Judge Tells Plaintiff That Paying Real Money For Virtual Gold Doesn't Somehow Lead To Gambling Law Violations

from the compounding-losses dept

Mason v. Machine Zone, Inc., wherein a Game of War player falls prey to Gamblor and expects the judicial system to extract her pound of flesh ~$100 from its neon claws.

The suit (PDF) by a Maryland woman named Mia Mason says she lost more than $100 and claims the casino is an unlawful “slot machine or device.” The court ruled that were it to apply Mason’s logic, one might declare skills-based game pinball to be an illegal gambling device as well.

The judge said that, even if he were to decide in the woman’s favor, determining the amount of damages she is owed would render him in the “unenviable position of pricing the conversion from virtual gold and chips to virtual wood and rock.”

“Such whimsical undertaking may spark the imaginations of children and ardent game enthusiasts, but it can have no place in federal court,” Judge Bredar ruled.

And so it goes throughout the decision, which examines each of Mason’s baseless claims in great detail. Mason doesn’t have a problem with the main gameplay of Game of War (despite her complaints railing against the evils of free-to-play games), but rather its (entirely optional) “wheel of fortune.” The chips to use on the “wheel of fortune” are time-released, which encourages impatient players to spend real money to obtain fake cash to spin the fake wheel to obtain fake money and/or virtual goods (wood, stone, etc.) for use in Game of War’s core gameplay.

Mason’s paid-for wheel spins evidently failed to return what she perceived to be $100 worth of code and pixels. So, she took the game’s creator to court under the dubious legal theory that Game of War’s virtual “wheel of fortune” violated California’s gambling laws.

The decision is well worth a read, not just for those who enjoy watching judges smack down irresponsible people who seek to hold others accountable for their own actions, but also for those who might be toying with the same sort of dubious legal action. Sure, free-to-play games are incredibly effective at exploiting a variety of human weaknesses, but it hardly follows that the exploiters should be forced to compensate those who participated voluntarily to their own detriment.

Judge James Bredar’s decision is full of wonderful moments, most of those hidden away in footnotes:

[D]efendant suggests that if the Casino function constituted the type of gambling activity proscribed in California, “it would be the user’s device itself that was made unlawful” under section 330b, a disconcerting notion given the wild popularity of GoW. Plaintiff retorts that “Defendant controls the software and network that supports the Casino . . . and caused Plaintiff’s device to act as a ‘discrete terminal’ for its Casino.” Plaintiff adds that “even if the phone itself was to be considered a gambling device . . . it’s Defendant’s own conduct . . . that rendered it as such.” Plaintiff’s notion that Defendant is solely responsible for a game that Plaintiff volitionally downloaded to her phone seems dubious…

[…]

In her opposition memorandum, Plaintiff posits that she has standing because Defendant’s allegedly unlawful conduct “occurred in and emanated from California.” The Court finds this assertion curious. In her Complaint, Plaintiff had alleged that the United States District Court for the District of Maryland has personal jurisdiction over Defendant because Defendant “conducts significant business transactions in this District, and because the wrongful conduct occurred in and emanated from this District.” Plaintiff, it seems, would have her cake and eat it too.

[…]

Plaintiff paid for the privilege of playing with Defendant’s in-game currency, and she got precisely what she bargained for. Under such circumstances it is not unjust for Defendant to retain the funds it received from Plaintiff; on the contrary, it would be unjust to return those funds to Plaintiff after she benefited from the enhanced gaming experience that “gold” evidently delivers.

[…]

In Plaintiff’s Complaint, she alleges that she spent more than $100 on “gold,” which she thereafter exchanged for chips to spin the Casino wheel. However, Plaintiff conveniently neglects to identify which Casino prizes she won. For all the Court can tell from the face of the Complaint, Plaintiff may have won a pile of “wood”—or a “gold” jackpot.

As the court points out, Game of War’s casino-esque “wheel” offers no “real world” payouts, making it less a gambling device and more a vehicle for entertainment. Bredar compares this game dynamic to other things people pay money for while expecting nothing but temporary amusement in return — like movie tickets.

In the end, it has nothing to do with gambling and everything to do with the plaintiff feeling she was somehow screwed out of her “investment” by Game of War’s payouts of virtual construction materials. That, however, isn’t an actionable tort.

At the outset of her Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that with free-to-play games of chance, “developers have begun exploiting the same psychological triggers as casino operators.” The Court does not doubt that gambling addiction is a real phenomenon and that the allure of an elusive jackpot can be powerful. Similarly powerful, the Court suspects, is the remorse a buyer may feel when she realizes that she has wittingly swapped her hard-earned cash for simulated gold. The Court does not sit in judgment of the entertainment choices that Plaintiff and others like her have made—but it will not allow Plaintiff to foist the consequences of those choices onto an entertainment purveyor that, at least on the face of this Complaint, appears to have done nothing wrong.

Hopefully, the failure of this lawsuit will discourage future remorseful buyers from bringing baseless lawsuits against companies that are similarly skilled at separating fools from their money. A string of purely voluntary transactions isn’t the best basis for a lawsuit. Mason’s attempt to use California’s gambling laws to sue the game’s creator in Maryland proves nothing more than her ongoing ability to be separated from her money.



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Comments on “Judge Tells Plaintiff That Paying Real Money For Virtual Gold Doesn't Somehow Lead To Gambling Law Violations”

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16 Comments
That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

They didn’t do what I wanted, so I tried to find someone to make them do it.
They said something that offended me, so I tried to get the college to expel them.
They do something I don’t agree with, so I tried to force them to do it my way.

Everyone gets a ribbon. Everyone is special. Everyone has to do what you want.

Welcome to Entitlement Wars.
Where players will appeal to every possible higher power to make others do what the player wants.
The player is the only important person, and if the rules don’t benefit them they are wrong & must be changed.
The Player claims others have similar rights, but want them revoked when they disagree with the Player.

Perhaps the life lesson for her is that maybe some people shouldn’t have access to games on their phones & in-app purchases. The larger lesson for society is that perhaps we’ve gone to far in telling people they are the center of the universe & can expect the world to conform to that idea.

That One Guy (profile) says:

What dictionary is she using?

The defining characteristic of ‘gambling’ is the fact that there isn’t a guaranteed reward. You don’t always get what you want, or get anything at all sometimes, that’s the entire point.

This has nothing to do with gambling, this is all about her trying to punish someone for her own poor impulse control, and I’m glad the court realized it.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: 1st rule of commerce

That’s a barbaric rule, under the most literal definition: the concept it represents is directly opposed to the concept of civilization itself.

One of the most fundamental pillars of civilization is specialization. Farmers become really good at farming, so that the rest of us don’t have to grow our own food, lifting everyone out of a basic subsistence lifestyle, and the rest of us learn to become specialized craftsmen, engineers, laborers, soldiers, teachers, doctors and so on, each becoming an expert at one thing, and look what it’s done for us!

I wear clothes I didn’t make, made from fabric spun from fibers from plants I didn’t grow. I drive a car so advanced that I literally couldn’t ever hope to build one like it from scratch if I devoted my entire life to it. Same goes with the computer I’m typing this on, not to mention the infrastructure needed to make both cars and computers run. My breakfast this morning contained ingredients from 3 different countries, and arrived at my location fresh and still fit for human consumption.

I’m able to do all these things, and so are you, because we’re able to implicitly trust that all these things around us that we don’t fully understand were produced by experts who do understand what they were doing and who did a good job. You may not think of it in those terms, but that basic expectation is there.

Caveat emptor is the antithesis of that. The idea that the responsibility for not getting screwed over in a purchase is on the buyer, not the seller, implicitly requires that the buyer be in a position to competently evaluate every purchase. It is, in effect, requiring everyone to become an expert on everything that affects their lives, and then when this inevitably fails, because in a specialized civilization even the most intelligent people simply don’t have the time or the brainpower to do so, saying that it’s their own fault for failing at something they should never have had to do in the first place.

Caveat emptor is victim-blaming at its very ugliest, and it’s a principle of barbarism, directly opposed to civilization. Can we please just drop it from our collective vocabulary already?

(Note: Before any of the usual suspects try to twist my words around, nothing I said here should be interpreted as saying anything about my opinion of any aspect of the legal case under discussion in this article. I just find the concept of caveat emptor repulsive.)

Wendy Cockcroft says:

Re: Re: 1st rule of commerce

Thus the Atlas Foundation’s take on the free market is utterly repudiated: as far as they’re concerned it depends on caveat emptor.

That said, buyers should not be overly trusting and it’s reasonable to check things out as much as possible before making a purchase. Though we should not be held responsible for the conduct of the seller, we are indeed responsible for making bad choices if we don’t understand the transactions we’re engaging in. This case is a prime example of the latter.

Josh in CharlotteNC (profile) says:

F2P

There’s a lot wrong in the free-to-play space, but a lawsuit isn’t the way to fix it.

It ultimately comes down to poor impulse control and some (or many) developers predatory exploitation of it. There are exceptions, but much of it is in games that have player-vs-player elements, which devolve into whoever pays the most, wins, and those who don’t pay can’t hope to compete.

Anonymous Coward says:

Footnote 12 is a doozy.
The judge is basically asking there why the hell are you suing here using a Californian law that has precedent that states you need to have standing in California and not somewhere else.

And then there is the judge pointing out that if he finds that the game would be illegal the plaintiff still wouldn’t get her money back since that would make the transaction she voluntarily engaged in illegal as well.

Mia Mason says:

Appeals Court

I personally Thank You all for your Comment’s. This Case is mainly for the those player’s involved in the class act suit prior to the changes in the terms of agreement for Class Act Law Suits Etc. This was written by Lawyer’s and presented on my behalf for the people (you). The State of Maryland (nor any other state) did not benefit from (any) Gambling Losses imposed in the game to Support the State Board of Education via the IN-APP Purchases, Thus Making the CASINO Illegal. Machine Zone may owe every state as well country a reasoning for having a Gambling Casino Feature within the Game as well some revenue or taxes.

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