When GTA Online first went live in 2013, it was little more than a small addition to GTA V’s excellent single-player campaign. If anything, Online was considered to be grossly inferior as it lacked many single-player features, the most notable of which were Heists. It was generally recommended to play GTA V for the story first and then maybe try Online for messing around with friends. As time went on however, Online has turned into the primary moneymaker (both figuratively and literally) for GTA V, gradually dwarfing the single-player in every aspect from weapons, vehicles, features, and even story progression to some extent.
The latest GTA Online exclusive feature is the Diamond Casino. Released in July 2019, the Diamond Casino update apparently delivered “record player engagement,” a mildly ambiguous term. Less ambiguously, player spending in GTA V allegedly shot up by 23% during the same period. Considering that Take Two Interactive (Rockstar’s parent company) apparently made $317.4 million, or around 37% of their net revenue, in 2019 thanks to in-game purchases, this is a very worrying sign of the future of gaming. It is especially concerning that in-game purchases are such an explosive and, worse yet, consistent source of revenue.
For all of its faults, GTA Online never stooped to the level of having random mystery purchases like loot boxes or some such. It has plenty of other problems, but random transactions was never one of them. Sure, that shiny new flying rocket bike may cost $100 in real life money if you don’t want to grind for days on end, but you’re always going to get the bike if you spend the $100. Of course, with all the expensive and ridiculous vehicles that are now in the game, this almost certainly leads to player burnout. As fun as the Online Heists are, it gets a little discouraging if every new vehicle costs millions. It would also be natural for the player base, and thus player spending, to shrink over time anyway since other games exist.
In spite of this, player spending shot up with the Diamond Casino update. A slight increase would’ve been somewhat expected, as people will always pay real money for fake stuff, but a 23% increase of anything is astronomical. It’s not like the update added that many new vehicles or features—or at least that would be the case if it weren’t for the Casino itself. As one may expect, it has the usual array of casino games. Horse racing, slot machines, blackjack, things of that sort. You can convert up to $20,000 in GTA money per hour into an equivalent amount of chips. You then gamble using those chips. However, you can buy GTA money with real money. If you squint your eyes really hard, you can almost pretend that it’s not real gambling.
Of course, gambling in games isn’t the problem per se. The addition of a few games of chance can actually be tasteful. Fallout: New Vegas for example had plenty of gambling minigames. The difference is that it's literally impossible to spend real money on New Vegas’ minigames regardless of how hard you try. Plus it’s not like you can win anything of value. What makes GTA Online’s Diamond Casino so problematic is that real money is clearly being spent on it. Even if, by some miracle, real money isn’t being spent on the Casino, the fake money has clear, real-life value (see also Shark Cards). There's no accountability, no oversight, and definitely no transparency on how the Diamond Casino is "operated." At bare minimum there should be a warning about the dangerous effects of gambling, but that's evidently too much work for Rockstar.
Disregarding any legal issues that pop up with GTA’s Diamond Casino, of which there are clearly plenty given how the Casino is not available in some regions, there are moral and ethical concerns as well. Everyone should be familiar with how loot boxes and mobile games are exposing kids to gambling mechanics and preying on those who have self-control issues. Well, now there’s something that’s such a transparent case of gambling that it's almost insulting. It's a transparent case of gambling in a very popular game that kids are undoubtedly playing no less. Sure, kids shouldn’t be playing GTA V to begin with, but that’s not going to stop in a million years. If the gaming community as a whole went after EA for Star Wars Battlefront 2's loot box mechanics for vaguely similar moral reasons, then surely GTA V's Diamond Casino should be put under similar scrutiny.
If the introduction of loot boxes into gaming was the opening of Pandora’s Box, then the Diamond Casino smashed Pandora’s Box to bits with a comically oversized hammer. For decades, no major developer ever dared to create something that can be so clearly linked to real gambling. Whether it was due to ethical and moral reasons or plain old fear of public backlash is largely irrelevant. Indeed, it's doubtful that normalizing virtual gambling was Rockstar's ultimate goal when GTA V first came out. That might very well be the end result though if we aren't careful.