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Nov 15, 2012

Gambling on a game: FIFA 13 and Virgin Gaming

Gambling and videogames should be a hot topic in Australia. So why is no-one concerned that EA's FIFA 13 works with Virgin Gaming to allow players to bet on matches?

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Every so often an advert pops up in the upper left corner of FIFA 13.

“Win money playing in the EA Sports Arena Online Game Mode,” it reads.

The EA Sports Arena is a few menus deep within FIFA 13, but it’s visible enough. Through it, players can connect with a service called Virgin Gaming, which is aligned with Richard Branson’s Virgin mega-brand. Virgin Gaming enables you to bet real money on multiplayer games of FIFA 13, Madden 13 and a number of others. Thus, it allows you to win real money. It also allows you to lose real money.

Virgin Gaming is a service that exists within a strange middle ground of gambling and classification regulation in Australia. Few can or will take responsibility for how it interfaces with games like FIFA 13.

EA Sports argues that such gambling is purely a third party service. The Classification Board has concluded, after being approached by Crikey, that it has “a very mild viewing impact and can be accommodated within the G (General) classification.” Further, videogames are themselves outside the boundaries of federal gambling law, and thus Virgin Gaming does not fall within the jurisdiction of a regulatory body like ACMA.

And so, every so often, an advert pops up in FIFA 13 that calls on players to gamble. And gambling is what players all over the world have been doing.

*

“This is the most tense I’ve felt playing this game in five years.”

Jeremy is a dedicated FIFA player (he is also my girlfriend’s brother, and we are good friends). I first heard about Virgin Gaming at lunch with him a few weeks ago, where he mentioned a few of the changes made to his beloved soccer game this year. I had not heard of players being able to bet on console games before. I was surprised.

Curious, I went to his house to watch him play a game. It took less time than I thought to organise—with a computer on his lap and a controller in his hand, Jeremy quickly signed up through the Virgin Gaming website (as directed by his copy of FIFA 13) and linked his Xbox 360 gamertag with the service. He added twenty dollars through a PayPal account, ticked a button to agree that yes, he was over eighteen years old, and was in an open skill level lobby in minutes.

“No more friendlies,” read the tag line. The lobby was disorganised and a little anarchic, with players hustling for games in text chat.

“Any low skill player invite me for 3.00 game now!!!” posted one user.

“Anyone wanna play for 20?” wrote another.

Jeremy settled on a player from the Netherlands, a player whose Virgin Gaming profile showed a win-loss history of 25-12. The bet was four dollars. The match would be the regulation six-minute FIFA halves. The winner’s jackpot, minus Virgin Gaming’s twelve per cent fee, was to be seven dollars and four cents.

Blip—the Xbox notified Jeremy that he had a EA Sports Arena match scheduled. The Dutch player picked Brazil. Jeremy picked Chelsea.

The game was electric. Both players were cautious, happy to defend rather than push for opportunity, but the atmosphere was tense. At half-time, the score was nil all, with few chances made by either player. There was more than pride on the line.

In the forty-eighth minute the Dutch player scored, but Jeremy won a penalty shortly after, leveling the match. It was now that Jeremy noted that he’d never felt so tense in a game of FIFA in years. If it was a tie the whole thing would have to be replayed. Perhaps he would not be so lucky again with a penalty, and real money would have been lost.

Suddenly, Jeremy had the ball with his striker sprinting towards the Dutch player’s keeper. The last line of defense. “Only the keeper to beat!” screamed the commentary in a rare moment of clarity. The ball entered the back of the net from well outside the box. The game was over. Jeremy had won.

“Aww, you took his money!” said Jeremy’s girlfriend, watching distractedly. Seven dollars and four cents was automatically credited to the Virgin Gaming account, bringing his total to twenty three dollars and four cents. Due to Virgin Gaming’s three dollar fee for withdrawing funds, Jeremy noted dryly, if he cashed out now the whole exercise would have been worth four cents of profit.

There was a momentary high from the win, but we quickly moved on to the next match, which had a higher bet and less tension. The opposite player, this time from Italy, played an arrogant game, and Jeremy lost his connection halfway through. Virgin Gaming automatically ruled that a rematch was required, which the Italian won three nil in uninspiring style. The loss was not so much crushing as mundane. The edge of gambling quickly worn thin.

A few days later I received a text message from Jeremy. He’d played some more FIFA games through Virgin Gaming, betting once again.

“I lost and got really angry and hated myself and the game. It’s fucking toxic.”

*

How this functions comes down to responsibility. Gambling is a classifiable element of videogames, yet FIFA 13’s Australian classification is “G”, the lowest possible classification, with the advice that the experience “may change online”. There is no mention of potential gambling in the Classification Board’s advice.

When I first approached the Classification Board about FIFA 13, the response from Director Donald McDonald was perplexing:

“The Board has contacted the assessors of these games who confirmed that the information provided is accurate. The Board has been advised that the Australian versions of these games do not have the capability to connect online to the Virgin Gaming service.”

Was this miscommunication? Were there different versions of FIFA 13 on Australian shelves? To satisfy myself, I bought my own copy of the game after speaking to some more local FIFA 13 online players. Again, the Virgin Gaming advert appeared. Again, I was able to sign up and schedule wagered matches. Again, I lost some money. This time, I sent photos of this system to the Classification Board for further clarity. The response would take time, I was told.

In the meantime, I contacted EA Sports Australia, hoping they could lend some clarity to the situation. Their full statement follows below:

“Virgin Gaming/EA SPORTS Arena is not a feature within our FIFA 12 / FIFA 13 Packaged Goods Games, which are the products submitted for classification with the OFLC.

The EA SPORTS Arena feature is an optional, age gated online service provided by a third party (Virgin Gaming) on a separate wholly owned website and technology. The use of this service does not add any extra functionality or features in actual game-play in the game; it simply enables users to compete with each other (subject to the terms and conditions of the third party running the website).

The architecture within FIFA 13 does not permit players to connect to external third party websites—including the Virgin Gaming website—through the game.”

This is a fine distinction. Through FIFA 13, Virgin Gaming is able to schedule matches, track results, and link with and track user data such as gamercards. FIFA 13 itself features adverts for Virgin Gaming, has a menu option for the EA Sports Arena, and displays instructions for signing up for Virgin Gaming, including the function for FIFA 13 to automatically send an Virgin Gaming invite email to the player’s associated address.

But no, FIFA 13 does not connect players directly to Virgin Gaming’s website. And yes, Virgin Gaming is a separate company and runs on separate technology. Thus, EA argues that it is “not a feature” within FIFA 13. Could a reasonable person understand that the EA Sports Arena is in fact, a “service provided by a third party”? Does this distinction warrant the Classification Board’s assessors telling them that “the Australian versions of these games do not have the capability to connect online to the Virgin Gaming service”?

At how much distance can you hold a service that advertises gambling using your videogame, in your videogame?

After two weeks, the Classification Board again responded to my enquiries, this time with more depth. The Board acknowledged the banner advertisement for the EA Sports Arena and Virgin Gaming, though noted that it was not a clickable hyperlink. They also acknowledged the EA Sports Arena menu option and the procedure that follows. The Board even connected to Virgin Gaming and “played several matches.”

Their conclusion was as follows:

“The Board’s view is that the content of the game, including the banner advertisement has a very mild viewing impact and can be accommodated within the G (General) classification. The online component of the gameplay is appropriately represented by the consumer advice ‘Caution: Gaming experience may change online’.

The Board does not propose to take any further action in relation to the classification of Fifa 13.”

*

Australia’s federal legislation that regulates online gambling specifically excludes videogames from its ambit.

“Computer games [are] regarded as games of predominantly skill. They therefore do not fall within the definition of ‘gambling service’ in the [Interactive Gambling Act], even where there is consideration to play and prizes,” is the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy’s explanation.

It is clear that there is very little in terms of regulation or responsibility for what Virgin Gaming offers FIFA 13 players outside of Virgin Gaming’s own ethical choices and systems.

It is true that Virgin Gaming has checks in place to ensure all players are aged eighteen or above. It is also true that Virgin Gaming’s website has a section on responsible gaming. “Sometimes we all need to put down the controller,” it reads. There is also a dedicated email address for reporting underaged players.

But beyond what Virgin Gaming feels it has to do, there is little it must do.

I contacted Virgin Gaming and asked for comment on the issues raised by this story, and received only the following in response: “Virgin Gaming operates is service under skilled gaming laws. Please feel free to contact your local counsel or state government bodies to get further information of skilled gaming laws in your area.”

It’s worth noting that almost nowhere on Virgin Gaming’s website is the word ‘gambling’ used. ‘Gaming’ is used almost exclusively, as though to draw distinction between gambling on games of skill and games of chance.

While we’re on responsibility, it’s also worth noting that Virgin Gaming’s Terms & Conditions state they are governed by the laws of the Province of Ontario and the federal laws of Canada, and that: “We make no representation that this Site is operated in accordance with the laws or regulations of, or governed by, other nations.”

And so Australian players can now gamble on FIFA 13 matches, on Madden 13 matches, and on others without much fear of regulation or interference. According to Virgin Gaming, twenty-three million dollars has been won by players through the service. That also means twenty-three million dollars has been lost by players.

In 2010, Australia’s Federal Productivity Commission into problem gambling estimated that there were “between 80,000 and 160,000 Australian adults suffering severe problem gambling. In addition there are between 230,000 and 350,000 people at moderate risk.”

As a result, and on the prompting of Independent MP Andrew Wilkie, the government made its strongest statement on the impact of gambling in Australia.

“Problem gambling wrecks lives,” said Jenny Macklin, Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. “For people who are addicted, gambling is a dangerous, damaging drug that hurts, not just gamblers, but also family, friends and workplaces.”

Forget AFL or cricket or rugby: gambling is, in many respects, Australia’s national sport, and informs our culture at every conceivable level.

Last week, a horse race—and its associated betting—stopped a nation, as it supposedly does year after year. Famous Australian sportspeople across multiple codes have been accused or found guilty of being involved in betting on their own sport.

One of Australia’s most popular contemporary television soap operas, Winners & Losers, is based around the success of a lottery syndicate. A significant subplot in the critically acclaimed Jack Irish novels revolves around betting. The plot of what is one of Australia’s greatest films, Wake In Fright, involves a fall from grace through Two-up, Australia’s most traditional game of gambling.

Gambling on videogames is now not only possible, but easy, integrated and encouraged. The distance given to this fact is a predictable continuation of the lack of responsibility for gambling in Australia.

We need to have a conversation about videogames and gambling. There is no more room for the shrugging of shoulders.

Daniel Golding —

Daniel Golding

Writer, PhD candidate and Game On blogger

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