This post was written in November 2019 when I was the Managing Director of Poker at Microgaming.
At some point in our lives, we have all lost a bit of control.
Maybe you hit the shops a little harder than you could afford. Maybe you went to a restaurant and ate more than you really should. Maybe you were browsing Instagram for longer than you realised and didn’t get much sleep that night.
Other than the feeling of regret afterwards, these small lapses don’t generally cause us much of a problem. We are aware of the risks of overindulging, and so we set ourselves boundaries and we stick within them. We impose spending limits on the non-essentials. We get the starter, not the dessert. We set up the Screen Time feature on our mobile phone. We self-regulate and we stay in control.
The same is true when people gamble. The Senet Group’s excellent report In Control, based on research from independent agency Revealing Reality, illustrates the strong link between control and enjoyment. To quote directly from the report:
‘To stay in control of their gambling, people set themselves mental boundaries to guide what they feel is and isn’t ‘ok’ for them – for example how much they spend, when they gamble, who they gamble with, or what games they play.
As long as they stay within these boundaries, they stay in control of their gambling, and they continue to enjoy it.
If people do not stay in control, they often no longer enjoy gambling, and they sometimes feel regret or remorse. Worse, they may experience gambling-related harm.’
Microgaming has long understood the need for players to self-regulate and we have provided many tools to help with that across all of our product verticals, including self-exclusion, session limits, loss limits and detailed records of player activity. Outside of my career at Microgaming, I’ve written repeatedly over many years to encourage players to keep good records of their play, and to analyse and improve their game.
We saw our new poker client, Prima, as an opportunity to do things better in every sense. That meant designing the product to be more entertaining, but also included making more responsible design decisions along the way. Part of our vision for poker was a product that was ‘safe and fair’, and so I thought it would be interesting to focus on three choices we made that contributed to this vision.
Highly Visible Profit and Loss
When we launched our new software ‘Prima’ in July 2018, we rebuilt our Player History page from scratch and were faced with numerous decisions about what to include, and how to lay things out so that the information was easily understood.
At Microgaming we never want to do the minimum. If we’d followed the letter of the regulations instead of the spirit, we would have just presented a long list of game transactions with a very small profit and loss figure somewhere in the mix. Some think it’s bad practice to emphasize to a player that they have made a loss. This comes from a genuine desire not to humiliate the player, and isn’t anything more sinister than that, but arguably makes it more difficult for a player to self-regulate.
As you can see, we took the opposite approach and put the player’s profit and loss figure boldly in view. This is because we believe strongly that players need to know how much they are winning or losing, even if they don’t like what they see. From a poker perspective, it’s good practice to track your wins and losses closely, as part of your overall strategy to develop and improve your game. But from a safer gambling perspective, seeing this figure can sometimes be the reality check you need to stay in control.
Big Blinds Instead of Cash
They say that ‘the guy who invented poker was bright, but whoever invented the casino chip was a genius’. Casino chips (and plaques) allow players to play for sums of money that would be otherwise impractical, are an effective security measure, but beyond that, are a psychological abstraction from the real value of cash.
It is generally accepted that this abstraction leads to increased play, although evidence for this is scarce. Some online gambling regulators have prohibited abstractions like coins, gems or other tokens and insist that the real value of money is always displayed.
In online poker specifically, there has been a recent trend for online poker operators to provide an option to display the players’ stacks and bet sizes in Big Blinds, rather than monetary amounts. For serious players who might be multitabling many different stakes at the same time, or playing in a mixture of tournaments and cash games, there’s no doubt that such a feature is convenient.
However, by providing a feature that hides the actual, real money bet amounts, might you be undermining a player who intends to stay in control of what they spend? Might it be easier for a player to underestimate what they are playing for, or not realise the size of bet they are calling?
In tournaments, where the amounts being bet and called are already abstracted by virtue of the game format, and don’t directly relate to cash, you can argue that this feature is perfectly responsible. However, I don’t see how you make the same argument when it comes to cash games.
At MPN we resisted the development of this feature and frankly, we have no regrets about this.
Return on Investment
In our final software release, v43, we have released a new Tournament Lobby. We spent an inordinate amount of time designing this feature to improve on what is already out there, and provide useful information that is relevant to the player. Doing this without creating information overload is very difficult, as you will no doubt know if you’re an online poker player.
In designing the lobby, we faced a challenge. We know that some forms of poker make it harder for players to remain in control. For example, in an unlimited rebuy / re-entry tournament, you can quickly rack up a big spend, perhaps bigger than you intend. On the other hand, a lot of players really enjoy rebuy and re-entry tournaments, and they create huge prize pools which add to the excitement of the game. How do we balance the two?
Our solution, much as it was with the new Player History app, was to put Profit & Loss front and centre. The ‘Return on Investment’ section of the tournament lobby is brand new, and something I hope that is emulated in the industry. It provides a mixture of useful information in a simple, compelling way. It serves the needs of serious players, who need simple ways to track their profit and ROI, and can serve as that much-needed reality check for somebody who is working hard to stay in control.
In the history of our poker product, one of the things I am most proud of is how we put player protection first – there has been a genuine desire to make online poker safer, and I hope that is evident in our product development. Often, this meant abstaining from designs or features which we felt undermined a player’s motivation to self-regulate. But occasionally, we seized opportunities to give players new ways to track their results and encourage responsible play, and that’s a legacy that we are proud to leave behind.