Are video games teaching young people how to gamble?

07 May 2019

Gambling is big business in the UK and it's not just 2 million adults who suffer from addiction: children as young as 11 have problems with gambling, and almost half a million children and young people have admitted to betting regularly, according to the Gambling Commission.

To put it into context, that’s more than those who have taken drugs, smoked or drunk alcohol. And it’s estimated that the number of young people classed as ‘problem gamblers’ has quadrupled over the last two years, to over 50,000, with a further 70,000 11- to 16-year-olds considered to be at risk of developing a problem.

Scratchcards are common place, gambling advertisements are prolific in social media and on TV;  especially around sports and football matches and across stadiums, even on players' kits.  Perhaps lesser known and understood by parents is the interweaving of social gaming and commercial gambling, and the increasing concern that the games young people are regularly playing online are encouraging unhealthy gambling habits:

  • "Loot boxes" and "mystery chests" are designed to enhance the playing experience in games like Overwatch, Call of Duty and Black Ops.  They can be opened by playing the game for a long time or paying money.

  • "Skin betting" involves gamers (via a network of unaffiliated websites that serve to create a 'virtual casino environment')  exchanging virtual goods, that they've won or bought in multi-player games, for virtual gambling chips that can be converted into cash.

In this way, millions of pounds are being gambled each year by children and young people.

The Young Gamblers Education Trust (YGAM) is a charity taking practical action to support young people and tackle the associated risks to health and wellbeing of gambling and social gaming. 

In their words:  “Statistics don’t really tell the story of the harm that could face those experiencing problems, their friends and their families. Given the vulnerability of young people and evidence that early exposure to gambling can be a predictor of future harm, this is an important – but poorly understood - public health issue. Estimates vary in relation to the societal costs of youth problem gambling but to those experiencing harm (and families, friends and other affected parties), the impact can be significant".

A bit more about skins and skin betting

  • Skins are in-game items such as weapons and accessories that change the appearance of characters in video games. They don't increase the character's abilities or impact the outcome of the game, they are purely cosmetic.

  • Skins have become currency that gamers can collect, trade, buy and sell. Market forces dictate the value of skins - from a few pence to over £20,000.

  • Players can log into their Steam accounts from third party gambling websites and access their skins.  These sites are neither regulated nor have a robust age-verification process - meaning anyone with a Steam account can gamble.
  • Battles between players in games like CS:GO and Dota 2 are streamed on YouTube or alternative streaming sites such as Twitch. Third party sites, such as Dota2wage.com, allow players to use the skins in their Steam library to bet on the outcome.

  • Players can bet with as many skins as they want: winners get back all their own skins, plus the skins that their opponent gambled, back into their Steam library.

  • Unaffiliated sites, like Skins.Cash, allow players to withdraw their credit balance and have it paid back onto their credit/debit card or via PayPal. In this way, skins have become a true virtual currency, with a cash exchange value.

  • On roulette sites, like CS:GO Bux and CS:GO Wild, players deposit their skins and these are converted into coins or jewels of different value . They’re then used just like chips at a casino to place bets on games of chance. 

  •  Whilst the issue is predominantly with young men aged between 16-25, there is now an increase in younger children from the primary sector buying virtual currency and gambling with it to gain or make a profit.

Useful resources for schools & colleges

  • YGAM run free “train the trainer” one-day workshops to support your PSHE curriculum – the first accredited, gambling-related harm training courses.  Once trained up, you also gain access to the range of accredited educational resources. Click here to find out more.
  • GamCare offer free advice and support for anyone affected by problem gambling – in addition to one to one advice over the phone or using live chat, they offer a live text chat room and an online message board which young people may find more familiar. Click here to find out more.

It is a world that people who aren't in it know little about, but gamers - including young gamers - navigate with ease.

Skin gambling: teenage Britain's secret habit, Parent Zone, June 2018

What's the deal with loot boxes?

  • As loot boxes are random, in the same way as slot machines work, gamers could spend £10 and get something they want, or spend £100 and not get what they want.

  • Players can spend a lot of money to get the item they want.

  • The UK Gambling Commission (2017) ruled that loot boxes don't qualify as gambling but warns about the increasingly blurred lines between gambling and gaming.

  • Australia, the Netherlands and Belgium have regulated loot boxes under gambling laws.

Useful tips for parents

  • Take an interest in their children's online lives - know what they are doing and playing, know where they are spending their money online.

  • Talk about the difference between gaming and gambling, educate them about the risks of gambling in an unregulated environment, especially without the knowledge of an adult.
  • Explain that loot boxes are designed to encourage excessive game play and additional spending.  Most games can still be played without using loot boxes.
  • Turn off in-app purchases on games and ensure a payment card isn't attached to their child's console.