A digital generation of players – will things ever be the same again?

A digital generation of players – will things ever be the same again? - Banner
Simon Wooldridge
by Simon Wooldridge Last updated:

Young people immerse themselves in online content more than anybody – hardly a revelation! Conversely, older people, who knew life before the internet, are often inclined to lean towards more traditional behaviours. 

The same is true when it comes to gambling – with in-person options still proving popular among older age groups. Younger players, however, often skip the physical betting experience completely. As a result, the effects are beginning to reverberate throughout the industry. 

  • What are the implications of these changes in gambling behaviour? 
  • How will future generations of players differ from those in the past? 
  • Will brick-and-mortar casinos and betting shops still have a place in the British gambling industry?

These questions all weigh heavily on the minds of those working in the industry, including the team here at No Wagering. There can be no doubt that we are looking at seismic changes in the coming years.

The online/offline conundrum

The way players behave has shifted in recent years – largely spurred on by changing technologies. Online casinos are drawing customers away from physical locations, and this will continue.

The trend of players moving online has been gradual, even when factoring in the pandemic. But that's changing. Players aged 18–24 now make up around 10% of the UK gambling market, and many appear to have no interest in, or experience with, in-person betting.

Physical casinos, betting shops, race courses and other in-the-flesh operators are losing out to their online counterparts.

In-person betting figures

The digital age has not been kind to brick-and-mortar casinos. The UKGC recently reported that the number of gambling premises in Britain dropped by 2.2% between 2021 and 2022, and by over 18% versus pre-lockdown figures.

COVID-19 also took a bite out of physical casinos, pushing many of their regular players online. A 2022 UKGC report stated that “the in-person gambling participation rate significantly increased to 27%, although this figure still remains below the pre-pandemic level”.

Although unlikely to vanish in the immediate future, operators of physical casinos need to rethink their offering if they’re going to get young players through their doors. And is there still time to save the high-street bookie?

One behavioural trend observed amongst some young players – beyond an apparent aversion to human contact – is that they’re significantly less risk-averse than their older counterparts. Illustrating this is the fact that 28% of younger players bet more than £500 each month – a figure I still find hard to believe.

Interestingly, this seems at odds with the wider philosophies of Gen Z, who are generally considered cautious by nature. 

One explanation for this is that younger people may use gambling as an alternative source of fun and entertainment – something a bit ‘edgy’. They’re eschewing alcohol and other unhealthy habits in large numbers, so maybe gambling is giving them a buzz that’s lacking in their pistachio lattes?

Jokes aside, could this trend be directly related to a lack of exposure to brick-and-mortar betting environments? After all, these are places where physical money changes hands and it taught many of us a valuable betting lesson. Perhaps online losses feel less significant somehow?

Are operators ready for the future?

Online casinos and in-person betting currently share approximately equal parts of the market. However, the rising numbers of younger players, and their preference for online betting, seems destined to change this. And if younger players are determined to spend substantial amounts on online gambling, this could see revenues soar for casinos.

It sounds like good news for the industry, but it won't all be plain sailing.

Services must adapt

Operators are noticing that younger players prefer simpler, more intuitive and accessible designs. However, they’ll need to strike a balance in terms of competitive viability and the responsible delivery of services which don’t undermine the reality of players’ losses.

The sustainability of the customer base must also be considered. One effective way of doing this is providing access to safer gambling resources such as deposit limits and self-exclusion schemes. These kinds of measures empower players to protect themselves without imposing on players who enjoy gambling safely and responsibly.

Game developers are discovering new players

Online slots are often inspired by their analogue predecessors, with fruit machine symbolism and mechanics appealing to players with physical casino experience. Operators will find these titles less popular in the future, as the nostalgic connections lessen.

Developers of emerging technologies must also take note of the ways in which younger players’ behaviours differ. For instance, VR technologies must surely be destined for a greater role – one that includes the development of virtual casino environments. Younger players may be interested, or perhaps the idea of trying to recreate something they’ve never experienced may prove fruitless?

Regulation considerations

Online gambling is generally associated with higher levels of problem gambling than in-person betting. This could lend support to the theory that in-person betting feels more ‘real’ and consequential. 

If the future brings a wave of problem gamblers, young players will be most strongly affected. This will be especially true for those who began visiting online casinos prior to the introduction of the UKGC’s newest regulations, which specifically target them.

Regulators seem to be already anticipating generations of problem-prone gamblers. The UKGC and its international counterparts must act now, in a preventative capacity, rather than allow the issue to develop any further.

Final thoughts

Change is coming. It won’t happen overnight, but the gradual shift towards online gambling is bound to continue. The implications of this are likely to be wide-reaching, affecting all players.

Regulators will have to work hard to keep up with technological developments and the changing behaviour of the UK’s gambling population. In doing so, they should be mindful of responsible gamblers who do not require intervention at the same time as protecting those who do.