The Grey Zone, Act Two: Gambling With Trouble…

It’s been a long time since Act One, so let’s finally shift into Act Two – thanks to Valve, CS:GO, CS:GO Lotto and for the hell of it, KickStarter.


At this point it would be easy to pick the corpse of CS:Go Lotto clean.

Bigger names than me have made their feelings known and people with more time and patience than I will ever muster now have exposed, with exemplary professionalism it must be said, the goings on of two big YouTube “Stars”, now fallen from grace. Tom ‘ProSyndicate’ Cassell and Trevor ‘TmarTn’ Martin have been caught with their pants down, to turn a phrase, promoting a Counter Strike: Global Offensive lotto site allowing people to gamble their skins for “big money and prizes” which ultimately turned out to be wholly run and set up by… oh yes, the very same people making videos promoting it, showing how easy it is to make money from it. Hell of a thing that.

I think we all have the same viewpoint of this – ahem, “hive of scum and villainy”, I believe the Star Wars line goes. To call it shady would be a gross understatement. It was morally, ethically and clearly financially dubious from the outset and as is always the way of such illegal things – which lawyers with more experience than me have now said it WAS illegal – your sins shall one day find you out.

Thing is, can we blame these guys? Gambling, whether we want to admit it or not, is rife in the video game industry – we’ve simply dressed it up in different terms and in slightly nicer clothing. The industry has simply repurposed and repackaged gambling as something else.

Valve has absolutely no moral high ground on this; it’s loot boxes are gambling, without question, and I’ve always said that such things are and always will be gambling. You are paying real world money for the chance of getting something valuable – and often, it isn’t. Like Lotto Scratch Cards, the odds aren’t in the buyers favour but they are packaged as simple, easy and fun ways of winning yourself a fortune. Even though the odds of that happening are… well, pretty small, actually.

Perhaps I should address what I consider gambling.

I have one rule to identify gambling – and it’s an old, hard gambling term. That being, “The House Always Wins”. If the house – in CS:GO’s case Valve – is profiting from a game of chance, then it is gambling. It’s not limited only to that, however – I consider a lot of microtransactions to be “gambling” in a sense. The house always wins, and if you’e being offered a few throwaway counters in exchange for a small amount of real world currency, yup, I consider that gambling. The “Easy Fatalities” in Mortal Kombat X; you’re buying Poker Chips to use inside Mortal Kombat X. Only worse, because those chips are worth less than you actually paid for them and you don’t even get a chance to win anything at all. It’s a rip-off.

I also, of course, consider KickStarter to be gambling.

Shriek in horror at my analysis, but KickStarter has a bunch of third party people proposing you give them money for something that has of late I believe a one in three chance of ever happening (Okay, maybe better than that, 40% of projects get finished. It’s still pretty low odds!). And Amazon, who own KickStarter, take 5% of every successful project before anything is sent to the third parties to use for their projects. KickStarter is the house, and whether the users get what they paid for or not, Amazon is always going to win. Every single time. How is this not a form of gambling? How are people so blind to it?

The reason is simple – we’ve called them other things. CS:GO has “Loot Boxes”. Many games have “Microtransactions”. KickStarter is “Crowdfunding”. The end result is still gambling with real-world money; but they’ve been dressed up in pretty clothes and many are becoming somewhat misled as to the true intent behind it all, which is to make money. After all, in KickStarter’s case, not only does Amazon make money but because it isn’t an “investment”, successful projects that make a profit get to keep ALL of that profit. It’s deliberately set up to not be pro-consumer; heck, Amazon even likes to make it clear that they are not responsible for any project that doesn’t get completed.

The CS:GO Lotto thing has done one thing however, and it’s going to hurt the hell out of the games industry – it’s attracting the intention of governmental gambling commissions, who would like to put in place legislation to protect consumers. And that’s great for you and me, the consumer at large. But for the likes of Amazon, Valve and many other companies, this is the worst thing they could have dreamed of. They are now facing the very real prospect that after years of promoting a nicer, softer, kinder form of spending money – they’re soon likely to face considerable regulation, stringent legal requirements and ultimately end up being taxed as gambling outfits, which I believe is a much higher tax bracket than the likes of Amazon are usually accustomed to. Yes, that was a cheap shot.

Big cases of fraudulent intent and scamming like the CS:GO Lotto thing come up in corners where legislation has yet to reach, and ultimately it only serves as a means of attracting legislation towards those areas. Hence why we’re seeing more stores offer refunds on games “whatever the problem”; it’s why online stores now have no-quibble refund policies, alongside other consumer protections. The games industry has been one step ahead of legislation for many years, but the legal system is and has been catching up with them for several years now, and there’s only so long the games industry can outrun the inevitable.

None of this would be a problem if everyone was working together to make this the best bloody industry in the known universe – but where there’s money, there’s the chance some little bran-muffin will be attracted to it to line their own pockets at the expense of consumers. Sadly, that’s the nature of greed – and it’s impossible to get rid of it, so you need systems in place where greedy so-and-so’s can be punished. Unfortunately, the games industry – always strapped for cash these days – saw these people getting away with blue murder and thought, “Hell, I want a piece of that now…”

Hence why Square-Enix has its own Crowdfunding system, and why everyone is so keen on microtransactions and season passes. And don’t get me started on Star Citizen…

But from such scum and villainy comes those new legal frameworks. And I’ll say it now – the likes of Valve only have themselves to blame when the law catches up with them. Someone, somewhere, must have known the ethical and moral dubiousness of what was happening within its loot system. But they ignored it to make money. So… it’s hard to sympathise entirely. When the inevitable happens, they knew all along. And they did little, or nothing, to effectively clean up their mess. That’s why unregulated gambling is so dangerous; there’s no fallback, no support, no cut-off. Just milk someone dry. Most people know when to stop… but some don’t, and on Steam, some younger people may not realise that they are ultimately gambling with real-world money.

It’s just another example of how painfully exposed the games industry has become lately. Gambling is rife within our industry, hell, perhaps we’ve even normalised it. But it doesn’t make it right. It doesn’t make it okay.

So be careful with your money. As the ad campaigns say, “Please Gamble Responsibly”, and “When The Fun Stops, Stop”. Right now, we still operate on Caveat Emptor – Buyer Beware. Be smart and know that these are commercial enterprises.

Stay safe, and pay attention.

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