Exploring the rocky relationship between video games and games of chance

Games of Chance

Games of chance have had an increasingly prominent role to play in the recent history of AAA gaming. We’ve seen developers adopt a lenient approach when introducing elements of gambling to our favorite titles, whether that be in the less invasive form of minigames, or the more controversial addition of loot boxes.

Regardless of where you stand on the matter, it has to be accepted that games of chance are now a cultural norm, especially with regards to those big-hitting AAA titles. In this last decade, several famous popular video game franchises including Grand Theft Auto, Final Fantasy Red Dead Redemption and The Witcher have all included ‘soft’ games of chance into their titles.

These soft games of chance don’t specifically require any real-life monetary transactions, they’re simply in-game features that help bolster the player’s in-game currency rather than their actual bank accounts. This can be considered the safer end of the scale when it comes to companies adding gambling features into AAA titles.

Grand Theft Auto – Innovators and leaders

It’d be silly not to start off by looking at Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto 5, easily the most obvious instance of a game developer implementing games of chance into their franchise.

In July 2019, after SIX years of waiting, the Diamond Casino & Resort flung open its virtual doors to literally millions of GTA Online players. As was expected, users flooded in to convert their in-game currency into casino chips so they could begin gambling.

Rockstar’s Diamond Casino launched with the lofty goal of rivaling real-life casinos, offering players the opportunity to play a number of popular games including roulette, blackjack, three card poker, slots, and even a money wheel game, all from the comfort of their own home.

Games of Chance - Grand Theft Auto Online

Rockstar’s willingness to promote gambling inevitably caused a storm amongst parents who allowed their children to play the game. The fact that players can exchange real money for in-game chips led to them calling for the Gambling Commission to get involved in the UK.

In response, the UK Gambling Commission said as there was no official way to monetize casino chips, they had no valid reason to get involved in this scandal.

What truly makes this so interesting is the fact that this isn’t actually the first time Rockstar has placed a gambling mechanism into the Grand Theft Auto franchise.

Back in 2004 Rockstar released Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which included what we believe to be the first instance of an interactive in-game betting shop known as The Inside Track. It’s fair to say The Inside Track went under the radar in comparison to the Diamond Casino & Resort, despite allowing players to bet on virtual horse racing for nearly two decades.

Do games of chance create a greater sense of immersion?

There are plenty of games that have implemented games of chance as a means to further flesh out and make for a more engaging and immersive game world. A prime example of this is The Witcher, which has it’s very own card game known as Gwent.

Gwent is a tactical turn-based card game played between two people that requires strategy and wits that appeals strongly to those who enjoy card games such as poker that require more than just luck to play successfully. This game can be played in taverns across the game world, and whilst it’s just a welcome distraction from the main game, it holds just as much value as other aspects such as questing and slaying monsters.

Games of Chance - Gwent

Final Fantasy VIII is another massively intricate game world that’s further bolstered by the addition of its very own gambling game, Triple Triad, to help pass the time when players don’t quite feel like following the main storyline. Much like Gwent, Triple Triad is a unique card game that can be played in multiple locations across the game world.

Unsurprisingly popular post-apocalyptic hit Fallout: New Vegas allows players to place wagers on casino games in not one, but five different casinos found on the former Las Vegas strip. It would almost be unforgivable for a game set in a world where gambling rules not include gambling. The same can somewhat be said for Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption franchise which allows players to play Texas Hold’em Poker online against real and AI opponents in Saloons across the Wild West.

Loot boxes, the uglier side of an amicable relationship

It’s estimated that gamers will spend over $50 billion on loot boxes by 2022, a staggering figure that in reality isn’t too surprising considering that nearly every new AAA video game has some form of a game of chance or pay-to-win feature built-in such as loot boxes.

For those unaware, loot boxes are a paid-for virtual in-game box that contains random items and modifications. It’s completely unknown as to what each individual player will win when opening any given box – ultimately they may or may not enhance their in-game progression.

Huge multinational companies such as EA have normalized loot boxes with practically all of their major new releases featuring some sort of loot box mechanic, with FIFA’s Ultimate Team being the most prominent and popular of them all.

Games of Chance - Lootboxes

Last year US Senator Josh Hawley proposed a ban on loot boxes and spending within video games altogether – he stated that they “prey on user addiction” and “exploit children”. It’s almost hard to argue with this considering there have been countless reports of young and vulnerable players racking up bills into the thousands over their favorite video games.

A survey conducted in the UK even found that young people are spending in excess of £270 million per year on in-app purchases and video game add-ons, a truly breathtaking figure for just one small European country. This poses the question of just how much is being spent worldwide?

That said, more often than not, those who are actually paying for loot boxes and in-game microtransactions are adults who have every right to spend their money as they fit, so who are we to decide what they should and should not purchase?

Many gamers will argue that loot boxes are not a form of gambling, but non-gamers will say otherwise. The stark reality is that those that are paying are paying to win an unspecified reward that could, in reality, be worthless to them. Whilst there are no monetary gains to be made, there are certainly similarities to gambling to be made.

Is there a future for games of chance in video games?

It’s fair to say that the addition of in-game games of chance isn’t hurting anyone. We love nothing more than taking a break from the monotony of jumping from mission to mission, burning through the game in record time. There’s nothing wrong with slowing down, taking a trip to the nearest tavern or saloon to play a game of Gwent or Texas Hold’em.

We’re even comfortable with the more brazen attempts at bringing games of chance into their franchise from publishers such as Rockstar… Even though deep down we know they have long-term ambitions to milk the player of more money. However, we do need to take a closer look at microtransactions and loot boxes.

There’s no denying it, there’s an intense spotlight being shone upon the video game industry right now as a result of loot boxes. Lawmakers around the world are coming down hard on video game developers and publishers for monetizing their games at every turn. In China, publishers are required to limit the number of loot box purchases players can make in a single day, and publishers are also forced to give the player more favorable odds when opening them.

Games of Chance - Microtransactions

In mainland Europe, Belgium has gone as far as banning microtransactions altogether, meaning that players can’t benefit from them in any way. As a result, Belgium players have been essentially priced out of certain games that rely on them to give the player a competitive edge.

Hard-hitting regulation on loot boxes and microtransactions do feel fair considering players are already spending an absurd amount of money to buy the latest titles on release day. Being asked to spend an additional sum of money after purchase feels like a slap in the face to those loyal fans who have already made a significant investment to purchase a game.

Whilst they don’t need to be outlawed completely, as they do bring an extra dimension to many titles, transparency from publishers would be more than welcome. Show us the odds, give everyone a more level playing field and that would be a fair start.

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