‘Loot boxes’ in games have become a major talking point in recent years, with companies moving toward restrictive monetised models and encouraging players of all ages to spend real-world money for items or competitive advantages.
Arguably the finest (or worst, whichever way you look at it) example of this was the release of EA’s Star Wars: Battlefront II. Before players even dived into the action they were met with paywalls in order to unlock additional weapons or abilities for characters. EA was criticised heavily following the release of this title, with the gaming community condemning it as ‘pay-to-win’.
The controversy surrounding the release of this title and its maligned loot boxes even prompted Belgium and the Netherlands to completely ban their sale. Other titles released by EA, such as the highly-popular FIFA series, also encourage players to buy trading card packets, which can be purchased either with in-game currency or real-world money.
These purchases see gamers essentially gamble their hard-earned money – or their parents’ – to receive a top-rated player. Many are left frustrated by the outcome, but concerningly, a significant portion of the community will go back for more in pursuit of that world-class player.
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These practices have been under investigation by the digital, culture, media and sport committee as part of its immersive and addictive technologies inquiry. Recommendations contained in the report published this week would see loot boxes subject to far stricter regulation and their sale to children banned. In an effort to reduce the associated gambling risks, the report recommends that loot boxes in games should be earned as gameplay rewards.
DCMS Committee chair, Damian Collins, commented: “Social media platforms and online games makers are locked in a relentless battle to capture ever more of people’s attention, time and money. Their business models are built on this, but it’s time for them to be more responsible in dealing with the harms these technologies can cause for some users.
“Loot boxes are particularly lucrative for games companies but come at a high cost, particularly for problem gamblers, while exposing children to potential harm. Buying a loot box is playing a game of chance and it is high time that gambling laws caught up.”
Under new proposals, the DCMS would see loot boxes regulated by the UK Government under the Gambling Act. Current gambling legislation in the UK excludes loot boxes because they do not meet regulatory definitions which “fail to reflect people’s real-world experiences” of spending in games.
“Loot boxes that can be bought with real-world money and do not reveal their contents in advance should be considered games of chance played for money’s worth and regulated by the Gambling Act,” the DCMS report says.
Earlier this year, the inquiry heard how one gamer spent up to £1,000 on loot boxes on FIFA, while others detailed their addiction to video games, how their issues arose and the difficulties they have experienced since. Other young gamers told the inquiry how they had accrued significant debts due to their spending habits in games.
Representatives of Jagex, the company which owns RuneScape, told MPs that players were able to spend up to £1,000 per week on in-game purchases.
The report also found that loot boxes have become “integral” to major games companies’ revenues, and evidence suggests that companies facilitate a large chunk of these profits from problem gamblers. As such, companies must “accept responsibility” for addictive gaming disorders and ensure they are protecting players from the harmful effects of excessive spending and play-time.
However, the report suggested that some companies had been “wilfully obtuse” when discussing issues with gameplay and in-game purchases. MPs also said they encountered great difficulty when requesting information on the type of data collected by games companies.