For many of Britain’s population, their first experience of gambling commenced as a child. Whether that was through a beachside arcade, a penny-pusher, or a sneaky flutter offered by an adult on Grand National day, the British love a bet. The Gambling Commission noted that during 2015, a huge 62.2% of the population had gambled; but recently, the pastime has reared its head again with news that so-called “loot-crates” are putting more children and young people at risk than ever before with a form of gambling that often starts with the download of a free application. The Guardian termed these apps “a kind of weaponised behavioural psychology”.
The worrying thing, regardless of the terms that newspapers use to describe such activity, is that these games do not pander to hard gamblers. They are not the lurid, off-yellow of a fruit machine in a pub, or a betting terminal in a bookies that maintain identification checks: they are in our living rooms. They are aimed at children. Take a game like FIFA, a renowned football franchise with the backing, in name, of the governing body of all of world football. For the release of FIFA 12, publisher EA announced that they would be adding a feature to the title entitled Ultimate Team, a mode which has transformed the online game.
The idea, for those not necessarily au fait with gambling or football, is that players buy “packs” of these players for their online squads with in-game currency. To purchase this in-game currency, you can choose to grind through the game. Or, with a few simple transactions, you can buy this currency outright, through EA themselves or through unofficial online outlets. There is no guarantee that the players you get will be the players you want, and that is, by very definition, gambling.
The problem should be obvious; games marketed by PEGI and other standardising agencies at 3+ age recommendations should ideally not contain these features. However, the worrying thing is that no-one in the UK is really talking about it. This cultivation of gambling tendencies at such a young age, without any recognition at an official level of the practice as ‘gambling’ can only lead to more problems in the future. But the FIFA marketplace is just a drop in the ocean when considering the gambling problem that Britain faces in 2018. It is merely a symptom of the illness that is our complete inability to confront problem gambling and recognise it universally as a disorder.
I should know. When I was nineteen or so, I took up a job in a branch of a popular high-street bookmaker. I had, with the exception of a couple of sports bets that never came through, never gambled in my life. Sitting from two in the afternoon until ten in the evening, I saw very few horse or dog bets. The same three or four blokes would totter in every day, place small bets, make use of the free tea and coffee facilities and leave. It begged the question: how on earth was the high street still being taken over by bookies when racing betting was declining and online betting on the rise?
The answer came in the form of very brightly coloured machines, not that far removed from the PlayStation and Xbox consoles that children are using to purchase FIFA currency with their parent’s credit card today. Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (or FOBTs as everyone who has worked in gambling calls them) offer games that you might typically see in casinos or the pub: Blackjack, slots and poker-based games, even games that might have been digitised and taken from original, manual slot machines. Every day I would release thousands of pounds in thick £20 bundles to winners, whilst watching people pour their winnings back in simultaneously. Introduced to the UK in 2001, they are most likely the reason your twelve local high-street bookmakers are still in business.
Forget busted accumulators and horses: this is the real deal. You can bet up to £50 a spin – or more with the consent of the bookmakers – of the roulette wheel. In 2005, the Association of British Bookmakers commissioned a report which found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that there no link between machine play and problem gambling. But with the number of betting terminals approaching fifty thousand in the United Kingdom, many problem gamblers disagree. The town of Rochdale alone spent seventy-two million pounds on machine play alone in 2012. The Gambling Act of 2005 limited each bookmaker to four of these machines, but companies circumnavigate the issue by opening as many shops as possible, to startling effect.
I feel an authority to speak on the subject because I was one of them. After quitting the bookmakers, I spent a great deal of money for a student, probably over five hundred pounds, on these machines. I would often go out of my way to gamble and this led to a worsening of an already unmanageable depressive illness and nearly drove me to my death. I managed to self-exclude for the second time and have been clean of gambling since September last year; self-exclusion is a process by which you give your details to every bookmaker in your locale, on the understanding that they will not allow you to bet.
With the support of my loved ones and friends, I beat the addiction, albeit I still feel a weird twinge when walking past any high street book-maker. But not everyone has the same support network around them. As a result, if Britain as a nation is not willing to talk about this issue, then people without that network will suffer, and the problem of gambling will continue to grow as a national trait as opposed to an illness that ruins families and destroys lives. At the helm, Fixed Odds Betting Terminals, with their recognisable sound effects, flashing lights and user-friendly interfaces.
Sound effects? Flashing lights? Remind you of anything?
Of course, I speak with inherent bias. But I am convinced of the opinion that Britain has never truly confronted its gambling habit. The link between gaming and gambling has long been suspected after the inception of the Fixed Odds Betting Terminal. But with increasing amounts of gambling activities appearing in the pastimes of our children, there will no doubt be an increase in the amount of kids starting with CS:GO and ending up at the FOBT. Gambling is not something we keep in our pubs, clubs, bookmakers and casinos any more. It’s on our mobile phones, on our television, in our games consoles; and we seriously need to think about whether this pay-to-win gaming, whilst currently an annoyance, could lead to something far, far worse.