The world of video games continues to become more complex as some developers have started to incorporate virtual money gambling or gambling-like mechanics into their games. This has left many people asking: “Should this be allowed?” We take a look at this trend and how it’s gotten the attention of governments across the world and consider whether these experiences should be regulated in just the same way as casino games.
Gambling for virtual money in video games
There have been many video games over the years that have included gambling-like experiences within their content. This is sometimes done to help flesh out the virtual world of the game, while in other cases, developers may have done it for a bit of fun and to make their game more engaging.
Let’s take a quick look at three different games and see how they have integrated casino games into the overall experience.
Grand Theft Auto Online
Grand Theft Auto (GTA) Online is the multiplayer component that came with the fifth game in the series, GTA V. Players could dive into a persistent online world and engage in all sorts of over-the-top missions, including heists, retrieving packages, or dealing with specific characters in the game.
When GTA Online launched back in 2013, players were disappointed to find the Diamond Casino & Resort in the game was inaccessible, even though a sign outside said: “opening soon.” Many years went by, and players assumed that this exciting location would never actually open. However, in 2019, this “online casino” finally opened its doors, an event that was welcomed by players around the world.
At least, this was the case for some. But players from certain countries found they still couldn’t enjoy the services on offer at the Diamond Casino. This was due to the fact players could use real money to buy in-game currency for GTA Online. “GTA dollars” could be used for a number of purchases in the multiplayer world, including casino chips. This practice crossed the line with gambling laws in many countries, including China, Greece, and South Africa, resulting in players only being able to visit this glamorous virtual casino (but not place any bets).
If you were lucky enough to live in a country with less stringent gambling laws, you could enjoy wagering on a number of gambling experiences at the Diamond Casino, including blackjack, horse racing, and roulette. This gave players a chance to win in-game currency to spend on items within the game. The casino even featured a membership system, with VIP membership holders gaining access to luxury limo rides, as well as exclusive lounges and penthouse suites.
Fallout: New Vegas
Fallout: New Vegas is the fifth title in the Fallout series of role-playing action games. In this game, players take on the role of the Courier, an individual known for getting things safely across the dangerous wastelands of the post-apocalyptic world in which the game is set.
In the world of Fallout: New Vegas, players could visit one of seven virtual casinos in the game and play one of four games, depending on which casino they visited. You could enjoy blackjack, roulette, or slots (three real-world casino classics), or lucky horseshoes. Players could also enjoy a card game called Caravan, which some of the travelers in the game played. You could win in-game cash in all these games, which could then be used to upgrade your character’s items.
Being a role-playing game, your character’s “luck stats” could influence the likelihood of you winning, but that aside, the blackjack, roulette, and slot games played like their real-world counterparts.
Unlike GTA Online, though, the only money that was ever exchanged was the money you spent to buy the game in the first place, so it avoided scrutiny by countries with stricter gambling laws.
The Sims 3
The Sims is a series of games that allows you to play through the life of a virtual character called a “Sim.” The characters in the game grow up, study, get jobs, build their homes, have fun, and generally do all the things that we do in our day-to-day lives, but with a more fun twist on things.
In the third Sims title, aptly named “The Sims 3,” you could purchase an add-on to the game called the Lucky Simoleon Casino. Your in-game characters could visit this casino and boost their gambling skills, which, with the right amount of luck, they could use to win Simoleons (the currency the characters used) when playing one of the four games available at the casino. These games were the Hit ’em Harder Blackjack Table, Dead Man’s Hand Poker Table, Let It Ride Roulette Table, and the Triple Riches Slots O’Jackpots Slot Machine.
Unlike the other in-game casino games we’ve looked at, you couldn’t actually play these games. Instead, you simply directed your characters to sit at a game and got to watch them play. So while you could buy a casino add-on to the game, it didn’t give you access to any casino games that you could actually play in-game, a decision that saw it avoid any issues with gambling laws around the world.
Different approaches to gambling in video games
As you can see from these three titles, game developers can take wildly different approaches to how they integrate gambling games into their virtual experiences. Some of these come into conflict with laws in certain countries, while others are more a nod to gambling than anything else.
Another major issue that is a part of this discussion is one that went unnoticed until just a few years ago: loot boxes.
The ongoing loot box saga
Another practice that’s come under major scrutiny in the past few years is the use of “loot boxes” in games. Loot boxes are virtual containers that contain random in-game items or cosmetics of varying worth. Players could spend real money on a box, not knowing what was inside it, with the hope of winning some cool virtual items.
Loot boxes originally appeared in the early 2000s as a way for many free-to-play games to earn money, but eventually found their way into some full-price games as well. Depending on the game, these items could improve your chances of winning, or simply improve an aesthetic aspect of gameplay.
In various titles, such as Battlefield Heroes, Overwatch, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and several of the newer FIFA soccer video games, loot boxes were added to help generate additional revenue. This was a necessity for some games that cost tens of millions of dollars to develop, and it became a way for games to continue generating healthy profits over time. However, as more games adopted the loot box system, the issues it caused began to appear.
The first issue was one that gamers noticed immediately, and was dubbed by the community as “pay to win.” Players would need to spend money on loot boxes to get items that would improve their stats in the game. For example, they could acquire power-ups from loot boxes that could make a weapon shoot faster, or a character run faster. Many considered this unfair since players with more money could purchase more loot boxes to improve their chance of winning.
The second loot box issue is one that is closely connected to unhealthy gambling. By designing their loot box systems in a certain way, some players (informally known as whales) would spend large amounts of money to get what they wanted. Even though only a small minority of players engaged in this excessive spending pattern, it became enough of an issue that governments around the world are now exploring legislation around the use of loot boxes in games.
Here’s how several countries have reacted to loot boxes in video games:
- China has introduced laws to ensure that players understand clearly what they will, and won’t, get from loot boxes in a video game.
- The UK Government is looking to introduce laws that classify loot box mechanics as gambling.
- Belgium and the Netherlands, meanwhile, have completely banned loot boxes from video games.
Should there be regulations?
Now that we have a better understanding of how gambling appears in certain games, here are our thoughts on the matter. If a player engages in virtual money gambling in a game that requires the player to be 18 or older, then there is no need for regulation. If real money is required, then regulation should be applied depending on the nature of the gambling mechanic in the game. In games that are more accessible by minors, regulation may be necessary to ensure that children aren’t unnecessarily manipulated, even if no money is exchanged.
This is particularly important in regards to loot boxes because research – such as the study, “Loot boxes, gambling, and problem gambling among young people: Results from a cross-sectional online survey” – is only now starting to reveal the connection between negative gambling behaviors, the video games that include gambling-like experiences, and the minority of players it affects.
At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that gambling is a fun hobby that never crosses the line into an unhealthy habit, for the majority of players. Many people enjoy gambling responsibly – especially when it’s at a reputable casino (real or online) – without it ever becoming an issue. However, there are a minority of players who might slip into negative patterns of behavior, which is why there are industry regulations to ensure this is minimized.
Just as with online gambling or gambling at real-world casinos, if a game includes a gambling or gambling-like feature that could negatively affect the player, it’s important that regulation be put into place to protect the few players who may be affected. Game developers must also take ownership for the content they produce, and understand that these features may sometimes cross a line that results in their game being regulated, even if it isn’t a gambling game with real-money prizes.
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