Unplugged

The dark world of video game addiction.

The Future of Video Games. . .Involves Gambling?

Players can now wager on video games.

For years, video gamers have been content to challenge one another and put their all into each game merely for bragging rights, some personal sense of accomplishment, and/or their name on a leader board. Thanks to a recent deal between Richard Branson's Virgin Gaming deal with Electronic Arts, gamers will now be able to wager on the outcome of video games. Prior to this, Virgin hosted organized tournaments where players could buy into it in order to try to claim the jackpot--much like the World Series of Poker tournaments so prevalent on ESPN (where many of the events have a buy-in of $10,000 - $50,000). Now anyone will be able to load up their account with up to $500 per day and see if they can win their way to more cash.

For the moment, it's only games like NBA 2k11 and Halo: Reach that will have the online wagering system option. But rest assured, other games will follow. At a 12% service fee per match, Virgin will certainly work hard to ensure all gamers who want to put their money where their mouths are can do so on any game they choose.

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Video game addiction is a growing global epidemic with tens of millions of people suffering from it throughout the world. New research suggests as much as 1 out 10 relationships have ended thanks to the power of video games. Now add in the "I might win a fortune with this next game" mentality that keeps the Las Vegas casinos rolling in dough, and for some, this is the perfect storm of addictions. Consider that the American Gaming Association estimates that more than $300 billion was wagered in the U.S. in 2009 (with more than $2.5 billion wagered on March Madness alone), and you start to see the scope of this problem.

This past year, I encountered three "professional" video gamers in my college classes. The combined grand total of their wins? About $3,000. Their losings? Two wouldn't say, but one admitted he'd spent over $10,000 on entry fees, face-to-face match bets, and "training." By any accounting standard, that's not at all what one would call "professional." I recognize that there are people who have made a good deal more than they lost, but people like South Korea's Park Jung-seok are not the norm.

This is the same kind of mentality I saw when I taught at Florida State University and other schools with high-profile, top-notch sports programs. Kids arrived trying to "major" in the NFL, but far less than 1% of college athletes ever make it to the pros. The same statistics will likely hold true for "pro" video gamers, where the sponsorship money has recently dried up, leaving many to scramble for prize payouts. While many will soon realize it's much more profitable to become a video game gold farmer, that's nowhere near as cool or exciting as trying to get the final head shot or dunk that wins you $10,000, even if paydays and trophies are few and far between.

In an article from the Vancouver Sun, Nina Littman-Sharp, the manager of the problem-gambling service at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, warned that the combining of gambling and video gaming should send up a host of red flags.

"It's bridging the gap between online gaming and online gambling," she said. "We already see people who have problems with both. I can already see this being one more element that we are going to start to be seeing in treatment."

For some gamers, the ability to gamble on the video games won't matter a bit. For some, though, this is like pounding shots of Jack Daniels with a chaser of crack cocaine. We've seen plenty of lives ruined over video games already--be ready to add a lot of new names right alongside Daniel Petric, Shannon Johnson, and Tyrone Spellman soon.

Ryan G. Van Cleave, Ph.D., is the author (or co-author) of 16 books including the upcoming Unplugged.

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