How does one define “gambling?”

This whole business with RNG is still kind of stuck in my head. The situations that get the most attention are the ones that cost something for each roll. Black Desert gear enhancement, of course comes to mind, but so do the infamous loot boxes. This has put me in the strange place of determining where the line between random, or seemingly random, chance is in respect to gambling.

I was discussing with my brother the other day the fact that I recently opened a brokerage account. Mostly out of curiosity, really, because it was cheap and easy to do so. His immediate comment was about gambling on the stock market. While I used to hold that belief myself, I’ve wandered away from a bit, it’s not entirely false. Markets are loosely predictable, and some bets tend to be safer than others, but spending real money on something in hopes that you’ll get more back, with a real possibility of losing most or all of it, is technically gambling. Of course, we don’t call it that. When it’s stock in a company it’s called “investing.”

Now, the easy counter argument is that what you’re really buying is a stake in that company. You are, in reality, exchanging money for a piece of paper that says you own these particular pieces here, and while their value may fluctuate, you will not stop owning them unless you choose to sell them.

This is distinct from “true” gambling in the sense that money bet on an event is not an exchange. Yeah, your stake in a company can be worth nothing, but you still possess something. With traditional gambling you don’t have something with no value, you have nothing. In this sense, then, loot boxes are more like stocks with no monetary value, an electronic toy if you will. After you pay, you receive something of debatable value, but it’s something.

What I do see, though, is that it preys on the same mental shortcuts and circuits that we use for gambling and probability, something we’re inherently bad at. So even though it doesn’t resemble traditional gambling at the transaction level, the experience and reward appear to be, and function, similarly. I think about all the people who have allegedly invested a ton of money in a start-up with a great sales pitch only to lose all of it and have nothing. It’s a trope, to be sure, but there are likely people matching that description somewhere. How is that any different than someone spending an entire paycheck on scratch-off lottery tickets or video game “microtransactions?” Is it, then, acceptable to regulate and/or protect people from one or two of these and not the other(s)? What about the majority of people that are capable of enjoying these sorts of things responsibly?

How far down the rabbit hole are we willing to go? Eve is an easy example that’s fresh, so I’m using it. 500 Plex costs right around $20USD. 1 Plex, in-game, costs around 4M Isk. Since 1 Plex’s purchase value is roughly $0.04 that values Isk at around 1M:$0.01USD. I believe this is the sort of math they use for those giant “$13,000 worth of ships destroyed in giant Eve battle” headlines and articles. That puts the price of a subscription right around 2B Isk, for what it’s worth.

While I can look at a low end ship and say it’s worth around $0.01, that’s not something that can be exchanged for real money, nor something I paid real money to get. An argument can be made that I’m gambling with something that’s “worth” $0.20 when I undock my mining barge. Are we willing to call that gambling, or does it require a real cash stake? Would it be gambling if I paid for the ship by buying Plex and selling for Isk?

Okay, I feel like I’m asking a lot of questions. To be fair, I’m not certain what my own answers are to a lot of these, at least not yet. Even when I am sure, that doesn’t mean that it’s the right answer for everybody. I personally think the last example there is a bit absurd. Those values are implied. That’s like saying you threw money away when you delete a stack ore or something in WoW because you can theoretically buy it with money gained from selling a WoW token. Then again, that level of distancing ourselves from the actual cost of things is why these weird alternative currencies exist to begin with.

2 thoughts on “How does one define “gambling?”

  1. Value can be non-tangible, depending on the perceiver.

    Let’s say in the case of the traditonal gambler sitting at a Las Vegas jackpot machine or the guy who goes to the horse races or sporting event and puts up a bet..even though they receive nothing of physical re-tradeable value that others might want, the jackpot machine puller has the whole experience of being at the casino, feeling the tangible pull of the lever, watching and anticipating potential payoff and the occasional flush feel of “winning” and having coins pour out at them. (Does it prey on a bad understanding of probability? Yes, but the gambler does get something to keep them coming back.)

    The guy who makes a side bet receives perceived value from having spiced up their event watching, anticipating and hoping for a payoff, from events that are technically out of their control, though they may believe they have a good grasp of the factors pushing probabilities one way or the other.

    Mostly the difference seems to be you can’t re-sell these thrill experiences to someone else.

    Going digital really blends the realm. There are some things that are of tradeable value that others might desire. If someone buys 100 lockboxes for the purposes of profit by calculating the probabilities and betting they have a good enough grasp on the system to yield enough to re-sell at profit, that sounds pretty much like a stock market. If someone buys 15 lockboxes because they don’t expect to win anything but just enjoys the anticipation and thrill of opening them and potential “win” of an unexpected payout, that sounds more like the jackpot puller or side better.

    Then of course you have the real problem cases where gambling becomes an abusive problem because they have a poor grasp of realistic probablities, following their emotions down a rabbit hole of need, and have hedged far too much on receiving anticipated value that will probably never materialize. Those gambling addicts are found in every arena – casinos, the stock market where people do go bankrupt, as well as the crazies who spend far more than they can afford on virtual currency/lockboxes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re correct. That I should overlook the experience as the “goods” received is ironic, consider I’ve used that exact same logic to defend time spent gaming.

      I think the disconnect is that internally I’ve already decided most of these things are similar enough to be called gambling, but in doing so have made a case that it is neither fair nor helpful to just ban in. Instead we should steer the systems to have ways to detect and help the people who legitimately have a problem. That’s so much easier said than done, though, and not everyone wants help. Like any other psychoactive substance or experience, the addicted will go outside the realm of what’s acceptable or legal in order to obtain it.


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