People who play simulated gambling games for free online are more likely to become problem gamblers in real life, according to a report from the Australian Gambling Research Centre (AGRC).
Key findings of the report:
Children are more exposed to gambling than ever before
Online games are blurring the lines between simulated and real gambling
The games create unrealistic expectations about real-life gambling
The report also said the easy access to free gambling games on smart phones and tablets was a major concern.
The AGRC – part of Federal Government's Australian Institute of Family Studies – said more and more people saw gambling as a part of everyday life and they were being exposed to gambling at younger ages than ever before.
"Young people today are growing up around these electronic games," said Anna Thomas, one of the authors of the report, ‘Is It Gambling Or A Game?’
"This is introducing gambling to them at a much younger age than you'd normally expect.”
The report – a compilation of online gambling related research over the last 15 years – said the proliferation of gambling games raised a number of red flags:
Because the online games are so realistic, the lines between simulated gambling and real-life "commercial" gambling are increasingly blurred.
Simulated gambling is accessed increasingly through social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Players are heavily exposed to commercial gambling site advertising on these sites.
In simulated games, players are protected from the consequences of losing – they can just play again if their luck turns. That creates unrealistic expectations of gambling in real-life.
Jake Newstadt started gambling at age 12. Now aged 25, he is a reformed gambler. "That's the danger of these kinds of games," said Jake Newstadt,"They kind of plant potential messages inside of us that we're not really aware of. It can become quite addictive.”
Jake now works as a project worker helping problem gamblers. He is not surprised by the popularity of simulated gambling games – everything from slot machines, to roulette, to online poker.
"On some level, these games do the same thing as real gambling," he said.
"They trigger something in the brain where there's this moment of anxiety about not knowing whether this result is going to go our way or not … and that pattern can become quite addictive.”
The AGRC report also raised concerns about online games that disguise their gambling components. These games have nothing to do with gambling as a central theme, but they have opportunities to gamble embedded in the game.
The wildly popular online game Counter Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) is largely a first person shooter. However, players quickly learn the action is also a platform for numerous gambling games. "They don't explicitly say it, but that's definitely what it is," said 19-year-old Ashley Walton, who has been playing CS:GO for three years.
In CS:GO, players can purchase keys for around $3. The keys open digital cases, which reveal "prizes" a player can win — mostly different kinds of weapons to use in the game. In a display box on the screen, the potential prizes slide by until one stops in the prize window.
"That was probably the first time I actually dabbled in gambling with real money," said Mr Walton. There is no limit on how many keys a player can buy. The prizes vary in value in an off-site digital aftermarket, where buyers will pay up to $1,000 for very rare items, but Mr Walton said most of the prizes were worth less than the $3 the keys cost."The appeal for me was I just wanted to make money from it, whilst getting the items I wanted," he said.
Most parents unaware of simulated gambling. Anna Thomas from The Australian Gambling Research Centre said most parents were not aware of the gambling features embedded in many games.
"It can be a game that overtly has nothing to do with gambling," she said.
"You may have no idea that (your kids) are actually going into a room and having that experience in another game that's really something completely different to gambling."
One of the report's key recommendations is much more thorough regulation of these games. Currently, computer games are regulated by the Commonwealth's Classification Board. ”There’s a need for much more consistent and comprehensive information and advice," Ms Thomas said.
"You might have the same game that on one platform is rated M, on another platform may have no rating at all, or 12 plus. Very little information to guide players or parents who are looking at the games that their children are playing."