If you've browsed the mainstream press recently - and read beyond the news of the new UK Prime Minister - you may have noticed a story ripe with controversy. The perennially popular Grand Theft Auto Online has recently enabled the ability to spend real money in a fictional casino.
Grand Theft Auto, of course, has always courted controversy. Many will even tell you it does so deliberately. Gambling, rightly so, is a pastime that is closely regulated. And through recent scandals like loot boxes, game monetisation that potentially apes the mechanisms of gambling has come under intense scrutiny, even seeing the games industry summoned to the House of Commons.
In the case of Grand Theft Auto Online, an in-game casino has been newly opened to players. Inside, they can spend in-game currency earned through gameplay on a spread of defining casino games, such as roulette and slot machines. There's no obligation play these mini-games; doing so might allow players to raise fictional currency to spend in the wider game; but it isn't a requirement to progress in the wider game.
Fictional currency has long been a part of the GTA series. Long before free-to-play mobile game monetisation founded a vast industry and demanded new forms of game design emerge, in-game currency in Grand Theft Auto simply gave players something to aim for; earning money in missions or by exploring the city let them buy new vehicles, safe houses or weapons which could be used to tackle more demanding tasks. In titles like GTA III in-game currency wasn't required to play the games; rather, it was a progression mechanic. Completing a mission usually granted some cash that could be spent tooling up for the next mission.
Back in the world of Grand Theft Auto Online - first released in 2013 as the online multiplayer mode for the sensationally successful Grand Theft Auto V- players have the option to spend real money on in-game currency, which can then be converted into chips to be spent in the new casino. Importantly, as the BBC points out, any in-game money earned in the casino cannot be cashed back out as real money using any official means. Real money that goes into the game stays in the game.
Grand Theft Auto Online players can secure $500,000 in GTA currency for every USD$10 (£8) invested.
At a time when the UK games industry, Government and regulators are wrestling with the notion that some video game monetisation mechanics may cross over with gambling, the UK gambling watchdog last week told MPs loot boxes as available in EA's FIFA 19 do not constitute gambling. The logic is that as players cannot officially monetise the loot boxes' contents, the mechanic does not count as gambling. After all, gambling is defined significantly by the motivation to earn money from the system as well as putting it in.
As such, Grand Theft Auto Online's newly added feature may never be seen as gambling in an official context. However, the headlines are bound to concern parents, guardians and those concerned by the potential negative impact of games. Grand Theft Auto Online, of course, an 18-rated game, but the medium is often seen as courting younger players, whether that is fair or not (certainly, many under 18s will likely gain access to the game).
However. not every country sees the new gambling system in GTA Online as problem free. Players are reporting that in several countries with strict gambling laws, the playable mini-games are simply being blocked. It is worth noting that some nations or regions will block gameplay mechanics that allude to or explicitly suggest gambling gameplay, even if no real money is involved. Simply put, in some destinations, even alluding to gambling is a step to far for video games.
Casinos are nothing new in Grand Theft Auto. 2004's Grand Theft Auto San Andreas introduced casinos with playable games such as blackjack and video poker; but only in-game money earned in game could be spent there. Before that, casino exteriors often decorated the world's of the early GTA titles.
Indeed, Grand Theft Auto Online's own controversial Diamond Casino location - made playable through the new The Diamond Casino & Resort update - has existed in the game for some six years. The location was draped with an 'opening soon' banner, inspiring much speculation from players. It has been rumoured as a playable location in Grand Theft Online ever since.
Beyond the recent headlines, will the Diamond Casino become a problem for the game's developers, Rockstar? That seems unlikely. Looking beyond the outcome with regard to the FIFA loot box system, controversy has rarely harmed Grand Theft Auto. In fact, it's likely a significant contributor the the series' status as a pop-cultural phenomenon and financial powerhouse.