27% for table games

Finally, some indications about players’ awareness of specific responsible gambling initiatives also showed positive results. Of note, among moderate problem gamblers:

  • awareness of brochures describing odds or how games work increased from 44% to 58%

  • awareness of brochures promoting responsible gambling (tips/myths) grew from 72% to 81%, and

  • awareness of BCLC’s Voluntary Self-­‐Exclusion program went from 45% to 55%

GameSense programming has continued to evolve. New educational programming is routinely implemented in BCLC’s 17 casinos. The GameSense website has been completely redeveloped. New programming features like GameSense for Parents have been created and promoted. Advertising has extended into the online world, appearing particularly within sports-­‐related and online free gaming sites such as MSN Games, with high appeal to at-­‐risk populations. GameSense can also be found on social media, particularly Twitter (@BCLCGameSense) attracting more than 1500 followers and with frequent re-­‐ tweets by British Columbia casino operators as well as treatment and prevention specialists around the world.

While GameSense promotional programming and materials are often positioned as fun and engaging, there is recognition that there are serious messages that must also be delivered and often with great sensitivity to the possible emotional stress being experienced by those who may be in difficulty. Materials such as brochures and posters that provide information about BCLC’s Voluntary Self-Exclusion program, for example, are designed to communicate a more serious tone, favouring a colour palate more heavily weighted to light gray rather than the more typical GameSense green and white (see Figure 2). In addition, a separate but complementary colour scheme and design were undertaken for materials produced by the provincial government’s problem gambling treatment program. The latter do not carry the GameSense logo.

Figure 2: The range of design elements vary depending on message content and intended audience: typical GameSense design (left); more serious GameSense design carrying messages about available resources; (middle); separate, but complementary materials produced by government of British Columbia focused on assistance for problem gamblers (right).

Figure 2: The range of design elements vary depending on message content and intended audience: typical GameSense design (left); more serious GameSense design carrying messages about available resources; (middle); separate, but complementary materials produced by government of British Columbia focused on assistance for problem gamblers (right).

Longer term benefits

The launch of GameSense had an almost immediate impact on the responsible gambling team as everyone embraced the brand and found ways to express their own creativity within the programming. But over time we also experienced a number of unexpected benefits:

  • Casino operators, who provide casino operations services to BCLC under contract, are more understanding of what responsible gambling is trying to achieve and came to accept, if not embrace, GameSense as an extension of their overall customer service program. Many willingly gave up staff time for orientation and promotional activities designed to make all gaming workers more informed about and supportive of our responsible gambling efforts.

  • With enhanced knowledge and understanding of GameSense, the GameSense Advisors’ profile within the casino is enhanced.[6] They are more likely to be sought after to support voluntary self-­‐exclusion enrolments, to coach managers and employees through difficult situations with patrons, and to take on more direct roles with patrons experiencing gambling problems.

  • GameSense programming is now considered an essential part of many casinos’ special events programs. For example, one casino hosts an annual “Show and Shine” event in their parking lot where car and hot rod enthusiasts are invited to display their vehicles to the public. A GameSense booth is regularly set up and staffed to provide both educational programming and interactive games at the event.

In 2013 the Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries Corporation, which operates traditional lottery, two casinos, a video lottery network and online gambling in that province, and SaskGaming, which operates two casinos in Saskatchewan, adopted GameSense as their responsible gambling brand.

Update as of May 2017: The GameSense brand and parallel programming has now also been licensed and implemented by the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Association (SIGA), Massachusetts Gaming Commission, and CT (Connecticut) Lottery.  In February 2017 MGM Resorts International announced they too would be adopting the brand for use in all of their U.S. casino properties.

These developments provide unique opportunities for collaboration between jurisdictions as new or existing responsible gambling products can now be developed and shared, and each providing benefits for all partners.

Conclusions

Problem gambling carries significant stigma and inhibits efforts to educate and encourage non-­‐problem gamblers about responsible play. BCLC recognized the desirability of clearly delineating educational responsible gambling messages from those intended to engage problem gamblers. Efforts to more clearly differentiate these streams led to insights about the term responsible gambling itself as being a major source of stigma, and subsequently we created the term GameSense as a more positive alternative. This was followed by design to support the new brand’s intended positioning. GameSense has been well received by players and customer interactions with responsible gambling staff and materials have increased steadily since the brand’s launch. Just as importantly, GameSense has been embraced by responsible gambling staff, front line gaming workers and casino management resulting in renewed commitment to providing gambling entertainment in a socially responsible manner.

Going forward, the challenge is not simply about branding. We will continue to look for ways to refine our messaging and make it as relevant as possible to the broad range of audiences based on their gambling behaviors (non-­‐problem through to severe problem gamblers), gaming interests, and demographics. But as new player support tools become available, such as behavior tracking technologies and pre-­‐commitment options, we’ll try to bring this same player-­‐focused approach to the way they’re introduced in order to optimize their acceptance and adoption by players.

Endnotes

[1]Identica Branding & Design, BCLC Responsible Gambling Brand Blueprint, Sept. 19, 2008.

[2] Ipsos Reid Corporation, BCLC KPI Tracking Study, July-September, 2013.

[3] Ipsos Reid, Responsible Gaming Pre-Launch Baseline Wave, April 2009. N=1000. BC residents, 19 years+

[4] Results for both waves are included in Ipsos Reid, Responsible Gaming Post Launch Wave, September 2009.

[5] Note that some responses included multiple answers and therefore total percentage exceeds 100.

[6] During a tour undertaken by the author and BCLC’s Manager of Responsible Gambling Programming of all 35 of BC’s casinos and community gaming centre facilities during 2010-11, service provider staff were nearly universal in their demand for additional GameSense Advisors. This provided solid evidence that gaming operators had achieved a substantial level of commitment to the GameSense program.

References

Blasczczynski, A., Ladouceur, R., & Shaffer, H.J. (2004). A science-­‐based framework for responsible gambling: The Reno model. Journal of Gambling Studies, 20, 301-­‐317.