- Fears grow over children’s risk of addiction as fixed-odds betting terminal supplier offers ‘social games’ aimed at young people.
The company behind thousands of the UK’s fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) is offering gambling-style apps on Facebook without age checks, prompting allegations that children are being exposed to the risk of addiction.
Earlier this month, the industry watchdog warned that more than 60,000 children were either gambling addicts or were in danger of becoming hooked. Experts have warned that games mimicking real-life gambling are the “number one risk factor” for developing a problem later in life.
Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, who has launched a party review of gambling policy, said: “It is deeply worrying that games designed to get children in the habit of gambling are being marketed and played online. The company that makes these products is cynically targeting young people, some of whom are at risk of developing gambling addictions later in life.”
Scientific Games, a US firm that has provided FOBTs to Ladbrokes and casino games for several gambling websites, makes a variety of these “social games”, available as apps on Facebook. One of its apps features the children’s cartoon characters The Flintstones, while another is themed around the Rapunzel fairytale and a third is called OMG! Kittens.
One Christmas feature in Jackpot Party Casino Slots, just one of a range of gambling-themed apps made by Scientific Games, is called Toys for Tots. Speaking to the Guardian, Watson urged Facebook to investigate why the games were on its platform and to consider removing them.
Social gaming was among the emerging risks singled out this week in a report by the Gambling Commission. The industry regulator found that children who played social games were more likely to bet money on adult gambling products.
“Among young people who have ever played online gambling-style games, a quarter had spent their own money on any gambling activity in the past week, significantly higher than the average of 12% among all 11- to 16-year-olds,” the report says.
The regulator has previously highlighted the prevalence of problem gambling among adults, with more than 2 million people deemed to be either problem gamblers or at risk of addiction.
The Jackpot Party Casino Slots app available via Facebook is not technically a gambling product because money is not won or lost on games of chance. Instead, the app invites users to buy “coins” to use in dozens of casino-style games similar to gambling products available only to adults.
A disclaimer buried in the app’s terms of service says the game is aimed at people over 21, but no age verification is required. A test purchase by the Guardian found that it was possible to buy coins within seconds using only a mobile phone, with the cost added to a monthly contract.
Anyone who signs up to the app is sent email reminders, sometimes twice a day, offering bonuses and other perks. After a “win”, players are invited to “share free coins with your friends so they can win too!”
Scientific Games, based in Las Vegas, is one of the largest providers of FOBTs. Users of the controversial machines, which campaigners say are particularly addictive and are the subject of a government consultation, lost at least £1,000 in one sitting on more than 233,071 occasions last year.
Scientific Games also makes online gambling software for UK firms including William Hill, Betfred and Paddy Power Betfair. The company, which boasted in a submission to the UK government in 2013 of its “unquestionable credentials as a globally responsible business”, did not return requests for comment. Facebook also declined to comment.
Tim Miller, the Gambling Commission’s executive director, said: “In regulating gambling, we actively seek views and evidence about the risks children face so we can improve protections, and we think the social gaming industry should do the same, listening to the concerns of parents and others.”
The revelation that an FOBT company is offering casino-style games via Facebook comes just weeks after online gaming firms were told to remove similar products featuring cartoon characters from their websites, following an investigation by the Sunday Times.
Mark Griffiths, professor of behavioural addiction at Nottingham Trent University, said social games were the “number one risk factor” for children becoming problem gamblers, even if hosted on Facebook rather than a gambling site.
“What games like these do is behaviourally and socially condition children from an early age to be into gambling,” he said. “The thing about social networking games is that in the end you never lose. They set up unrealistic expectations of what gambling involves. If you win all that virtual money, you might think that if you’d been playing with real money you would have won too.”