Keeping the gambling stigma alive | This Week in Business

“Stigma” is something of a dirty word in video gaming, seeing as the industry has gone decades now chaffing about the unfair stigma that has often clung to it as a corruptor of innocence, a purveyor of violence, or just a waste of time.

But stigma isn’t always a bad thing. It can actually serve a very valuable purpose.

Recent years have shown us very clearly that there are limits to the systems we have in place, that rules apply differently to different people, and that sometimes social disapprobation is really the only tool we can rely on to punish bad behavior in any tangible way. (Exhibit A, although there are plenty more in games and beyond.)

Stigma keeps a thing on the sidelines of society, but sometimes the sidelines is where it belongs, tolerated but not embraced, permitted but not promoted.

I don’t think that’s the case wtih video games, but believe that is the appropriate place for gambling.

Gaming and gambling have long been close cousins; pinball machines in particular were outlawed as gambling devices in many cities across North America for decades. Konami opened its casino division in 1996, while gambling outfit Sammy felt there was enough synergy to acquire Sega in 2004.

There’s usually a wall between the video gaming and the gambling – Konami and Sega have their gambling businesses broken out into separate divisions, for example – but there have also been efforts to erode the barriers between gambling and video games. Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick called esports wagering “the Holy Grail of the video game business” back in 2006, for example, and skins gambling in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive has been going on for years.

This week the topic seems particularly salient.

QUOTE | “Ever since CS:GO launch came out, it was the first time I went on that site. And it was a fun place to be, you know, gamble skins and stuff. Eventually I found out you could gamble with money” – Twitch streamer Abraham ‘Sliker’ Mohammed in a video this week confessing that he had borrowed at least $200,000 from individuals under false pretenses to fund his gambling habit.

Sliker is the face of problem gambling on Twitch this week

Mohammed has 431,000 followers on the platform, and his problems involved a significant cross-section of even bigger streamers, including Félix ‘xQc’ Lengyel and Ludwig Anders Ahgren, who said they would try to pay back people Mohammed had scammed.

Other big streamers like Imane ‘Pokimane’ Anys, Matthew ‘Mizkif’ Rinaudo, and Devin Nash also called on Twitch to crack down on gambling streams, which have been around for years and have become a significant pillar for the platform.

STAT | 51 million – The number of hours in the Slots category on Twitch in August, according to SteamElements’ latest State of the Stream report. It was the eighth largest category on the site for the month, topping games like CS: GO (41 million hours watched) and Fortnite (40 million hours watched).

True to form when faced with calls to curtail something harmful that also provides revenue, Twitch leaped into inaction.

QUOTE | “We’ll be making a policy update on October 18th to prohibit streaming of gambling sites that include slots, roulette, or dice games that aren’t licensed either in the US or other jurisdictions that provide sufficient consumer protections… We will continue to allow websites that focus on sports betting, fantasy sports, and poker.” – A Twitch statement released on Tuesday, which makes it clear the concern is not about how Twitch profits by portraying gambling as an exciting and fun pastime for an audience of young users, but about ensuring when that audience is fleeced by gambling operations, it’s all above board. Oh, and streamers also have a month to keep streaming whatever shady unlicensed stuff they want because… reasons. I guess it’s like that time they gave people a month and a half to get all that Confederate flag-waving, intentional misgendering and Holocaust denial out of their systems.

I would not hold my breath waiting for Twitch to take a stronger stance on this. The platform has consistently been a day late and many dollars short on user safety measures and content moderation issues, and that was before parent company Amazon started pressuring it to ramp up profits earlier this year.

Gambling is everywhere in gaming these days, even when it isn’t there at all.

QUOTE | “Following the announcement of Assassin’s Creed Mirage during Ubisoft Forward, some store pages mistakenly displayed the game for preorders with an Adults Only ESRB rating and are being fixed. While Assassin’s Creed Mirage is still pending rating, Ubisoft wants to reassure players that no real gambling or loot boxes are present in the game.” – An Ubisoft representative last week explaining why the Xbox.com page for Assassin’s Creed Mirage carried an AO rating with a “real gambling” content descriptor. When we followed up to ask why the AO logo was also shown before Ubisoft’s own livestream of the game announcement, we were told that too was a mistake.

I don’t even know why Ubisoft mentioned loot boxes, because there was no content descriptor or suggestion they were involved. Somehow the publisher must have conflated them with the completely unrelated subject of gambling, I guess. Weird, right?

Maybe the “real gambling” descriptor was there just because Mirage will have NFTs and the ESRB had no better way to describe their presence in the game. (A representative told us the rating board deals with NFTs on a case-by-case basis and has no specific policy or content descriptors regarding them right now. Given the speculative purpose of NFTs – and indeed virtually all proposed blockchain and play-to-earn implementations in gaming – “real gambling” seems like a perfect fit to me.)

“You saw nothing. The AO logo was just a Mirage…”

Or maybe Ubisoft was just being overly cautious, what with the UK government having told the industry that loot boxes are skirting the line between gaming and gambling and the industry needs to self-regulate that mess in a hurry.

QUOTE | “What… does effective industry self-regulation look like in a loot box context? The short answer is that we do not know, yet. We do not know what measures will reduce overspending and prevent potential harms, and we do not know whether any self-regulatory requirements will even be effectively complied with.” – In a guest editorial this week, researcher Leon Y. Xiao addressed the UK government’s call for industry self-regulation on loot boxes and looked at attempts to address concerns around them in four different markets.

Gambling is such a hot-button issue that influencers and gamers are even willing to flirt with collective action over it. Before Twitch tweaked its rules, some of the streamers mentioned above floated the idea of joining together to stop streaming during a high-traffic period in order to prompt action, and that was followed this week by influencers in the Madden scene taking a similar stand over the loot box-driven Ultimate Team mode.

QUOTE | “RETWEET FOR AWARENESS: Myself and other creators in the community have decided to go on a pack strike. With the massive issues going on in Madden 23 we need changes. DON’T BUY POINTS!” – Madden YouTuber Zirksee rallies the community in the name of [checks notes] …better odds for rare cards in Ultimate Team packs.

Ok, maybe it’s not that similar a stand after all. But clearly gambling and gambling-like mechanics have taken root in video games, and there’s obviously a segment of the audience that welcomes it.

This growing comfort with gambling and gambling-like activities isn’t just happening in games, etiher. While the UK, Spain, and Italy have taken recent steps to curb the promotion of gambling, things are headed in the opposite direction at great speed in North America. In 2018, the US Supreme Court lifted a ban on sports betting in most states. Canada legalized single-game sports betting last year.

I’m guessing sports fans in either country have noticed a few differences since then, particularly as leagues shut down or play in empty arenas during the pandemic and have aggressively looking to make up that lost revenue anywhere they can, no matter how much the image of the game may suffer. It’s certainly impacted my experience as a hockey fan in Toronto, as well as my enjoyment of the sport.

Wayne Gretzky emerging from a cloud of mist in a nice suit, a golden glowing cell phone in his hand
Wayne Gretzky is either about to explain his super villain plan to halt the earth’s rotation, or ask us to put $20 on the Coyotes tonight.

Watching games now, I am bombarded with messages to gamble, from wagering-focused intermission shows to commercial breaks that seem to consist solely of ads for online poker services, casino sites, and sports betting apps. I see gambling ads featuring Wayne Gretzky — the greatest hockey player of all time — and Auston Matthews, the greatest hockey player currently on the Toronto Maple Leafs, which I know does not sound like that big a deal but for a surprising amount of people that designation is more impressive than Gretzky’s.

Connor McDavid — the captain of the Edmonton Oilers and consensus greatest current hockey player among non-Leafs fans — has also signed a deal with one of the sports betting apps that has been buying up all that ad space, so I’m pretty sure this coming season is going to be more of the same.

Gee, it sure is a good thing hockey isn’t like some national pastime with Canadian children growing up idolizing and emulating all their favorite players and hometown stars, or this would be a real Joe Camel situation.

But that’s ok. It’s all about parenting, right? And good parents can just keep their kids off Twitch and YouTube, maybe have them stop playing video games entirely, and don’t let them get into sports. Maybe just take them to the toy store and have them pick out something cheap, which will probably be a mystery box that gets them conditioned to putting up money for the suspense of the unknown followed by the potential rush of getting the item they want.

If these Blues Clues & You! Collectible figures for ages 3+ are any indication, kids should be ready to take their first steps toward gambling alarmingly soon after they take their first steps of any kind at all. Series 2 even has “the ultra-rare Glitter Blue and Glitter Magenta,” so they can learn about concepts like “odds” before they have a grasp of basic mathematics! Fun fact: Rare variant toys like this are called “chase figures,” and the behavior of responding to losses in gambling by pouring more money into it is called “chasing.” Aren’t words swell?

Blue's Clues collectibles with characters including Blue, Magenta, Mr. Salt, Mrs. Pepper, Sidetable Drawer, Glitter Blue, Glitter Magenta, and more.
I would be Mr. Salt too after opening up my fifth damn Sidetable Drawer before getting a single Glitter Blue.

I readily admit this has all been around in some form for a while. When I was a kid, I might go to a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese and blow some tokens on Skee-Ball to earn tickets that could be redeemed for insultingly cheap “prizes,” or perhaps a pack of baseball cards that might or might not have a Pete Rose card in it. But these days, the arcade redemption games more closely resemble casino games than tests of skill, the baseball cards are mystery boxes, and the athletes caught betting on their sports don’t get lifetime bans. (In a victory for nostalgia, the prizes are every bit as insultingly cheap as before.)

Between what we see going on in video games, sports, and toys, it appears that gambling — and things that look and work an awful lot like gambling — is increasingly becoming a mainstream staple of leisure time for all ages. This should be an issue of wider cultural concern, and for many of us in gaming, it is a professional one as well. I didn’t get into game journalism to write about gambling, and the closer the business gets to outright betting, the less I want to do with it.

I suspect most game developers likewise didn’t grow up dreaming about making games so people could gamble.

But there are people in the games industry who dream of little more than money, and there is clearly money to be had in running a gambling house. That’s the thing about exploitation; we’d have a lot less of it if the harm didn’t benefit someone.

We only have so much control over whether legislators and regulators look the other way on this, but we have a lot more say in whether or not it still carries a stigma.

The rest of the week in review

QUOTE | “In today’s indie landscape, buying a game can be like buying a loot crate in Counter-Strike: you don’t know what you’re going to get but you’re probably going to be sad.” – Popular YouTube personality Dunkey underscores the problem with gambling-like mechanics while announcing his new publishing outfit, Bigmode.

QUOTE | “Twitch, the Amazon subsidiary where millions of people congregate every day to watch skilled gamers play franchises like Fortnite and Minecraft, is one of the most popular websites on the internet. But the factors that have contributed to its rapid growth, such as the ease with which anyone can open an account and begin broadcasting themselves live, have also enabled predators to target young users, according to an analysis from October 2020 through August 2022 by a researcher who studies livestreaming websites.” – The lead of a feature about how easy it is for predators to find kids to victimize on Twitch that Bloomberg published on Wednesday.

QUOTE | “I’m joining @Twitch to bring my America First message to a new generation of viewers.” – Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz, who is under investigation for an alleged sexual relationship with an underage girl, announces he has set up a Twitch account on Thursday.

QUOTE | “We are extremely disappointed to have any details of our next game shared with you all in this way. Our work on the next Grand Theft Auto game will continue as planned and we remain as committed as ever to delivering an experience to you, our players, that truly exceeds your expectations.” – Rockstar Games responds to last weekend’s massive leak of in-development Grand Theft Auto 6 footage.

QUOTE | “Players are pretty darn sophisticated in this day and age. They understand why we need to start with untextured assets and unfinished features… they know there will be bugs. They still want to help. There were definitely folks within EA who worried about this approach, but given the positive player feedback, they now see the benefits.” – While Rockstar looks at the GTA 6 leak as a nightmare scenario, EA’s Samantha Ryan explains why the publisher is happily and repeatedly showing very rough in-development footage of the new Skate game.

QUOTE | “We believe in the premium release of a title at launch and after maybe six months, or three months, or three years, when the game’s sales come down, inclusion into this service, PS Plus Extra, can help introduce these games to new, broader audiences.” – Sony’s head of PlayStation Indies Shuhei Yoshida reaffirms that the company hasn’t budged from its stance on keeping new games out of PS Plus for at least a little while, despite Microsoft putting first-party titles straight into Game Pass upon release.

QUOTE | “We don’t say ‘you can’t blow up the moon, because this game over here needs the moon.’ We give everyone the freedom to tell their story.” – In an interview around EA’s new Iron Man game, Marvel’s Bill Rosemann explains why there’s not a coherent Marvel Gamerverse in the way there’s a Marvel Cinematic Universe.

STAT | 5% – The decline in US consumer spending on games in August, according to the NPD Group.

STAT | 1 million – The number of daily active players of Cyberpunk 2077 in the wake of the Netflix anime series debuting, the latest sign that the game has (finally) overcome its disastrous 2020 launch.

QUOTE | “By working together, game workers can have more control of their working conditions and can address the issues that have been plaguing this industry for years.” – IATSE International president Matthew D. Loeb,in the wake of Anemone Hug Interactive becoming the first unionized studio in Canada after joining the Canadian Animation Guild, IATSE Local 938.

STAT | 50/50 – The new revenue share Twitch is imposing for “premium” creators who previously received a 70/30 split of the revenue brought in. It’s a shame Microsoft gave up on Mixer so quickly, because I’m guessing Twitch would be a little slower to twist the screws on the people who put butts in the seats if they had more viable competition to go to.

QUOTE | “I’m sorry to everyone for my actions. I’m ashamed and disappointed in myself. I’ll be taking some time to reflect on my poor decisions, which will never occur again.” – YouTuber Dan Allen apologizes after he was discovered to be running a leaker Twitter account that repeatedly broke embargoes Allen had agreed to.

QUOTE | “Game developers in general – from small, independent studios to billion-dollar multinational corporations–have lagged in awareness of how extremists may attempt to exploit their games, and how their communities can be targeted for radicalization.” – The US Department of Homeland Security, explaining why it has awarded a grant of almost $700,000 going toward the research and prevention of extremism in video games.

QUOTE | “Nobody will ever be able to police my friendships. I draw my line here. I party with whoever the fuck I want.” – G2 Esports CEO Carlos Rodriguez, defending video he posted of himself celebrating with Andrew Tate a month after Tate hit for the cycle, getting banned from YouTube, Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram for violations of terms of service including hate speech and misogyny.

QUOTE | “Last night we failed you. The actions of our CEO spoke a language in stark contrast with the value and the culture G2 lives by and strives for. ” – The next day G2 announces that Rodriguez is taking an unpaid leave for eight weeks, after which time it will once again be led by a guy who demonstrated contempt for the values and culture G2 supposedly lives by and strives for. I’m sure he’ll have learned a very important lesson and esports will go back to having absolutely no intractable problems with misogyny of any kind.

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