Back in July I wrote a piece on our sister site about how the United Kingdom’s Gambling Commission had ruled out in-game purchases as being anything to do with gambling. That was based around the simple fact that a prize needed to have either a monetary value or be real-life money in order to come under gambling legislation as the rules currently are.
That story has now taken a further development, with MPs looking into the matter declaring that in-game spending should indeed be considered as gambling.
The MPs went even further, declaring that the so-called ‘loot boxes’ should be banned altogether for children. It led to the trade body responsible for the industry in the UK saying that it would take a look at the government’s recommendations ‘with utmost seriousness’. It’s unlikely that that is going to please the MPs that have asked for them to be banned, however, with the committee accusing some of the people that gave evidence of lacking ‘honesty and transparency’.
It comes on the back of one of the companies responsible for online game RunScape admitting that people could spend as much as £5,000 per month.
Loot Boxes Are ‘Like Kinder Eggs’, Says EA Games
Video games have become monetised in recent years by giving players the chance to buy so-called ‘loot boxes’ that contain an amount of items that is not specified before the purchase but promise to enhance the game-playing experience. That is especially true when it comes to free video games, many of which have marketplaces associated with them that allow players to buy and sell the items that they’ve gained from their loot box purchases. It is this behaviour that MPs have major concerns over.
The Vice-President of EA Games, Kerry Hopkins, tried to play down these concerns, however. Speaking to the group of MPs she said that her company thinks that the boxes are ‘quite ethical and fun’ and compared loot boxes to the sorts of things you find on offer from companies like Kinder in the Kinder Eggs they sell, as well as LOL Surprises and Hatchimals.
It was a suggestion immediately dismissed by the gaming journalist Ryan Brown, who said that any gamer would say that they are ‘not happy with’ loot boxes and ‘don’t deem it as being fun; they wish it wasn’t there’.
Industry Is ‘Reluctant To Admit Responsibility’
The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has been running an inquiry into the world of immersive and addictive technologies, hearing about young adults who had built up thousands of pounds of debt thanks to in-game spending. One such example included a family whose children are all under 10 and spent more than £500 trying to buy Lionel Messi in a loot box.
Whilst RunScape’s makers, Jagex, might well have admitted that players could spend up to £1,000 a week or £5,000 a month, MPs felt that the industry as a whole was fair less forthcoming.
It was felt by the committee that people representing the industry were ‘reluctant to accept responsibility’. The MPs were critical of the fact that industry representatives didn’t want to intervene when it was clear that a player was over-spending, nor were they willing to admit how much they thought was ‘too much’ to be spent by a player.
The committee declared some people from the gaming industry to ‘wilfully obtuse’ when answering questions about how the various game-play features of games worked, which was important in terms of better understanding the way in which players engage with the games that they use.
Business Model Requires People’s ‘Attention, Time & Money’
MPs found it difficult to get clear answers from members of the gaming industry that appeared before the committee, particularly in regards to what data they collect, how that data is used and the psychology behind game designs.
One MP compared it the world of social media, in which there is a battle to ‘capture people’s attention, time and money’. Mr Collins suggested that it’s down to the way the business model works, but said that they need to be ‘more responsible’ when it comes to dealing with the harm that can be caused to some users.
It was an accusation that garnered a somewhat angry response from the Chief Executive of UK Interactive Entertainment, Dr Jo Twist. She said that the video game industry has always taken the welfare of players seriously, but admitted that a majority were ‘finding balance is a problem’.
She said that he company was vocal when it came to supporting various efforts to ‘increase digital literacy’ in schools and with carers. Still, it wasn’t enough for Mr Collins, who believes that companies should be made to contribute financially to research into gaming disorders ‘based on excessive and addictive game-play’ which ‘has been recognised by the World Health Organization’.
Age Verification Is Important
At the time of the committee’s investigation into the matter, both social media platforms and games work on an ‘honesty system’ when it comes to verifying the age of users. That means that many people playing games are underage, which in turn means that young people are able to buy loot boxes and other in-game purchases when they shouldn’t be able to.
MPs feel that loot boxes in particular should be a reward for game play and not sold to children. Mr Collins said, “Loot boxes are particularly lucrative for games companies but come at a high cost, particularly for problem gamblers, while exposing children to potential harm”.
Collins put forth a ‘challenge’ to the government to explain why, exactly, loot boxes should be ‘exempt from the Gambling Act’. He said, “Buying a loot box is playing a game of chance and it is high time the gambling laws caught up”. It comes after the government in Belgium declared that they were indeed in violation of that country’s gambling laws, whilst China has put a restriction in place on the number of boxes that can be opened per day.
Republican senator Josh Hawley, meanwhile, said that he thinks loot boxes should be banned altogether in the United States of America, proposing a ‘Protecting Children from Abusive Games’ bill.