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Should the games industry be worried about the rise of gambling?

The rise of eSports is an invitation to bookmakers, argues Ed

Last week Microsoft unveiled World Series of Poker: Full House Pro Official for Xbox Live Arcade, a free-to-play sim designed to carve off a share of the monstrous, well-entrenched online card gaming market, following in the footsteps of paid-for titles like Full House Poker and Poker Smash.

In itself, this is nothing to get worked up about - the game is a tidy, well-presented little package, playable across Xbox 360, tablets and PCs, and wagers aren't made in real cash. If you're a parent, fear not - your progeny aren't going to spend you into a state of casual criminal activity while your back's turned. However, the presence of free-to-play card-sharping on Xbox hints at a broader market shift I'm not entirely comfortable with.

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Gambling isn't a damaging pastime for most - millions gamble regularly across the globe without losing control over their finances. Chances are if you're reading this, you've bet £10 or so on a team or horse in the recent past and thought nothing more of it. However, the number of what are termed "problem" cases is on the rise - up in the UK by 200,000 to 450,000 across 2007-2010, according to a survey conducted by the Gambling Commission, with another 900,000 at "moderate risk" of becoming problem gamblers.

This is partly because gamblers are popping up in unexpected places - as reported by The Independent, bookmakers have taken full advantage of online platforms to reach those who don't visit their branches, like stay-at-home spouses and gadget-equipped city boys. The UK gambling market is predicted to be worth over £2 billion by the end of 2013.

The nature and pace of this expansion may seem familiar - it calls to mind the explosion in browser-based "social games" during more or less the same period. Parallels between gaming and gambling go back further than that, however - you used to find both one-armed bandits and Street Fighter down the arcades, and partly as a consequence, games and gambling share a visual vocabulary, all scattershot bling and giant slabs of fruit. Sonic 2's Casino Night Zone is a level-sized homage to those common origins.

Both industries have built on this shared terrain. In keeping with the rest of the digital trade, gambling services often "gamify" their offerings to ease in new players. Developers, meanwhile, frequently use gambling as an in-game diversion or supporting mechanic - take the PlayStation-era Final Fantasy titles, for instance, or Black Ops 1's Wager Matches.

There's nothing all that sinister about such crossover, were it not for a couple of more recent developments. One, the upfront-payment model appears to be flat-lining, and publishers are accordingly experimenting with a range of alternative revenue models.

The most common categories are ad-supported experiences and micro-transactions, but EA has also quietly road-tested the element of chance as a motivator to pay up - the precise contents of FIFA 13 Ultimate Team player packs (and Mass Effect 3's gear packs) are unknown till you plonk the dosh. It's a sweet idea, redolent of buying packets of trading cards, and hardly the kind of thing you write outraged letters to your MP about, but it may propel things in an undesirable direction.

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Two, the eSports business is on the march, attracting tens of millions of viewers worldwide, and publishers are racing to keep up. Black Ops 2's CODcasting is Activision's attempt to turn a mere mega-shooter into a national pastime akin to South Korea's love for StarCraft. Microsoft Studios has long maintained close ties with pro-player outfits like Major League Gaming, and is now trying to fatten that particular wedge by organising the world's largest global Halo tournament.

Gambling and sports go hand in hand, of course - there's barely a real-world sport on this planet you can't bet on - and as videogames complete their descent from culture's attic, so the likelihood that they will join football in the arms of Ladbrokes and co increases.

I can't say I welcome the prospect. Again, gambling does no harm to a majority of those who indulge - but when it does, the consequences can be severe. Gaming is still weathering mistrust as to so-called "links" between violent media and violent behaviour, along with general misgivings about the industry's rapport with children and young adults. Is an escalating risk of impulsive control disorder really an ingredient we want to add to that mix?

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