Over the weekend, South Australian independent senator Nick Xenophon signalled the next big legislative debate surrounding video games in Australia.
It's been coming for quite a while — but the fast proliferation of 'skin gambling' sites, the people involved and the amounts of money being bet and lost was always going to kick the debate off sooner rather than later.
This week, that train finally arrived. The legislation won't actually be debated until Parliament resumes next month. But that's too late to stop a whole lot of concerned media reports — and a metric shit-ton of hysteria.
It's understandable, in a way. Politician comes out to the media on a Sunday. Says first-person shooters are being used to "groom" children for gambling. Includes Dota 2, one of the world's most popular MOBAs, in that bracket. Raises the biggest red flag: parents.
"Instead of shooting avatars, parents soon find out that [their children] have shot huge holes through their bank accounts," the Senator told Fairfax.
It's a scary thought. But it's not the first time someone has raised alarm bells. Remember Unikrn? They're the agency that partnered with Tabcorp to offer odds on esports matches to Australians. They stand to benefit a lot from making gambling more accessible to gamers. It's literally their bread and butter.
But even Unikrn's CEO Rahul Sood wasn't pulling any punches when he warned that kids were being exposed to gambling. "When my 13-year old son and his friends talk about skin betting it made me seriously uncomfortable," he complained.
Something was always going to be done. It was just a matter of when.
The Lack Of Detail
The thing is, nobody has any clue as to what precisely is being proposed. By Monday afternoon, Nick Xenophon's website had no information about a newly proposed bill. The "Online and Sports Betting" page contained no reference to video games. There was nothing on the Senator's Twitter account about rolling video games into gambling legislation, nor was there any detail on his Facebook page.
Instead, what people were left to digest over were vaguely worded media appearances and news reports. But legislation is a precise instrument. The wording matters. The wording is everything.
Take the wording of this report from The Independent.
"Nick Xenophon, the independent senator for South Australia, has said he will introduce a bill to parliament calling for games such as Counter Strike: Global Offensive to be defined as gambling, updating the country’s 2001 Interactive Gambling Act."
Games "such as" Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. But what does that mean precisely? First-person shooters? Shooters with in-game economies? Will only games that have virtual items be affected? What about games where cosmetic items are the only form of revenue for a developer? If they can't be traded, will those be affected?
Here's The Guardian.
"Nick Xenophon, the independent senator for South Australia, on Sunday announced a bid to have multiplayer first-person shooter games defined as gambling in an update to the current Interactive Gambling Act of 2001."
Multiplayer first-person shooters. A more direct definition. Doesn't answer the free-to-play question, but it's a start.
In the same report, Senator Xenophon reportedly wanted warnings about gambling to be displayed with the ability to "block links to gambling sites". It's not known precisely what sites though. Presumably third-party gambling sites are included. But what about, say, the store page for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive? Would there be advertisements on that? Or what about in-game, where the cycle of skins begins?
The television reports are no more helpful.
"According to Senator Nick Xenophon, games such as Global Offensive and Counter-Strike encourage players to gamble and place bets on third-party websites," Seven's Weekend Sunrise show begins.
Global Offensive and Counter-Strike aren't separate games. And CS:GO has never encouraged people to bet on third-party websites. You could argue that there is plenty of encouragement to bet within the game though — users are presented with fantasy tipping and leagues every time a major tournament rolls around. Leagues and bets that require users to drop real cash on stickers and items.
But that's not the argument being made.
"Having games purchasing something online is one thing, but when you link it to a game of chance, when you link it to poker machine-like reel activity and you link it to actual gambling websites where credits can be used, can morph into gambling is a real issue," Senator Xenophon told the Sunrise presenters.
It's not the same as reading the text of a piece of legislation. But it at least made the target of the independent Senator's legislation clearer. And it could have been worse. Andrew O'Keefe quipped that his 5-year-old daughter had bought microtransactions for a mobile game and questioned Senator Xenophon on the difference between that, skins and gambling in CS:GO.
Xenophon refused to accept the premise. And then O'Keefe waded into more dangerous territory. After the Senator joked that the mobile cat game wouldn't put his daughter at risk of gambling, the Sunrise presenter remarked that "she is, but I had to pay $70 in toilet paper for that cat".
Microtransactions can be a frightening topic to broach. How do you calmly explain on national television to a parent whose just forked out hundreds of dollars for virtual currencies that it's a funding model that has provided a vast amount of value to gamers while making it possible for developers to put food on the table?
But Xenophon deflected. "There's a special on at my local IGA, you can buy a lot of toilet paper," he remarked.
Contrast that with this report from Channel 9's Today show.
— Nine News Australia (@9NewsAUS) July 30, 2016
"Senator Nick Xenophon wants to introduce legislation to stop children from playing certain video games," the report begins.
Is that really what the Senator called for?
Chris O'Keefe, Channel 9's state political reporter, continues. "Companies have online games where as you are playing, you're given an option to pay money to give you a better chance of winning. So instead of just playing, kids can link a credit card and use it to give themselves a better outcome."
The games shown throughout this report: Battlefield 4, World of Warcraft, Minecraft, Battlefield again, and Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3. In split-screen.
None of the games shown have, or have ever had, this feature. It's not even sure what games O'Keefe is referencing.
No wonder gamers are starting to panic.