5 Dec 2017

When gaming becomes gambling

From Nine To Noon, 9:08 am on 5 December 2017

"That heady rush when it lands on the colour that you bet on and the low gut-punch feeling you feel when you lose your bet… it became part of my life to the point where I didn't really care about much else" – 19-year-old American gamer Kensgold*.

hands of a gamer

Photo: Lano.photography

Kensgold is among the gamers calling for a mass boycott of the game publisher Electronic Arts over the pay-to-win aspects of their new game Star Wars Battlefront II.

The line between gaming and gambling has become far too blurred, says the co-founder of gamers' website Leaping Tiger, Amy Potter, and the director of AUT's Gambling and Addictions Research Centre, Professor Max Abbott.

In Star Wars Battlefront II, players are prompted to chance real money on 'loot boxes' containing in-game goods such as digital weapons or powerful abilities.

Sixty to seventy percent of online games – some aimed at children as young as five – offer and encourage such micro-transactions to advance play, Kensgold says.

He believes games such as Star Wars Battlefront II should be marked 'Adults Only' as a grandparent buying the game for a 13-year-old for Christmas would have no idea of the risk.

"I think it would be very, very easy for other people like me to fall into that trap of spending 10 bucks at the start. But you didn't get what you want so you try again and then six months goes by and you're dropping hundred-dollar bombs."

Kensgold is now only six months out of what he calls an in-game gambling "addiction" which cost him almost $20,000.

Around the age of 14, he started to spend more money on mobile app games than he was making from chores and mowing lawns.

He decided $100 a day "wasn't that bad" to spend within the games while he was living at home.

"I went into PC gaming with that mindset and it just spiralled out of control from there."

Gambling within games became "100 percent an addiction", he says.

"That heady rush when it lands on the colour that you bet on and the low gut punch feeling you feel when you lose your bet… it became part of my life to the point where I didn't really care about much else."

It was "an even more tangible emotional rush" than playing the game itself, he says.

"But the majority of the time I was just waiting for the next paycheck to come in so that I could try again."

Not all players fall victim to spending within games, though, and many are committed not to, Potter says.

"We've become so used to the trade-off of time for money."

Potter can see what happened to Kensgold happening to others as 'loot boxes' in games become increasingly common.

The IOS app store makes it clear which games have micro-transactions, but PC and console games also need to be labelled, she says.

"It's pay-to-win, basically… You either spend weeks and weeks trying to unlock this Darth Vader character or you can go in and spend the money and win the game."

Gaming disorder will have its own category in the next revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD 11) but it often overlaps with gambling disorder, Professor Abbott says.

When it comes to the blurring between gaming and gambling games such as Star Wars Battlefront II are just the tip of an iceberg which includes fantasy sports, digital trading cards, amateur sports online and 'social casino'.

'Social casino' is set up to usher people from gambling for no money to gambling for money and shouldn't be made available to children, he says.

Many games encourage persistent play with tools from the powerful reward system of gambling such as reinforcements which vary in ratio and interval, losses disguised as wins and visual and audio cues that are associated with winning, Professor Abbott says.

"Everything that you have in a pokie machine, basically, has been translated in a game," Potter adds.

*Kensgold is a Reddit username.