Sun, 24 Oct 2021

Streaming services such as Twitch and YouTube Live are now a significant part of popular entertainment. These sites host millions of "live streamers" and tens of millions of daily viewers.

Streamers broadcast their lives and activities - often digital gaming - to audiences who interact and chat with them in real-time. Twitch, the dominant streaming platform, also currently houses around 150 channels offering the live broadcasting of real-money slot machine gambling - the most popular of these regularly receive over 100,000 views.

Slot streaming channels have recently made headlines. Well-known streamers have been racking up views and wagering and winning large sums of money. Criticism from other streamers has flowed in, such as Imane "Pokimane" Anys calling the hosted slots sites "sketchy" and "ethically ambiguous." And Felix "xQc" Lengyel eventually ended his slots streaming, concerned he was addicted to gambling and apologized for exposing his audience - which included underage youth - to gambling.

Age-gating and gambling

Research on Twitch is growing, particularly in relation to gambling streams. One of the first studies in this area found that approximately four per cent of adults in the United Kingdom watch gambling streams like the Twitch slot channels, compared to approximately 14 per cent who actually play such slot machine games online. This study also found a correlation between watching gambling online and self-reported problem gambling, but cause and effect remain unclear.

Live gambling streams inspire some important ethical and regulatory discussions. The media outcry over these streams often points to the risk of exposing youth to gambling. Age-gating, or age verification, on Twitch or elsewhere is minimal. A streamer can indicate that the stream is intended for mature audiences, but this does not restrict any viewer from clicking "Start Watching."

The decades-long norm of disregarding age-gating in digital games demonstrates how easy these sorts of barriers are to evade. This suggests new legal concerns for live streaming platforms that allow gambling to be broadcast.

Transparency and legal issues

A separate set of issues exist when it comes to transparency. Streamers may be committing malicious deception, or even outright fraud, if they fail to disclose affiliations with the gambling sites at which they play.

For example, some sponsorship contracts may entitle the streamer to regular balance "top ups." This involves a gambling site providing a free (or in casino terms, "comped") account balance refresh. This practice raises questions regarding advertising standards, as well as the safety and mental health of the streamers themselves - like xQc's concerns over a possible gambling addiction.

In addition, the underlying gambling activity itself could be illegal depending on the license status of the gambling website and geolocation of the streamer. Yet determining what is permitted is not always a simple task.

If the gambling website is hosted in one location, the streamer in another and the viewers are located around the world, which local, national and international laws apply? Compound this with a variety of currencies - like fiat, fungible crypto, non-fungible crypto, virtual currencies without cash value - not all of which are legal tender for gambling in all jurisdictions, and the complexity of the situation becomes clear.

Twitch's community guidelines are nevertheless clear that streamers must follow relevant laws, that illegal content is prohibited and that the platform will take action via suspensions or bans following investigations of reported illegal gambling.

In mid-August, Twitch announced a creator update prohibiting sharing links and referral codes to slots, roulette or dice games. The goal was "preventing harm and scams created by questionable gambling services that sponsor content on Twitch." As a blanket prohibition, it does not discern between licensed and unlicensed gambling sites and does not include poker, another commonly streamed game.

Why do people watch live gambling streams?

With this range of issues, why do people watch live gambling streams? For people experiencing problems with their gambling, they might turn to casino streams to cope with cravings. On a recent podcast episode of All Bets Are Off, a gambling addiction recovery podcast, two men discussed using live gambling streams as part of their recovery.

Alternatively, interest in these streams may be unrelated to gambling cravings and focus on entertainment, excitement or other gambling motivations like financial interests.

Our latest ongoing research explores viewing motives using data from Twitch live chat, alongside an analysis of the characteristics of Twitch's major slots stream videos.

Technological innovation has always developed more quickly than government rules that govern any given space. As a result, activities like slots streaming fall into an area of uncertainty. Ultimately, it seems that consideration of consumer protection in this space cannot solely be a government-regulated effort.

Given the complexity of jurisdictional rule and the potential harm that may arise from gambling, all stakeholders - streamers, platforms, game developers, consumers themselves, parents and more - have a role to play in ensuring that games and their many means of play and broadcast are, as Twitch declares as its goal, "a friendly, positive experience for our global community."

Broadcasting real-money gambling inevitably complicates the ethical practices of such a platform. Gambling live streams appear likely to become an increasingly important part of contemporary gambling practices in the years to come, and merit the closest study.

Authors: Brett Abarbanel - Director of Research, International Gaming Institute, University of Nevada, Las Vegas | Dimitrios Avramidis - Research Assistant, Centre for Gambling Research, University of British Columbia | Luke Clark - Director, Centre for Gambling Research at UBC, University of British Columbia | Mark R Johnson - Lecturer in Digital Cultures, University of Sydney The Conversation

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