This is guest post from social casino developer KamaGames.
In real-money casino games, the potential to win or lose money is obvious from the moment a player engages with the casino.
It’s this temptation of striking it big that lures players back to the tables time and time again.
Social casino is a bit of a sensation because of how differently its games are built compared to the real-money model.
Most importantly, within the confines of social casino gaming, there is no ‘cash out’ option. Those who participate in social casino games know the money they invest will not be returned.
That said, the majority of social casino games are built around the freemium model which means that an individual can play entirely for free thanks to the bonus chips they receive daily.
If a player runs out of chips and they want to continue playing immediately, they can, of course, purchase more but this definitely isn’t a requirement to play (or win).
Those who participate in social casino games know the money they invest will not be returned.
No risk of loss or potential to win occurs throughout the gaming experience.
With this in mind, can we really associate these games with gambling?
Gaming or gambling?
Concern has grown recently that social casino-style games could potentially introduce gambling techniques to impressionable players.
However, it needs to be remembered that there are also several areas outside of traditional bricks-and-mortar casinos, online gambling or sports betting, where players can experience the rush of a gamble.
Yet, despite the obvious real-money spend and the risk involved, many have not associate these activities with “gambling” in the past.
Let's take a look at loot boxes for instance that have been used in recent years by players who want to progress through specific games more quickly yet, there is no guarantee as to what a player is buying when they purchase a loot box.
No matter the price, the number of purchases made or how much money players spend on boxes, there is no absolute assurance that players will receive the high quality or a rare item they actually wanted or that the content will even be equal to or worth more than the value of the money they’ve spent.
Essentially - it’s just a good old fashioned gamble!
A spotlight on surprises
Several Initial incidents including the well known controversy over the Star Wars: Battlefront II game from EA, raised concerns around how loot boxes may encourage a gambling mentality among impressionable gamers and has since held the attention of a global audience.
The Netherlands made headlines in 2018 when the Dutch Gaming Authority ruled that some loot boxes could be classified as gambling.
How many of us collected football cards or Pokemon cards as children?
As a result of the ruling, in June 2018, the region enforced a ban on loot boxes. Belgium was also one of the first countries to investigate the gaming mechanic and in 2018, the Belgian Gaming Commission ruled that loot boxes in several games were considered games of chance and therefore constituted gambling.
The UK Gambling Commission has also previously raised concerns around the increasingly blurred lines between gaming and gambling in this area and many within the UK Government are still making a case that these mechanics encourage a gambling mentality.
Kerry Hopkins, Vice President of EA, compared loot boxes to Kinder Eggs in front of UK MPs this June.
In the same UK Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Committee meeting, Hopkins instead referred to loot boxes as “surprise mechanics”, much to the amusement of the gaming industry as a whole.
Hopkins insisted that these mechanics were a joy for gamers who enjoy the element of surprise.
In an attempt to further deter the UK Government from classifying loot boxes as gambling, Hopkins went on to assure the Committee that they were “quite ethical”, a statement that’s been fiercely debated since.
This argument proved less than convincing as in September 2019, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee went on to recommend UK Parliament regulate loot boxes as gambling.
The department released a full report focusing on the ‘immersive and addictive technologies’ with a special emphasis on online gaming and loot box mechanics. Both EA and Epic Games were cited for their reluctance in admitting any responsibility to define what counts as normal or excessive gameplay within their games.
Loot boxes are a joy for gamers who enjoy the element of surprise - apparently.
The report states that much of the evidence they received from gamers themselves critiqued the loot box mechanics in Electronic Arts’ FIFA series and their Ultimate Team mode where “in order to compete, players feel like they need to buy hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds worth of packs in order to get the best players.”
Potent psychological mechanisms
Having concluded that loot boxes are designed to exploit potent psychological mechanisms associated with the development and maintenance of gambling-like behaviours the report states that loot boxes that contain the element of chance should be made available via in-game credits which should earned via rewards won through playing the games.
The report went on to outline its belief that loot boxes that can be bought with real-world currency without disclosing their contents to the buyer beforehand are “games of chance played for money’s worth” and as such recommended that Government bring forward regulations under Section 6 of the Gambling Act 2005 in the next parliamentary session to specify that loot boxes are a game of chance.
While it’s looking like more and more official channels are concluding that loot boxes could encourage gambling, can the methods they employ be found elsewhere?
How many of us collected football cards or Pokemon cards as a child? The same model was applied - buying mystery packs in the hope of striking it lucky and getting a rare or valuable card.
More than likely we ended up with the same player repeatedly until we eventually bought enough packs to acquire the card we really wanted.
How much money did we “gamble” (and lose) on that venture over the years?
The rest of the online video games industry has begun to take notice of social casino’s appeal.
In recent months, Rockstar has introduced social casino elements to two of its titles, Red Dead Online and GTA.
Red Dead Online introduced blackjack and poker to the game while the new Diamond Casino in GTA saw a host of casino-style games enter the online world.
Since launch, the Diamond Casino has proved nothing less than a phenomenon with players flocking to the online space to embrace the elements of social casino.
Just like with our own gaming titles, these online social casinos have zero ‘cash out’ options. Instead, they are solely an added element of entertainment intended to engage players and give them another reason to return to the online world in the future.
Social casino has proven time and time again that its success is built on far stronger foundations than gambling,
These new additions display all the obvious flashing lights, mechanics and suspense of gambling with the Diamond Casino even embracing the traditional look and feel of a casino, yet, still, they are.
While the war on loot boxes rages on, many would like to hook on to the idea that these mechanics are just an extension of loot box mentality, meant to entice impressionable players into the seedy online casino world.
Confusing the two would be a mistake when in fact, social casino has proven time and time again that its success is built on far stronger foundations than gambling.
The debate on how other gaming genres may use gambling-esque tools such as loot boxes to encourage a gambling mentality will continue for some time.
This is being carried out on a global scale with major players in the video games industry such as EA insisting that they’re employing ethical mechanics to boost the enjoyability of the game, not facilitating illegal gambling.
Most recently, most platform holders have agreed to set out measures to disclose the probabilities of players obtaining valuable items in their loot boxes at the time of purchase. As of yet, these promises have yet to come into effect however, the recent ruling in the UK may put developers under increasing pressure to fulfil them.
Social casino-style gameplay is beginning to occupy a more prominent space in gaming than ever before thanks to its recently launched presence in high-profile games like GTA and Red Dead Online.
It should actually be noted that social casino-style games, which include our own Pokerist along with these new launches, are in fact safeguarding against gambling for impressionable players through their lack of a cash-out option, absence of risk or the unknown involved in microtransactions combined with the presence of external devices such a certificated RNGs (Random Number Generators) that remove any operator’s ability to interfere with the outcome of a game and to ensure absolute fair play.
It’s these exact reasons why the social casino genre should be distanced from any discussion around encouraging gambling mentality or comparison to mechanics like loot boxes.
For social casino, this is where the line between gaming and gambling is very clearly drawn.