Why I love fake gambling and in-game casinos according to a psychologist

The thrill of making pretend money hand over mouse.

WHY I LOVE

In Why I Love, PC Gamer writers pick an aspect of PC gaming that they love and write about why it's brilliant. This week Joe asks a psychologist about his passion for no-risk in-game gambling. 

Here's the thing: I don't gamble in real life. Glasgow, where I live, is full of bookmakers and casinos, and while I don't take issue with anyone who does throw money at roulette or horses or sport—so long as it's lawful—it's just something that's never interested me. I've worked in pubs where Racing UK was as much a regular as old Jimmy who drank a pint of Guinness and a half measure of whisky, and I've had a season ticket at my favourite football/soccer team for almost 20 years; yet parting with my cash against someone else's odds has never struck my fancy. In videogames, though, it's a different story. 

Perhaps it's the notion of spending someone else's money—albeit a videogame avatar controlled by me—that I find so alluring, or the fact that I know there's no real risk in bankrupting my virtual earnings besides the chore of regenerating my money pot in whichever way the game in question allows. 

My first in-game casino visit occurred in 1992's Mercenary 3: The Dion Crisis for the Atari ST. A game well ahead of its time, Novagen's Software's open-world exploration adventure offered multiple endings as the eponymous mercenary set about bringing down the game's corrupt antagonist PC BIL. One such way of toppling the unscrupulous politician's regime involved bankrupting his debt-laden empire—a feat which could be achieved by winning large sums of cash at Uncle's Casino and Bosher's Bar. 

A well-positioned magnet could swing the odds in your favour, however hitting the jackpot by virtue of one-armed bandits and Wheel of Fortune machines was an absolute joy—particularly when it meant usurping BIL. 

Years later, I fell in love with Fallout 2's mining town Redding, as it offered a wealth of gambling opportunities in arcade machines, roulette, and the rather unsavoury Molerat Mambo. Bioshock's infamous Fort Frolic zone housed Pharaoh's Fortune, wherein slot machines cost an asynchronous ten dollars a pop; and Grand Theft Auto San Andreas' Las Venturas mirrored real life Vegas as a desert city brimming with casinos such as The Camel's Toe and Caligula's Palace. 

Away from these games' central narratives, I thrived in bankrolling frivolous expeditions to in-game casinos and bars where I'd spend hours on end frittering away my in-game budget or delighting in the occasions where I won big. But why? Why did I care whether or not I won or lost or broke even—especially when I didn't give a toss about gambling in real life. Why do I find betting fake money in virtual casinos so darn enjoyable?

Psychology professor Graham Scott of the University of the West of Scotland suggests anonymity and a lack of empathy could be what drives my weird misplaced passion. 

"When you consider theft," says Scott, "there's a higher number of people who commit fraud and identity theft online than offline. One of the reasons behind this pertains to the fact the online world offers a degree of isolation. In turn, the consequences of your actions are less obvious and don't seem as important. 

"In videogames you're far less likely to care about how your actions directly affect others—which can in this case relate to gambling with money that isn't real. Whereas in the real world gambling has consequences—it can often land you in debt, which in turn can affect the individual and his or her family and friends—doing so within a virtual environment is the equivalent of having a digitised 'get out of jail free' card, I suppose.

"I often refer to Grand Theft Auto which is a good example of a game that lets you do things you could do in real life, but, because most of us are well-natured law-abiding people, choose not to. Stealing cars, fighting your neighbours, and, as you say, gambling are all possible in Grand Theft Auto but are often acts which help players to complete missions. In essence, you control a character with a personality who is following a pre-set script. 

"It's worth noting that while most adults can distinguish between reality and fantasy that repeated exposure to these behaviours could desensitise and normalise them. That's always worth watching out for."

Now, I'm fairly certain I won't allow my in-game habits to spill into my real life, however it's nevertheless nice to know there's some scientific grounding in my gamified behaviour. Which is of course totally justifies my in-game ludomania. 

If you need me, I'll be at Mercenary 3's Boshers Bar which, incidentally, isn't nearly as glamorous as it may sound: