7 May, 2016
A friend of mine sent me a link to a clickbait article talking in breathless tones about how kids are gambling with game skins. To be honest, I’m a bit hesitant to even link to such a brazen bit of clickbait, but there are some interesting issues here. I’m not quite brave enough to discuss the legal ramifications here, but this did spark an interesting question: exactly how much control should a developer have over players?
Think of the children!
The article talks about how children (and maybe some adults, but nobody cares about their illegal gambling) use weapon skins from Counter Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) to place bets on third party sites on the outcome of e-sports competitions. Since these skins can be directly bought and sold via the Steam market and various third party sites, this obviously amounts to illegal gambling.
And since the unwritten assumption is that video games are for children, well, obviously Valve is some mustache-twirling villain getting kids hooked on illegal gambling.
Hyperbole aside, I think the legal issues aren’t as murky as the article wants to make them out to be. The skins have to come from somewhere, and I would assume the majority of the skins come from acquiring them actually in the game. That means the kid placing a bet using a skin with an estimated worth of $10 likely didn’t actually spend ten bucks to get the skin. They’re gambling potential earnings they could realize by selling the skin, not paying in actual money to gamble. The person who loses “thousands of dollars” gambling skins likely didn’t spend thousands of dollars, but got bunch of lucky drops they decided to gamble with. So, it’s unlikely we have kids gambling away their college funds on esports matches.
That said, could this be a serious problem? Absolutely. If the article’s accusations are true that some esports matches are fixed to profit from skin gambling, obviously there’s some profit to be made from the practice. Is this enough to make us need to stop the practice?
Why is some gambling illegal?
Allow me a small, but related, digression. Here’s a fun exercise for a game designer: consider why gambling is illegal.
There are multiple layers for this. Part of it is the psychological harm of gambling addiction. Part of it is moral reasons, gambling is associated with all sorts of vices. Of course, some of those associated vices are the crimes committed along with gambling, notably organized crime and the crimes an addict will commit to continue gambling. Some people also say that illegal gambling is transferring wealth without paying the requisite taxes, and the government can’t abide by not getting its tax revenues.
Of course, not all gambling is illegal. Many states in the U.S. have lotteries. A few locations heavily regulate but permit gambling, even as a tourist attraction. Outside the U.S., there are a variety of different legal views on gambling.
And, there’s a fine line between illegal gambling and risky investments. Theoretically buying a stock to sell later for a profit is supposed to be an investment decision made with plenty of research and understanding. But, how many people really investigate every company before they make an investment? And, sometimes the trajectory of an investment’s value seems more reliant on capricious outside events rather than measured reactions to actions taken by a company.
So, now continue with this design analysis and see how many of the negatives are likely associated with gambling of weapon skins. If there isn’t much overlap, is it worth getting upset over the activity?
Control over third parties
The article tries to lay blame squarely on Valve, wondering why a company that rakes in so much money lets this underage gambling to happen. Again, there are multiple layers here to untangle; let’s start with third party sites.
The article points out that the gambling site discussed in the article is run by a third party, not by Valve directly. However, there’s a strong implication that Valve gives implicit approval of the site because it has the Valve logo and customer service concerns are deflected to Valve. Well, anyone who knows third-party site knows that if you can offload your customer service to someone else, you do it. And, when I signed into the site via Steam the Steam page explicitly said the site is not associated with Valve.
Part of this is troubling because what Valve has done is the “right” thing for the internet: allow authentication through your Steam account and allow some behavior with your Steam account to be used outside of the Steam site. This works fine for sites like Facebook and Google, where your account can be used as a proxy for accounts on other services, and where those services could do things with your account outside of the specific sites in question. So, when some site uses that integration to provide a gambling service, how much responsibility does Valve have to make sure this access isn’t used for some nefarious purposes?
If there is truly illegal gambling going on, the third party site should likely be the target here. But, Valve being a multi-billion dollar business makes for a much more appealing target for potential lawsuits that some site that doesn’t appear to be taking a cut of the stakes gambled.
Control over individuals
So, the other layer to look at is individuals, and how much control Valve should have over individual behavior. The fundamental issue here is that the skins are able to be traded.
This isn’t the first time some popular game has been accused of letting kids gamble. Those of you with longer memories might remember when eBaying loot drops in EverQuest became a thing. There was much hand-wringing about how this was addicting little Johnny to play EQ hoping for that lucky hit of an random drop to sell online. Of course, back then we didn’t have quite the open authentication systems, so it required a bit more overhead to arrange for a sale of an EQ drop. However, the fundamental issue was that items could be traded, so they could be sold.
Randy Farmer even proposed a kid-friendly “eBay resistant” system called KidTrade. The fundamentals of the system is that you can’t directly trade most goods, and trades that are allowed are through an anonymous market of one-for-one trades. Even gifting items to friends is prohibited, you can only lend items for a fixed amount of time. Basically, by eliminating direct trade you can severely restrict selling items. (Note soulbound items also restrict out-of-game sales, and have the added benefit that you have to play the game to get most of the desirable items.)
So, even without account authentication and remote trading offers, you can still have people potentially do things like illegal gambling if trading is enabled.
So, how much control should Valve have over the behavior of a customer when it come to trading? Could they take the same route that MMOs took and write in a clause in the EULA restricting behavior? Perhaps. Should they police individual behavior and potentially ban people who engage in high-volumes of gambling? Or ban accounts of people who are making a profit off of gambling? This seems to be asking a lot for people using third-party sites.
No easy answers
Unlike the article, I am uncertain that the answer is to hand the entire issue should be handed off to Valve to police. I think the article trucks in sensationalism by trying to use the old assumption that it is primarily underage kids playing games. I’m also hesitant to advocate that a game company should police every user’s behavior because some people may be engaging in possibly illegal activity. I suspect the easier answer for Valve would be to shut down the convenience of Steam authentication and trading on third-party sites than to take the time to figure out when some kid may be gambling in a way that goes against the law. And, that would be unfortunate because that would make the internet that much less open as other companies see the same way.
What do you think? Have you gambled with skins? Do you find this problematic? Who do you think should be responsible for taking care of illegal underage gambling if it is happening?