Leisure pleasure treasure: A brief look at gambling within videogames
Over the last decade, gambling and gaming technologies have begun to converge with video games featuring gambling-like elements, and gambling games featuring video gaming-like elements. Many of the newer convergent gambling-gaming convergent forms include such activities as online penny auctions and gambling-type activities on social networking sites, so-called ‘social gaming’. With regard to video gaming including gambling-like elements, a paper that I co-wrote in 2012 with Dr. Daniel King in the journal International Gambling Studies noted that simulated gambling activities and gambling themes have a substantial presence in many modern video games. We noted that gambling content in video games can be categorized 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;
- 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;
- Gambling references, the appearance of non-interactive gambling material or gambling-related paraphernalia/materials within the context of the video game.
In regard to the second of these categories, it could be argued that some online video games feature mini-games that are non-standard gambling simulations. For instance, in February 2014, the mini-game Treasure Hunter (TH) was introduced into the online video game Runescape. To get in-game prizes, players have to get keys to open chests. Originally, to participate in TH, players had to play in a members’ world. Players that tried to play TH in a free world are given the message: “As a member, you are eligible for improved prizes, so please play Treasure Hunter on a members’ world instead.” However, in April 2014, TH was reformulated and for the first time, members’ prizes could be claimed by those playing in a free world also.
In TH, five chests can be opened, each containing one of five different gems (going from most common to least common – white, yellow, orange, red, or purple gem – with white being the most common and purple being the rarest). After obtaining a key, players select a chest (not knowing what gem is inside the chest), and open it. The player is then given the option of storing the prize in the bank, discarding the prize, collecting the prize later, or cashing out for a small number of coins. There are a number of different ways to gain TH keys (free daily keys, keys obtained through skilful gameplay, and buying keys). Members get two free keys a day and those playing in free worlds only get one free key a day. Those players paying to be in the silver or gold Premier Club get three free keys a day.
It should also be noted that (i) TH is reset every night at midnight, (ii) free keys have to be used on the day, (iii) one monthly free key can be earned by playing ‘Troll Invasion’, (iv) players can buy bonds for gold coins or money, and (v) a random number generator is used to determine the winners. After completing any daily challenge, players receive an extra key, and after completing any in-game quest, players receive two additional keys. Keys can be bought in bundles of 15 (€3.99), 35 (€8.00), 75 (€16.00), 200 (€39.99) or 450 keys (€79.99). The maximum number of keys that could be bought is $200 (US) a day and $500 (US) a week. Keys can also be earned by watching advertisements, buying products, and completing surveys (and accessed via the ‘Earn keys’ option). TH prizes include in-game skilling items, weapons, bonus experience stars, etc. or can be converted to coins.
The legal definition of gambling in Great Britain is contained in the Gambling Act 2005. It notes that gambling includes “gaming”, “betting” or “participating in lottery”. Gaming is defined in the 2005 Act as “playing a game of a chance for a prize” while betting involves the process of placing or accepting a bet on anything other than financial services that remains uncertain to at least one party of the transaction at the time of the bet. By this definition alone, it would appear that Treasure Hunter is a form of gambling if purchases to participate are made (rather than being given free spins or keys, or earning them through skilful gameplay).
In 2015, the UK Gambling Commission highlighted that they believe the mini-games within Runescape to be ‘social gaming’ and not a game of chance and therefore out of their jurisdiction in relation to the regulation of the game. They have also claim that RuneScape bonds have no intrinsic value outside of Runescape under the terms of the British Gambling Act and therefore is not gambling. The Gambling Commission also note on their website that:
“We are not saying there are no risks in social gaming, nor are we saying that this ends our interest in the issue. We are simply saying that our current assessment of the available evidence is that there is no persuasive reason for us to take regulatory action, in effect to change from maintaining a watching brief. We will continue to monitor emerging evidence, and we are prepared to change this position if the evidence warrants it”.
However, there are instances when the bonds and prizes won do have value outside of the game. Bonds that are purchased with real life currency can be sold to another player for an in-game sum of money. Bonds and prizes can also be redeemed within the game for real-life services. These services are not just limited to the buying of game-related merchandise, such as the buying of card games like Top Trumps, but also includes attendance at offline RuneScape events, such as RuneFest, hotel rooms, and even plane tickets. The bonds can also be used to pay for postage and packing of items bought outside the game. Players can also donate the bonds to charity (in which Jagex contributes the full value of the bond to the charity chosen by the player). These examples clearly demonstrate that the bonds do have specific financial value outside the game in some circumstances, and an impact on real-world activities. More specifically, they demonstrate that the financial value of the bonds and prizes can be used outside the game itself.
Mini-games like Treasure Hunter within the online game RuneScape are not uncommon and are another example of convergence between gambling and video gaming. These games appear to meet the criteria for gambling found in the gambling studies literature and should be regulated as such.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addictions, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Gambling Commission (2015). Explaining our approach to social gaming. Located at: http://www.gamblingcommission.gov.uk/Gambling-data-analysis/Social-media/Explaining-our-approach-to-social-gaming.aspx
Griffiths, M.D. (2003). Internet gambling: Issues, concerns and recommendations. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 6, 557-568.
Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Adolescent gambling and gambling-type games on social networking sites: Issues, concerns, and recommendations. Aloma: Revista de Psicologia, Ciències de l’Educació i de l’Esport, 33(2), 31-37.
Griffiths, M.D. & Carran, M. (2015). Are online penny auctions a form of gambling? Gaming Law Review and Economics, 19, 190-196.
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., King, D.L. & Delfabbro, P.H. (2014). The technological convergence of gambling and gaming practices. In Richard, D.C.S., Blaszczynski, A. & Nower, L. (Eds.). The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Disordered Gambling (pp. 327-346). Chichester: Wiley.
Griffiths, M.D. & King, R. (2015). Are mini-games within RuneScape gambling or gaming? Gaming Law Review and Economics, 19, 64-643.
King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H., Derevensky, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). A review of Australian classification practices for commercial video games featuring simulated gambling. International Gambling Studies, 12, 231-242.