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Simulating the senses: Should we be concerned about gambling-like activities in video games?
by Mark Griffiths on 03/19/14 04:50:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Research studies over the last few years suggest that children and adolescents access online gambling activities using digital devices such as personal computers, laptops, smartphones, and other portable devices. Three national adolescent gambling surveys carried out for the National Lottery Commission in Great Britain have all shown a small minority of children and adolescents can and do gamble online. A 2011 study by Ipsos MORI reported that 2% of 11-16 year olds had played online lottery games and 2% had gambled on other online games (i.e., online casinos, online poker, online bingo and/or online sports betting). These data suggest that the first gambling experiences by some children and adolescents might occur via the Internet, mobile phones, and/or interactive television rather than in a traditional offline gaming venue such as a casino, amusement arcade or bookmakers.

As gambling on the internet has expanded, a wide range of ‘gambling-like’ activities has emerged on smartphones, social networking sites, and within video games. There are also opportunities to gamble without spending money on both commercial gambling websites and social networking sites. These ‘free play’ simulations of gambling activities provide opportunities for youth to practice or become more familiar with gambling activities without spending real money. Despite the proliferation of non-monetary gambling simulations, there has been little research or policy attention on them. Simulated gambling activities and gambling themes also feature in many modern video games. In a paper published in a 2012 issue of International Gambling Studies, I and my research colleagues (Dr. Paul Delfabbro and Dr. Daniel King of the University of Adelaide [Australia], and Dr. Jeff Derevensky of McGill University [Montreal, Canada]) noted that video games that feature gambling may be categorised according to the following three categories:

  • Standard gambling simulation: A digitally simulated interactive gambling activity that is structurally identical to the standard format of an established gambling activity, such as blackjack or roulette. For instance, Texas Hold ’em (TikGames) is a standard gambling simulation of the poker variant of the same name. Poker is played using virtual credits against a computer opponent or in competition with other online players. Playing poker represents the entirety of the gaming experience in this video game. In contrast, the video game Red Dead Redemption (Rockstar) features a casino situated within the virtual game world that allows players to gamble using in-game credit with or against other players in social competitions. However, the gambling content within this type of video game represents only a small part of the overall gaming experience.
  • Non-standard gambling simulation: An interactive gambling activity that involves the intentional wagering of in-game credits or other items on an uncertain outcome, in an activity that may be partially modelled on a standard gambling activity but which contains distinct player rules or other structural components that differ from established gambling games. For instance, the video game Fable II Pub Games contains three unique casino-style games, partly modelled on craps (dice), roulette, and slot machines. Players can wager ‘gold coins’ on chance-determined outcomes (i.e., patterns in cards, dice throws, spinning wheels, etc.) in order to win greater amounts of gold, as well as other items and prizes.
  • Gambling references: The appearance of non-interactive gambling material or gambling-related paraphernalia/materials within the context of the video game.

Online video games may also feature opportunities to gamble. For example, online games such as EVE Online and World of Warcraft include player-operated gambling activities using the in-game currency. These activities are usually supported through websites adjunctive to the video game (i.e., wagers are placed outside the game), but the gambling activity (i.e., winning and losing) takes place in the game world. Gambling activities include sports betting (e.g., placing bets on the outcome of player duels and battles) and lotteries (e.g., selling raffle tickets for a chance at winning a prize). The relative scarcity of in-game assets, including currency and items, makes them valuable to the game’s community of players. Some players will exchange real money for in-game currency as way of advancing more quickly in the game. The option to exchange in-game currency and other content (virtual goods) to other players for real world money thus gives these activities a limited, albeit indirect, financial element.

Modern video games provide realistic and sophisticated simulated gambling opportunities to youth. According to a paper we published in a 2010 issue of the Journal of Gambling Studies, the potential risks of young people engaging in simulated gambling include:

  • Greater familiarity with gambling and acceptance of gambling as a ‘normal’ entertainment activity;
  • The development of gambling strategies and the ability to practice these strategies without need of money;
  • The development of positive gambling beliefs and thoughts of ‘winning big’ associated with gambling;
  • Exposure to the excitement of gambling wins, including bonuses and jackpots;
  • False expectations about how gambling operates and an inflated sense of its long-term profitability.

Simulated gambling has the potential to offer positive experiences associated with gambling without the typical barriers to entry associated with gambling (e.g., money, age restriction). Although no actual money is involved in simulated gambling, it is recognised that people (including youth) are not only motivated to gamble for financial reasons. Gambling can provides excitement, relief from boredom, a way of coping with problems, and a means of social interaction (i.e., playing with friends). Very simply, gambling is engaged in not only for financial rewards, but for physiological, psychological, and/or social rewards. Simulated gambling activities may also enable youth to feel more comfortable with gambling per se, which may assist the transition from simulated gambling to gambling with real money.

A risk associated with video games that feature simulated gambling is that activities may often combine the skill and fast-paced action of a video game with the chance-based nature of gambling. This combination of skill and chance may set up false expectations about the governing rules and player control involved in gambling activities. For example, younger players may believe that, with sufficient practice, they can overcome and master the challenges of the game.

Youth gambling represents a serious social problem. Therefore, it is important for researchers, health professionals, and parents to be informed about emerging media risk factors for problem gambling. Commercial video gaming technologies provide young people with unrestricted access to realistic gambling and gambling-like experiences. This article has highlighted that some commercial video games feature casino-style gambling activities that enable players to gamble using in-game credit with or against other players in social competition.

Simulated gambling in video games is often associated with incentives and rewards, such as virtual currency, rare in-game items, and other content of large contextual value in the game. While some video games with simulated gambling may be intended for use by adults only, many video games (e.g., Pokémon) feature content that appeals mainly to a younger audience. This material could therefore be considered a form of gambling advertising targeted at youth. Furthermore, simulated gambling in video games may enhance young players’ familiarity of casino and card games. Given the brief overview presented here, we would recommend that policymakers should critically consider the growing presence of gambling in online gaming and social media technologies, and associated issues of social responsibility as these activities become more monetised and/or promote or otherwise endorse involvement in monetary gambling activities.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Additional input: Dr. Daniel King and Dr. Paul Delfabbro

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Gaming in social networking sites: A growing concern? World Online Gambling Law Report, 9(5), 12-13.

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Technological trends and the psychosocial impact on gambling. Casino and Gaming International, 7(1), 77-80.

Griffiths, M. D., King, D. L., & Delfabbro, P. H. (2009). Adolescent gambling-like experiences: Are they a cause for concern? Education and Health, 27, 27-30.

Griffiths, M. D. & Parke, J. (2010). Adolescent gambling on the Internet: A review. International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health, 22, 59-75.

Griffiths, M.D. & Wood, R.T.A. (2007). Adolescent Internet gambling: Preliminary results of a national survey. Education and Health, 25, 23-27.

Ipsos MORI. (2009). British Survey of Children, the National Lottery and Gambling 2008–09: Report of a quantitative survey. London: National Lottery Commission.

Ipsos MORI. (2011). Underage Gambling in England and Wales: A research study among 11-16 year olds on behalf of the National Lottery Commission. London: National Lottery Commission.

King, D. L., Delfabbro, P. H., & Griffiths, M. D. (2010). The convergence of gambling and digital media: Implications for gambling in young people. Journal of Gambling Studies, 26, 175-187.

Volberg, R., Gupta, R., Griffiths, M.D., Olason, D. & Delfabbro, P.H. (2010). An international perspective on youth gambling prevalence studies. International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health, 22, 3-38.


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Mark Velthuis
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Short answer : Yes. When gambling is involved, we should be concerned.

Gambling addiction is a real problem. But when talking about simulated gambling (that doesn't require real money) it's something that might work both ways. It provides a "safe" environment for people to experience gambling. If it has realistic odds, it might help people realize that you generally do not win money from gambling and will hessitate to spend lots of real money should they find themselves in a casino at some point.
If it has unrealistic odds however (many video games do) it could work in an encouraging way.

I've seen a documentary on gambling addicts once. From what I understand is that these addicts' brains are in fact "wired" differently from non-addicts. Things like getting a better feeling from near-misses instead of winning. These people can spend a lot of money without winning anything, greatly ruining them and their family. This is something that currently just can not be cured. According to the documentary, these people will for the rest of their lives be either an addict, or an addict in recovery. Perhaps there's a possibility that simulated gambling could at least scratch that itch without them wasting tons of money. A form of therapy if you will.

Travis Grabau
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Sure, be concerned but don't be ridiculous.

Just because a small proportion of the population has a problem with some activity doesn't mean it has to be banned for everyone else.

Every person who drinks a beer doesn't become an alcoholic, because some do does that mean no one can drink?

Alcohol causes far more damage physically and in society than gambling does, and thats in a ton of games, tv shows, movies, books, life. Should we be concerned about that too? Sure, and there are laws that support that concern, just as there are laws that regulate gambling.

Believe it or not a significant number of people believe gambling and gambling like activities are fun. I see no reason to prevent people from participating in any legal activity that they enjoy.

Besides, just what is wrong with gambling anyway?

The first paragraph of the article is blowing the whole question out of proportion for political reasons. The small minority of minors that do gamble are breaking the law to do it. Just enforce the law, problem solved.

Lennard Feddersen
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"with the chance-based nature of gambling. "

You and I meet for a game of chess and put $10 on it. Is that chance based?

Alexander Jhin
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I would argue no. The simple test for chance is to run the same inputs multiple times and get different outcomes. (But this generally doesn't apply to multiplayer games, where same inputs will lead to different outputs because the opponent is doing something different.)

Gary LaRochelle
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There are two types of on-line gambling:
1. against the "house" (or computer): Slots for example.
2. against another living person(s): Poker for example

There are also two types of winnings:
1. real money
2. virtual prizes (credits, rare game play items, etc.)

If real money is being played for (whether against the house or other living players) the software has to be verified by a "Gambling Commission Board" to make sure the odds are fair and mimic real life gambling.

If the prize is a virtual prize there is no need for the software to be verified as representing real life odds. So there is nothing from stopping the software developer from rigging the game in favor of the house. This could be a good thing and also a bad thing. The good thing: players realize that the games can be rigged and are turned off to gambling (saving the player money). The bad thing: the player stops gambling altogether and it hurts the developer (no one plays their games).

I have personally played on-line gambling games (virtual gambling) that were rigged. When I mentioned my findings on the community chat board other players said they had experienced the same thing. I don't even bother with on-line gambling games because of there's a very good chance the games are rigged and odds are not fair (and I was never really interested in gambling games to start off with).

Ian Griffiths
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When looking at societal problems you need to consider the extent of the problem in terms of how many people it affects as well as the extent to which it impacts on those who are affected. You then need to weigh this up against the costs of making a legal change that would impact those who are not affected. Of course, I would imagine that it would be hard to prove the causation in this case, most young people play or have played games so they're be a clear correlation but then the majority don't get addicted to gambling.

Gambling is an odd one because, in many ways uncertainty and risk are inherent within our lives. Everything from illness to success are largely based on chance. By that I mean that we can't pretend it doesn't exist. I'd argue that things like wagers can be beneficial to society, friendly competition, even chance and not skill based, can help people form social bonds. Of course when this gets out of hand to the point that it causes harm for an individual, particularly someone with dependents, then there is a problem.

I would agree that it's not useful to teach young people that gambling is necessarily a normal everyday thing. I also accept that it's bad if someone is significantly pushed towards gambling with real money as a young adult because they learnt the reward behaviour at an age when they are very impressionable.

While we can be concerned about these things we shouldn't use a hammer to crack a nut. There are lots of fun and harmless things in games that rely on chance. Still, perhaps developers should look at more age checks and support options that can offer in games that simulate what you state as 'standard gambling simulation', maybe even 'non-standard gambling simulations too'.