Zynga Social Casino Games Focus of $5m Lawsuit Against Apple

  • While Zynga social casino games are free, players can still make real-money in-game purchases
  • Plaintiffs argue that Apple is contributing to illegal gambling by hosting games in the App Store
  • Zynga Poker was one of Zynga’s top three revenue-generating online games in 2019
  • Zynga’s social casino games promote multiple “special offers,” encouraging players to buy chips
  • Apple has been the subject of several similar lawsuits in the past year
Zynga Poker app icon
Over 100 plaintiffs have joined in a class action lawsuit against Apple for promoting illegal gambling by hosting Zynga’s social casino games, which allow for in-game, real-money purchases. [Image: Shutterstock.com]

Players can make real-money purchases

A group of more than 100 social casino game players have joined in a $5m class action lawsuit against Apple, centered around Zynga and its poker and slots products. The suit, filed in US District Court for the Northern District of Columbia, alleges that the Apple has been raking in illicit profits from gambling apps, specifically Zynga Poker and Game of Thrones Slots Casino.

both games offer opportunities for players to make in-game purchases for real money

Zynga’s poker and slots games are free to play, but they operate under the “freemium” model, which is part of the issue of contention by the plaintiffs. While generally free-to-play, both games offer opportunities for players to make in-game purchases for real money, particularly when they run out of chips.

Though there are no prizes to cash out, the plaintiffs argue that being able to extend one’s playing time by buying in-game currency and, in turn, using it to gamble (and perhaps winning to increase playing time further), runs contrary to gambling laws in 25 states.

The suit alleges Apple essentially operates an illegal, unlicensed casino because it both makes Zynga’s games available in its App Store and provides software development tools to the game maker. If Apple didn’t host the games in the App Store, the plaintiffs claim, then people would not be able to download the Zynga poker and slots apps, and therefore would not be able to spend money on gambling.

Poker still a Zynga money maker

Zynga Poker, launched in mid-2007, has been one of the company’s dominant products for nearly a decade and a half. In 2011, it stood as the largest online poker site in the world, with 38 million players. As recently as 2018, even though mobile and social games have proliferated over the years, Zynga Poker still held 6.1% of the social casino game market.

Zynga Poker was one of its top three revenue-generating online games

In its 2019 fiscal year annual report, Zynga said that Zynga Poker was one of its top three revenue-generating online games, along with Merge Dragons! and Empires & Puzzles. The three games accounted for nearly half of its online game revenue.

As mentioned, while Zynga Poker is free to both download and play, the app does direct players to spend money. The Android app, the version this writer has available, has an icon at the top of the screen shouting “FREE!” Clicking on it does not bring the user to free poker chip offers (though there are opportunities to get chips for free), but rather a store where they can purchase chip bundles for real money. A similar “SALE!” clickable oval at the bottom of the screen takes the user to a trimmed-down version of the store.

The app also has a news feed with multiple announcements (indicated by the gift box icon in the above screen shot), including “Special Offers!” “VIP Rewards,” and “Chip Mania!” which redirect to the real-money store.

Another day, another lawsuit for Apple

Apple has been no stranger to App Store-related lawsuits in the past year. In October 2020, both Apple and Google faced similar lawsuits to the current Zynga case in Alabama and Connecticut. Plaintiffs claimed that by hosting free-to-play gambling apps that allow for real-money purchases like Goldfish Casino Slots and Jackpot Party, the companies were benefiting from illegal gambling.

A month ago, plaintiffs filed another comparable suit against Apple in US District Court for the Northern District of California. Cheree Bibbs and Donald Nelson claimed they had spent upwards of $15,000 on in-app purchases on social casino apps.

Apple has taken some steps in reducing the proliferation of gambling, even if it is through free “social casino” apps, requiring developers to include higher age ratings on such games. The company also added the ability for users to block apps that feature “frequent or intense simulated gambling.”