The annual report of the UK's Gambling Commission releases later today, but the BBC has had an early look. And it seems like finally the regulator is waking up, warning "children as young as 11 are using so-called skin betting websites, which let players gamble with virtual items as currency."
The report goes on to say that the commission "had identified third party websites that enabled players to gamble their skins on casino or slot machine type games and then these could later be sold and turned into real-world money. It said cracking down on the industry was a top priority."
I've used skin betting websites before, particularly with CS: GO. Back in the day I'd have skins riding on almost every match in any given major, not in any especially structured manner but because I was all Counter-Strike all the time and this was a part of it. As I'd imagine is the case with most players, I first found these sites while looking to trade away a valuable gun. I always thought they were a good laugh but, at the same time, I was an adult with a job and disposable income and knew exactly what I was doing.
Concern about skin betting sites is not hand-wringing. Fundamentally, these kinds of things came along when I was an adult. When I was playing games as a child/teenager, and this isn't rose-tinted spectacles, the industry was much less predatory – but the increasing number of tools available to third parties over the last decade have led to open season with virtual goods.
The BBC's report includes the example of Bangor University student Ryan Archer, who got involved in skin betting when he was 15.
"I'd get my student loan, some people spend it on expensive clothes, I spend it on gambling virtual items," he said.
"There have been points where I could struggle to buy food, because this takes priority."
"It's hard to ask your parents for £1,000 to buy a knife on CSGO, it's a lot easier to ask for a tenner and then try and turn that into £1,000."
"You wouldn't see an 11-year-old go into a betting shop, but you can with this, there's nothing to stop you," Ryan said.
Some readers may recall that, earlier this year, Youtuber Craig 'Nepenthez' Douglas plead guilty to two charges under the UK Gambling Act 2005. Douglas and his business partner Dylan Rigby were fined and ordered to pay costs, with District Judge Jack McGarva saying at sentencing:
“The aggravating features of these offences are they were committed over a relatively long period of about six months. Children were gambling on your site. It’s impossible for me to know how many or the effect on them. In my opinion, both of you were aware of the use of the site by children and the attractiveness of it to children. At the very least, you both turned a blind eye to it.”
The strongest argument against skin betting sites comes from the chief executive of the Gambling Commission, Sarah Harrison. "Because of these unlicensed skin betting sites, the safeguards that exist are not being applied and we're seeing examples of really young people, 11 and 12-year-olds, who are getting involved in skin betting, not realising that it's gambling.
"At one level they are running up bills perhaps on their parents' PayPal account or credit card, but the wider effect is the introduction and normalisation of this kind of gambling among children and young people."
This is really the crux of it. I enjoyed my time betting skins on CS:GO but is it the kind of pastime suitable for children or even teenagers? It seems so far removed from actual money, but then the money isn't really what matters – it's the way that these kind of activities form habits, the associations they create and, ultimately, their potential to in extreme cases ruin lives. The games industry has long failed to confront this problem, and given the young age of the targets that seems increasingly shameful. Across the world, not just the UK, you can feel a change coming – regulation is no magic bullet but, given where we are, it would be a start.
The office for National Statistics will be publishing the report later today.