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Hard game criticism

Gaming has largely ignored casino table games, slot machines, lotteries, sports betting, and other types of gambling that also go by the name ‘gaming’. In part, this was because videogames were considered children’s toys, while gambling was adult fare, and highly regulated. But more so, the two sorts of gaming just didn’t seem to have much in common. Sure, some videogames, board games and roleplaying games use principles of chance common to gambling dice and the like but that hardly makes them gambling.

But two moments in the history of games offer exceptions when gaming and gambling met at the same table. The first was the video arcade, which resembled the sticky, dark environment of the casino. Lights and sounds lured players to these video machines, into which they dropped coins for small doses of entertainment. Arcades looked and felt like casinos, and they drew concern and reproach for breeding general dereliction.


But those reactions were grounded in fear more than in truth. Harder to deny were the similarities between some slot-machine design techniques and those of coin-op arcade games. Both adopt a type of operant conditioning that psychologists call partial reinforcement, providing rewards for desired actions. In a partial reinforcement schedule, a behaviour gets reinforced only part of the time. The appeal of slot machines comes partly from continuing to drop coins into the machine in the hopes of getting a positive outcome. Coin-op arcade games aren’t quite the same as slot machines, because the player is in control of the outcome. But thanks to the apparent randomness of enemy behaviour or the foibles of dexterity, coin-op games can feel random, especially to novices. The coin-op action accentuates the effect.

The second encounter between gambling and gaming comes in the 1990s, with the invention and rapid popularity of collectible card games (CCGs) such as Pokémon and Magic: The Gathering. Though games of skill when played, the method of acquiring them blind purchases of sealed packs of cards looked like gambling to some.

In fact, US attorneys even mounted a class-action lawsuit against Nintendo over Pokémon, and Wizards Of The Coast over Magic, accusing them of running illegal gambling enterprises. Proving such a claim would require demonstrating the games had the properties of gambling: prizes, payments, and chance. The suit went nowhere.

Today, gaming and gambling have become bedfellows again. In Japan, the kompu or ‘complete’ gacha rose to prominence, derived from coin-operated ‘gachapon’ vending machines. A player pays for a random chance to acquire a virtual item. In kompu gachas, a series of such items must be collected to unlock a larger prize. The Japanese government threatened crackdowns on kompu gacha, and major game operators voluntarily withdrew the design in 2012.

But versions of the random lottery spin remain popular, from Puzzle & Dragons to Bejeweled Blitz . Even highly praised indie titles make use of the technique. Late-2014 mobile hit Crossy Road , a Frogger -inspired endless runner, uses a stylised gachapon to dole out new mascots. Free spins can be earned by collecting coins in the game or watching ads, but the machine might deliver a mascot the player already has.

The free-to-play economy is responsible for reconnecting videogames to gambling. Commerce is used as a way to avoid the uncomfortable experience of undergoing   partial reinforcement. Frustrated with the Crossy Road  lottery machine? No problem, just buy the mascot you desire via IAP.

The critics of the ’80s and ’90s worried that games were too much like gambling, and that young people would be corrupted. But perhaps a slot machine in every game enacts an uglier tragedy: that such techniques trivialise gambling, rather than encouraging it. To deliberately play with fate has been a part of human culture for millennia. Even if they don’t qualify as gambling, something about CCGs and gachas sure feels like it, but in a diluted form. At least casinos and lotteries can result in payouts! Pokémon cards and  Crossy Road  mascots are only useful within a self-contained universe. Gambling forces its players to put money on the line and to feel the terror of risk, the pleasure of beating out lady luck, and the guilt of her inevitable victory. It would be a shame to replace that tradition with a silly plaything you’ll forget about next month anyway.

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