Since the Atari age, playing computer games has been an activity largely free of the profit motive. The exception: shoot-em-up tournaments such as the Cyberathlete Professional League $150,000 2000-player Half-Life championship.
Zoogi has two components. The first is a website where players deposit money from their credit cards into a Zoogi account. The second is an instant messenger-type program that filters players, based on the games they like to play – any one-on-one game, from Scrabble to Age of Empires is OK – and the sites they like to play on.
Matched-up gamers then chat and challenge one another, deciding how much they’ll bet and what they’ll play for: “Z Points,” which are redeemable for company merchandise, or actual greenbacks. The maximum wager is $50 per game, but for now one can bet no more than $200 per month.
Once the game is played, both contestants must go back to the Zoogi website and declare which side won. If a winner is not pronounced, no money changes hands, and both players’ “credibility rating” – displayed in the IM-like program – goes down.
Zoogi’s makers claim that thousands of users, picked up in beta testing, are betting real money through the program, which was released just last week.
Sheri Stoltman, a 32-year-old distance learning instructor in Philadelphia, is a typical, if frequent, player. She bets, on average, $2 to $3 per backgammon game and plays “a couple of hours a day.” Both her fiancée and 13-year-old daughter are into Zoogi too – although the teen isn’t allowed to bet money, and the man isn’t willing to do so against his wife-to-be.
“Before, I’d get bored playing games online. The money adds more competition to it, makes it more fun. I’m more inclined to play a bunch of games because I want to get my money back,” Stoltman said. “I’m playing a game right now, actually.”
Zoogi’s introduction comes as gambling continues to journey to the center of the American mainstream, with $58.2 billion in revenues in 1999 – up from $24 billion a decade earlier, according to the American Gaming Association.
But the advance of gambling into the computer gaming world is causing concern among industry heavyweights.
“In our community, the introduction of gambling … might disrupt the friendships and feeling of community warmth that our members have grown to enjoy,” e-mails Mark Surfas, CEO and founder of GameSpy, an online gaming destination.
To which Zoogi’s makers have a rather bizarre reply. Using their program is “not gambling,” according to Susan Nehab, vice president of business development at Zootec BV, the developers of Zoogi – whose slogan is You Can Bet on It! “The games are skills-based, and that takes out the element of chance,” she said.
“We have legal opinions which state that one-on-one wagers, for small amounts on skills-based games, are completely legal for U.S. citizens,” she added.
But there are questions beyond the legal and community matters. Asking both sides to declare the winner of a game is asking for trouble in an online gaming world where cheating is rampant, many gamers note. And Zoogi practically invites players to cheat.
“It is absolutely impossible to control cheating,” writes Jonathan Kay, senior editor at Myvideogames.com. “The most obvious example is online games like chess. Anyone playing online can easily run a parallel program in the background that supplies him or her with optimal moves.
“If players are going to go through the effort of hacking a program just for the thrill of chalking up a few more frags, imagine how many people will cheat when there is money involved?” he added.
Others don’t have problems with Zoogi as currently configured, but see trouble ahead.
“Gambling is a very destructive habit, extremely corrupt and in many cases addictive in an insidious, life-ruining way,” a gamer named Terry posted to a Gamespot message board.
“One-on-one money matches are fine, even with a certain amount of legal, controlled side gambling through legitimate odds makers. But I think we all know just how naive it is to think that that is as far as people will go with this idea.”
Lighten up, say Zoogi users. Writes one, Azi Fishman, “I truly don’t see anything BAD about friendly betting in the same light as the guys getting together on a Wednesday night to play a little poker. It makes the day a bit more interesting and Internet relationships more challenging.”