At a glance, there’s one very blatant difference between social gaming and real money gambling on the internet. One is free, and one costs money to play. But according to Dr. Mark Griffiths, a Professor of Gambling Studies with the International Gaming Research Institute at Nottingham University, the line between the two is very thin indeed.
As most computer (and especially mobile device) user will tell you, social games are just a fun way to pass the time. There’s no need to spend money to play, although it is an option, and some social gaming apps, like Facebook’s immensely popular Farmville and Candy Crush Saga, can become downright addictive – much like real money gambling.
But what’s the harm? Social gaming is free, right? Not exactly. Yes, there’s a base game that can be enjoyed for free, but 99.9% of all “free” social gaming apps come with the “option to purchase” additional items and features.
Social games are generally linked to social networking sites, like Facebook, and when we run out of lives on Farm Heroes Saga, or need a few extra resources in Clash of Clans, we have two options. We can beseech our Facebook friends to provide them (and believe me, your friends are getting bloody annoyed!), or dish out a little cash to buy them instantly.
It may not be gambling, per say, since there’s no hope of financial remuneration for playing the game, but from a psychological standpoint, it’s not much different than real money gambling. Very few people who play the pokies, online or in person, do so as a way to make money. It is a form of entertainment, just like going to see a film or having a few drinks with friends at the local pub. And guess what? That costs money, too.
Dr. Griffiths conducted research throughout the 1980’s, publishing a study in 1991 in which he compared video games to real money gambling. You can imagine just how many eyebrows were raised in his direction. The internet was just emerging, dial-up speeds were painfully slow and things like social gaming and online gambling weren’t even born yet.
In a recent interview, the Professor explained, “What I was trying to argue was that there was very little difference between the behaviour and the psychology of people playing video games and those playing slot machines.”
He said that the only notable difference between the two was that, “slot machine people were playing for money and video games players were playing for points. In effect, slot machine gamblers were using money as a way of ‘keeping score’, even though the games involved money.”
While studying real money gambling enthusiasts some 30 years ago, Dr. Griffiths found that, “Every hardcore fruit machine player…was saying, ‘we know that we’re going to lose every penny in the long run, what we’re trying to do is maximise play on this machine.”
Isn’t that, in essence, what social gamers are doing? When a player loads Candy Crush Soda Saga, their goal is to beat each level and progress as far as possible, while playing the game as long as possible. If the player runs out of lives, they can simply buy more. If they can’t beat a level naturally, they can buy special items to help them beat the level.
Doing so enables them to fulfill that underlying need to keep playing and progressing through the game, and as they do, all of their social networking friends will see accolades posted on the player’s behalf, congratulating their efforts.
Social Gaming > Social Gambling > Real Money Gambling
The fear is that, especially for today’s young and impressionable minds, social gaming can quickly become social gambling, then progress to real money gambling. Call it a gateway drug, if you will.
Take, for example, Slotomania – yet another very popular ‘free-to-play’ Facebook app. You get all the pleasure of playing online pokies, without the need to spend real money. But what many don’t realize is that the developers of these types of games are the same ones creating real money pokies for internet casinos, and they have total control over how often the player wins.
If you’re playing Slotomania, you’re probably going to experience some big wins, and they aren’t few and far between either. Most players who spend any extensive amount of time in the game will finish with more virtual coins than they started. That’s obviously not the case with real money gambling, or casinos would be out of business.
The software is based on a computer program, and like any computer program, the features can be tweaked. To keep social gaming pokies fun, the virtual payout percentage is increased, and those who don’t understand that could easily think to themselves; ‘I’m really lucky today, I should go play the pokies for real money!’
Dr. Griffiths said that, in all his research, he has not yet seen a distinct connection with social gaming enthusiasts turning to real money gambling. But as online gambling becomes more accepted, and younger gamers come of age, he expects the line to become more blurred.