Move for the App Store relates to problem gambling concerns

Apple Blocks Access To Social Casinos Unless You’re 17

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Apple recently announced that it is applying a 17+ age restriction to all apps, including “frequent/Intense Simulated Gambling,” across all App Store markets.

Unlike its 9+ and 12+ categories, which are simply recommendations to parents, the 17+ iOS category strictly prohibits purchases or downloads by underage users.

Many non-gambling games, especially in the role-playing game (RPG) genre, include gambling minigames as part of a larger story, but these will likely be unaffected, due to the “Frequent/Intense” qualifier.

Rather, the ban seems targeted at social gambling and casino products such as Zynga Poker and High 5 Casino, and the overwhelming number of free-to-play, play-money slots apps that currently clutter the App Store.

The Apple war on gambling

This decision is the third in a series made by Apple in recent months, which could, at this point, be collectively described as a “war on gambling.” The first of these was an update to its App Store Guidelines forbidding the use of embedded HTML5 code for various real-money purposes, expressly including online gambling.

Although this made life difficult for many operators, especially sportsbooks, it wasn’t clear at the time whether this was an anti-gambling effort by Apple. Another possibility existed: By requiring real-money gambling apps to be developed natively in iOS was laying the groundwork for Apple to get in on the action, perhaps as a payment processor.

Then that theory likely went out the window. Earlier this month, Apple expressly stated that its new credit card, “Apple Card,” will not be usable as a method of payment for any form of gambling.

Apple hasn’t entirely banned gambling apps from its platform, however. Although it may yet do so, which would be a huge blow to the industry, it seems more likely that its goal is to nip any potential legal issues in the bud.

Restricting even “simulated,” i.e., play-money gambling to users 17 and older is in keeping with that, and also looks calculated to maintain a squeaky-clean, family-friendly public image.

Preteens and teens are a huge market for mobile devices, and it’s usually going to be their parents buying those devices for them. For many of these parents, Apple’s tighter controls and perception of safety could be a big selling point compared to, for instance, the more open approach taken by Google with Android devices. (Although, it is important to note that real-money gambling apps are not in the Play Store in the US.)

Social casino, easy to justify

Apple’s hardline approach is going to be a thorn in the side for both real-money gambling operators and many social game developers. Even so, it has to be said that as far as the age restriction on simulated gambling goes, they’re probably taking the right side of things.

The subject of violence in video games is one that comes up in media all the time, especially in the context of school shootings in the US, but that is probably mostly a red herring. There are conflicting studies, but the majority and the most credible of them suggest little if any causal relationship between violent themes in video games and real-life violence.

That doesn’t, however, mean that video games can’t have psychological effects, including potentially harmful ones.

It just means that those who are looking solely at violent themes in the games may be barking up the wrong tree. They should be looking at other structural aspects of the games, the habits they elicit and the communities they produce.

Manufacturing compulsion

Indeed, many major game studios solicit help from psychologists in order to study how players interact with their games and keep them coming back. Although they use relatively benign terms like “engagement” and “retention loops,” what they’re attempting to do is encourage compulsive behavior in their users, which is something developers of slot machines have been doing for decades.

This approach has become increasingly prevalent in the free-to-play era. Under the classical “game as product” model, revenues depended on the number of purchases, and playtime only mattered in that a dedicated player might, over time, convince others to buy the game as well.

With free-to-play games, revenues hinge on first converting curious users into long-term players. Then by leveraging those players’ impatience to progress through the game to convince them to make in-app purchases.

Baiting players with a free option and then converting them into paying users is, of course, standard practice in the gambling industry as well.

PokerStars, for instance, puts a lot of effort into marketing its play money dot-net site, both because it can legally be advertised in some places that the real-money dot-com site cannot.

Besides, it serves as a way for curious parties to get their feet wet “risk-free,” before being convinced to make a deposit and try their luck at the real thing. Many online casinos also offer play-money versions of their games for potential players to try before signing up.

No separating the habit from the harm in gambling

Getting underaged players hooked on play-money gambling intending to convert them into real-money players once they’re of legal age is one obvious concern, then.

But even play-money gambling apps with no associated real-money platform can be harmful, due to the compulsive behaviors they’re designed to elicit, combined with the lack of an upper boundary on in-app spending.

Not everyone is equally vulnerable to being manipulated in this way. However, those most at risk of being coerced into problematic spending on such games are likely the same as those likely to succumb to gambling addiction through other channels.

Many are also young, and stories abound of children or teens racking up thousands of dollars’ worth of in-app purchases on an unsuspecting parent’s credit card.

As annoying as Apple’s emerging stance on gambling may be to the industry, then, it’s hard to object to this particular decision. Many countries have banned candy cigarettes, though the US remains an exception, and states are split on whether dealcoholized beer can be sold to minors.

Compared to these things, simulated gambling seems like a more serious issue, because it’s harder to decouple the habit-forming aspect from the harm-causing one.

Candy cigarettes and dealcoholized beer won’t create a physical addiction to nicotine or alcohol, and it’s debatable whether they more likely trigger addictions down the line. Yet the habits formed by someone addicted to social slots are in and of themselves hard to distinguish from those addicted to the real-money equivalent.

If you hook a minor on play-money gambling, then it seems less like you’ve removed the harm from the product and more likely you’ve deferred it. There’s a lot of gray area for the courts to investigate in terms of what sorts of free-to-play game mechanics are too much like gambling.

However, when it comes to apps that are indistinguishable from real-money casinos save for the inability to cash out winnings, applying an age restriction is entirely appropriate.

- Alex is a journalist from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada. Now site runner for Online Poker Report, he has been writing about poker and the online gambling industry in various capacities since 2014.
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