Video Games

City Officials Want To Clamp Down on Dragon's Ascent, a Video Game That Pays Skillful Players

Mayor Muriel Bowser: "Immediate action is necessary to regulate these electronic devices before they infiltrate the city."

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Dragon's Ascent is a video game that rewards skillful players with cash. Regulators in D.C. and Virginia want to crack down on it, so they're moving to subject games of skill to the same sorts of rules that govern games of chance.

Hundreds of these machines have already appeared in stores and restaurants throughout Virginia, and the D.C. sports bar Penn Social wants to install the game too.

D.C. law defines gambling as "playing any game of chance for money or property." In a letter last October to the city's Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration, D.C. Deputy Attorney General Brian Flowers pointed out that Dragon's Ascent is not a gambling machine because it doesn't use a random-number generator or compensating algorithm to change the odds of winning. Players can cash out at any time and receive their refund from the establishment operator. It "is possible for a player to 'win' or make money every single time," Flowers added, "if the player is dedicated and patient enough."

Mayor Muriel Bowser is urging the D.C. Council to change the law so the city can do something about the game. "Immediate action is necessary to regulate these electronic devices before they infiltrate the city," Bowser said in a December letter to the council chairman, Phil Mendelson. Bowser fears that Dragon's Ascent and other games of skill may pop up at establishments that don't possess Alcoholic Beverage Control licenses, where the Council has no jurisdiction. Virginia has lost around $140 million in revenue thanks to unregulated games of skill, she warned.

For the sake of "immediate public safety concerns," Bowser intends to submit a permanent bill addressing the licensing, inspection, enforcement, and taxation of skill machines. The bill would build on a set of emergency measures enacted yesterday by the D.C. Council. Under yesterday's legislation, the games will be restricted to players over 18, and liquor-licensed establishments will have to apply for the right to install the machines.

"Right now, Dragon's Ascent is a legal game of skill," Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie (D–Ward 5) told The Washington Post. "So it's important for the consumer protections to be in place now rather than later."

Virginia legislators have also been looking for ways to tighten the government's controls on these games. Earlier this month, a bill was introduced in the Virginia Senate that would amend the state's definition of "gambling device." Currently, this refers to any machine or apparatus that uses "elements of chance" to determine whether to "eject something of value or determine the prize or other thing of value to which the player is entitled." Under the proposed legislation, machines "are no less gambling devices if they indicate beforehand the definite result of one or more operations but not all the operations. Nor are they any less a gambling device because, apart from their use or adaptability as such, they may also sell or deliver something of value on a basis other than chance."

Unregulated games of skill, Virginia legislators say, have lowered state lottery profits. Bowser's warnings about lost revenue suggest that she too is worried about the bottom line. Under all the fretful language about public health and order, these look like efforts to maximize the government's revenue streams.

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