Nick Xenophon has a point about gambling and video games

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If you’d told me last week that today I’d be writing about how I think a politician making a bold statement about legislating on video games kind of has a point, I wouldn’t have believed you.

I don’t think you could really blame me. Politicians who come out swinging at video games often have little understanding of the medium and are coming from a knee-jerk “won’t someone think of the children” kind of reaction. And the response from the gaming community is almost always to tell the relevant person to sod off because they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Now, I’m not saying this latest example of politician vs gaming isn’t still coming from that place of Helen Lovejoy idiocy, but it’s certainly got me thinking about aspects of some of my favourite games in a new light, and has started a discussion that I think is certainly worth having.

Helen Lovejoy

You think I’d mention Helen Lovejoy and forget to throw in the picture? M8…

Yesterday Australian independent senator Nick Xenophon said he plans to submit a bill that would consider playing games like Counter Strike: Global Offensive, with its purchase and resale of in-game weapon skins, as a kind of gambling. He also said he’s not too keen on people betting on the outcome of eSports. Speaking to Fairfax Media, Xenophon described video game gambling as “the Wild West of online gambling that is actually targeting kids,” and “instead of shooting avatars, parents soon find out that [their children] have shot huge holes through their bank accounts.”

Now, the mainstream media was quick to condense the issue into sensationalist headlines, such as The Guardian’s “Nick Xenophon calls for first-person shooter video games to be defined as gambling”, which implies he’s calling for the entire FPS genre to be considered gambling. Independent said something similar, and these are the headlines the Reddit threads have latched on to, which is understandable as they’re goddamn ridiculous.

It’s ridiculous because the senator is yet to actually outline exactly what kind of changes he wants to implement to the Interactive Gambling Act 2001. It’s far too soon to tell what kind of games would be affected and in what way. He could be trying to call for a ban on them entirely, or he could just be wanting gambling aspects of games to be considered and clearly stated in a game’s rating. Given Xenophon’s firm stance on banning poker machines, perhaps the former is more likely, but until the legislation is tabled we just can’t know.

Nick Xenophon

At least Parliament House is superimposed behind him, so we know he’s serious. (Photo: Fairfax media)

But, the interesting thing that Xenophon’s statement has brought to the forefront of my mind is that while we know about CS:GO‘s connection to third party websites that gamble the game’s weapon skins, what about the in-game practice of obtaining them? Is Xenophon right, at least in principle, that these kind of mechanics should be defined as a form of gambling?

Let’s break it down. In CS:GO’s case, skins are obtained via “crates”, that contain a random skin, which are either randomly dropped or the purchased, which also need to be opened by a corresponding key. While the crates can be obtained for free, keys will set you back around $2.50US. So, if there’s a particular skin you want because you’ve seen another player wielding it or you’ve seen it pictured online or you want it because it’ll be worth a lot to sell on later, you can exchange real world money for the chance to obtain it.

The more crates/keys you buy, the more chances you have at getting the skin. If your motivation is a marketplace payout, that’s quite literally, as well as figuratively, a jackpot.

CSGO Knife

Like this $467.93USD knife (?!)

But CS:GO skins are a very specific example given their value in third party marketplaces. What about a game where the in-game items have no real world value, yet are obtained in a similar way, is that gambling? Let’s take a look at Overwatch.

In Overwatch, players can apply different costumes, audible catch phrases, victory poses and spray tags to the roster of characters. All these items are able to be viewed from an in-game menu, but to actually use them with your characters you need to obtain and open a “loot box”, which will grant you a random selection. Some items, such as costumes and poses, are tiered by their rarity, ranging from “common”, “epic” and “legendary”.

Loot boxes are given to players every time they gain a level in-game, however they can also be purchased using real money, starting with two boxes for $2.95AUD up to 50 for $59.95AUD. Specific items can’t be bought with real money but can be with an in-game currency, which is obtained when a loot box gives you an item you already have.

So again, real world money is given in exchange for more chances to get a thing that you want. Sure sounds a bit like gambling to me. You have no guarantee the money you’re spending will yield the product you want. I guess the difference here is that you are guaranteed to get items, just not specific ones, unlike the pokies where you either win money or lose it. You do exchange your money for a good, it’s just in this case the good is a game of chance.

Overwatch loot box

“Can’t I just pay you money for what I want?” “No, you must take the MYSTERY BOX.”

To be fair, mechanics such as these aren’t unique to CS:GO and Overwatch. I’d never really thought about these things as gambling before, as they’re tied to optional microtransactions and we know how I feel about participating in those. They aren’t needed to enjoy the game, and I’ve spent plenty of time playing them to prove that.

But I can’t help but think Nick Xenophon is right in that they do allow players under the age of 18 to participate in a form gambling. Perhaps it’s something that just needs to be considered when a game is classified. Is it as insidious as the pokies, or the operational practices of casinos? I wouldn’t go that far, but in terms of definition I think the comparison is fair.

As for what legally classifying such mechanics as gambling will do, well the third party CS:GO websites are technically illegal as under Australian law companies not registered here aren’t allowed to let anyone in Australia gamble through them, so I suppose it would then also apply to the games themselves? It’s difficult to tell, again we’ll have to wait for the legislation to be tabled.

Well there you go, I agreed with the politician speaking out against video games. I’m now going to take a long hard look at myself and wonder where exactly I went wrong…

Take a gamble and follow Tom on Twitter: @tomdheath. Don’t forget to follow @load_screen and like us on Facebook.

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