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A screenshot from Counter Strike: Global Offensive. The Conversation

Games and gambling: Xenophon’s ill-judged counter strike

The wellbeing of children – especially when at risk – is frequently the focus of media reporting. Often these news stories bring our much-needed attention to situations of violence and maltreatment, such as Four Corners’ recent report on the shameful abuse of children in Northern Territory detention centres.

But there is another story about at-risk children and teenagers in the news, one that is marked by misinformed views and less questioning journalism. Independent Senator Nick Xenophon – who usually takes robust stances on climate change and cultural diversity – has recently called for the introduction of legislation that will define certain transactions in video games as gambling.

He plans to introduce a bill to Parliament that could stipulate a minimum age for playing first-person shooter games which include payment for mystery items. This is a feature of games such as Counter Strike: Global Offensive, Overwatch and indeed many mobile games that get revenue through micro-transactions.

(The popular mobile game Angry Birds 2, for example, “sells” a treasure chest containing in-game resources of unknown value for 80 gems, which can be purchased with real money. Even Pokémon Go sells items of indeterminate value, such as incense, in its in-game shop.)

Nick Xenophon. Dan Peled/AAP

News reports have inevitably represented the issue according to the same “media effects” model Xenophon has adopted. That is, first-person shooters “groom kids for gambling” and video games expose unsuspecting children and young people to danger and risk.

It is the kind of half-story often told, one that reflects our tendency as a society to reductively demonise every new medium, to blame them for our problems, and turn them into scapegoats for our bad habits and antisocial behaviour.

For instance, book-reading was once considered a lazy, indulgent or reclusive activity, TV gave our children “square eyes” and being online all the time prevented young people from learning how to behave appropriately in face-to-face contexts. Oh, and video games turn high school kids into mass murderers (think Columbine or Sandy Hook), or at the very least make our children obese, more aggressive and lacking in empathy. They also have been said to cause learning difficulties, behavioural problems and now, according to Xenophon, early-onset gambling addiction.

A problematic model

Yet this cause-and-effect model of media influence is deeply problematic. Firstly, our media practices are always historical, cultural, personal and contextual. No one aspect can be isolated and seen as representative of those practices, as this always obfuscates the actual effects, which are complex and shifting, good and bad in varying degrees.

Xenophon told Fairfax Media that these “insidious” games played by hundreds of thousands of Australian teenagers “purport to be one thing” but are “morphing into full-on gambling and that itself is incredibly misleading and deceptive”.

In classifying video games as “gambling”, Xenophon focuses on a recent controversy involving Counter Strike: Global Offensive. “Unopened” items (packages of content that may contain things such as customised “skins” to decorate your gun) were being “gambled” on through third party groups, in violation of the games’ terms and conditions.

Valve, the owner and publisher of this game, has since issued 23 cease and desist letters to gambling sites using Steam accounts (Steam is Valve’s digital distribution platform), stating they are in violation of the subscriber agreement.

A screenshot from Overwatch. Blizzard press centre

Gambling’s manifestation within some areas of video games is a reflection of general societal problems. According to The Guardian, the gaming research firm Eilers & Krejcik Gaming estimated in June that skin gambling had an annual turnover of A$9.7 billion. It also forecast that the market would continue to grow steadily.

But while games and gambling sometimes do converge, they more often diverge. They are different practices. Many gamers don’t gamble, just as many gamblers don’t play video games.

According to Steam, there are currently over 800,000 daily players of DotA worldwide, and over 500,000 Counter Strike: Global Offensive players. But how many of these gamers have a gambling problem, or are likely to develop one? The Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation conducted research into the link between gambling and video gaming, concluding that:

the link between video gaming and gambling may not be strong. Frequency of video game play was not related to gambling behaviours in this study. In fact, gambling appeared less popular among this population than in the general community.

And crucially, while games such as DotA 2 or Counter Strike: Global Offensive do offer in-game purchases of indeterminate value, they are not a necessary or even important part of the game.

Screenshot from Counter Strike.

Nor do they generally function as gambling in terms of pay-off. Players purchase items from a virtual marketplace, akin to an in-game eBay or iTunes store. But the items alter only cosmetic attributes such as colour, giving the player no tactical advantage. For many of these games that fall under Xenophon’s definition of gambling, these chance-based purchases are an optional adjunct, not the main focus of game play.

From the perspective of many gamers, Xenophon clearly hasn’t played these games. He misrepresents and oversimplifies the actual practice of in-game purchasing. Playing Counter Strike: Global Offensive isn’t gambling; the “gambling” aspect is tangential to the game.

Culturally significant

As sociologist and author of The Future of Childhood Alan Prout has written, the idea that children are innocent, ignorant and in need of protection and restriction became popularised at the end of the 19th century. Yet researchers of children and media today acknowledge the way young people are active agents and consumers of media – including games – and co-creators within the participatory media environment.

While in-game micro-transactions and pseudo-gambling activities may be part of online shooters such as Counter Strike, popular multiplayer games also provide deeply engaging and empowering spaces for young people, involving the acquisition of necessary skills and new media literacies, and an attendant sense of self-efficacy.

They are also a means of connecting meaningfully and playfully with other gamers and game communities.

Gamers playing in 2014. artubr/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Game scholars such as Miguel Sicart have noted that contemporary media culture is characterised as both creatively playful and increasingly gamified. From coffee redemption cards at your local café and Fitbits quantifying your physical fitness, to the rise of augmented reality games like Pokémon Go, the playful is imbricated with the everyday in new ways.

In our three-year research project looking at mobile games and digital play in Australian households, we have found that games of all kinds bring families together – recalibrating the old adage a “family that plays together, stays together”. In many cases, digital and online games are used as another vehicle for developing intimacy and “being with others” at home and away.

In contemporary life, digital games have become a dominant medium. They earn more revenue than the film and television industries combined. Like all media forms, our use of them is complicated and entangled.

Mobile games are embedded in the minutiae of our everyday lives, online multiplayer games are important social and communicative spaces, and we accrue points and awards in many settings as motivation for daily routines.

As a society, we need to comprehend this complexity, not be subject to more over-simplification and fearmongering via an outdated model of media effects. Let’s focus on understanding play as an important part of contemporary culture rather than conflating it with social problems. In other words, play on…

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