Online gaming is on an unprecedented rise here in the Philippines, but no, Mobile Legends, League of Legends, and Warcraft III DotA have nothing to do with it. The online gaming we’re talking about here refers to online games of chance, which have increasingly become popular in the country ever since the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (PAGCOR) institutionalized Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGOs).
Business World Online explains that a POGO is “an entity that offers and participates in offshore gaming services by providing games to players, taking bets, and paying the winning players.” POGOs, in turn, are licensed by PAGCOR, and allowed to operate said online games of chance within the confines of the Pearl of the Orient. Interestingly, Filipinos here and abroad are not allowed to play these games, though they can work in various capacities for PAGCOR-authorized POGOs.
PAGCOR’s decision to give POGOs a thumbs up is tipped to bring an additional P6 billion in revenue for this year. It figures to increase in the coming years, more so as more and more POGOs set shop in the country. That means more money for the government for its nation-building projects, like the building of roads, improvement of infrastructure, and so on and so forth.
Now, if only things were that simple… But they’re not.
PAGCOR’s decision to allow online gaming operations in the Philippines is likely to open a Pandora’s Box, with far-reaching ramifications that might even cut through the country’s social fabric itself. In fact, if Rappler is to be believed, that box is actually now open, and Manila is bearing the brunt of online gaming’s not-so-good side. The social cost, specifically, seems staggering already, and not in a good way. Already, Chinese nationals are coming to Manila in droves as quite a handful of POGOs are owned and operated by, yes, Chinese nationals. This seeming Chinese diaspora, unfortunately, is driving up rental rates across the metro, with landlords increasing prices with an eye towards securing leases from can-afford POGO operators. Then there is this matter of some Chinese nationals being rowdy and unruly, often at the expense of Filipinos.
Exploitation is fast becoming apparent, too. While foreigners often provide IT and translation support for these POGOs, Filipino women are usually hired as online dealers. Now, that’s not a problem per se. But they are often required to wear sexy or revealing outfits, their bodies and faces exposed to the prying eyes of those who play these online games of chance. Yes, they are by and large paid handsomely, but such a setup begs this question: At what cost?
What’s more, embracing POGOs seems like another step towards an already occurring paradigm shift on how Filipinos view games of chance. Largely frowned upon for so long, games of chance are gaining widespread acceptance all across the archipelago, with more and more Filipinos trying their luck in such games – both legally and illicitly. Sports betting, in fact, has become quite popular here in the country, in part because of the quality platforms built abroad that offer enticing welcome incentives and large ranges of betting options. This, coupled with the existing Filipino passion for sports and that sliver of hope of meeting Lady Luck (a manifestation of the fatalistic tendencies of the Filipino), makes sports betting a particularly natural fit as a popular game of chance.
Then there is very real possibility of online gaming sites being a front for money laundering. This is exactly what happened in British Columbia in Canada. A government commissioned report discovered that organized crime syndicates were passing off money acquired illicitly as legitimate by introducing them through online gaming sites. The scheme involves low-level members each depositing various amounts to an online gaming site. Once this is done, the deposited amount is, in effect, “legalized” regardless if it was obtained illegally.
The same thing can happen here in the Philippines, more so as online gaming continues to gain ground here. And that might be the case going forward, with a handful of POGOs in the pipeline as of the moment. Worse, illegal online gaming operations have mushroomed as well, providing syndicates even more avenues to launder money. If this continues, the Philippines might just become the next safe haven for money launderers, and that’s something any country would not be proud of, let alone a predominantly Catholic nation like the Philippines.
Yes, there is an online gaming conundrum in the country, and it can be summed up as being economic gains vs. social costs. There are economic gains to be had by allowing online gaming in the Philippines, and an annual P6 billion – or more in the coming years – in additional revenue is by and large massive, especially for a developing country. Then again, there are social costs, and they are already rearing their ugly head. The key then, it seems, is for PAGCOR and the government to find the perfect balance such that said economic gains are maximized, and the social costs, minimized. Unfortunately, that is easier said than done.