I remember the first time I entered a casino. I was about 14 years old, and I was playing the best Star Wars game ever made — Knights of the Old Republic. Of course, it wasn’t a real casino. It simply hosted pazaak — a gambling mini-game that was pretty much blackjack but with more math. I spent countless hours playing pazaak, which required wagering countless in-game “credits.”
I was reminded of pazaak last month, when the Diamond Casino opened in Grand Theft Auto Online. But unlike pazaak, the casino games in Grand Theft Auto Online have caused quite an uproar, leading the developer to ban the casino’s mini-games.
So what’s going on here? Why are Grand Theft Auto Online’s casino mini-games prohibited while pazaak is allowed? The answer is not as straightforward as you might think. GTA Online developer Rockstar Games has not explained why the casino features are restricted or even provided a list of the restricted locations. While it’s reasonable to conclude that the limited availability has something to do with legal compliance, it’s difficult to identify the particular features of the game that raise legal concerns.
So let’s consider a few of the more promising theories.
Several commentators have claimed (without support) that GTA Online’s casino runs afoul of gambling laws because players who purchase in-game chips using real money are essentially gambling with real money. That theory doesn’t add up. The currency exchange is one-way — while users can use real-world money to purchase GTA Online casino chips (at a rate of something like $1 of real money for $50,000 worth of in-game currency, depending on the purchase method), there is no way to convert those casino chips back into real dollars. As a result, the money that is actually “gambled” in the game isn’t worth anything in the real world, meaning that there are no real stakes. The only benefits to be had from gambling in the in-game casino are the fun gained from playing the casino games and a reward of more in-game currency. Neither of those is objectionable.
Even if this is actually a problem, Rockstar could work around it without restricting access to the casino. They could simply prevent players from purchasing chips with real money in the countries where that posed a problem, a restriction Rockstar has already implemented in some parts of the world.
One of the problems with gambling is its addictive tendencies. Even though the GTA Online casino doesn’t allow users to convert their winnings into real money, it can still contribute to real-life gambling problems because it simulates real-world casino games and encourages users to pay real money to play them. Some players have already started to notice their addictive tendencies, and even Rockstar has placed a cap on the number of chips that can be purchased each day. This similarity between real and virtual gambling could cause some countries to take a more hostile approach to GTA Online’s virtual gambling.
In many countries, gambling is illegal because it is viewed as immoral. Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have implemented strict anti-gambling laws because gambling is prohibited by the Quran. There are similar restrictions (albeit with different motivations) in other countries, including Poland and Singapore. Rockstar’s decision to restrict gambling functions in these countries could simply reflect a desire to implement culturally sensitive localization.
Of course, this theory breaks down as soon as we consider the fact that we’re talking about Grand Theft Auto — a series whose whole premise is to steal cars and inflict violence and mayhem on the city. It seems strange that Rockstar or local governments would draw the line at simulated gambling while having no problem with the game’s plentiful sex, murder, and theft.
On the other hand, unlike murder and theft, gambling is an activity that is routinely enjoyed by normal people in the real world. As a result, GTA Online’s casino is arguably the most realistic aspect of the entire game. The GTA casino is grounded and lifelike, and thus it appears more threatening to lawmakers.
Hybrid Issues Face the GTA Online Casino
While the use of real money and a strong cultural opposition to gambling each fail to explain the ban on their own, it’s possible that the gambling restrictions could be justified by the confluence of the two factors. The “problematic” behaviors in GTA typically exist solely in the world of fantasy. Players can steal cars, deal drugs, and go on shooting sprees in the game without any connection or interaction with the real world. When it comes to the casino, things are different.
The fact that there is a connection between real-world dollars and virtual dollars — even if it is just a one-way connection — pulls the player into the “virtual” gambling in a way that is more real than the virtual thefts, murders, and road rage. The connection might not be strong enough to prosecute Rockstar for running an unauthorized casino, but it could easily be enough to ruffle feathers and draw unwanted attention to Rockstar and other potentially objectionable aspects of the game. By preventing users from participating in gambling activities, Rockstar avoids both the risk of legal liability and additional unwanted scrutiny from potential adversaries and video game opponents. This is especially true in countries with high rates of gambling addiction or those that have a strong moral opposition to the activity.
Because Rockstar hasn’t commented on the issue, we don’t know exactly what motivated its decision to restrict access to the casino. It’s possible that its legal team reached out to the relevant regulatory officials in each country and received a firm rejection. Alternatively, it could have conducted an internal legal risk analysis and concluded that the chance of government interference or potential liability was too high.
Of course, if Rockstar really wants to avoid liability, all it actually needs to do is replace horse races with pod races and blackjack with pazaak. It’s easy for countries around the world to prohibit gambling in a realistic-looking San Andreas, but banning the fantastical pazaak on Tatooine is another matter entirely — especially if you’re playing with Ewoks or Porgs. After all, the galaxy hangs in the balance.