Fear that gaming apps will groom young gamblers
Illustration: Matt Golding.
A VIRTUAL poker-machine game that children and teenagers can easily access was the highest-grossing phone and tablet app in Australia, prompting outrage from gambling critics and the established pokies industry.
The continued growth of virtual gambling apps has also moved Senator Nick Xenophon to push for laws re-classifying the games as gambling when Federal Parliament resumes.
Slotomania, owned and operated by Playtika, a subsidiary of casino company Caesars Entertainment Corporation, was 2012's highest-grossing app at the iTunes store in Australia. Two other ''slots'' games were also in the top 20.
The free game, which is also available on Facebook, simulates pokies, but when all credits have been used players must either wait a length of time or buy more credits - with real money - to continue to play.
However, credits and winnings cannot be converted to real money, something the game's terms and conditions state clearly.
Under interactive gaming laws since 2001 - a review last year is still being considered by the Commonwealth - the game is not viewed as gambling because people cannot win money.
There have been several public and private complaints about gambling-style games over the past two years, and the government says such games are being considered as part of the interactive gambling review.
Playtika's terms say the game is intended for people who are aged over 21, but if players are between 13 and 18 they should get parental consent before playing.
Experts as well as gambling critics, including Senator Xenophon, World Vision chief Tim Costello and the Greens' Richard Di Natale, are worried the apps put young people at future risk by normalising gambling.
Senator Xenophon is so frustrated by the lack of action to close what he says is a loophole that he will move a private member's bill to have the games reclassified when Parliament resumes.
''The government has sat on its hands on this, when it was warned over a year ago,'' Senator Xenophon said. ''It is laughable to say it's not gambling because you can't take your winnings out, even though you can lose buckets of money.''
Monash University public health expert Charles Livingstone says early exposure to gambling is an important risk factor for the development of gambling problems, with young men at particular risk.
''The possibility that young people can gain access to parental or other credit cards or payment systems extends the risk of harm significantly,'' Dr Livingstone said.
He said he had no doubt Slotomania and similar games were about making money by encouraging a level of dependence on a gambling product.
A recent Wall Street Journal article quoted an official from DoubleDown casino, another virtual gambling site available on Facebook, as saying: ''The thinking is that social gaming is a mechanism to build a large gambling-oriented audience now, so when elements of online gambling start to be legalised in the US we will have a big audience online.''
Dr Livingstone said the fact credits could be bought once stock had been used was very similar to how pokie addicts played machines.
''Winning credits on pokies is a means to the end of acquiring more time on the game. 'Winning' is the way the user extends their time on the machine, not the actual object of the activity,'' he said.
It is not the first time that concern over virtual gambling apps has been raised, but anger is building over the lack of action to address access to the games.
Clubs Australia, which represents thousands of pokies venues, has been critical of the apps and has repeatedly called on the government to intervene. Josh Landis, Clubs Australia executive manager of policy and government, said online gambling lacked safeguards available in a club.
''All a 15-year-old has to do is click a button and they can gamble on the internet, on Facebook or even on their mobile phone,'' he said.
Acting Communications Minister Kim Carr said the treatment of gambling-style games had been considered as part of the review.
The draft report called on content providers and designers to monitor the impact of their user policies to ensure it aligned ''with Australian laws and community expectations'' and to not inappropriately target younger children.
Playtika was contacted for comment.