With the current national focus on Gambling, particularly Tom Waterhouse’s never ending interruptions to televised sporting events, we might see a return to the debates on poker machines and their ubiquity in social venues around Australia.
The big issue being investigated is targeting gambling ads to children, and a key accusation of Tom Waterhouse is that his interjections into popular sports broadcasting is glamorising gambling in the eyes of the young fans watching the sport (Peter Fitzsimmons wrote an amusing opinion piece on the issue here), however I’m personally becomming much more concerned with the growing popularity of poker machine gambling among school-aged children.
No, they’re not using fake-IDs to sneak in to pubs and clubs and waste their lunch money. Instead, they’re playing poker machine simulator games on their mobile phones.
I don’t know if this is a recent and growing trend among teenagers, or if my recent move from a school in a more affluent area to a school in a more ‘average’ Australian suburb has brought me into contact with an existing trend among the children of more working class families. Over the last 12 months, however, I’ve noticed a significant number of students using their smart phones to play poker-machine simulator games; in the playground, before and after school, and even sometimes when they try to sneak their phones out to play games during class.
The issue did receive some media attention in January this year, and here are some links to articles on the ABC, news.com.au, and The Age. All of them are dated January 13 and revolve around the announcement of Senator Nick Xenaphon that he would seek to close the loophole that allowed these apps to operate. Technically, they are not ‘gambling’ as there is no chance for players to actually win any money, despite the fact that the games happily take money in exchange for in-game currency. This article on the site of RSG Australia (RSG = Responsible Service of Gambling) which appeared on January 17 identifies poker machine apps as the highest grossing games on the smart phone and tablet platform.
My interest was particularly piqued when, shortly before the end of the last school term, one of my senior students came into the room and proudly told me that she had won over $40,000 on her pokies game. I asked her if that meant she had won any ‘real’ money, to which she laughed and said no, it was just in -game cash. I asked her if it cost her any real money, and she went suddenly silent.
After this exchange I had a look on the Google Play store and found no shortage of poker machine simulators, most of them targeting an American market and going by names of ‘Jackpot Slots’ or ‘Vegas Slots’ (‘Slot machine’ being the U.S. slang term in stead of the Aussie ‘Poker machine’ or ‘Pokies’).
Sure enough, most of them were free to install, and as soon as you open the game you’re given a huge amount of starting ‘cash’, often round a thousand dollars. But right next to your ‘cash’ counter on most games is a simple little button saying ‘buy’. Clicking this button takes you to the in-game store where you can spend real money to buy additional in-game cash.
One game I tried playing gave me a starting amount of 1,000 coins, and I made a small purchase of an additional 1,000 coins for $1.90. It took me 33 spins at a max bet of 90 coins per spin to reduce my 2000 coins down to 0.10, at which point any press of the spin button took me directly to the in-game store, prompting me to buy more coins. The whole process lasted less than 5 minutes.
When it came to purchasing coins, I had two options, provide credit card details or have it billed to my mobile account. As I am on a post-paid contract, I have no idea if you can bill such in-game purchase to pre-paid accounts, or if parents have the option of blocking in-game purchases on any phone they provide for their children. If I was a parent, I’d be finding out the answer to these questions very, very, quickly.
I also noticed a couple of other features of the game which are clearly designed to lure in players. While you could win in game cash from your spins on the virtual machine, you also had a second points track that went up seemingly based on how much you bet, with bonuses for the amount you won back. The points allowed you to ‘level up’ and with each level came bonuses like access to different types of virtual machines to play, or ‘boosters’ which provided increase chances to win for a limited number of spins.
These game-based features provide incentives that offer a sense of winning and achievement even if you don’t ‘win’ any in-game coins on the virtual poker machine. The sub-text of this set up is that ‘you’re a winner even when you’re losing’, a hideous subversion of the primary negative aspect of playing poker machines, that you lose money.
The game also featured social interaction as well. If your friends are playing the same game as you, you can trade coins, boosters, and other in game rewards. So not only are players taught that even losing is winning, but they have a virtual way to ‘borrow a fiver’ from a friend to keep playing as well as an incentive to recruit their friends into playing the same poker machine game as them.
It is the inclusion of these features that technically put these apps into the category of ‘games’ rather than ‘gambling’, and allow them to bypass Australia’s gambling restrictions and thus find their way into the hands of children who would normally be prevented from gambling.
The final thing that I noticed about the game I played, is that it requires constant network contact and each single spin of the wheels triggered a transmission ‘back to base’ meaning that the probabilities and results of each spin were not controlled by the software installed on the device, but by a central server which could be located anywhere in the world.
At one point when my network service dropped out, the wheels spun for about 15 seconds (which felt like an eternity in the fast-paced world of pokie-gaming) before a message popped up on screen telling me that the network was unavailable and that I had not been charged for that spin. Beneath the message was a helpful button allowing me to ‘spin again’.
In Australia, the law regulates the odds of winning that poker machines must offer, however such a game-based app, controlled form an international server, has no such restrictions, and players of the game may find themselves winning increasingly frequently, or, as I personally suspect, they might find their chances of winning, and winning big, increase with the amount of money they spend on in game currency.
My final point of investigation into the game was to find out who made it, and who was profiting from this dubious business endeavour. The manufacturer’s website (funzio.com) was connected to the game developers ‘Gree’ (gree.com). Gree is either a subsidiary or trading name of Hichina Zhicheng Technology Ltd (official website is http://www.wellsupplier.com) and the business is registered at 3/f, HiChina Mansion, no. 27 Gulouwai Ave, Dongcheng District, Beijin, 100120, China.
While they publish a wide range of games targeted at children, they also have a number of adult games including a Grand Theft Auto ripoff called ‘Crime City’, as well as war themed, and monster hunting themed games. Most of the games I looked at included a game mechanism that allowed you to make in-game purchases of some sort of currency or resource that assists in the playing of the game. The gambling games, however, appear to be the only ones that are entirely dependent on purchasing in game currency in order to play.
The business model is not new, and can be found employed by companies all over the world. Just cast you mind back to the Farmville craze of two years ago, or remember back in 2011 when the App ‘Tap Fish’ garnered some media attention for convincing kids to spend hundreds of dollars to resurrect dead fish in a tamagochi-style fish tank (A blog post on that issue can be found on Famingo.com).
These poker machine apps, however, are set apart from other games by the fact that eventually, a young player of such a game will be of an age where they can walk into a pub or club, and where $1.90 will not buy them 1000 coins, but rather buy them maybe 2 spins at the cost of a dollar (as no gaming machine will accept 90c!), and after however long they have spent playing their iPhone game and learning that even losers win, and that gambling is a fun social event, they will have to choose between walking away, or putting more and more of their own money into the machine to keep the wheels spinning.
While I personally put 100% of my support behind Sentaor Xenaphon’s efforts to ban, or at least regulate, the sale and operation of such apps for people under 18, I suspect that the very blurry line between games and gambling, as well as the issues of national jurisdictions for sales through international marketplaces like the App Store, will quickly become a legal quagmire through which there will be no easy regulatory route.