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Second Take: Gambling in the video game industry is a recurring issue, inconsistently addressed

By Sid Francis/DailyBruin

By Martin Sevcik

April 21, 2024 10:58 a.m.

This post was updated May 7 at 8:35 p.m.

This year, the video game industry took a gamble that did not pay off.

On Feb. 20, independent developer LocalThunk released the rogue-like deck-building game Balatro to immediate commercial and critical success. But the game’s celebrated launch quickly turned to controversy when publisher Playstack revealed a confusing development. According to its March 1 statement, Balatro’s content rating had suddenly changed from 3+ to 18+ because it allegedly featured a gambling aesthetic and taught players how to gamble. The change in ratings resulted in its removal from several digital game storefronts.

Players and journalists alike questioned the ruling, principally because there is no gambling in Balatro. While the game’s visuals are inspired by poker tables and 52-card decks, the gameplay shares more in common with collectible card games like Pokémon or Yu-Gi-Oh!. Players do not win by getting lucky. Instead, they must strategically build and modify their deck to create a reliable point-scoring engine.

Perhaps most importantly, there is no way to lose real money playing Balatro. Many of its competitors in the video game industry cannot say the same. If anything, Balatro’s rejection of any gambling mechanics is out of line with modern gaming trends. Many games, including some of the most popular in the world, feature gambling mechanics that pose real risks to players’ wallets.

Consider Counter-Strike 2, the most recent edition of Valve’s prestigious first-person shooter franchise, which boasts roughly 1.5 million daily concurrent players. The game is partially popular because it is free, with players only spending money to purchase weapon skins. But Valve does not directly sell skins to players. Instead, users must purchase a key for $2.50 to unlock a crate which grants a random item after a prolonged animation visually akin to a slot machine. If a player is disappointed with the skin they receive, they can sell it to another user on a virtual marketplace. While the marketplace gives players a way to acquire skins without gambling, it also gives each item a clear resale value.

Therefore, when a player opens a crate, they could make their money back by opening a rare item worth hundreds of dollars. More likely, they could unlock an item worth roughly 20 cents, losing money in the process. These crates are not just a figurative slot machine. Players can gamble their real-world money to hopefully open a high-value item and score a payday. Despite featuring this slot machine, content ratings for Counter-Strike 2 do not mention gambling of any sort. Because the game is currently only available on Steam, a platform that Valve owns, it is unlikely to be delisted based on these mechanics.

Unfortunately, Counter-Strike’s example is not atypical. In FIFA, Genshin Impact, Apex Legends and other popular games, players can similarly spend real-world money to open loot boxes, unwrap card packs, wish for characters or engage in other random item pulls. The rewards can provide tangible gameplay benefits in some games, such as improving your character’s stats or unlocking more powerful weapons. This arguably creates greater incentives to spend money than Counter-Strike’s purely cosmetic items. Yet these games still avoid the same penalties that Balatro faced from the ratings board.

For most players, these gambling mechanics are just an exciting aside. There is inherent fun in risking some money for a possible reward, especially in the low dollar amounts many of these games require. But that does not mean they are harmless. Some players, whether they simply love the game or face a gambling addiction, have spent hundreds or thousands of dollars hunting for items in games like Genshin Impact and FIFA. This is not an oversight – this is the natural consequence of these systems and the reason government regulators in some countries have outright banned these mechanics.

The ratings board was right to worry about gambling in the video game industry. Some of the world’s most popular games feature gambling mechanics with the potential to lose real world money, and they have done tangible harm to their players. Their misdiagnosis of Balatro, while stupefying, should not be viewed solely with contempt. Ratings boards, governments and games platforms all play a role in protecting gamers from manipulative gambling mechanics in their favorite games, and efforts to regulate in-game gambling ought to be celebrated.

The ratings board got it painfully wrong with Balatro. Hopefully, it will scrutinize the real culprits next.

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Martin Sevcik
Martin Sevcik is the 2024-2025 PRIME director. He was previously the PRIME content editor and a PRIME staff writer. Sevcik is also a rising fourth-year economics and labor studies student from Carmel Valley, California.
Martin Sevcik is the 2024-2025 PRIME director. He was previously the PRIME content editor and a PRIME staff writer. Sevcik is also a rising fourth-year economics and labor studies student from Carmel Valley, California.
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