U.S. Fourth Circuit - The FindLaw 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

Game of War Survives Class Action Gambling Challenge

Game of War is one of the most popular, most addicting games this side of Farmville. A "freemium" mobile game, Game of War allows you to build a pixilated empire, constructing cities, building armies, raiding neighbors.

But it was also an unlawful "gaming device," according to one putative class action. The game allows users to spin a virtual wheel for virtual prizes in a virtual casino. That feature, the suit alleged, violated Maryland gambling laws. But the suit was recently tossed by the Fourth Circuit, which found that the plaintiff hadn't lost money playing the game, and thus had nothing to recover.

Game of War's Virtual Casino

The case, Mason v. Machine Zone, Inc., involves the virtual gambling aspect of Game of War. As the Fourth Circuit explains, in an opinion full of more scare quotes than we've ever seen before, Game of War users can buy "gold" to obtain "chips" to gamble in the Game of War casino, by "spinning" a virtual wheel. Prizes include "resources," like "wood" or "stone," or even a "treasure chest." If players win enough virtual gold, they can sell their account on a "secondary market."

Here, Mia Mason paid about $100 for casino gold. She later sued under Maryland's Loss Recovery Statute, which also recovery of money lost at a prohibited gaming device.

According to Mason, Game of War had rigged the odds, so that she only "won" prizes that were worth less than what she paid to spin the wheel.

No Real Winners, No Real Losers, No Lawsuit

The district court, however, found that Mason hadn't actually lost money and dismissed her suit. The Fourth agreed. An initial requirement of the Loss Recovery Statute is the loss of money, the Fourth explained. That also requires someone to win money.

Every time Mason spun the wheel, though, Machine Zone, the company behind Game of War, didn't win or lose money. The cost of gold was the same, no matter how many pieces of wood or stone players won gambling, and no matter whether a user spent their gold gambling or just buying extra "resources."

"Indeed," the court explained, "Machine Zone retained the money that Mason paid to obtain virtual gold regardless of the outcome of Mason's spin of the virtual wheel."

Players could never really beat the house, or lose to it, since there was no real money at stake.

Further, the court explained, the statute's reference to "money" couldn't be read to encompass virtual game goods like gold or wood. "Such a construction would improperly expand the reach of the Loss Recovery Statute."

With that, the court determined that Mason had failed to state a claim cognizable under the Loss Recovery Statute.

The ruling, perhaps, is not the most groundbreaking decision ever. But, it could have impacts on future disputes involving virtual worlds and freemium games, which can generate massive revenue from user's compulsive play. In one criminal case connected to Game of War, for example, a California man was accused of spending more than $1 million of embezzled money on the game. Games like Candy Crush, Farmville, and Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, routinely allow players to bet the farm, all for an extra turn or a shot at winning some fancy virtual bobble.

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