One of the tenets of the American Gaming Association is that its members pledge to never market to children or people under the age of 21. It makes sense, because there is nothing to gain by marketing to this age group since they legally are, in most cases, not permitted inside a casino to gamble.
But the recent spread of social gaming—you know, those games you play for “free” on your computer via Facebook or some other social media site—has blurred that line, and the industry needs to re-evaluate its participation in these areas.
Since there is no prohibition or regulation that prevents children or teenagers from playing these games, it has become a thorny issue. After all, on the internet, a younger demographic works for some businesses. If you’re promoting products or services that children purchase—and, more importantly, their parents buy—it makes sense to build these social games with themes that children enjoy.
But if you’re building a game, or a social gaming site, designed to attract adults, how do you create that balance of themes adults enjoy—and we’re not talking about hard core, of course—with the unlimited access that characterizes social game play?
Very few social games ask for the age of a player. Only when it comes down to actually buying those worthless “chips,” “coins” or “tokens” do the sites capture any data assuring that the purchaser is the legal owner of the credit card used, and usually—but not always—of legal age. And since many sites and games are built to be portals to live gaming—whether online or land-based casinos—this could be a slippery slope that could come back to bite the social gaming sites and the companies that operate them.
The problem, of course, is that today, many of the games you enjoy on social gaming sites wind up as slot machines on the casino floor. You enjoy playing them online and when you visit the casino, you can decide to play them for real money. Makes good business sense. But the characteristics of the social games and the setting in which they are being played is often quite different.
Take a walk around the exhibit floor at any major trade show. There is a disturbing number of games based on cartoon characters. Yes, we all grew up with the cartoon characters and have fun seeing them deliver jackpots to us as adults, but what about children who enjoy those characters today? They can find these games online in a social gaming setting, but aren’t supposed to be intrigued if they see them as they walk by a
casino floor or a slot arcade or VLT inside a restaurant?
And other themes that aren’t even based on cartoons are sometimes quite juvenile. I’m sure the game designer aimed to rekindle a player’s simple memories of their childhood, but they appear to be marketing to minors.
Does some of this stem from the fear that the casino customer is growing older and the operators and manufacturers are hoping to expand the demographics? I’m sure no one is hoping to develop a teenage following, but to an outsider, it could easily appear that way.
Now, most of the major gaming manufacturers and designers claim that social gaming is different. There is no money changing hands (except for the need to buy points, chips or a more powerful playing piece), therefore, no need to exclude the younger players. But when casual observers can draw a direct line from these “social” games to real-money slot games, the industry will need to defend itself from charges it is trying to develop gamblers by designing games that appeal to younger people.
I’ve purposely not offered any examples in this piece. I don’t mean to point fingers or even suggest that any company, game developer or operator is engaging in marketing to children or minors. But during this time when casinos are under attack from all sides, just the appearance of any impropriety can be harmful.
It’s time for operators and manufacturers to think again about the themes of their games and what they might look like to someone outside the industry. It’s time to come together again with the pledge that there’s no room for marketing to minors or even the perception of marketing to minors in this industry.