[Neon Eden]

HealthE Gambling app fights gaming addiction

A sure bet: The HealthE Gambling app will monitor how much you gamble.
Rogelio V. Solis, AP

At the end of the comedy 50/50 a Pearl Jam song ran over the credits. The song was on in my college dorm room long ago, but suddenly I couldn’t place it. So I pulled out my phone and went to SoundHound. Within seconds, I had my answer: “Yellow Ledbetter.” God love smart phones.

A UNLV professor is developing a smart phone application that might not be as hip as Pandora or as risque as Grindr, but it’s still pretty cool and could be important to the future of the gaming industry.

Its cheesy name: HealthE Gambling. Bo Bernhard, UNLV sociologist and executive director of International Gaming Institute, says we should not think of it as a “problem gambling app,” because no piece of technology—outside some futurist Philip K. Dick novel—is going to treat full-on pathological addiction. (A true addict would pawn his iPhone anyway.) Still, that’s the basic idea here. Just as people use calorie counters and exercise diaries to effectively monitor their health, this device would help people monitor their gambling habits.

Though still in development, the main features are in place. The app would provide educational messaging, like, hey, did you know video poker is a stupid waste of money? (I’m exaggerating, though that would be a good one.)

If you’re on a binge, the app would send you to your nearest Gambler’s Anonymous meeting among the more than 100 in our Las Vegas Valley. It would help you find treatment. You could also find a chat room or some place to talk to people on your phone or tablet. There’d even be a “virtual sponsor”—the app would connect you with someone who is willing to offer a hand right away.

Bernhard says the best predictor of successful recovery for gambling addicts is whether they make a close connection with someone, which is difficult given the sense of isolation addicts feel and the sheer difficulty treatment specialists have in finding them. So, Bernhard and his collaborators, including Harvard’s Debi LaPlante, are trying to bring that connection and that treatment to where the addicts are—on their phones.

The app becomes more important if we legalize online gambling, which seems likely during the next decade.

Once that happens, the app could record your online playing down to the second and the penny. It could also alert you that your behavior is entering addiction territory. And, finally, you could set up self-regulating limits to make sure you spend only some of the kids’ college fund.

The data researchers could collect would add to what has become a fairly rich trove collected from online gambling, especially in Europe, where it’s legal. Before, researchers often had to rely on people’s recall to study gambling behavior. Sure enough, gamblers’ memories are fairly dim when it comes to their playing. “You could poll people at McCarran Airport, and they’ll tell you they came out ahead during their vacation,” Bernhard says ruefully.

Fortunately, the data so far shows that with online gambling there’s a brief spike in play, but after a novelty effect rise, usage levels off. The imagined horror stories of 15-year-olds getting hold of their parents’ credit card and going bonkers hasn’t really come to pass. Maybe European 15-year-olds have more interesting things to do than gamble online.

All the talk of online gambling here in Nevada has taken on an air of inevitability. It’s a little disturbing, reminiscent of when Congress undid the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 so Citibank could finalize its then-illegal merger with Travelers to become a massive, too-big-to-fail behemoth. We must modernize our banking system, we were told. What could possibly go wrong?

Kudos to Bernhard then for preparing a device in advance that will help mitigate the problems that will eventually arise with the advent of mobile gaming.

He says that, for now, he wants to develop the app and have it peer-reviewed before considering partnerships with gaming companies when online play becomes legal.

Here’s my idea: If our gaming giants want to go online, we should make those partnerships mandatory, so that with your MGM gaming app, you get your HealthE Gambling App.

Gambling, after all, is not 50/50.

J. Patrick Coolican is a columnist for the Las Vegas Sun. Follow him on Twitter @jpcoolican or email him at [email protected] His Neon Eden radio show airs Tuesdays at 5:30 p.m. on 91.5 FM.
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