About the social casino games:Why do all people become addicted?

You’re not going to win your fortune on them, but as little as you like. Social casino games are websites or phone apps where you gamble just for fun, not for a payout. You can’t win any money from them, and they’re free to play — until they’re not. Popular games include bingo, poker and slots. On a game like slots, you’d start off with a certain number of free virtual coins. But if you run out and want to keep playing, you’ll need to pay up. Actual online casino gambling — as in, playing these games for money — is banned in Australia. But in social casino games, you can’t win anything — so it’s technically not gambling, and is much less regulated than the real thing. The global social casino market generates billions in revenue each year. For some people, these gambling simulators are just as harmful as the real thing. Last month, a Mackay woman was jailed after stealing nearly $1 million to fund her social casino game addiction, while a Perth man spoke of sinking $800 on a virtual slot game in a matter of minutes. But you can’t win anything real on these games, and you can’t cash out. So how do people get hooked on them?

It isn’t about the money!!

Gambling has a “universal appeal of risking something for reward”, according to addiction expert Sally Gainsbury. “Even when that reward is not material in the sense of having monetary value, it still has value for the user,” she says. While you’ll never get rich from a social casino game, it still feels like you’re winning a prize. So when you run out of free virtual chips, it can be hard to stop playing. “Within these games, the lights and sounds are very similar to an actual gambling environment … they give you that same rush of dopamine … and that’s what people are paying to receive,” Dr Gainsbury explains. As dopamine expert Anna Lembke has told 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, enjoy a drink with a friend — our brains release the chemical dopamine in what’s referred to as the reward pathway,” she says. “It’s a particular circuit in the brain that processes pleasure and reward.”

Maybe it also leave us craving more

If we see something that reminds us of our favourite social casino game, like an ad or a notification to keep playing, our brain releases a tiny bit of dopamine in the reward pathway. If we remember how much fun it was the last time we did something like this, even more dopamine is released! Apps are programmed to draw you in
Matthew Rockloff, head of the Experimental Gambling Research Laboratory at Central Queensland University, says there’s a social element to social casino games. “Even though there’s no possibility of withdrawing funds, you can advertise your winnings to other people, and share how well you’re doing,” he says. Many social casino games will also include features like leaderboards, where Professor Rockloff says you can “lord your winnings over others, [which is part] of the entertainment and fun of the experience”. “But that’s also potentially the downside because it can walk you into contributing more,” he says. Without payouts, it doesn’t cost the operators of social casino apps anything to let users win. This means many are programmed to have you win more often than you would in an actual casino gamble. Dr Gainsbury says this encourages people to play more and hooks them in. “You don’t know how likely it is you’re going to win, you don’t know how long you have to play,” she says. “That means people are going to play for longer and spend more money in the hopes that the next big win might be around the corner.”

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