Forget the simple nickel slots of yesteryear. Today's digital slot machines and poker screens in casinos and at online gambling sites are capable of amassing a wealth of behavioral data on individual players, and they are on the verge of altering game play on the fly. As the software becomes increasingly capable of “thinking” like the gamblers themselves, experts in the gambling research community are working to create machines that will identify and assist problem gamblers, rather than simply pushing players deeper into a financial hole.

Researchers at the University of Brescia and other institutions in Italy found that online gamblers who closed their accounts because of money troubles showed the widest variance in the size of their bets over time. Plotted on a graph, their wagers alternate between slowly increasing and suddenly dropping to almost zero, creating a “sawtooth” pattern. The pattern predicts unsustainable gambling, according to a paper published online in February in International Gambling Studies. Before the advent of digital gambling, information on such risk factors was difficult to obtain.

Using such discoveries as the sawtooth betting pattern, researchers are partnering with casinos and online gaming sites to prevent people from losing too much or developing an addiction. For example, Howard Shaffer, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School and director of the division on addiction at the Cambridge Health Alliance, and his co-workers have been conducting research with an online gambling site called Digital Entertainment. Using the site's data on betting frequency and patterns of play for more than 40,000 registered players, Shaffer and his colleagues are fashioning algorithms that can intervene when people show a risk of becoming problem gamblers. “The machine, for example, will provide messages to the player or slow down or shut down entirely” when it detects an unsustainable pattern, Shaffer says.

But why would a gambling operation want to interrupt their revenue stream by discouraging problem gamblers? For one, problem gamblers make up a very small and stable portion of the gambling public. Less than 1 percent of the entire population is addicted to gambling—a rate that has held steady for 40 years—even though surveys of American adults show that 72 percent have gambled at least once in the prior year. In addition, catering to self-aware gamblers interested in limiting their losses could be a growth industry, writes Nicola Adami on behalf of the Italian research group. Shaffer agrees, adding that gambling providers could burnish their reputations by protecting customers from abusive play.

Ultimately, Shaffer believes, “the very machine that people are blaming will end up being a preventive device.”