Casinos dangle funny money to lure customers

Think of it as the candy cigarettes of the casino industry.

Players lose no actual money on the online games recently unveiled by Plainridge Park Casino. But they can still win — and win big. It is meaningless points that players accrue on the games, but it’s a heady feeling nonetheless to see your tally soar into the stratosphere.

Natasha Dow Schull, a New York University professor who studies the gambling industry, tells the Globe’s Sean Murphy the goal is to “prime your system for gambling — to hook you in.”

Welcome to yet another front in the state’s new gambling enterprise — the only industry state government essentially partners with while also expressing misgivings about having it succeed too wildly.

Schull says the sites — known in the business as “social gaming” — have a bait-and-switch dynamic because the winnings they offer are greater than those at real slots facilities. A spokesman for Penn National, the owner of Plainridge Park, says players have the same odds of winning as at real slots in terms of the “percentage of spins” that pay off.

“But the jackpots are far higher, creating the illusion of success,” Murphy writes about the online faux slots.

The site also uses players to try to help promote Plainridge, offering them extra points to click a button to email friends about the online games.

“It’s marketing and advertising to get people to come to your casino,” one Las Vegas consultant tells the Globe.

All of that should be welcomed by the state, which gets nearly half (49 percent) of the gambling revenue at Plainridge. What’s more, Plainridge has had a horrible start, with projected revenue for its first year now roughly half of what was originally forecast. Anything that can boost its bottom line means revenue for the state.

But the state’s casino legislation also committed Massachusetts to the most ambitious program in the country to combat compulsive gambling — just the sort of thing some critics say “social gaming” can act as a gateway drug for. The $15 to $20 million a year that casinos are expected to send to a trust fund to research and treat gambling addiction will roughly double the amount spent on such programs across the entire country.

The state gambling commission, in a statement, said the social gaming being promoted by Plainridge — in which no money changes hands — does not come under its purview. But it suggested it is keeping a close eye on the ever-changing gambling landscape.

“We continue to closely monitor the introduction of new gaming trends and we will take the appropriate steps when and if necessary to ensure the integrity of the state’s gaming industry,” the statement said.




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