Video games are a gateway drug to gambling | Information Age

Phone screen with gambling imagery

Teenage gamers progress to adult gamblers. Photo: Shutterstock

The ready accessibility of online gambling across time zones means Australians can “always find something to gamble on,” an expert has warned as a new survey finds advertising, video game gambling, and gaming livestreams are training youths to gamble from an early age.

With video games now an “inherently social activity” and gamers interacting with friends on social media while they play, ANU associate professor Aino Suomi said the study – which surveyed 38 ACT residents, aged 18 to 25, about their online gambling habits – found that most had started interacting with gambling features like skins or loot boxes in their teenage years.

Although “most young people find the gambling features annoying,” Suomi said, “many games won’t let player progress without engaging with these randomised features that essentially behave like pokie machines and require real currency.”

Young players had proven adept at using the credit cards of parents or carers to buy in-game credits, skins or other add-ons as they play and pay their way – alone or with online friends – through games with loot boxes including Apex Legends, Counterstrike, DOTA 2, Elder Scrolls Online, Rainbow Six Siege, and even the FIFA 23/24 soccer game.

In-game ‘skins’ – cosmetic add-ons whose constrained supply often drives their prices into four figures – are often bought and sold by players for virtual currency, but many have become catalysts for online gambling through exchanges that let them be bet on the outcome of esports matches.

Last year, an analysis of the prevalence of skins, loot boxes, and other gambling-like features found they are built into nearly 70 per cent of the games on the Apple and Google app stores.

While gambling behaviours often started during video gaming – including while watching professional gamers gambling during livestreams and esports competitions – it was the normalisation of gambling through peer pressure, easy access to mobile gambling, highly effective online advertising, and even in-school mobile gambling that hooked Australian youths on gambling.

Once normalised, such activities were proving to be a gateway to online gambling as adults – with sports betting on the likes of NRL and AFL matches, horse races, and English Premier League soccer providing myriad options for social gamblers to take a flutter.

“Similar to video games, sports betting is seen as a social activity you might engage in during a night out with mates,” Suomi said.

“Those experiencing more harm from gambling reported always being able to find something to gamble on.”

Pervasive gambling advertising hasn’t helped, with ongoing calls to ban online gambling ads with which, reports have found, Australian teens have been ‘inundated’ on the likes of YouTube.

An ACMA report last year found gambling advertisers spent over $238 million to push over a million TV, online, and radio gambling ads during the 12 months to April 2023.

A tough nut to crack

Reining in gambling in the world’s largest per-capita gambling market remains challenging, with a recent University of Melbourne study finding many offshore gambling operators flouting Australian laws, advertising gambling sites to young people on social media even as the government moved to introduce reforms including a ban on the use of credit cards for gambling; restrictions on the use of payday lending for gambling; faster identity and age verification; the option of preset gambling limits; and more.

A Parliamentary Committee last year recommended that online gambling advertising be banned and the industry managed through a ‘public health lens’.

However, even as those measures target gambling in those over 18, clamping down on video game gambling has proven to be a tougher nut to crack – with loot boxes, skins, and other features involving real money exempt from real-world gambling regulations.

A decision to update video game classifications, so that games with loot boxes will be rated R18+, was pushed through late last year but will do little until the new regulations come into effect in late September.


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