Boffo specialises in clinical psychology and eHealth and has been studying various types of addiction, including gambling addiction, for some time now. Following the legalisation of online gambling, she reached out to gamblers to try to get them involved in her research, but this proved difficult. “There’s quite a stigma attached to gambling, so gamblers are reluctant to seek help. In addition, they’re often unaware of the risks and loath to take part in research”, Boffo says, summing up the problems she encountered. As a result, appeals to gamblers to sign up had little effect.

Joining forces with gambling companies

Marilisa Boffo eur_spark_andrea-3987
Marilisa Boffo. Image credit: EUR

Moreover, Boffo discovered an essential difference between problem gamblers and – for instance – people with a drinking problem: “Drinking is everywhere, while gambling games are mainly found behind the closed doors of the operators.” The only way through those doors was to team up with these operators. To that end, Boffo reached out to Holland Casino and Playtech.

The former name will be familiar to many, the latter less so. Playtech is an international company that largely operates in the background. It is a global supplier of the technology that underpins online gambling platforms – one of those platforms being Holland Casino Online.

Legal requirement

To Boffo’s surprise, Holland Casino was more than happy to help. “This was partially due to Dutch legislation, which specifies that gambling operators must give scientists access to data and involve them in the development of measures to combat gambling addiction. Hence, I felt this was a win-win situation: we could join forces and use scientific insights to offer better protection to gamblers.”

She adds that the gambling companies imposed no conditions on the research. “We were motivated by the same thing: protecting gamblers against addiction. Scientific integrity and the independence needed to safeguard my research are non-negotiable terms in any partnership negotiation.” That said, Boffo is not blind to the risks – which is why reflection on the partnership also forms part of her research.

Piece of the puzzle

Strooisel Responsible_gambling verantwoord gokken_casino_addiction_card_2023_Francesca Mora
Image credit: Francesca Mora

Before Boffo began her research, she realised that she had, in her words, ‘overlooked a piece of the puzzle’. “I usually work in a clinical setting, where I design interventions for people who’ve already developed an addiction problem. However, these didn’t seem to work well for people with a gambling addiction. I decided that it would be better to focus on gamblers who ran a lower risk and had not yet become addicted, so that I could prevent the problem from occurring.”

Consequently, her research is aimed at developing a prevention programme that she intends to make available to gamblers at all risk levels through the online operators’ platforms. The research project ‘Safe bet’ has been under way for a few months now, with Boffo working on an online ‘framework’ on the basis of addiction theories. Such a framework consists of a series of interventions, digital persuasion techniques (nudges) such as pop-ups, legally required measures and other ways to set gambling limits.


The behaviour of gamblers is being monitored as well. “On the basis of this behaviour, an existing algorithm determines how much risk a gambler runs of developing a problem. We’re able to monitor gamblers as they play: how often they do so, how much risk they take, what their preferences are and which measures they take themselves to regulate their gambling behaviour.”

The framework is intended to encourage self-regulation, rather than enforce it. “We want them to set their own limits and stick to them, as this is a much more sustainable approach than coercion.” One of the factors the algorithm had to take into account is the fact that the risk-taking behaviour of gamblers is not a constant: they may be high rollers in some situations, but may take it easy in others. This is normal human behaviour, according to Boffo.

Unlimited limits

Some measures in the framework are legal requirements, but this does not mean that Holland Casino and Playtech will actually impose those measures on gamblers. “A legally required measure doesn’t mean that gamblers are obliged to abide by that measure. Only the existence of the measure is required. It’s often up to the companies themselves to introduce them, and gamblers’ compliance with them is voluntary.”

For instance, the law stipulates that the amount of money in a gambler’s account must be limited, but there is nothing that prevents a gambling company from setting that limit at, say, 20 million euros. As long as there is a limit. “The question then becomes: do operators have the necessary expertise to set appropriate limits? Besides, setting a limit is all well and good, but what do you do if someone gambles for a long period of time and tops up their account continuously? The length of time spent gambling may also have a significant effect on gamblers. That’s why we’re trying out all sorts of inventions, just to see what sticks.”

Opposite effect

An example of such an intervention is a pop-up that reminds the gambler of how long they have been gambling or alerts them to how much money they stand to lose. However, this intervention may also have the opposite effect. For instance, problem gamblers may try to win their money back if they are alerted to their losses. “For this reason, we always try to give balanced information. The tone is also important. For example, we know that the gamblers who take the largest risks tend to regard interventions as patronising and just ignore them. As a consequence, the information is as factual as possible without being coercive. It also matters whether you address someone in your communications as a gokker (gambler) or as a speler (player).”

As Boffo explains, gamblers who take fewer risks may benefit from an entirely different tone. “By contrast, these gamblers are receptive to being reminded that they’ve been gambling for too long, for example by being shown their gambling history. An alternative approach is to ask them from time to time whether they’ve gambled enough for the day.”

Reflection on the partnership itself

In recent years, there has been a lot of criticism of partnerships between scientists and the fossil fuel industry. The gambling industry is not generally considered a positive force in society either, and in any case, entering into partnerships with the business sector is a complex issue for scientists. This is why Boffo’s research includes a reflection on the partnership with gambling companies. “Our publications will include a white paper on the partnership itself. I’ve thought long and hard about how I wanted to work with Holland Casino and Playtech. We had plenty of discussions on this topic, and I asked my managers and the Legal Affairs department for advice to find out whether such a partnership would be wise. It involves the risk of conflicts of interest and various ethical questions, several of which have no cut-and-dried answer. My primary concern is for the gamblers: how can I reach them and help them out with the knowledge I possess? For me, this research is the way how. I don’t know if I’ll still feel the same way in four years’ time, but for now, this is the choice I’ve made.”

No worries

Boffo is aware of the potential conflict between these messages. Even so, the aim of her research is to work in a naturalistic setting. “Firstly, we’re limiting ourselves to a sample population of several thousands of gamblers – so this doesn’t include everyone. We negotiated this with the companies involved: what was acceptable to them and what was right for us in terms of scientific integrity? Eventually, we came to an agreement. We want to test our framework in a realistic setting, and it wouldn’t be realistic for us to prevent the operators from running promotions and special actions on their own platforms.”

Besides, she emphasises that her research is not necessarily intended to improve the companies’ gambling platforms. “I’m a scientist first and foremost. That means I’m not building a product for those companies, but trying to answer questions and test a hypothesis. Whether the framework works in the end or doesn’t is not the point – either result is fine. I’d still have an answer to my questions.”


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