Loot boxes: what on earth should be done about them? The issue seems to go round and round in circles in the UK (among other countries). Time and time again, we have academics, politicians, and gamers passionately speaking out about the risks associated with these randomized rewards, but legislators are still not taking any decisive action. This endlessly debated issue is sure to be on many people’s minds as we approach Safer Gambling Week 2020, which takes place between 19-25 November, and has the pretty self-explanatory tagline “let’s talk about safer gambling”.
While both the British government and the iGaming industry have recognized the importance of Responsible Gambling Week (which is what the event used to be called), figures within the video games industry are yet to make similar commitments with regards to whether loot boxes should be covered. But before getting into that, let’s have a quick glance at the landscape as it stands, and why there’s been such a hubbub about loot boxes.
For those who might not know, loot boxes are prizes that can be purchased, using real money, in video-games. In most cases, the contents of the loot boxes are a mystery until the purchase has been made. It’s only after money has been spent that the player will know what they’ve bought – it could be a special weapon, a character skin, or an entirely new playable character, among other things. It’s this uncertainty that’s caused so much controversy and drawn obvious comparisons with slots and other forms of online gambling.
Countless experts have voiced serious concerns about how loot boxes can get gamers – many of them children – hooked on the risk-and-reward exhilaration of gambling. The debate has been intensified by headlines such as “I Blew My University Savings Gaming on Fifa” and statements by the likes of NHS mental health director Claire Murdoch, who said, “No firm should sell to children loot box games with this element of chance, so yes, those sales should end.”
For quite a while now, the UK has looked to be on the cusp of a radical shift regarding loot boxes. Back in 2017, Tracey Crouch – The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) – released a statement saying “The government recognizes the risks that come from increasing convergence between gambling and computer games.” In 2018, Labour MP Anna Turley called for “legislative proposals to regulate the game mechanics of loot boxes”, and in 2019 the DCMS published a report which quoted startling statistics such as the fact that 31% of under 16-year-olds have paid to open loot boxes. The report recommended, “loot boxes that contain the element of chance should not be sold to children.”
Cut to this year, and the House of Lords Select Committee on the Social and Economic Impact of the Gambling Industry has taken the hardest line yet. Its members have impatiently dismissed the long-held idea that loot boxes don’t really “count” as gambling because gamers aren’t expecting to win cash prizes. The Select Committee’s report bluntly states: “if a product looks like gambling and feels like gambling, it should be regulated as gambling”. Their view is that loot boxes are patently a form of gambling and should therefore fall within the remit of existing gambling regulation, removing the need to wait for any big changes in the law.
While these noises continue to be made behind the scenes, and the UK looks like it may slowly-but-surely join the likes of Belgium in banning loot boxes outright, what has the videogames industry itself been doing?
Earlier this year, it was announced that games would start to carry warnings if they contained loot boxes. Dr. Jo Twist, the CEO of games industry trade body UKIE, Jo Twist, also weighed in on the issue, drawing attention to the “Get Smart About P.L.A.Y. Campaign” which was launched in early 2020 with the help of football icon Rio Ferdinand and encourages parents to use in-game controls to manage purchases.
“We’ve worked hard to increase the use of family control on consoles which can turn off or limit spending and we will be working closely with the DCMS during its review of the Gambling Act later this year,” Dr. Twist said.
And now we have Safer Gambling Week right around the corner. Led by major players in the gambling industry – from online bookmakers and casinos to bingo clubs and amusement arcades – Safer Gambling Week sees all kinds of material made available at betting sites, on social media, and in physical venues. The aim is to raise awareness about problem gambling and encourage conversations about what is often seen as an awkward, stigmatized subject. Given all the recent chatter about loot boxes, it’s natural to ponder whether this annual event now should take the House of Lords Select Committee’s cue and encompass loot boxes as a form of gambling.
If loot boxes were to be made a focus of Safer Gambling Week, it could for example see videogames carry pop-up messages on responsible spending – seamlessly weaving in an important social message without detracting from the gameplay. For an obvious, recent precedent for this kind of intervention, just look to the massive response to the killing of George Floyd, and the Black Lives Matter message that popped up on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.
A similar kind of communication warning against excessive splurging on loot boxes could, for example, be posted on a game like FIFA. Its “Ultimate Team” mode, where players can purchase mystery player packs in the hope of bagging superstar footballers, has come in for stick as a notorious example of the addictive lure of loot boxes. It’s certainly a major money-spinner for EA. Back in 2016, it was estimated that the company made around $650 million annually from Ultimate Team purchases.
Earlier this year, the video games rating board PEGI announced that video-games will be labeled to notify consumers of “paid random items” – ie, loot boxes. So it wouldn’t really be much more of a leap to incorporate awareness messages into the games themselves, at least during Safer Gambling Week if not permanently.
All in all, the tide really does look to be turning on the matter of loot boxes. When even stuffy, older, non-gamers in the House of Lords are speaking the same language as teenage FIFA fans who’ve voiced annoyance about the situation, then you know things are bound to change. As scrutiny becomes ever more harsh and unforgiving, casting the monetization practices of the industry in such a stark light, it would surely be a prudent move for video-game companies to step up and work closely with these kinds of campaigns in 2020 and beyond.