Casino games

What are social casino games and why do people get addicted?

You can’t win money with them, and they’re free to play – until they’re not.

Social casino games are websites or phone apps where you play just for fun, not for payment.

Popular games include bingo, poker and slot machines.

On a game like slot machines, you will start with a certain number of free virtual coins. But if you run out and want to keep playing, you’ll have to pay.

Real online casino games – like playing these games for real money – are banned in Australia. But in social casino games you can’t win anything – so it’s technically not a game, and it’s much less regulated than the real thing.

The global social casino market generates billions in revenue every year. For some people, these game simulators are just as harmful as the real thing.

Last month, a Mackay woman was jailed after stealing nearly $1million to fund her social casino gambling addiction, while a Perth man spoke of sinking $800 on a slot machine virtual in minutes.

But you can’t win anything real on these games, and you can’t cash out. So how do people get addicted to them?

It’s not about the money

Sally Gainsbury, director of the University of Sydney’s Gambling Treatment and Research Clinic, says gambling has a “universal appeal of risking something for a reward”.

“Even when that reward isn’t material in the sense of having monetary value, it still has value to the user,” she says.

Social casino games often mimic the look and sounds of real gambling activities like slot machines.(ABC Everyday: Rachel Rasker)

Even though you will never get rich from a social casino game, you will always feel like you are winning a prize. So when you run out of free virtual chips, it can be hard to stop playing.

“In these games, the lights and sounds are very similar to a real game environment…they give you the same dopamine rush…and that’s what people are paying to get,” says Dr. Gainsbury .

As dopamine expert Anna Lembke said on the All In The Mind podcast, dopamine makes us feel super high and happy, so we seek out the substances and activities that give us that feeling.

“When we experience something pleasurable — we eat chocolate, have sex, have a drink with a friend — our brain releases the chemical dopamine in what’s called the reward pathway,” she says.

“It’s a particular circuit in the brain that processes pleasure and reward.”

A screenshot of the
You can use real money to buy virtual coins or chips in a social casino game.(ABC Everyday: Rachel Rasker)

But it can also make us want more.

If we see something that reminds us of our favorite social casino game, like an advertisement or a notification to keep playing, our brain releases a tiny bit of dopamine in the reward pathway.

“So even without… engaging in the behavior, just remembering it releases dopamine, which is followed by a mini state of dopamine deficiency, which is craving,” says Dr. Lembke.

Apps are programmed to attract you

Matthew Rockloff, director of the Experimental Gambling Research Laboratory at Central Queensland University, says there is a social element to social casino gaming.

“Even if there is no possibility of withdrawing funds, you can announce your earnings to other people and share your performance,” he says.

Many social casino games will also include features such as leaderboards, where Professor Rockloff says you can “dominate your winnings over others, [which is part] entertainment and the pleasure of the experience”.

“But that’s also potentially the downside, because it can incentivize you to contribute more,” he says.

Without payouts, it costs nothing for social casino app operators to let users win.

This means that many are programmed to make you win more often than you would in a real casino.

Dr Gainsbury says it encourages people to gamble more and gets them hooked.

“You don’t know how likely you are to win, you don’t know how long you have left to play,” she says.

“It means people are going to play longer and spend more money in the hope that the next big win is near.”

Are you or a loved one struggling with an online social casino game? There are a range of free resources and online treatment options that can help.