Rider University Professor Sets Up Gaming Lab, Seeks To Limit Problem Gambling

A psychology professor at Rider University is seeking to help end problem gambling, and he's doing it in an on-campus gaming lab.
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Damon Runyon himself couldn’t have come up with a better name for a gambler than “Mack Costello.”

And while Mack Costello isn’t a capital-G gambler, he does enjoy the hobby now and again. A few hands of poker here, a little fantasy football there. He grew up in rural Florida, where he says gambling was “always a thing to do.”

But his day job — and that’s Dr. Mack Costello, sorry Damon — is that of a professor in the department of psychology at Rider University in Lawrence, N.J. And it’s here where his gambling chops meet his academic interests.

And it’s why you can often find him on the third floor of the Science and Technology Building, where Costello runs The Gambling Research Lab.

“What I wanted to do with the lab is set up a simulated casino environment,” Costello said. “Not a full simulation, just some slots and table games — get the setting up in order to take some of the lab-based behavioral research and look at it in a little more valid setting, and then try and compare that to an actual casino.”

In short: Lab-based, computer-assisted behavioral research is valuable, but may not apply so much to real world situations.

“Basically, whatever happens in clinics is usually lessened in real life,” Costello said.

With a focus on problem gambling — both treating, and even more importantly, preventing it — Costello is already finding the lab (which opened pre-pandemic) a valuable way station between computer simulations and the real thing.

The set-up is relatively straightforward: four slot machines, a blackjack and poker table, soundproof walls, and a bunch of flyers posted on campus seeking volunteers to “gamble.” (No real money is involved, per the deal Costello struck with the state in order to gain access to the slot machines in the first place.)

Researching the research

So what is Costello ultimately interested in? 

Being that the lab is still in its nascent stages, much of the work going on in the short term is based around taking clinical research, applying it to the lab, and seeing how effective — or not — some would-be therapies might be.

“We can do a lot more controlled things here,” Costello said “For instance, there are a lot of older behavior therapies that are out there, and have good evidence for them, but are not used very often. For instance, there are studies built around sensitization, like when someone approaches a slot machine and they get excited. That may set off a chain of impulsive betting. We can examine it here. We can interpret a lot of the literature-based data. We can look at procedures that have been shown to be effective and ask how effective are they really?”

So that’s the short-term, immediate goal for Costello and the lab.

But long term, shoot-the-moon kind of stuff?

“Ideally, build a set of behavioral components for a treatment package that’s very scalable,” Costello said.

Layman’s terms: Costello envisions an app that culls all the present and future knowledge on problem gambling and creates a more-or-less gamified application that involves goal-setting — along with heart rate, pace of play, and all other manner of physical activity — to help gamblers keep their wits about them and not devolve in degeneracy.

“These types of apps seemingly work well with other health-related behaviors,” he said. “Like Fitbit, Weight Watchers. These apps are based around what’s known as ‘contingency management.’”

Simply put, “contingency management” is behavior therapy that reinforces — or rewards — individuals for positive behavioral change.

“I would expect this would be effective for gambling, and there is some emerging data that demonstrates that,” Costello said. “These would be procedures that are behaviorally oriented, based around conditioning, that would need a specialist to put in place, but not necessarily a therapist in the traditional sense. It doesn’t necessarily involve counseling.”

Which is important because, as Costello noted, very few problem or disordered gamblers ever seek any form of treatment. And, obviously, someone new to the gambling streets would never think to seek treatment for a problem they haven’t developed yet.

“It’s certainly an ultimate goal,” Costello said. “Absolutely. Something self-managed, something that someone who is motivated would use. This is very popular in the eHealth world already.” 

At minimum, it can’t hurt, he points out.

“Anybody would benefit from a little biofeedback, behavioral feedback,” Costello said. “Would that stop someone from developing a problem gambling issue? I don’t know. That’s a big open research question. That’s what we’re working on.”

There’s an app for that

And Costello believes an app like this — whether it comes out of his lab or not — is certainly something that will not only happen, but will be embraced by the industry.

“In my experience going to responsible gambling workgroups, and talking with other researchers and industry people, in general if there’s a suggestion of something that works that can go into place for online gambling, industry people will take it,” he said. “Very rarely do I hear from harm minimization researchers that they have a hard time working with the industry.”

Of course, the pandemic has limited Costello’s research in recent months, but once the world kicks into gear again, so will the lab. In fact, he can’t wait.

“Listen, I’ve always been interested in gambling,” Costello said. “So a lot of things kind of aligned for me. My academic world is based around problem gambling and trying to understand it and trying to abate it.”

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