Innovative software tracks data to identify online problem play. Miranda Ingram reports . . .
As operator of The National Lottery, Camelot’s mission is to change lives. Both the lives of its winners – it makes almost 30 millionaires a month – but also the lives of people who benefit from the incredible £36 million that is delivered every week in Good Causes funding. Since The National Lottery began in 1994, players have raised over £35 billion for Good Causes – this means an average of 150 lottery grants in every neighbourhood have been awarded.
So it’s win-win? After all, watching The National Lottery draw on TV, ticket in hand, is a bit of harmless family fun. But with sales of lottery tickets and Scratchcards at an all-time high of £7.5 billion in 2015-6, is there a risk that people are spending more than they can afford?
“At Camelot, our strategy is all about lots of people playing a little, not a few people playing a lot,” says Alison Gardner, head of corporate responsibility at Camelot. “Our unique position as operator of The National Lottery comes with responsibilities for player safety – that’s why we choose to take a proactive approach”.
It’s also why, during the design process for a new game, Camelot uses tools that test how risky certain characteristics of a game could be for players and whether vulnerable or at-risk groups will be adversely affected. It also commissions expert research to give insight into the potential impact of new games on players, and then analyses the results of all this activity to see if a game poses a risk that’s above average. If it does, Camelot will take another look at the product or review other factors, such as its marketing strategy. But if the company is still not convinced, it won’t launch the game.
Another part of Camelot’s responsible play activity sits with the company’s network of?47,000 retailers. They are responsible for around 80% of National Lottery ticket sales, and Camelot is committed to training them how to spot and prevent underage play and potential problem behaviour. The company’s “Operation Child” scheme sends mystery shoppers – who are over 16 but look younger – into retail outlets to try and buy tickets without being challenged. An outlet that fails this test three times can have its lottery terminal removed.
But it is the growth of online gambling, where there is no face-to-face interaction, that provides the biggest challenge to responsible play. Camelot has a world-leading online platform with over eight million registered players. The company already closes down its gaming site overnight and online registration process involves an age-check by Experian.
But now Camelot has teamed up with the Cambridge-based Featurespace, world leader in Behavioural Analytics, to create a fascinating – and so far unique – pilot programme that allows it to monitor individual players, flagging up potential problem behaviours and allowing it to intervene early.
The Behavioural Analytics project started in 2013 and involved looking back through the company’s historical data to see if certain online players exhibited behaviour which might predict problem playing, explains Gardner.
“First, we had to identify what problem play actually looks like – there is no standard definition,” she says. “All our players can exclude themselves from certain games, even permanently. So we looked for people who had self-excluded from their online accounts, on the assumption that this was a sign they were playing too much and potentially had a problem.
“The next step was to monitor those players’ behaviour in the run-up to their self-exclusion to see if any common behaviours emerged. We identified 11 behaviours, which we then tracked and monitored in our data set to see if we could understand which of these behaviours predicted problems ahead.
“We found certain behaviours were more predictive of problems, but it was mainly a certain combination of behaviours which set alarm bells ringing.
“For example, an increase in the numbers of sessions played per week is a pretty obvious indicator. Less obvious is multiple card declines. Of course, cards can be declined for various reasons so this, in isolation, is not an indicator of problem play. But it could also mean people are trying to play with money they don’t have and, critically, may not be able to afford. Put the two behaviours together and you could be seeing the beginnings of a problem”.
Once the problem behaviours had been identified, Camelot ran a six-month programme using Featurespace algorithms. This ran from November last year to June 2016 and tracked player behaviours in real-time. This allowed it to categorise players as safe (“green” players); those displaying one or two problem behaviours (“amber” players); and those showing signs of problems (“red” players).
“It was the first time we had had such a depth of understanding of our players’ behaviours,” says Gardner. ‘We’d been identifying behaviours on a weekly basis – now we needed to decide what to do with our knowledge.”
Camelot developed a set of interventions to see if it could alter potential problem players’ behaviours at an early stage. “We’d send an email asking ‘are you worried about how much you are spending?’ with a link to self-help tools, or invite players to take a quiz to find out “what kind of player are you?” We developed six different interventions and divided our potential problem players into six groups, sending only one intervention to each group so that we could monitor its effectiveness”.
At the end of the six months Camelot contacted the players involved to ask if they remembered seeing the interventions. 60% did not, which means the interventions weren’t memorable enough, but the players surveyed nevertheless thought interventions were a good idea. ‘Most of the respondents believed it was up to themselves, not Camelot, to manage their behaviour, but importantly, they did appreciate prompts to remind them to play responsibly,’ says Gardner.
‘Earlier research had already showed us that people don’t like demanding or dramatic warnings – they respond better to softer and helpful messages like “maybe it’s time to take a break” or “why not go and have a cup of tea.?
“What’s really exciting about Behavioural Analytics is that now we can proactively target these messages to be a tangible help to players.”
Following the successful six-month trial, Camelot is now working on permanently embedding behavioural analytics, as well as further refining interventions to make them as effective as possible at averting potential problem play.
‘The great news is that only 0.5% of our instant win game customers came up as “red” players, and even our “red” players would probably come up as “green” on gambling sites,’ says Gardner.
Camelot is not the sort of company that attracts hardened gamblers. “For example, in bookmakers and casinos, there are machines where you can lose £100 in about 10 seconds,’ she says. ‘Responsible play is at the heart of everything we do – from the way we design our games to the tools we use to help put players in control.
“Our games are relatively low stake and they are not super quick, either. Also, we have daily and weekly limits on how many games you can play and how much money you can add to your account. The idea is that our games are fun to play, not addictive – as we don’t want players to spend more than they can afford.”
Camelot already has the highest level of Responsible Gaming accreditation by the World Lottery Association and was one of the first organisations in the UK to achieve GamCare accreditation for its interactive services.
Nevertheless, continually improving safety nets is good for Camelot, as well as good for players, says Gardner. ‘Continuing to innovate our player protection procedures gives our customers confidence. They are more likely to spend an extra couple of pounds on an instant flutter while buying their lottery ticket, for example, because they know we won’t let them get into trouble – and this acts as a guiding principle for all our games.
‘Plus, the fact that they know that a proportion of each ticket they buy – whether they win or lose – goes to Good Causes truly does make it a win-win for many National Lottery players”.