If you are like most people, you enjoy playing games on your smartphone and tablet. You might even spend a lot of money on them, especially when you find a game that is so exciting and engaging that it is hard to stop. In fact, the in-app game industry is a multibillion dollar business based on a phenomenon called “freemium,” a category of apps where the game is free to download and play but upgrades or advancement require real cash purchases. Some of these are marketed as gambling games and, indeed, in some states (e.g., Washington) where slot machines are prohibited, virtual slots are legal.
One of the unique aspects of mobile gaming is that users tend to engage with their devices on an intermittent basis, short bouts of interaction reminiscent of snacking. This pattern of behaviour may make mobile gaming particularly susceptible to addiction. In addition, the behavioural literature on associative learning and reinforcement schedules suggests that latencies punctuating periods of reinforcement (i.e., the delay between consecutive gambles) can increase acquisition of the learned behaviour and the likelihood of perseverance in the face of losses.
This paper aims to address these issues by using a simulated mobile gambling game in an experiment designed to measure gambling behaviour in phases of acquisition and extinction. Participants were asked to place a series of bets in the simulated app. They were also asked to complete questionnaires on gambling problems, the Barratt Impulsiveness Scale, and a computerised contingency judgement task that probed the illusion of control, a cognitive bias associated with gambling. Contextual and location information was collected from participants’ phones each time they placed a bet.
Results from the study showed that the gambling behaviour of participants increased significantly during extinction and that the amount of money they gambled for was linearly related to the duration of their prior engagement with the game. Gambling during extinction was also influenced by the length of the inter trial interval, and more frequent gambles were made when this delay was shorter. Moreover, the number of near-misses (i.e., non-reinforcing events that resembled wins) was also greater when the delay between gambles was shorter.
These findings add to the growing body of literature examining mobile device gambling and suggest that a new generation of addictive mobile games has emerged. These games should be investigated more thoroughly in order to identify whether they are introducing harmful gambling behaviours to a vulnerable population of players. This is particularly important given that, unlike previous generations of new technology-based gambling, mobile devices offer a constant and accessible platform for gambling activity, making them potentially more dangerous than their predecessors. However, further research is needed to understand how the specific features of these games contribute to their potential for harm. Until then, the best advice for anyone playing these types of games is to be aware of their dangers and play responsibly. In other words, don’t play with fire!