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According to the Children’s Commissioner, 93% of UK children regularly play video games. With constant competition from other games, social media, and streaming sites, the challenge to stay engaging is a daily one for any gaming platform. This has led to the rise of gambling in gaming – especially in games aimed at children and young people.
Our online safety experts have taken a wider look at the type of gambling mechanics and designs that are used in games to help parents, carers, teachers, and safeguarding professionals be more aware of the risks this might pose. Keep reading for important definitions, advice, and top tips you can take to protect the children and young people in your care.
Gambling: risking something of value with the hope of greater gain.
What is gambling in gaming?
When we say gambling is ‘in’ the world of gaming, we’re not just talking about slot machines popping up within gameplay. Instead, we are referencing the larger issue of the mechanics of gambling being integrated into gaming framework. Things like ‘play to win’ motivation, high stakes situations, attention-grabbing designs, and ‘house verses player’ systems have become a regular part of modern videogames and gaming apps, to the extent that many gamers don’t recognise them as a form of gambling.There has also been a rise in the monetisation of games, which sees players pay real money for in-game items.
Success for games and apps involves as many players as possible spending time and money on their platform. This becomes especially concerning when it comes to children and young people, who are still developing financial literacy and critical thinking skills. In fact, some professionals are concerned the convergence of gambling and gaming will influence a transition from playing games to real-money gambling in children and young people.
More regular, routine engagement implies more regular, routine spending will follow. Gaming companies have been using gambling mechanisms into their games for years now. Here are some of the most common ones:
Loot boxes – Despite being controversial, loot boxes (in-game treasure chests that contain items of unknown value) are still being used in the majority of videogames and app games. Players are encouraged to bet on the ‘possible’ items that could be in a loot box without certainty of receiving the item. These can be won but are typically purchased with varying degrees of rarity.
Slot machine tactics – Many games use the same ‘quick chance’ reward system used by slot machines. Things like ‘daily rewards’ or ‘mini games’ are built into platforms to give players an incentive to come back each day for a reward. By pressing a button or completing a small challenge, players receive currency, items, or special ‘skins’ (cosmetics that customise a player’s in-game appearance).
‘Free to play’ draw – If a game is ‘free to play’, initial access to the game and certain items are free, but premium options must be paid for. It doesn’t take long for the amount spent on premium purchases to exceed the amount it would cost to purchase the game. Paid games also have these in-app purchases that claim to ‘improve’ the player’s experience.
High risk, high reward – Even the most simple games have extra bonus points and ranking systems available for players willing to learn and attempt certain ‘tricks’ or ‘moves’ within game play. This reinforces a common gambling theme of ‘high risk, high reward’ by awarding players for taking greater chances. Often, this requires practice, and encourages gamers to spend more time playing on the platform.
In-game currencies – Most games have their own currencies (e.g. coins, gems), similar to casino chips/tokens. It often comes in bundles and can seem like a ‘good deal’ (e.g. 250 gems for £17.99). However, as there is no true conversion rate and it is purchased using a credit card or account, the exchange of real money is lost in the purchase.
It is important to note that many of these gambling mechanisms can be used in healthy moderation by children and young people who play video games and app games. The concern is that these mechanisms will introduce gambling behaviours to those who are too young to recognise them, and who may be influenced to continue this behaviour elsewhere.
There are other design elements that play a part in encouraging player engagement, especially younger players who may not have a large attention span or patience level. By utilising persuasive design (a practice which tries to influence consumer behaviour through a platform’s characteristics or functions) players are more likely to be convinced to switch on again. Here are some of the most common gaming design ‘hooks’:
Energy/life limit – Many games use an energy or life system to limit gameplay time. For videogames, it can force a player to repeat game sections or sequences. For apps, especially free games, there is typically a time limit that forces players to wait a specific amount of time to start playing again (e.g. 2 hours) or pay to get more ‘lives’.
Haptics – More and more games are utilising haptic feedback, in which the gaming device vibrates, moves, or mimics movement during gameplay (e.g. a controller vibrates if a player’s in-game car crashes). This feedback simulates a player’s sense of touch and makes them feel more connected to the game or app. It is especially prevalent in virtual reality games.
‘Feedback Loops’ – This is the core of all video games. ‘Feedback loops’ are essentially the relationship between actions and outcomes within the game. For example, a player winning a game or completing a level unlocks a new weapon, feature, or storyline. This feeling of excitement and accomplishment ties itself to the experience of playing the game and encourages regular play.
Push Notifications – While not exclusive to games (and rare for videogames), PN technology is still something employed by mobile game companies regularly. It uses the psychology of ‘nudges’ to send a message to the player’s phone, reminding them if they have not played the game that day or offering them exclusive member deals they cannot miss out on.
Exclusive items and events – Many platforms now offer exclusivities to their members, in an attempt to get new members to join and to reward current members for their continued support. These can be big (such as Fortnite partnering with popstar Ariana Grande) or small platform-based events that keep players interested. This sometimes requires the purchase of access passes or bundles.
Mobile gaming app ‘Coin Master’ has recently come under fire for misleading gameplay involving gambling tactics. Owners, Moon Active Ltd, were in a proposed class action lawsuit that said the game allowed players to believe operations of the game are random but instead ‘tilted too far in favour of the house’ and involved ‘unlawful expenditure of money for additional game play’.
Coin Master is described as a ‘social casino’ game. It is free to play and employs simple game play elements based on building and attacking villages. It uses cartoon characters, bright colours, and energetic music to engage players – design elements that would normally attract children and young people. This is a key part of why the lawsuit was put forward, as Moon Active Ltd would be failing to adhere to “special duties and responsibilities” that protect underage players from being exposed to gambling tendencies.
Financial literacy – Children and young people are not fully adept in understanding finances, the value of real money, and the consequences that can come from gambling. They could be vulnerable to exploitation by the gambling mechanisms used within their favourite games and might not understand that the value of in-game purchases does not match the value of real money being spent.
Influencer promotion – Many popular influencers spend time playing games and showing off the specialty loot boxes they purchase. However, they are normally being paid by the gaming company to promote the game (and may not have purchased the loot box themselves). This means their enthusiasm, review of the game, and even their earned rewards could be biased or false.
Increased screen time – The young person in your care might begin to spend more time on their screens, especially if there is a ‘play to win’ aspect. This can have physical side effects and real-life consequences, especially if it begins to distract from schoolwork or family commitments. Even if it’s “just a game,” it could be encouraging neglectful behaviour.
Spending limits – Most children and young people do not have an untapped reserve of income to turn to. They might not understand that spending £50 in one family could be the same as spending £5 in another. If they are unaware of the spending limits in their family, they may not think there is an issue in spending more.
Processing gambling – There is a reason many of the gambling mechanics in these games are so easily disguised. Gambling is, ultimately, a game. Young people may even recognise trusted adults gambling as a pastime. They are less likely to process that the result of gambling could have larger consequences, especially if they have additional needs or vulnerabilities.
Addictive tendencies – It’s important to note that many of the behaviours and allowances gaming encourages in young people could develop into more serious addictions. Gaming addiction is a real risk, but even developing an emotional response to winning games with gambling themes can lay the groundwork for an introduction to online or in-person gambling difficulties or dependencies in adulthood.
Peer pressure – Children typically want to play the same games as their peers. If a specific game grows in popularity, the chances your child could be pressured into playing it despite rules or appropriateness grow as well. This might lead to bullying behaviour, especially if a child is not ‘good’ at the game or doesn’t have the same equipment.
Changing behaviour – If a young person becomes fixated on a video game, they may begin to lose interest in the things around them they once enjoyed. They might appear more withdrawn or irritable, or not want to spend time with their friends or family. They may also experience disruptive changes to their usual sleeping or eating patterns.
Impact on school/social life – These games are designed around keeping users engaged. A young person may not be able to moderate the amount of time they spend playing. They may end up missing homework assignments or feigning an illness to stay home and play instead of attending school, as well as any social clubs they may be a part of.
Borrowing/stealing/losing money – In extreme cases, children may begin to practice poor money management to fund their gaming habits with or without parental consent. They might take cards from unattended wallets or ask to ‘borrow’ more than they are normally given as an allowance. This could precede a loss of money and might send them into a panic or encourage them to lie.
As a parent or carer, it’s important that you consider your own behaviour when it comes to gambling. According to research done by The Gambling Commission, 51% of 11–16-year-olds who have gambled were with their guardian at the time. Are you doing the lottery every week, buying scratch cards, or placing bets on football? How do you react when you win or lose? What is your child learning from your behaviours? You could be normalising gambling behaviour without realising it.
Educate yourself on the games your children are playing. Try asking them to explain their experiences and what kind of things happen in the game.
Ensure they are playing age-appropriate games by using platform app stores to check the age recommendations and PEGI ratings.
Talk with those in your care about the different ways people gamble and the importance of being sensible. Remind them that you don’t win every time and people can lose a lot of money. A simple explanation on the importance of having to budget money may be all a child needs. For a young person, talk about losing money and the problems getting into debt can cause.
Set some boundaries around screen time limits within your household. Keep an eye on how long those in your care are playing games, and encourage them to take regular breaks by suggesting alternative activities like a family walk or movie night.
Understand that it may be difficult for the child or young person to step away from a game. When communicating with your child during gameplay, try using phrases like “When will your game be done?” or giving them a time frame for when you need them to be finished (e.g. 10 minutes, 5 minutes, etc.) to avoid tantrums or ignorance.
Use ‘airplane mode’ for younger children to stop them making accidental in-app purchases. If they want to play a game that requires access to Wi-Fi, ensure all payment options for your device are password protected or switched off.
Have an honest conversation with the young person in your care about finances and appropriate spending. Suggest using pocket/chore money on in-game spending as a way for them to learn the value of money.
Make sure children in your care know to ask for your permission before purchasing anything while gaming.