Sexism, virtual reality and tax avoidance: What I saw at the ICE gambling event

Matt Zarb-Cousin

If you took the long walk around the 100-acre Excel Centre this week, the site of ICE – Britain’s biggest gambling industry conference – it wouldn’t surprise you to learn that Britain’s gamblers are losing more money than ever before.

Despite instructions from the Gambling Commission to “root out the sexism”, promo girls, sometimes draped across actual Batmobiles, sometimes swinging around poles, and in the vast majority of cases not wearing much at all, were paraded round exhibition booths by an industry entirely detached from societal norms.

Since New Labour’s deregulation of gambling in 2005, the exponential growth of the sector has induced a feeling of invincibility; it’s an industry that isn’t used to being told what to do. No surprise then that the Gambling Commission’s instructions were ignored. If the regulator, established in 2007 to protect the public, is unable to stop firms from using “promo girls”, it definitely isn’t able to pre-approve new gambling products before they are rolled out to the public.

The Gambling Commission’s “consumer protection zone” was tucked away, at the back of the exhibition centre, while regulators from other jurisdictions – including Alderney, Malta and the Isle of Man – all had huge displays. Rather than consumer protection, their objective is to “sell” their jurisdiction to operators, outlining the benefits of lower taxes and comparative deregulation. In Malta, corporation tax for gambling companies is 5% – it’s effectively a tax haven.

This has created a race to the bottom, where regulators effectively become facilitators, competing with each other for business. But if an operator is based overseas, it can still access the lucrative British market by obtaining a license from the Gambling Commission. Last year, when British gamblers lost £4bn online, much of that went out of the country as corporation tax was paid to another jurisdiction. Meanwhile, the UK still has to pick up the tab for the gambling-related harm occurring as a consequence.

ICE gave us an insight into how this is going to get much worse. While the treatment of women showed operators stuck in the past, their adoption of the latest technology revealed a willingness to embrace the future. One virtual reality headset I tried retails at just £10. It allows the user to insert their smartphone and, by applying VR-compatible games, escape into a different world. With impeccable graphics, I tried a demo of a slot game where the bonus round was a zombie shooter – every zombie killed netting the player a higher bonus. Another VR product was based on a plush casino, with live dealers at the tables.

Since its inception, the gambling industry has sought to develop games that are as addictive and immersive as possible, which will activate the player’s reward circuitry and keep them hooked. Virtual reality has hugely expanded their scope, but it’s the merger between video gaming and gambling that is perhaps most concerning. Such as Xbox-style controllers being used in games of skill that doubled up as gambling games, merging the addictive capacity of both.

It is not known what impact new technology will have on the already increasing rates of addiction, but given that 59 per cent of online gambling losses already come from people experiencing problems, it should be the regulator’s priority to ensure new products are safe, rather than expecting the best of an extractive, unscrupulous industry.

Through blocking via internet service providers, the government should ensure that only operators based in the UK, and paying tax here, are permitted access British consumers. Only then will we begin to get to grips with an out of control sector.

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