Sam Leith Sam Leith

How do we draw the line between gambling and gaming?

A gamer plays Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (Credit: Getty images)

‘Skins gambling,’ anyone? No, until yesterday, me neither. It’s nothing to do with strip poker or 70s bovver boys. It’s the name given to a completely unregulated gambling industry, aggressively promoted to teenagers and estimated to be worth multiple billions of pounds a year – yes, billions with a b.

One reason this isn’t a major scandal, I think, is that it will sound too far-fetched and too obscure and confusing to the sorts of people who we might hope would be scandalised into doing something about it. But so it was, too, with credit default swaps. So let’s try to explain. (I’m largely indebted for my own understanding to reading the investigative reporter Rob Davies, whose work on gambling is first rate.) 

The websites where this gambling takes place are casinos in all but name. But instead of gambling cash in the hopes of making more cash, you gamble cash in the hopes of earning rare and valuable ‘skins’ for an online action game called Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. ‘Skins’ – originally meaning a customisable suit of pixels so your in-game character can look like the Joker, or Marge Simpson, or what have you – have come to be a metonym for all sorts of virtual in-game swag that can give a player bragging rights or a competitive edge: fancy guns, cool face-masks, unique hairdos.

The websites where this gambling takes place are casinos in all but name

I know, it’s mystifying, but gamers really dig this stuff; and by gamers, I mean your kids. The bleed-through between real-world and virtual economies has been going on for decades. Rare items of in-game loot are sometimes bought and sold for many thousands of real-world dollars. ‘Gold farms’ – factories where workers in the developing world play videogames all day to mine virtual resources for cash-rich, impatient westerners – are a weird but real thing, and have been for ages.

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