You might be looking at the world's youngest gambler

When Niharika Desai turned 13, a few months ago, her parents finally allowed her to create a Facebook account. One of Niharika’s primary reasons to get an account was to play the online games that her peers are addicted to.

Niharika says that she plays games like Angry Birds and Words with Friends. Rashmi, Niharika’s mother isn’t happy that her daughter plays games online but says that she keeps a strict watch on her online activities and the games she plays. “Niharika seems to be playing harmless games for now but I am always worried that she may discover and get captivated by games that use virtual money and has gambling undertones,” says Desai.

Desai’s fears are not unfounded; a recent report in The Daily Mail newspaper, UK, said that of late there has been a growing voice of alarm against Facebook for ‘creating a generation of gambling addicts with their plethora of Las Vegas styledcasino games’.

A number of games on the site are slot machine and poker based ones including titles like Jackpotjoy and Double Down Casino. In the report, Dr Carolyn Downs, of the University of Salford said that she woke up to the threat when her 13-year-old daughter got upset after losing some virtual money in a game called Fluff Friends. Downs said in the report: ‘It’s well-established that the younger the children start gambling, the more likely it is they will become habitual gamblers and also problem gamblers…It’s a long-term, life-long risk. What we’re doing is setting up these kids to be problem gamblers as they go through life.’

Seema Hingorany, clinical psychologist and trauma expert, endorses Downs’ view and says that there is a strong possibility that children who begin playing young run the risk of becoming habitual gamblers because the thrill of winning and the greed of making money, even if it is virtual, can extend to becoming a reality. “Habitual gamblers have serious addictions; once they start they can’t stop. Also playing games becomes a way of instant gratification which they can’t handle later in their life,” says Hingorany.

Start young
Facebook states 13 as the minimum age limit for registration and playing games. Since there is no way to authenticate the age, in reality, there are plenty of children out there who are much younger but have registered and are pretending to be older. Hingorany feels that at 13 one is way too young to begin gaming or even spending much time online. “When teens marinate in online gaming too early, it can increase antisocial activity, gambling and cheap thrills and decrease empathy for others. Research also says that such teens have a propensity to be more aggressive and it creates all sorts of emotional disturbances, including increased anxiety, sleep disruption and nightmares.”

Sudipto Majumdar, avid gamer who creates amateur games in his leisure hours and was for the longest time associated with one of the biggest players in the Indian gaming industry, says that most gaming companies create content for the 12-plus age group. Majumdar adds that teenagers do not know how to handle money or know its value since they have no idea about earning money. “Betting games online are addictive and even if one starts playing with virtual money many will soon graduate to real money and this can be dangerous.”

Fear factor
According to Vijay Mukhi, cyber security expert, one of the biggest fears associated with online gaming is that most of these games are multiplayer games and children can end up associating with dangerous people online. “It is anonymous; one has no idea who one is playing with. It has been noticed that the kind of people one associates with online are those one will end up meeting offline.”

Games2win is among the top twenty gaming companies in the world. Tejas Shah, who leads business intelligence and partnerships at Games2Win says that the core audience for their games are teens and tweens which is typically the age group 10-18. Shah says, there are many genres in the online gaming sphere and a lot of it is fun without any betting elements. He states that Games2Win does not produce content that involves betting; neither would they want to go that way. Games2Win, however does have games that use virtual currency. “The difference is how it is being used. For example, if one uses virtual currency to buy something to enhance your game or to continue playing ahead, the user gets something back for the money that he has spent.”

Under lock and key
What are the checks one can put in place to steer one’s child away from games that might have betting undertones? Desai says that she allows her daughter to play online games for only twenty minutes a day. Mukhi says, that in order to steer teenagers from becoming online gaming addicts one of the safeguards one can put in place is a physical lock on the computer when parents are not around or are sleeping. “A software lock is not of much use because it can be cracked. A physical lock is important because when parents sleep the computer sleeps and children can’t misuse it.”

Dr Pervin Dadachanji, adolescent and child psychiatrist says that computers should always be placed either in a common rooms or the parents’ room, time and content of programmes need to be monitored and parents need to keep a look out for signs of disappearing money, isolation or secrecy. “It is also important to stress on outdoor play and parents need to always stay connected with one’s child,” says Dadachanji.

Hingorany feels that a growing teen is one who is riding on an emotional roller coaster and it is a phase when they struggle to develop their own identity and as a result become dependent on virtual games. “Parents need to communicate the pitfalls of being online, monitor a child’s online activities and not allow any online games that allow virtual money,” shesays.  

Games That Make You A Real Hero
Not all online games encourage gambling and violence. Game designer Jane McGonagall in her classic TEDTalk pointed out how online games like World of Warcraft inspire people to think like heroes.

Here are some game changers:
>>World Without Oil: Created by McGonigal in this game, players must get creative to survive the massive global oil shortage. The game teaches easy ways to use less oil in the real world.
>> Way: In a world, which is becoming smaller the sooner we start embracing different cultures the easier it will be. This is an online game where two anonymous players, from different locations around the globe, learn how to speak to each other as they navigate obstacles.
>> Evoke: Also created by McGonigal along with the World Bank Institute; this game is a 10-week crash course in social innovation. It gives players challenges linked to food security and urban resilience and encourages them to function like think tanks.
>> Plot Form: Giving can be fun and this game shows you how. Currently fundraising to build homes for teenagers in Tanzania, Plot Form lets players donate and pick out building materials, colours and more for parts of the homes. 

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