Avatar Gambling: Pleasurable Pastime or Potential Problem?

By Aliah D. Wright Mar 19, 2010
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March is National Compulsive Gambling Month. If keeping employees from wasting time on March Madness weren’t enough, HR might find a new twist in online gambling: avatars.

Avatars, or virtual representations of real people and their actions in online communities, have been around since the late 1990s. They increased in popularity in 2003 when Linden Labs launched the virtual world Second Life, a popular online community where people use avatars to role-play. In a virtual world, people can use avatars to engage in numerous activities, including socializing, shopping and gambling. Second Life, however, banned gambling in 2007.

Other popular virtual worlds include Simcountry, Meez and There. Internet addiction specialists told SHRM Online that they are unaware of computer users in the United States using avatars to gamble, but the practice has been documented by computer users living in other countries.

“Certainly some people can become immersed in a virtual world to the point that functioning is affected in real life,” DeeAnna Merz Nagel, a psychotherapist and co-founder of The Online Therapy Institute, told SHRM Online. The institute, which is located online and in Second Life, provides clinicians and organizations information about online counseling, clinical supervision and the impact of technology on mental health.

“Virtual world relationships are real and no less valid than real-world relationships. We live in a mixed reality now,” added Nagel, who co-authored Therapy Online: A Practical Guide,with Kate Anthony, the institute’s co-founder and published by SAGE Publications Ltd., 2009.

“Technology is part of the social fabric. Virtual worlds become problematic when people cannot tease out real-world responsibilities and relationships from the intrigue and enticement of virtual worlds,” Nagel said.

While there are no figures on the popularity of using avatars to gamble, the National Council on Problem Gambling reports that approximately 1 percent of adults in the United States, or 3 million people, meet criteria for pathological gambling. The American Psychiatric Association defines pathological gambling as “persistent and recurrent maladaptive behavior that disrupts personal, family or vocational pursuits.”

Spending inordinate amounts of time gambling at work would be considered a symptom of a deeper problem.

In a Society for Human Resource Management poll on office pools released in February 2010, only 23 percent of human resource professionals polled said their workplaces had a written policy addressing gambling in the workplace.

In 2009, only 2 percent of 280 HR professionals fired an employee for gambling at work; however, 55 percent said office pools have a positive impact on their workplaces.

According to HR professionals, the events employees tend to organize office pools for are the Super Bowl (65 percent), the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament (57 percent) and lottery jackpots (31 percent).

Avatars Become Popular

Use of avatars has skyrocketed—especially by companies who convene virtually to hold meetings or conduct business. According to the Science Communication Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, researchers estimate that by 2011, 80 percent of Internet users will have a 3D avatar participating in a virtual environment.

In 2009, according to a recent Washington Post article, Second Life’s economy mushroomed with user-to-user transactions topping $657 million in actual U.S. currency, a 65 percent jump over 2008. Although “Linden dollars,” the currency used in Second Life, might be virtual, the things available for purchase—land, furniture, homes, even snow—require real currency. People can load money onto the site via credit cards or PayPal accounts.

While legal in the U.S. and across most of the European Union, online gambling has reportedly been banned in some countries, including Russia and India. It is taxed and or regulated in other places.

In Great Britain, “online gambling is regulated in the same way as land-based operators and subject to the same Gambling Commission regulations,” said GamCare’s FrontLine and Counseling Services Manager Eva Takacs. GamCare is a British-based association for gambling care, educational resources and training. “The only difference is that British players can gamble on sites licensed outside Britain, i.e., in other jurisdictions,” Takacs said from her office in London.

“Internet gambling has been identified as a form of problem gambling for quite some time. The introduction of avatar gambling can complicate the problem,” said Marie Apke, senior vice president of Bensinger, DuPont & Associates, a Chicago-based resource for national problem-gambling services.

The enormity of problem gambling comes more into focus when you consider these statistics, Bensinger stated in a news release:

  • The National Council on Problem Gambling reports that 86 percent of Americans have gambled during their lives and that 60 percent gamble annually.
  • The American Psychological Association, which classifies compulsive gambling as a mental health disorder, estimates that 2 percent to 4 percent of Americans have a gambling problem.
  • According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, pathological and problem gamblers are much more likely than others to suffer from depression and have problems with drinking, drugs and smoking.

“Given these findings, it’s clear that, if left untreated, a gambling problem can eventually turn a valuable employee into a liability,” said Apke. “Unlike substance abuse, where it’s fairly easy to identify those under the influence, problem gamblers typically don’t exhibit easily recognizable signs,” she said.

However, there are some warning signs:

  • Preoccupation with gambling (reliving past gambling experiences, planning the next venture or thinking of ways in which to gamble).
  • Needing to gamble with increasing amounts of money in order to achieve the desired excitement.
  • Lying to conceal the extent of involvement with gambling.
  • Others suggesting the person might be addicted to gambling.
  • Bragging about wins but not talking about losses.
  • Overzealousness when organizing and participating in betting opportunities.
  • Requesting pay in lieu of vacation time. Large blocks of vacation time are not taken.
  • Borrowing money frequently and not paying it back.
  • False claims made against expense accounts.
  • Complaining about mounting debts.
  • Notable mood swings, often related to winning and losing streaks.

HR’s Response

Experts say failing to plan is planning to fail, so Nagel suggested that HR:

  • Draw awareness to online help and support from such gambling addiction web sites as the Gambling Research, Education and Treatment (GREaT) Foundation.
  • Make addiction, mental health and financial counseling services available through EAP programs.
  • Institute concrete policies about the use of company computers and Internet-enabled cell phones or other devices.
  • Monitor money streams when employees have direct access.

“Establishing—in a company’s policies and procedures—that the computer and its contents are the property of the company is a good start,” Nagel added. “This falls within the parameters of the use of employer technology while at work.”

Pat Jessie, director of gambling services for Bensinger DuPont & Associates, agreed.

“I think that a company should have a policy, because [gambling] can affect job performance and productivity,” she said. “Many companies block access to some sites, like pornography and gaming and gambling sites. Access to those sites really isn’t required for most people’s work.”

IT experts said that if a person is determined, he or she can thwart the company’s filtering software that blocks access to banned sites.

“Another deterrent is to utilize key stroke or key logger programs such as WebWatcher, a computer monitoring software,” Nagel said. “Many corporations use key stroke programs to monitor activities by employees. With that said, if employers utilize such programs, employees should be cautious about utilizing a work computer for personal correspondence—even if the company allows a certain amount of private time on a work computer,” she said.

The best advice for HR is to be on guard.

“Awareness is key,” Nagel said. “Employers can have an impact on educating employees about the risks and dangers of online gambling.”

Aliah D. Wright is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Related Links:

Workplace Policies for Office Pools SHRM Poll, SHRM Research, January 2010

Workplace Gambling Policy​​​, SHRM Online Templates and Tools

Related Article:

‘Hidden Disease’ of Gambling Extends to Women in Workplace​, HR News, March 20, 2008

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