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District Judge Dismisses In-Game Gambling Case

Game of WarA District Judge has dismissed a case in which the plaintiff claimed an in-game casino feature contravened online gambling laws in California and Maryland.

In what could turn out to be a significant verdict for pro-online gambling advocates, a US District Judge in Maryland has dismissed a civil lawsuit in which the plaintiff claimed an in-game casino feature was an unlawful slot machine or device contrary to California Penal Code § 330b.

In addition to alleging that the in-game casino feature broke Californian laws relating to the provision of slot machines and unfair competition, plaintiff Mia Mason also sought the recovery of her own financial losses under Maryland´s Criminal Code § 12-110 – which is why the lawsuit was filed in Maryland.

The defendant in the case – Machine Zone Inc. of Palo Alto in California – sought to have the case dismissed; while Ms. Mason submitted a Motion for Class Certification in order that thousands of other players could recover their financial losses.

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The Case in a Bit More Detail

According to the lawsuit filed by Ms. Mason, she had downloaded and started playing the freemium mobile strategy game “Game of War: Fire Age” in early 2014. Although free to play, gamers can buy virtual gold to accelerate the construction of their towns and cities, and advance more quickly through the game.

Gamers also have the option to play at an in-game casino; where they can stake their virtual gold on the spin of a wheel to win more gold or resources that will help them throughout the game. Although there is no real-dollar value attached to the prizes, a secondary market exists for the buying and selling of Game of War accounts.

Ms. Mason alleged that she spent around $100 on the purchase of virtual gold that she subsequently lost at the in-game casino. She claimed that Machine Zone Inc. had acquired unjust enrichment through the operation of an illegal casino and, under Maryland´s Criminal Code, she should be entitled to recover the money as if it were a common debt.

Judge Bredar Kicks the Claim into Touch

District Judge James K. Bredar assessed the merits of the claim and threw it out. In his written verdict, the judge gave several reasons why the claim had no merit, but primarily ruled on the grounds that Ms. Mason had lost her money by purchasing the virtual gold to accelerate her progress through the game.

At the moment of the antecedent transaction Judge Bredar wrote, the plaintiff´s loss was complete. The judge wrote that as the as the virtual gold had no redeemable value, playing at the in-game casino with pretend gold did not constitute gambling and therefore was not in contravention of Maryland´s gambling laws.

The elements of the claim relating to the provision of an unlawful slot machine or device and unfair competition were also dismissed on the grounds that, properly viewed as a whole, Game of War: Fire Age was a game of skill and does not violate § 330b of the Californian Penal Code.

Possible Implications of Judge Bredar´s Verdict

Although any connection between this case and the ongoing efforts to regulate online gambling throughout the US are fairly tenuous, there are some significant takeaways. Possibly most significant is the judge´s opinion that the court does not sit in judgement of the entertainment choice that the plaintiff and others like her have made.

In the context of this case, that statement could be interpreted as the court´s reluctance to accommodate civil litigation against the providers of online games based on skill. Taken out of context, the court´s reluctance could be equally applied to providers on online poker – subject to online poker being considered a game of skill in the jurisdiction where any future case might be heard.

In closing, the judge was particularly disparaging about the motives of the lawsuit. In the footnotes to his summary, Judge Bredar wrote:

In closing, the Court expresses its disapproval of lawsuits—like this one—that strain and strain but in the end never credibly allege an injury. This was a dubious action arising from an assortment of statutes and legal theories that, in the end, never coalesced. Lawsuits like this one needlessly add to the delay in resolving truly legitimate disputes.

Food for thought for parties opposed to regulated online poker.

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