Free-to-play social online games that simulate gambling are a hugely popular, and profitable, new phenomenon, but concerns have been raised about how innocent these games really are. Our recently published study found that for some vulnerable gamblers, social casino games can trigger a desire to gamble for real money, while for others the games can act as a useful distraction.
Social casino games are games that look, sound and play like gambling games, but they do not pay out real money and encourage players to connect with their online networks via social media. Worldwide, 173 million people were estimated monthly to play these games in 2012, and the number is growing at 24% per year.
The convergence of social media, gaming and gambling is very new and we do not understand what impact this is having on people and their health, as well as their wallets. Not only are people lying in bed at night playing imaginary slot machines, a fair few of them are paying for more “coins” to play. Social casino games are among the most profitable social games genre and are expected to generate US$4.4 billion by 2015.
Our research shows that there is some overlap between social casino gamers and gamblers. We found that approximately 13% of gamblers also played social casino games. These gamblers were more likely to be younger and gamble online, and were also more likely to have gambling problems.
Technology and industry are far outpacing regulators and these games have left policymakers worldwide scratching their heads. Anti-gambling Australian senator Nick Xenophon has tried several times to ban social casino games. In its 2012 review of the Interactive Gambling Act, the Department of Communications recognised that the games were of concern, but recommended that their impact be “closely monitored”.
For our study, ten social casino game players, six of whom are male, were recruited for in-depth interviews. Eight also used land-based gambling and four gambled online.
Increasing problems for some players
Only one participant, a problem gambler, was explicit that her experience with social casino games had led her to gambling. She described how ongoing engagement with the games led her to seek out real gambling opportunities:
… and then I just decided well if I’m gonna do that … I might as well just play online slots with the real money.
Other participants who were already experiencing gambling problems reported that the social casino games and online ads were a constant reminder of gambling. Participants reported being flooded with “relentless” ads and messages every time they used Facebook. Several participants discussed being offered free credits to start and that the offers of more credits were incessant.
These constant cues can trigger gambling and make it difficult for people trying to cut back to control their gambling urges.
Social and low-risk, and good ‘practice’
The online ads and social messages do appear to be working. Participants reported that they were most likely to start playing social casino games in response to invitations from their friends and family via social media.
These social connections were important in motivating players, which is similar to a social motivation often cited by gamblers to start gambling. Many internet gamblers report first becoming aware of this activity through word-of-mouth or friend’s recommendations.
For some participants, the social casino games were a way to enjoy gambling without having to stake any money and were a low-risk activity. Some reported using the games to learn about gambling as a “training ground” before transitioning to gambling.
At least one participant was aware that the odds on the social casino games were not representative of actual gambling. This is important, because gambling with over-inflated payout rates can increase confidence and lead to greater betting in subsequent gambling sessions.
A role in harm minimisation
Positively, some participants reported that they played the games in an attempt to:
… control my urge to gamble real money.
Several participants reported playing the games as a substitute for gambling, either when they were short of funds, or to cut down their gambling. Another explained that:
It’s good for me to go on there and just lose everything … It reminds me that I don’t do any good when I go and play pokies myself.
Can you help?
Although these findings provide important evidence to inform debates, the results are based on a small, non-representative sample. Greater investigation is required.
A larger study is underway, including an online survey that can be completed by all Australians who use social media. The survey aims to understand how social media, social casino games and gambling intersect.