Healthy Living: State bets GameSense will stem problem gambling

4/6/2017 | Debbie Gardner

Category: April 2017

Who hasn’t done it? Plunked down a dollar or two for a scratch ticket when you hit the convenience store for gas or milk?  Kicked in a few bucks when the office pool was betting on the latest big Powerball? Taken advantage of one of those “fundraising” bus trips to Foxwoods or Mohegan Sun?

Congratulations, you just joined the ranks of the 72 percent of adult Bay Staters who gambled last year.

“People like to gamble in Massachusetts, for whatever reason,” Marlene Warner, executive director of the non-profit Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling told Reminder Publications. “For a state of 6 ½ million people, we have 7,600 lottery outlets [and] sales over $5.5 billion. Connecticut [lottery] is doing somewhere in the range of $3 billion; every other state [lottery] pales in comparison.”

Massachusetts already has the distinction of operating the most profitable lottery in the world. And with three more enticing ways to gamble – the MGM casino in Springfield, the Wynn Boston Harbor casino in Everett and the already-operating Plainridge Park slot parlor in Plainridge – coming online between now and 2018, the opportunities to gamble in this state are about to explode.

But with more opportunities comes the potential for increased problem gambling, a situation that already impacts an estimated 104,000 residents detrimentally, and puts another approximately 326,000 at risk, according to Mark Vander Linden, director of research and responsible gaming for the Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC)

To address these issues, Massachusetts has become the first state in the country to adopt GameSense – an innovative, outreach strategy designed to promote informed, responsible gambling, at all of its gaming venues.

Developed by the Canadian-based British Columbia Provincial Gaming Corporation in 2009, GameSense is “a player-focused, responsible gaming program that encourages players to adopt behaviors and attitudes that can reduce the risk of developing gambling disorders.”

As implemented by the MGC, the multi-pronged GameSense program includes the following initiatives:
• Placing GameSense Advisors in casinos to talk to visitors about their gaming plans,
• Providing access to a voluntary budgeting tool called “Play My Way” tied to casino player loyalty cards,
• Offering a suite of in-person and online education about gambling myths and how different games actually work, and
• Implementing a voluntary exclusion list that can help keep problem gamblers out of state gaming venues.

“Ultimately, gambling is your choice, but we want people to understand that there are ways that gambling can be done in a healthier, more responsible way rather than creating risk and other problems,” Vander Linden said.

The MGC rolled out the first ads promoting GameSense through online and social media channels on March 12. The full suite of information, including links to help for gambling issues, is available online at

Warner said attacking the potential for problem gambling head-on had always been part of the plan as gaming expanded across the state.

“The 2011 Expanded Gaming Act goes far and wide beyond any other legislation in the nation. It calls for on-site gambling treatment centers. When it went into the state legislature, they decided to have a responsible gaming and problem gaming center [in the casinos]” she explained.

Vander Linden, who joined MGC from the Iowa Department of Public Health, where he also worked on gambling–related issues, said his research showed GameSense offered the best answer to the MGC’s and the legislature’s concerns.

“The commission went out and identified what are the effective strategies already in place in other parts of the country and around the world [to combat problem gambling] and honestly, we did not see a lot happening in the United States,” Vander Linden said. “[British Columbia’s] GameSense is an active way to promote responsible gambling. The traditional way is passive, offering brochures to patrons about what responsible gambling looks like.

The GameSense program is already up and running in the Plainridge Park slots casino, and Warner, whose non-profit has hired and is overseeing the GameSense Advisors at the site – said the research on this initial implementation shows real promise.

“[Following] the first months of the games at Plainridge an evaluation came out showing this approach was really useful for informing players and had a really positive impact on [them],” she said.

In Plainridge, Warner said the GameSense Advisors are located near the elevators, through which 85 percent of players enter. Positioned next to the casino host booth, they are in a “perfect position” to talk to patrons about their plans for the day, address slot play myths like “hot” machines and introduce tools such as the “Play My Way” daily, weekly and monthly budgeting options on loyalty cards – while the guest waits for a host.

Vander Linden said the cooperative effort between MGC and the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling to staff GameSense outposts is being funded through an assessment on casino licenses assigned to MGM, PennNational and Wynn, with “no taxpayer dollars” involved.

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