Since the release of Electronic Art’s Star Wars Battlefront 2, there has been a lot of controversy regarding the role of gambling in video games. While gambling elements in games are nothing new, the discussion and spotlight pointed squarely on elements like loot crates is. The discussion surrounding Battlefront 2 often appears to revolve around the value proposition of a full priced retail title encouraging the use of microtransactions, rather than moral values and whether gambling has a place in games. Even so, the use of gambling is a significant part of the mobile landscape, and should be examined.
On any given day, around half of Google Play’s 100 highest grossing games in the United States will involve some form of gambling. Sometimes gambling takes the form of hero collection gacha mechanics, like those of Fire Emblem Heroes or The Alchemist Code. Sometimes it takes the form of loot crates or chest & card mechanics like those used in South Park: Phone Destroyer or Clash Royale. Other times it takes a form that people rarely associate with gambling as is the case in collectible card games like Hearthstone. The rest are more obvious and are part of the casino genre, these are the mobile slot machines, bingo games, and virtual poker tables. Yet all of these games have one thing in common, they offer unspecified rewards that have a range of values in exchange for a specific amount of money, or more likely premium currency that people pay money for.
Like real world gambling, gambling elements adopted in mobile games are ripe for abuse and addiction. There is no shortage of stories about users who have spent hundreds or even thousands of dollars on in app purchases.
The prominence of gambling elements on the top grossing list might underrate their importance to the mobile gaming landscape. While these games generate a lot of revenue, many of them also spend heavily on advertisements. That money not only flows into the pockets of ad providers but it also makes its way into ad supported free to play titles. Those video ads for titles like Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes or Clash Royale are part of the reason that there are so many simple fun arcade and puzzle games available for your smartphone. Taking out games with gambling elements won’t just harm developers who make those games, it will harm games that depend on ad revenue as a part of their bottom line.
While the outcry over gambling has been fierce, the solutions offered are few and far between. Many favor regulation, but fail to point out what regulations would look like. Others favor complete bans which would do a significant amount of harm to the app economy and stop people from playing games they enjoy. Perhaps most importantly, the idea of regulating gambling elements is often looked at as a national issue. That ignores the fact that mobile gaming is an international past time, with major developers in publishers in South Korea, Japan, China, Finland, Canada, and the UK. Games are not necessarily created with the U.S. in mind. Regulation would have to apply to the marketplaces that serve as the gatekeepers for most of these games, Google’s Google Play and Apple’s App Store.
One of the better solutions has been put forward by advocates like Hawaii congressman Chris Lee. It would have app providers take steps to make sure that users under the age of 21 cannot access games with gambling elements. This would likely amount to some sort of age gate system that would need to be adopted by Google and Apple. While these mechanisms are rarely difficult to circumvent, they could put an extra step between children and gambling without impacting adults. Other possible solutions include requiring clear icons that inform users when a game features gambling. Such an icon could easily be placed near existing icons that tell users about a game’s genre, number of downloads and rating.
While gambling fueled microtransactions are a relatively new issue in the realm of consoles, gambling is one of the cornerstones of mobile gaming. There is no panacea for mobile gaming’s gambling problem. Its removal would cause immense harm to the app economy as a whole, including games that depend on advertisements rather than in app purchases. Relatively small changes like age gates and warnings could serve as a way for app providers and publishers to avoid some of the backlash that’s coming in their direction while helping to inform users about the content of a particular game, but they are unlikely to fix the problem. For the time being, gambling is something mobile gamers will have to learn to avoid or live with.