With scandal after scandal and op-ed after op-ed that have been coming for years and years, it can seem pretty well-established that gaming has a gambling problem. But what does that mean exactly, and how does this problem work? Does gaming have a unique issue that’s separate from gambling in other ways, or is it all one and the same? Not to worry, because in this article we’ll explain if video games have a gambling problem and what’s going on.
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The Problem With Gambling
In most places in the world, gambling is either illegal or heavily regulated and restricted to adults. However, you can also gamble, in many forms, in most (if not all) places in the world. What governments and societies are trying to curb by regulating and restricting gambling is exploitation, not to protect people from gambling itself.
For most, if you’ve got money you can spare and you choose to gamble it, well, have fun. The issue is when people get sucked in unknowingly into gambling, with those who take advantage of easy access to gambling that don’t have the money to spare, or gambling that takes advantage of people who might not know better and leaves them broke. These are the sorts of problems that regulation tries to solve.
All of the same things apply to games. Almost nobody thinks that there’s anything wrong with even a kid buying a pack of Pokemon cards for real money that could end up being super valuable or entirely worthless, but at the same time, it’s easy to see how gambling can and definitely does go wrong.
Take a look at Runescape’s old version of its player-versus-player arena. In the past, gamers that were often kids could choose to bet infinite amounts of gold that would oftentimes be worth lots of real-world money. This led many young folks to get sucked into the world of gambling and get spit out begging for and borrowing cash just for a temporary fix.
This is all to say that the real problem with gambling is when you’re put in environments where you can gamble that have a strong chance of leading to actual harm. So, the question becomes, is this a big problem in video games, right now?
Why Video Games Have a Gambling Problem
The short answer here is yes, video games do have a big problem with gambling. But it’s not in every video game, and oftentimes, these problems vary wildly in nature.
Take a free-to-play game. You might think that a free game is free, but there’s no such thing as a free lunch, after all. Free games aren’t usually free; in fact, oftentimes free games are designed to look and be advertised as free while they quietly offer much more fun, more effective ways to play the game by way of gambling.
Oftentimes, too, you’ll find in free-to-play games with gambling that the actual gambling elements is deeply obfuscated. There’ll be five layers of currency that have to be converted from one into another until you get to the premium paid-for-by-real-money currency, and it’ll be tough to figure out how much something costs or how much you’ll need to spend to get something.
Then, if you start spending anything to see if it’s worth it, you can quickly fall into the sunk cost fallacy where you feel like you’ve already spent time and money on a game so to make sure that wasn’t a waste you ought to spend more time or money on the game to get what you really want from it out of it. These things compound to make gambling in games exploitative.
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Of course, the above is to say nothing of the many games out there that gate powerful items and advantages in player-versus-player engagements behind gambling systems as well as games that lock all the cool cosmetics behind gambling systems such that if you don’t want to be looked down on in-game you have to gamble.
Furthermore, games don’t really have age restrictions or warnings that there’s gambling. Some rating systems will note the kind of monetization in a game, but most gamers aren’t paying attention to that, and gambling systems are so ubiquitous that most folks just expect to see these kinds of systems in AAA games nowadays.
On top of all that is the fact that the law, in many places, isn’t equipped to deal with gambling in games. See, in many countries, gambling is defined as something that you do directly with real money that can be cashed out for real money. In almost all cases, you can’t officially cash out from a game, but that doesn’t stop the many real-world traders out there.
Can Gambling in Games Get Better?
Sure, of course. However, this isn’t really a wait-and-see situation. The way games get better is not by way of certain developers and publishers growing consciouses so well developed that they start choosing the most ethical thing over the most profitable thing, it’s by way of regulation.
Much like how casinos have strict regulations they must abide by to operate, video games need to be subject to their own set of regulations and safeguards to make sure that everyone who’s playing a game is safe and reasonably well-protected. Unfortunately, considering how international games are, though, this will be hard to do.
It’s the case now that monetization of games, however unfortunate it is in the US and Europe, pales in comparison to what goes on in Asia. In this part of the world, spending money, even lots of money, on games is a very normal thing that doesn’t even seem particularly strange to Asian gamers. It’s very much a fact of life.
Nonetheless, regulation is still on the way. As the years go on, more and more legislators across the world are looking into video games and realizing that their kids shouldn’t be put into situations where they can be exploited by multinational corporations who want them to develop gambling addictions at as young an age as possible for their bottom line.