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16 September 2014

‘Come Into my parlour,’ said the spider...

 - Sunday, 29 April 2012, 00:00

by Pamela Hansen

Is anyone, like me, finding the current gaming rage very unclear as to its social repercussions? What is clear, however, is that our politicians are well sold on the burgeoning gaming industry.

I was surprised that on a recent visit to Betfair, – an online sports betting company that offers “best odds on Sports, Football and Horse Racing” and “safe and secure betting on Casino, Games and Poker” – Opposition leader Joseph Muscat was quoted as saying, “the gaming industry was a sector without political controversies”.

That was quite a telling statement. Because, although the two main political parties are in agreement that the gaming industry should flourish, the subject is proving contentious among the general public. So one can hardly say the sector is without political controversy.

The latest was over an application to open a gaming parlour in Senglea. Mepa turned it down on the grounds that it constituted “bad neighbourhood development”. However, the same owner had a similar application for another gaming parlour in neighbouring Cospicua accepted by Mepa. So my question to Mepa is this: Why is it seen as a “bad neighbourhood development” in one of the Three Cities, but not in the other?

Furthermore, like the present government, “bad neighbourhood development” does not seem to bother the Opposition either, “a Labour government would continue working to attract new gaming investors and to sustain the industry”, ensured Mr Muscat.

Now, one has to make the distinction between online gaming and parlours and the online games that do not involve betting or gambling and those that do. But are the politicians taking note of that difference. The company that Mr Muscat visited definitely falls within the gambling category. However, like other gaming companies Betfair is now branching out into social gaming.

Add the word “social” and it all becomes perfectly acceptable! And to make it even more OK, a digital games company are developing a family oriented digital game aimed at children, no less.

To be launched in the US, the makers, TRC Family Entertainment Ltd, hope the game will unite children and families worldwide since it will be a massively multiplayer online game, which can be accessed by thousands of users.

I read that the company is investing $6 million here and relocating its intellectual property to Malta, adding a further $18 million. Now, no one can quibble about a digital game aimed at children and families, which will bring in cash to our economy.

But, is this opening the right window of opportunity for other digital games, which are not so non-detrimental? Should Finance Minister Tonio Fenech have been more cautious about seeing this investment as a signal to the global digital games industry that Malta is a good location for the development of digital games.

Let us have a look at social digital gaming? Anyone on Facebook would have seen friends hooked on all kinds of harmless games. The point of them is that you do not play a solitary game but interaction is key.

It is also an extension to games families played together like Monopoly or Scrabble. “Social games must be multiplayer and are based on social platforms for providing users with an identity and are casual”, is one description I found while googling.

“Turn-based” was another term I found. That means a strategy game, usually some type of war game. Those are among the much more sophisticated games, which have replaced the old arcade games. There is no doubt that those are unleashing creative talent, are very marketable and that politicians are hoping will create lots of jobs.

Whether those war games are containing innate violence harmlessly, or dangerously unleashing it, is debatable. But like the bad neighbourhood syndrome, that is obviously not troubling our politicians.

“Government is committed to continue providing the necessary support and assistance that is required for firms (digital gaming sector) to establish themselves in Malta and contribute in our collective effort to generate wealth and create employment.

“Building on existing capabilities and unleashing our innovative capacity, Malta can become a regional centre for digital gaming... we can make it happen and transform this digital gaming strategy into a vibrant economic sector in the years to come,” said Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi in his keynote speech at the Digital Games Forum on Friday.

Now, some online commentators seem to believe that digital gaming is different to gambling. But is it? It is true that some online games do not involve gambling, yet, but what about online poker, Casino games and more?

“It has nothing to do with gambling being a moral issue. Families break up even if there is no gambling, and gamblers will risk bets even if Malta does not service this activity... Moralists would be better advised to support gamblers anonymous if they want to soothe their conscience,” said an online commentator.

Of course he was right that gamblers could place their bets online even if the company is not based here. He was also right that marriages break up for all sorts of reasons, but it must be noted that serious debts and bankruptcy brought about by gambling also takes its toll.

As to his last comment on morality, people who are objecting are not doing it to soothe their conscience but they are doing it out of social responsibility. Besides, the fact that we need a Gamblers Anonymous demonstrates we have a problem.

Now what is the difference between gaming parlours, which are sprouting as rapidly as tal pastizzi, and on line gaming? (I love the ‘parlours’ title. “Come into my parlour said the spider to the fly” is so apt). On line gaming is wider ranging and more diverse, since it also includes family and harmless games, as well as gambling games like card games, roulette and ‘violent’ games. Besides, one can access it in the comfort of one’s home, or at an Internet café. So the web is literally spreading.

We can be in no doubt that these firms are raking it in, whether our economy will get a sizable spin off and that at the cost of some social damage remains to be seen.

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