Imagine an old blue-haired lady sitting on a vinyl swivel stool at the Mirage, clutching her rosary beads as she maxes out her bet on a Sex in the City slot machine — praying to Jesus that she hits that elusive progressive jackpot. This is a classic, stereotypical image of a gambler — a Tuscon retiree throwing her pension away into the night.
Now imagine a fourteen year-old kid sitting in front of his Alienware PC, praying aloud to GabeN, hoping against hope that the CS:GO Falchion chest he’s opening holds a Factory New StatTrak Black Pearl M9 Doppler. This is the avant garde, new and improved, quasi-legal gambling known as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, provided in-home by digi-game pipeline purveyor, Valve.
Some necessary background — CS:GO (cee ess go, in the kids’ parlance) is a first-person shooter that has been around for years. This, the fourth iteration was released in 2014. And while a reliably good seller, it didn’t really take off until the Machiavellian gamifiers over at Valve introduced a slot-machine aspect to the game. Custom weapons, or skins, could be found in in-game chests, openable only with keys bought directly from Steam at $2.50 a pop. The chest could contain a myriad of possible weapons, from the most common AK-47, to the rarest butterfly knife, having its own custom look and feel, and graded on an item quality scale that ultimately determines its real world value — anywhere from pennies to thousands of dollars.
While Steam’s online market maxes out the value you can technically purchase one of these found skins at $400 — users have used keys (buyable at $2.50 a pop) as a workaround for this, offering hundreds or thousands of keys for the rarest, most sought after skins, pushing their values into the tens of thousands.
If you doubt that this is actual gambling, I invite you to watch what should be considered one of the most boring viral videos of all time. It’s a popular user TmarTn, opening 350 cases for an enraptured live YouTube audience of CS:GO addicts. It has all of the allure of watching your blue-haired grandma play that slot machine for two hours. Except, instead of coaxing a Samantha orgasmic jackpot, TmarTn is pining for a bayonet Crimson Web Factory New. And, in classic gambling addict fashion, he tries random number combinations, he attempts to use his Harry Potter Elder Wand, he calls upon the power of GabeN and mines any other superstitions he can think of to manifest those ultra-rare skins:
Attempting to capitalize on this, dozens of third-party gambling sites have cropped up, allowing users to digitally wager their skins against each other and coin-flip for a winner take all version of Heads or Tails. As boring as this sounds, these sites have spiked in popularity, and generate unknown millions of dollars every year.
Of course, the reason that this has come to the forefront today, as revealed by h3hproductions, is that several of the most popular YouTubers who stream this CS:GO digital cockfighting (including TmarTn and ProSyndicate) also happen to own one of the most popular third-party CS:GO gambling sites — CSGOlotto.
The online gaming community, particularly Reddit, is going apey about this as we speak — trying to figure out how to properly digi-lynch these two young scam artists. And while that contains fun-filled drama — I think we should ask ourselves who spawned the idea of turning a video game into a digital slot machine? Who pioneered this method to extract money from teenagers via gamification? Is it even Gabe Newell and Steam? Is it Candy Crush? Is it Disney’s Star Wars Card Trader? Is it late stage capitalism playing itself out via addictive incremental progress freemium scams?
One thing is clear — regulators are completely fucked. Good luck successfully legislating this type of gambling out of existence when money is no longer involved. Good luck figuring out which digital commodity du jour, whether it be Diablo III gear, Magic the Gathering online cards, or Tap Tycoon diamonds are going to spawn their own virtual casinos. When everything is a currency, nothing is a currency. When you can gamble with Steam Dollars from home, what does it matter if your US dollar-jollies are restricted to the Hard Rock Casino and Mohegan Sun? How are you going to stop undesirables from laundering money when they do it with CS:GO weapon skins? While wholesale new currencies like Bitcoin struggle to find new adopters, gamified digi-currencies like frequent flier miles and Bank of America reward points are already ubiquitous. All they lack is the liquidity to turn one into another. And how far are we really from being able to pay our rent in Pokemon cards? Not as far as you might think.[EDIT] Update — In the face of a massive controversy, Steam acted quickly, announcing that it was ready to disavow any and all of the gambling sites that made use of Steam’s API to catalog skin inventories.
Here’s YouTuber, Quadmft, speculating about the impacts this decision will have on the CS:GO economy.