So-called “sweepstakes” video-game operations are so much like video poker that state law enforcement officials already consider them illegal. Accordingly, the State Law Enforcement Division and the attorney general’s office are trying to eliminate them.
That view is shared by some legislators as well, and a bill approved by the House last session would have removed any remaining confusion about the “sweepstakes” status. Unfortunately, it was blocked in the Senate before it could come to a vote.
That’s too bad. Sweepstakes operations apparently have the same appeal that video poker had before it was banned in 2000. Since that time, there has been a continued effort to recapture that lucrative market.
And it is clear that “sweepstakes” operations are making a go of it, based on our Sunday report by Schuyler Kropf and Steven Largen. They wrote that visits to the sweepstakes sites revealed computer screens “automatically set to poker, slot or keno-type games with titles such as ‘Bucks and Bucks’ or ‘Crazy Casino.’”
So far there are an estimated 1,000 machines in operation in the state.
Apologists for the sweepstakes games insist there is an essential difference between them and video poker. The sweepstates games do not involve skill, and the odds of winning are predetermined, they say.
Remember, though, that video poker machines in South Carolina were pre-set to provide a 30 percent return to those who operated the machines. In other words, the outcome was mechanically fixed to favor the house.
That defense for sweepstakes games appears to be a distinction without much of a difference.
Certainly state law enforcement officials take that view, as they intensify their crackdown on the sweepstakes operations. But the legality issue currently has to be decided locally by judges on a case-by-case basis. A magistrate in Beaufort County has declared them to be in violation of the law, and has ordered 200 machines destroyed.
But magistrates elsewhere have decided otherwise. And some local jurisdictions are happy to cash in their operation. The city of Irmo, for example, is charging operators a fee of $500 a machine per year.
Meanwhile, local jurisdictions that don’t want a return to the bad old days of video poker are taking up the Senate’s slack by putting a moratorium on sweepstakes games, as in Charleston, or banning them outright, as in Goose Creek.
Other jurisdictions would do well to follow suit, while awaiting definitive legislation action or a ruling by the State Supreme Court that could ban them.
Video poker showed the immense profits that could be made off its operation, and the determination of those who were reaping those rewards. Sweepstakes games will be similarly defended by those who would explain it away as harmless fun, or defend it as the moral equivalent of the state-operated education lottery. It is neither.
Video poker demonstrated its painful cost to those who could afford it least. And it revealed the addictive power of video gambling.
The state would do well to recognize the potential ill effects of what one critic called “simulated gambling” played on video screens across South Carolina in in locations similar to those where video poker flourished. We shouldn’t need a replay to recognize the hazard.