Aussies set to curb casino-style games
Social media and app games may lead children to be future problem gamblers
FOR THE STRAITS TIMES IN SYDNEY
A screenshot of the website of Slotomania, a slot machine game. An expert said the bright colours and cartoonish characters make such sites look child-friendly.
-- PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: ISTOCKPHOTO
AUSTRALIA is set to crack down on a new wave of casino-style games and mobile applications, amid fears they are grooming children under 13 and creating false expectations of gambling.
A federal government review found that the games give a skewed impression to users of how easy it is to win, and could lead children to become problem gamblers in the future.
The casino-style games are the fastest-growing social media segment, with free games such as Zynga Poker, a poker simulation game, and DoubleDown Casino, which offers various casino games, now accounting for 13 per cent of all game users on Facebook.
The games use virtual money or points, and are not classified as gambling under Australian law, even though some require players to pay for their initial points.
But a study by Canadian researchers found that 39 per cent of the games provide higher- than-usual odds in favour of the player.
The exact number of children using the games is unknown.
Zynga Poker is the fourth-most popular game on Facebook - and up to 15 per cent of the social media giant's billion-plus members are under 18.
The Australian review, released last month by the Department of Communications, warned that such games can "normalise" gambling for children and "may lead them to become problem gamblers in the future".
The review cited research that has found that exposure to gambling-style games at a young age is a "predictor" for future problem gambling behaviour.
"A further issue associated with many gambling simulations is how the odds are often geared to benefit the player, which may provide a false impression of the ease of winning," it said.
The games have been described as a "disgrace" by experts, who say they are easily accessible and habituate young people to electronic gaming.
An Australian gambling researcher, Dr Sally Gainsbury from Southern Cross University, said the games appear "child-friendly" and often feature bright colours and cartoonish characters.
"A lot of these games use Facebook and social media apps, and feature cartoonish characters and look like they are child-friendly," she told The Straits Times.
"Children can view them as games and not as a risk. Kids may think they are winning lots of free credit and this can eventually lead them to start gambling."
Another researcher, Monash University's Dr Charles Livingstone, said: "These games are a disgrace. They're identical to poker machines and they are easily accessible by young people - habituating them to electronic gambling, particularly poker machines."
The gambling games have become increasingly profitable, with users showing an increasing willingness to pay for virtual credit.
Australians spend about A$59.8 million (S$77.3 million) a year on social media simulated gambling apps.
The government's review said global gambling companies have been buying free and virtual games with an apparent aim of expanding into social media.
The review noted the purchase of DoubleDown Casino by online gambling company International Game Technology and the purchase of Playtika, creator of the slot machine game Slotomania, by Caesars Entertainment, the global gaming giant.
In addition, Zynga announced last week that it will make its first foray into actual gambling with the release of several poker-style and casino games that will be available online, on mobile phones and Facebook.
The games will first be available in Britain, but will then expand across Europe, though it will not be released in countries that ban real-money online gaming such as Australia and the United States.
The review urged social media sites and game developers to "closely monitor" gambling-style games to ensure that they are not inappropriately targeting youngsters or misleading children about the prospects for success on real gambling services.
The review flagged an outright ban on the games, but noted this may be difficult to achieve because it could also lead to bans on non-gambling apps. In addition, the review noted, the global nature of the apps and their developers would make any such law difficult to enforce.
Australian Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has asked game providers and social media to outline steps to prevent risks to children. He said he will consult state governments before taking further steps.
Dr Gainsbury said the authorities should restrict use of the games to people aged 18 and over. Providers and sites that carry the games should be forced to ensure there are no Web links or pop-ups advertising real-money gambling sites, she said.
"Since these are supposed to be gambling-type games, they should have an age restriction to 18-plus," she said.
World, The Straits Times, Monday, April 9 2013, Pg A9