Grand Theft Auto 5 is a video game by developer Rockstar Games. It is also the most financially successful entertainment product of all time, generating over 6 billion dollars in revenue worldwide since it launched in 2013. That's more than any Hollywood movie or any of The Beatles' albums.
The game’s online mode (GTA Online) is a big source of revenue for publisher, 2K Entertainment. Now, due to a newly added digital casino there’s even more money to be made, without the official gambling regulation of online casino sites.
GTA Online has its own economy, meaning players can use a virtual currency to buy cars, outfits and houses. You can earn this currency by just playing the game, but of course, players are also encouraged to buy this virtual currency in larger lump sums by spending real money on ‘Shark Cards’.
In August 2019, GTA online’s ‘Diamond Casino & Resort’ update added a glamorous in-game casino where players can use their virtual currency to bet on a variety of casino games including slots, blackjack and roulette.
Just like a real casino you can gamble, walk between tables, check out different slot machines and chat with your friends and strangers via voice chat. GTA Online’s casino is the closest thing to a real casino experience online, the only difference is there’s no real money to be won.
Rockstar hasn't tried to sugar coat or gamify their gambling experience, it's literally a virtual casino filled with casino games. Frustratingly, this realistic gambling experience (that can cost real money to play) is not considered gambling by the UK Gambling Commission.
According to them, gambling activities in video games like Loot Boxes are not gambling, as there is no way to cash out your winnings or turn any digital prizes into real cash. However, it didn't take much Googling to find sites that let you sell GTA money for real cash.
It’s quite shocking that something describing itself as a casino that accepts real money to be gambled cannot be considered gambling, despite some obvious loopholes in the system. If Rockstar were regulated as a gambling company, they would run the most popular digital casino in the world. With the casino update, GTA Online saw it's highest number of players since the game launched in 2014, at which time 33 million people were playing.
Even worse, because there are no official age or identity verification checks (like with online bingo sites), there are potentially millions of players under the age of 18 that have access to the casino. The game has an age rating of 18, however once the game has been purchased from a shop there are no more age verification barriers preventing access.
These vulnerable or underage players could potentially develop a gambling habit or suffer from gambling related harms, like spending too much money or wasting too much time chasing big wins, with no regulations in place to protect them. A recent Gambling Commission report suggests that 44% of children exposed to gambling in video games have spent money to take part.
The lack of regulation also means that problem gamblers that have self-excluded or signed up to GamStop have a completely new avenue to get their fix. The Gambling Commission is essentially covering its own eyes and allowing these people already suffering from gambling addiction to feed their problems elsewhere.
This is by no means the first video game to feature a casino. In fact, games aimed primarily at children like Pokemon, Ni no Kuni and even Super Mario Bros. have simulations of slots and card games. The difference between these games and GTA's casino is that you can not put real money into these games to play, reducing the potential for harm.
It can be argued that there is less value in a big win in a game like Pokemon where money is easy to come by and there's nothing to spend it on, compared to GTA where the game's ever changing economy and increasingly expensive digital items means that the in-game currency has more perceived worth.
Since the digital casino opened its doors, GTA Online has seen a 23% increase in player spending, reaching a record high in the game's 6 year history. Whilst it may not be possible to withdraw winnings as real money, it’s not stopping people from dumping money into this game to play the exact same games and feel the same rush as they do in a real, regulated casino.
In my opinion, turning a blind eye to this huge spending in one of the most popular video games ever made is an irresponsible move by the Gambling Commission.