Take a stroll through any live casino’s myriad slots aisles, select a machine and start playing. You could become lucky enough to hit a nifty payout – even a massive jackpot – but chances are you’ll slowly watch your bankroll dwindle down to nothing. Now whip out your mobile device, tap your way to a social gaming site with free online slots, and your odds of winning big increase significantly.
That’s exactly what players of the slots at Massachusetts’ Plainridge Park Casino, and it’s newly launched free-to-play online casino, have experienced. And as innocent as it may seem – after all, the social gaming side is ‘just for fun’ – the frequency of wins on risk-free online slots has raised some genuine concerns.
NYU associate professor Natasha Dow Schull, author of ‘Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas’, knows all about the hazards and pitfalls of gambling addiction. She told The Boston Globe that she believes the highly diverse nature of live and online slots can breed a false sense of confidence among players.
“If the games look the same and sound the same, but the payback of one is much lower, then that’s misleading,” said Schull. “The question is whether this kind of marketing, while fine for shoes and other consumer items, is acceptable for gambling.”
Schull said that by integrating a higher win rate into social games that mimic the real thing, casinos are conditioning players to expect the same results when they insert real money into a machine. She said that the whole point of offering free online slots is to “prime your system for gambling – to hook you in”.
Eric Schippers, a Senior VP at Penn National, parent company of Plainridge Park Casino, admitted that the brand’s social gaming venue is programmed to give players of their online slots better odds of making a profit – albeit for in-game credits with no real value, outside of unlocking additional features in the social app – than the company’s live slots. He did say, though, that the win frequency is comparable between the two.
“As a percentage of spins,” said Schippers, “the winning experience online is similar to the one at the casino.” That simply means that a player will strike a winning combination about as often online as they will at the casino. The size of the win is the difference.
The jackpots awarded online are significantly higher. For example, The Globe reported that this week’s online leaderboard was topped by a player who had amassed 11 trillion credits. That all came in single week worth of free play. No casino on earth pays out a trillion in real-money jackpots in a single week.
The Massachusetts Gaming Commission expressed concern over the matter, but said it has no regulatory rights over free play of online slots. “This rapidly evolving technology is not gambling, and does not currently fall under our — or any — regulatory authority,” read a statement from the commission to The Globe.
The National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) is troubled by the social gaming trend, saying free online slots pose a risk by way proliferating gambling addiction.
“Social gaming raises concerns because there is still a risk of using it compulsively,” said Keith Whyte, executive director of the NCPG. “It is the action of gambling that is addictive, not the prizes.”
Although it has no rights over governance of social gaming, the Mass Gaming Commission did say, “We continue to closely monitor the introduction of new gaming trends and we will take the appropriate steps when and if necessary to ensure the integrity of the state’s gaming industry.”