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'Social' casino gamers at risk of becoming real gamblers: Counsellors

SINGAPORE — They may just be “social” games but they replicate the look and feel of actual gambling, down to the adrenaline rush when anticipating an imminent “win”.

A computer screen displays an online gambling website, Oct 2, 2006. Photo: Reuters

A computer screen displays an online gambling website, Oct 2, 2006. Photo: Reuters

SINGAPORE — They may just be “social” games but they replicate the look and feel of actual gambling, down to the adrenaline rush when anticipating an imminent “win”.

While counsellors who work with problem gamblers welcomed the recently-passed Remote Gambling Act in addressing the ills of online gambling, they warn that free-to-play, casino-style social games may still lure youths into becoming adult punters.

Online social games give players the impression that they can “win easily”, and stoke excitement for actual gambling, said Mr Dick Lum, executive director of One Hope Centre which counsels gambling addicts. “Many gamers turn into gamblers because winning virtual money is no longer interesting to them,” he said.

While such games are increasingly accessible — with social media giant Facebook playing host to an increasing number of apps that simulate poker and slot machines — they are not the target of the new laws because they use virtual credits which cannot be converted to money or real merchandise outside the game.

The draw of such games, said consultant psychiatrist Thomas Lee, who is also a certified gambling addiction counsellor, is they are free and can easily be downloaded by anyone and are available round the clock. Moreover these games can be ‘liked’ or shared on Facebook, leading people into believing these are innocuous. Youths may also think it is okay because their friends are also playing,” he said.

Both Mr Lum and Ms Deborah Queck, executive director of Blessed Grace Social Services which runs a gambling recovery centre, have seen a growing number of patients, mostly in their teens, who started only playing with virtual money. “Youths are particularly susceptible because they are tech-savvy, and tend to desire instant gratification,” said Mr Lum.

Dr Lee said many of these games offer experiences identical to actual gambling. “Playing such games is like training you to be a real gambler. You become familiar with the game play, and you may think you have ‘practised’ enough and are ready for gambling.”

Mr Lum also highlighted that many online social games are supported by real casinos. “There is certainly an intention, a hidden agenda, to turn free-gamers into real gamblers in due time,” he said. He added that some apps offer users the option of signing up with a credit account, and start playing with real money.

Regulation of such games, however, is not the solution, they felt. Rather, the key is education for youths and parents. “Increasing public awareness will be a preventive measure, rather than fighting fire. Besides, you can’t clamp down on everything,” Mr Lum said.

Dr Lee said: “Parents should avoid downloading free casino-style or pseudo-gambling games onto their devices because their children can easily access these games. They should monitor the games their kids are playing online. Ms Queck suggested that telcos should also block sites that offer these games on their student mobile plans.

In response to queries as to whether the remote gambling laws — which ban remote gambling and take effect next year — could apply to such games, the Ministry of Home Affairs referred to comments made by Second Home Affairs Minister S Iswaran during the parliamentary debate on the bill on Oct 7. Then, Mr Iswaran had said the Act does not intend to cover social games, but noted the increasingly blurred lines between social gaming and gambling, and that situations could change rapidly. “This is why the legislation is cast broadly,” he said.

The ministry added: “(The) Government is adopting a multi-pronged strategy to deal with remote gambling. It goes beyond laws and enforcement and will include enhancing our public education and engagement initiatives.”

For example, the National Council of Problem Gambling is working with voluntary welfare organisations to “inculcate good cyber habits in (students), so that they do not fall prey to operators who try to use social games to groom the young to gamble”, as mentioned by Minister for Social Development and Family Chan Chun Sing during the debate.

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