Recent disclosures about the less-than-honest nature of certain eSport gambling websites have heaped pressure on Valve, owner of Steam and publisher of Counterstrike: Global Offensive and Dota 2, two of the world’s most prominent eSport games. Today, Polygon published an article highlighting a lawsuit against Valve which alleges that the company has allowed an illegal online gaming market to flourish around CS: GO.
Now, the lawsuit refers to specific issues which I’m not going to comment on here. Rather, I want to say something about Valve’s broader approach to the issue of gambling and betting. I have never played CS: GO, but until last year I was an avid player of the free-to-play game Dota 2. I noticed, between 2013 and 2015, that Valve was increasingly introducing elements of chance into the game’s economy, particularly around the question of cosmetics. So, instead of buying a particular set of cosmetics for a hero, you’d buy a ‘treasure’ or ‘chest’ with a chance of containing one of, say, four or five sets. To guarantee getting the set you want, you’d have to buy the chest multiple times. They also increasingly used systems where you’d have a small chance of getting a ‘bonus’ item when opening the chest, some of which would be super-rare.
Valve also increasingly allowed players to bet in-game currency, or some kind of tokens, on the outcome of matches, usually in connection with some kind of seasonal event. So, you might get a ‘charm’ as part of a paid-for bundle which allowed you to predict the outcome of a game; if you win three in a row, you get a treasure, but if you get too many wrong predictions (say, two or three), you get nothing and lose the charm. In a game with an already competitive and highly addictive algorithm, such mechanics add another layer of investment and pressure to what is often a toxic gaming experience.
Personally, I strongly object to the casual inclusion of gambling mechanics like this in a video game. One obvious reason is that it potentially introduces children to real-world betting mechanics in an environment where they (and their parents) don’t know what they’re letting themselves in for. Dota 2 is played by a lot of teenagers and grown-ups, but any look at the aesthetic of the game tells you it is also intended to appeal to children. We don’t normally associate this kind of look and feel with such a controversial issue as gambling–indeed, I’m pretty sure you’re not allowed to advertise gambling to kids, and you have to be 18 to gamble in the UK.
Moreover, Dota 2 is already an unbelievably addictive game. You can say that individuals make their own choices about how to spend their time, which is fair enough for the most part; but nevertheless, deliberately or not, the mechanics and aesthetics of Dota 2 lend themselves to addictive behaviour. Adding gambling mechanics on top of that is, in my opinion, irresponsible and damaging. You’re adding another level of compulsion to what is, depending on the individual, an already toxic situation.
I’ve spoken before about my disillusionment with Valve. Over the past few years they seem to have become ever more conceited and self-regarding; and what I have interpreted as their increased use of gambling mechanics in-game in Dota 2 has been one of the strangest aspects of their development (or degeneration) as a company. This year’s Steam Sale was widely derided as offering relatively little in the way of value or incentives compared to previous years; and in general, the company just seems to have lost its compass. Obviously, there’s still plenty of money in the bank, and Valve remains enormously powerful and influential. But as these latest allegations suggest, this is a company which no longer looks to be on the side of the angels. And I’d wager to say there are a lot of people out there who would be quite happy to see them taken down a peg or two.