Karen Finlay

Gambling was once taboo, but now it is a popular, government-sanctioned recreational activity. Controversy is brewing over the Ontario Lottery and Gaming (OLG) Corporation’s plan to terminate its “Slots-at-Racetrack” program as of March 31, 2013.

But there is no doubt the bright lights and chiming bells will continue to lure hordes of people to slot machines in casinos across the province. In June last year, the OLG reported a record dividend from its casinos and lotteries of more than $6 billion for the 2010-11 fiscal year. Much of this money is thought to come out of the pockets of Ontario’s estimated 300,000 problem gamblers – those who continue gambling undeterred by its adverse consequences.

Casinos employ interior designers to create mesmerizing spaces that encourage people to “stay and play.” Nonetheless, Marketing and Consumer Studies professor Karen Finlay says the provincial government and casino operators alike have become increasingly aware of the problems that can accompany gambling.

That is one reason why it is easier to study casinos now than it was in 2004, when she first began became curious about the psychological impact of gambling environments, and easier than in 2006 when the Guelph-based Ontario Problem Gambling Research Centre (OPGRC) funded a study while the OLG forbade her to enter a casino to conduct the research.

“In previous studies, I observed that many slot machine players enter a dissociative state and lose track of time,” says Finlay. “The cognitive overload from all the audio and visual stimulation causes people to be less able to weigh information and make decisions. I wondered how people could be helped to think rationally in the casino environment.

“To investigate what difference the surroundings make on gamblers, I initially developed a 3-D simulated gambling setting in a lab on Gordon Street, because I wasn’t allowed to enter a casino to study the gambling environment. My results have consistently shown that the design elements of gambling venues can have a profound influence on behaviour.”

Finlay obtained video footage from a Las Vegas casino and then used a Panoscope that displayed a 360-degree image in the lab to expose volunteer participants to the casino environment in a virtual-reality scenario.

In March this year, her research was highlighted in a New Yorker article about casino and hotel designer Roger Thomas, whose designs are known for exceptional opulence. Her findings showed that even people who did not normally gamble succumbed to Thomas’s décor.

Finlay explains that gamblers tend to enjoy gambling and remain longer in comfortable venues with restorative elements – things which are perceived as “relaxing” and draw gamblers’ attention away from the lights and noise of a slot machine, such as a picture of trees, galloping horses, a river, a tropical beach or a blue sky. These elements can help ground gamblers in reality. However, the presence of restorative elements achieved this desirable result mainly when they were salient.

Restorative elements are more commonplace in a venue with a “playground” interior design than in one that provides slot machines in a drab atmosphere, Finlay says.

“Gamblers report feeling like the space is a ‘refuge’ and their stress levels are reduced. They are more likely to linger, and come back to gamble again even if they lost money.”

Finlay’s research team explores restorative elements within the context of seeking ways of reducing the intent to gamble. “Our research has serious implications,” she says. “Data has shown that increased access to gambling corresponds with increased social ills. Casino operators have begun to acknowledge the importance of understanding problem gambling and are beginning to co-operate with researchers.”

A little late in the game, perhaps, but the value of corporate social responsibility is hitting home as gambling facilities attempt to avoid lawsuits. In 2010, Loto-Québec reached a settlement with thousands of problem gamblers in a multi-million dollar class action lawsuit over the cost of treating their addiction. By then, Ontario had paid an average of $167,000 per case to settle nine lawsuits with problem gamblers.

Last year, Flamboro Downs, offering 24/7 access to more than 800 slot machines, opened its doors to Finlay and, with the ongoing support of the OPGRC, she succeeded in conducting a study inside the “racino”.

Flamboro Downs mounted large-screen televisions that displayed restorative images over four slot machines to see if these would divert the gamblers from their monotonous activity and reduce their desire to gamble. For eight hours a day over 12 days, Finlay and her graduate students studied the impact of restorative images on slot machine gamblers.

About 180 people participated in the study, playing for 15 to 30 minutes each, while the researchers tracked the number of times they looked away from the machines and at the restorative images. The participants’ excitement and anxiety levels were also monitored using plastic wristbands with metal sensors that measured movement, skin temperature and heart rate.

Flamboro Downs also provided a separate room in which the participants later answered questions about how much time and money they typically spend on gambling.

“Everyone underreports a little,” Finlay said. “Problem gamblers often say they gamble the same amount everywhere they go, but the data shows this is an inaccurate self-assessment. In fact, about 15 per cent of people who enjoy gambling and six per cent of the general population are problem gamblers.

“There are eight indicators of problem gambling, including ‘I lie to my family about gambling’ and ‘I steal in order to gamble.’ I believe it is fruitful in a counselling setting to talk to problem gamblers about the environment in which they choose to gamble.”

As city council continues to deliberate the pros and cons of constructing a glamorous casino in Toronto, the OLG has announced it will introduce online gaming options later this year.

“Imagine being able to gamble 24/7 in your pajamas sitting at your kitchen table,” says Finlay. “These may not be precisely the same people as those that frequent the racino, but common sense tells you it cannot be good for the health of the population.”