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ISGA’s first report fails to address gambling question

29th May 2014 10:00 am GMT
The International Social Games Association has released its first report into the state of the free-to-play sector, but its findings have failed to properly address concerns that social casino play may lead to real-money gambling. The bookmaking industry has suffered a series of setbacks recently because of the way it has tackled public and media concern about fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) and the prevalence of high-street bookmakers in the UK, so the decision to establish an industry association and lobbying voice for the social games sector was a wise move. A number of tabloid newspapers have already raised concerns about the possibility that free-to-play casino games could lead to gambling addiction among users. While this can be dismissed out of hand as media scaremongering, the industry appeared to be moving quickly to address the issue before it really became an issue. But after more than a year’s work, the first piece of research published by the International Social Games Association (ISGA) has not effectively addressed these concerns. For those who scan the executive summary the report offers up an easy, snappy conclusion: There is no link between social casino play and problem gambling behaviour. But on closer inspection it is hard to justify this statement based on the evidence contained in the report – no matter what personal opinion you hold on the links between free-to-play and real-money gambling. It focuses on certain aspects of social casino games in an attempt to differentiate them from real-money casino games. The report states that micro-transactions in social games were similar in expenditure to renting a film or downloading media from an app store, but not like gambling. “[Players] typically do not sit in front of their screens and repeatedly download micro-transactions,” it explained. “Rather, these consumers are more likely to download and then play with the game attribute they have downloaded for a period of time, possibly until they need a further challenge or something happens in the game in which they need more lives […]” But it should be noted that while players will not repeatedly buy credits, those who do spend money will do so in a way similar to real-money players. They deposit a certain amount, play through it, then deposit more if they choose to do so. So the explanation offered by the report does not seem to differ in any way from real-money habits.The report further distinguishes gambling and social casino games by explaining that win rates on free-to-play games are not in-line with real-money casino games to ensure that players receive the most enjoyable experience by hitting more wins. It noted that an earlier report had stated that this could “build self-confidence and potentially increase one’s perceived illusion of control in predicting gambling outcomes, thus motivating participation in gambling.” Yet it states that “it is very difficult to comprehend what seem to be a theoretical suggestions [social game] play can somehow cause disordered consumption in the very established gambling product category.” It essentially argues that the two formats fall into completely different categories of activity and are therefore incomparable. It later cites another study which states that “[we] know almost nothing about the psychosocial impact of gambling via social networking sites”, in order to dismiss the link between social play and problem gambling. But this hardly addresses the issue or justifies denying any link between social casino and gambling games. It simply reinforces the fact that more research needs to be done – the sort of research that this report was expected to contain. Instead it reports a finding from a 2005 study that says a number of iGaming sites’ demo products offer misleading odds, or odds different to real-money online gaming, to convince players to access the real-money games. It adds that there was no such mention of misleading odds in social games in the same study. That study was published in 2005. Today’s online gambling market is substantially different from then and social games were a totally different proposition in 2005. The first genuinely successful Facebook casino game, Zynga Poker, didn’t even emerge until 2007. There are more confused findings in the report, such as the suggestion that a decline in problem gambling in Australia is somehow linked to the rise of social games. Online casino gambling in Australia is illegal. In fact, certain Australian states are even trying to launch a crackdown on social casino games, describing them as being as dangerous as their real-money counterparts. “It is our view any claim there is theoretical or empirical links between [social game] play and commercial gambling amongst adolescents has not been sustained in research published to date,” the report states. “Even if it is (wildly) speculated there ‘may’ be some association between [social game] play and commercial gambling, the extant research is incapable of assessing any direction or determining whether [social game] play led to commercial gambling consumption, or the other way around.” Surely this is the question that the research should be addressing. Ultimately the report is disappointing in that rather than strike a pre-emptive blow in favour of the social gaming sector, it appears designed to reach the conclusion that no problem exists. The ISGA membership reads like a who’s who of the industry's most successful operators, and of course the report sought to be independent, but why were the likes of Zynga, Playtika and DoubleDown not more involved in this research, at least in terms of surveying their players? The survey conducted as part of the research was among a sample of 1,000 respondents, overwhelmingly based in countries where online casino gambling is illegal. Why not survey some of the association members' 300+ million users? The ISGA is undoubtedly a necessary body, both well-represented and led by an impressive chief executive in the form of former Facebook and Google executive Luc Delany. But it has missed an opportunity here to effectively address and counter public concern by refusing to admit the slightest possibility that frequent wins on social games may, even in the rarest instances, encourage a player to replicate his or her luck on a real-money game.
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