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Big Fish Casino Ruled Illegal in Washington State

Posted Thursday, May 3, 2018 by Kyle Straughan

Big Fish Casino is a mobile game published by the Seattle company, Big Fish Games, owned by parent company Churchhill Downs. In the game, players spend virtual “chips” in order to play simulated version of various casino games, much like a real-life casino uses chips. Limited amounts of the chips can be obtained in game, or more can be purchased for real money. In 2015, a woman lost over $1000 in the virtual chips while playing Big Fish Casino, and sued Churchhill Downs for the loss, basing her claim on the Washington statute that states that anyone who loses a “thing of value” to an illegal gambling operation has legal ground to recover said losses.

The lower court ruled that the virtual chips were not a “thing of value” under the statute, but the appeals court has reversed that decision. Judge Milan Smith, writing the opinion, noted that Washington’s illegal gambling statute defines a “thing of value” as “…any money or property, any token, object or article exchangeable for money or property, or any form of credit or promise, directly or indirectly, contemplating transfer of money or property or of any interest therein, or involving extension of a service, entertainment or a privilege of playing at a game or scheme without charge.” Thus, because the chips could be used to allow the player to play more games, and were in fact required in order to play the games, thereby “extending” the service, they qualified as a “thing of value” under the statute.

Currently the video game industry remains a hotbed of debate over the legality of various business models, chief of which is the “lootbox” debate. Lootboxes, generally speaking, are virtual containers that contain one or more randomized items or things used in the game. Rather than buying an item directly, the user purchases lootboxes which may or may not contain said item. Currently most video games do not allow users to exchange their accounts, items, or currency for real money, which the Big Fish court noted should be sufficient to prevent them from being viewed as illegal gambling. In other words, the existence of a “black market” for the items or accounts does not inherently grant them value when the owner of the game has contractually forbidden the exchange.

Big Fish Casino Ruled Illegal in Washington State ›› Ruttler Mills PLLC