Just as investors gambled on overhyped Facebook stock before its IPO, Facebook is encouraging its users to do a bit of gambling of their own to bring up its bottom line and further monetise the website. The first real-cash game went live yesterday, and it's called Bingo & Slots Friendzy.
Facebook knows that online gambling regulations differ across the world, and in the USA, it is practically a no-go. However, here in the UK - where deprived areas are famously lined with betting shops - gambling prints money. Daytime TV is plagued with tacky advert after tacky advert, practically screaming tedious, hack bingo jingles at the viewer and popular ITV2 programming like The Jeremy Kyle Show enjoys sponsorship from bingo websites. This move to Facebook is far more intriguing.
For an industry that trades in the hopes - and debt - of the 'temporarily embarrassed millionaire', as Steinbeck put it, according to some mothers, this new initiative looks all the more like it is going for the banned tactic Big Tobacco once favoured: start them young.
Published by JackPotJoy - which runs popular gambling franchises such as the Deal or No Deal cash game - parent company Gamesys says that as a GamCare Certified operator, the company takes "the issue of responsible gaming extremely seriously and are committed to providing a safe, fair and enjoyable responsible gaming service and providing members with the highest levels of player protection". But, according to parents TechEye has spoken with, Gamesys might as well be peddling the morally grey-area cash equivalent of putting high-sugar junk food at the front of the supermarket till, only much more damaging for the pocket, and, potentially, the child.
"If my child came and asked me for money to play on this, I'd be livid," one mother said, speaking with TechEye. "But then I couldn't blame him, it looks like a very simple child's game."
"Shame on Facebook for approving this app and of the app makers who think that it's OK to trick young adults into gambling by offering them what blatantly looks like a kids game," the mother continued.
Another said: "The bingo and gambling element of this app looks to be hidden behind a retro children's game, meaning it's going to appeal to younger children and teens. Using Alice in Wonderland references also doesn't help paint the app in a mature light.
"As a parent I'd be angry if I found my child on this. However, the way that it's designed looks as though the app is willingly trying to get kids hooked. A child won't think twice about putting money on an app that looks like this, but what concerns me is not only how much money could be lost but also the knock on gambling effect that could be kicked started through an app such as this."
Fortunately for Facebook and Gamesys, both have an easy get-out clause. Minors should not be using Facebook. The app requires a credit or debit card to play with real cash. This is an issue for responsible parents, not Facebook, and not Gamesys. Signing up is easy and requires the usual: name, address, telephone number, and ticking a box to confirm that you are 18 or older.
Depositing money into your account is where the age verification process comes in.
There are options - you can text or email a photograph of a passport, driving licence, or birth certificate to JackpotJoy which will then verify or deny it. Alternatively, there is a 'live chat' option which seems to be the standard model. A user is connected to a customer services spokesperson who then compares names and addresses to the electoral roll and details of the user's online footprint with 192.com. The verification process was fairly thorough and took about ten minutes, however, at no point did the customer service representative require proof that I was me other than what I'd said. There is not much more the website can do. It requires a certain level of trust that whoever is on the line is telling the truth, similar to Gamesys' policy of making sure the content will not be displayed to Facebook accounts under the age of 18.
Mum or Dad's iPad or Facebook profile is not accounted for, and we all know how successful keeping age-restricted content away from teenage boys has been.
Another mother, speaking with TechEye, agreed that even with these checks in place, it would probably be easy for a determined child to gain access. "A child will always find a way to get hold of something they aren't meant to," she said. "This app is the modern day equivalent of stealing money out of your parents purse to buy sweets. Kids are super savvy with PCs now, and are likely to get past age restrictions very easily."
Assuming that "boys will be boys" and a child's curiosity is a matter for the parents, why, then, do the game's numerous mascots look rather like Furbies? Unfortunately Gamesys would not return our queries and a media representative would only provide us with the press release.
As for Facebook itself, we have little doubt that introducing a 'Casino', as it calls it, to the app section is a calculated move. One might remember the headlines that hit the web when Zynga's FarmVille first appeared on the social networking site. Introduce real money and other complex emotions, such as feeling worried, uncomfortable, anxious and inadequate, and the stakes are high.
Like the Las Vegas casinos that peddle slot junkies with free margaritas to keep them pressing buttons and pushing in quarters, Facebook has introduced more potential for addiction into an already addictive platform. If you're prone to addictive behaviour, there's only one way to be responsible with gambling: don't.