GTA Online Casino: Gaming or Gambling?

It came as no surprise that the heavily trailed GTA 5 Online casino update made a massive splash with fans of the action-adventure video game.

Possibly less expected was the level of controversy that was sparked by the introduction of gambling to the world of San Andreas. Debate has raged since July over the blurring of the boundaries between gaming and gambling that this development represents.

Against the backdrop of the uproar, Rockstar Games suspended the casino’s mini-games in certain territories where betting is illegal.

Record Response To The Launch

On the face of it, the launch went well. Even better than Rockstar may have hoped, as the casino update was the biggest launch since the game was released. GTA Online saw the most players in a single day and week since GTA 5 first appeared in 2013.

Visitors to the casino, which stands on Vinewood Park Drive in Los Santos, have found a host of entertainment options to enjoy.

There’s roulette, blackjack and three-card poker, as well as slot machines and the chance to gamble on virtual horse racing. The casino also hosts a Lucky Wheel where you can spin to win prizes.

The record response to the launch clearly indicated it was hugely popular with aficionados of the game. And many reviewers commented favorably on the casino. They felt it fitted right in with the edgy tone of GTA and the get-rich-quick sensibility of the game.

But right from the get-go, there was controversy.

Addictive Tendencies

At the center of the disquiet felt by many observers is the fact that players use real money to purchase chips in the casino.

That money is converted into virtual cash and, crucially, you can’t actually withdraw your winnings.

However, the fact that the action in the GTA casino so closely mirrors the real-life wagering journey has raised hackles among opponents of online gambling.

Some suggested the experience could tap into the addictive tendencies of the more susceptible or vulnerable visitor. There were claims that playing in San Andreas could lead people to want to ride the same emotional roller-coaster in real life.

Rockstar responded by placing a cap on the number of chips that can be bought each day.

And it suspended the mini-games in the casino in about 50 territories where gambling is a marginal or totally illegal activity.

GTA casino
Image: Rockstar Games

Blurred Morality Lines

There is, of course, a huge irony here. Even though some countries have strict anti-gambling laws, apparently it’s still acceptable for people to enjoy the car theft, violence and general lawlessness that define the GTA universe.

Because the tone of the rest of the game remains the same. The central construct is the ability to steal, murder and make bank by any means necessary.

The general morality of the behavior encouraged in the game is a debate for another day. In the end, this is a fantasy world. But the link between real-world dollars and virtual ones undoubtedly fuzzes the line that separates the two dimensions.

Where Does Gaming End and Gambling Start?

The crossover between one of the most popular video games in the world and the online casino industry represents yet another significant step in these constantly evolving and highly competitive landscapes.

Gambling operators’ appetite for finding new ways of attracting digitally sophisticated young audiences is as insatiable as ever.

The Gambling Commission, the body responsible for regulating gambling in the UK, warned earlier this year about a “growth in examples where the line between video gaming and gambling is becoming increasingly blurred”.

EA, the publisher of the gigantic FIFA series of soccer games, had to defend its Ultimate Team packs after raking in more than a billion dollars from them in 2018.

These packs contain unseen collections of players that gamers can add to their online squads. The fact that they are purchased, and there is a random element to the selection, means in some observers’ eyes that this is a form of gambling.

The Future of VR Games

At the same time, land-based casinos are looking forward to a new era of virtual reality games.

The Orleans Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas was the first to open a Virtual Zone, powered by IGT and HTC. Players wear headsets and take part in a range of VR games.

Enrico Drago, senior vice-president of IGT Global Interactive, said the zone “represents an exciting evolution of modern-day casino entertainment”.

So many developments do, Enrico. The controversy over the GTA Online casino will no doubt rumble on.

Meanwhile, Rockstar has dropped a big hint that GTA 6 could be on the horizon…