Game Over: Should The UK Ban Loot Boxes?

Within the gaming community, there’s currently one hot topic on everyone’s lips: loot boxes. If you’re not a gamer glued to the latest console, or someone who enjoys in-app entertainment on your morning commute, that term might not mean much to you. But, from MPs and government departments, to video gaming bigwigs and consumers, this innocuous-sounding feature has been stirring up heaps of controversy.

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So, what is a loot box?

Also known as ‘prize crates’, these virtual ‘boxes’ act as treasure chests containing randomized ‘rewards’ that can potentially boost users’ gaming experiences and chance of success.

They’re usually ‘earned’ either by extensive game-play, completion of challenges, or — and here’s the contentious part — by purchasing them with real-world money. The catch-22 is that players usually don’t know what is inside any given box, and how useful it will be to them, until they’ve bought it.

Of course, the possibility of acquiring a ‘game-changer’ can be extremely tempting. However, the web is littered with stories of people who have racked up huge bills or debt by chasing the sometimes elusive items or perks in these ‘surprise’ boxes, without any guarantee they will unlock a coveted quest, character or weapon.

There are also concerns about the psychological and financial impact of these ‘lucky dip’-style features on children and young teenagers, with some quarters considering them gift-wrapped gambling.

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As recently as September 2019, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport Committee (DCMS) recommended that the UK government should regulate loot boxes under the Gambling Act 2005, and that children should be banned from purchasing them. Other suggestions, as reported by The Guardian, include highlighting games which include loot boxes as “containing gambling and age-rated content”.

On the flip-side of the coin, the Gaming Regulators’ European Forum (GREF) recently brought the loot box debate back into the news too, after completing a year-long study focused on the impacts of micro-transactions within gaming, including loot boxes.

As per SBCNEWS, the Forum decided against imposing restrictions on such features. Its conclusion was that, although members recommended “communication before the purchase of the loot-box content and the probabilities of obtaining a particular virtual item”, the decision on whether or not to implement gambling regulations was dependent on individual countries and governments’ definitions of gambling.

The report also mentioned “the need for involvement of national authorities responsible for consumer protection, health, education as well as digital and financial regulation,” which sounds a lot like passing the buck to others, instead of upsetting the apple cart with gaming companies that wield a lot of clout…

A very grey area – are loot boxes gambling?

Much of the dialogue is centered around the semantics of what falls under the umbrella of gambling. Loot boxes are a ‘game’ of chance, so to speak, so purchasing one is a risk, but can you really call it a gamble? The UK government’s definition of gambling seems to leave loot boxes and similar features in somewhat of a grey area, particularly due to the lack of real-life monetary value on items contained in boxes.

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While, Kerry Hopkins, a vice president at gaming behemoth EA, reportedly told UK MPs that the virtual chests were “quite ethical” and likened them to Kinder Surprise Eggs, where consumers spend money on a mystery toy hidden inside chocolate but don’t know what exactly they have purchased until it is unwrapped.

This seems like quite a simplistic explanation, given that there can be a rather large gap in expenditure between buying chocolate eggs, which usually cost under £1 and guarantee a toy inside, and loot boxes, which can vary in price with packages worth up to triple figures.

However, banning a feature that can be problematic for some is not always the best answer — it can often have the effect of making it more attractive and pushing it underground. And there are already reports of a ‘black market’ where gamers trade or sell on their loot box spoils, with gaming companies oft accused of being slow to clamp down on this.

Who’s accountable?

There’s also an argument to be made about duty of care and where this rests: is it with bodies such as GREF, with governments, gaming companies, or with consumers and, in the case of children, parents?

It seems logical that game creators have an ethical responsibility to consider the wellbeing of their customers, and to deliver efficient education and warnings about potential ‘dangers’ of their product. And it seems unfair to expect the burden to rest on individuals and parents alone, if issues surrounding loot boxes aren’t communicated effectively to begin with.

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The fact that the NHS has, as per The Guardian in October 2019, decided to open a specialist clinic for children and young adults with video gaming-related addiction, highlights the wide-reach and impact of the gaming industry on young people’s lives.

In the article, Fiona Smith, professional lead for children and young people at the Royal College of Nursing, suggests that, “[the NHS] and taxpayers can’t foot the bill alone. Online gaming firms and global social media firms who make millions of pounds of profit must take more responsibility by keeping their platforms safe, and introduce safeguards to reduce the burden on the health service.”

Prevention is often said to be better than a cure — and it can prove to be far less costly. So, if the UK government were to take greater steps to protect its citizens, and especially the young, when it comes to gaming issues, it could create a more rewarding industry for everyone.

The Belgium example

So what would gaming in the UK look like if loot boxes were banned? One of its European neighbors can shed a little light on the situation, after loot boxes were made illegal in Belgium in 2018.

Loot boxes that require unlocking with real-world money have been given the boot by the Belgium Gaming Commission with games now needing a gambling license if they wish to include them, and there are potentially large fines and/or prison time for those that break the law.

The news was met with a mixed reaction at the time, with the magazine WIRED reporting that some games stopped selling their products in the country, while EA eventually made their loot boxes in FIFA Ultimate Team unlockable only through game-play points.

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In the same article, it’s suggested that, as gaming is now global and interactive, some players located in Belgium felt they were at a disadvantage compared to rival players in other nations. While, in the opposite corner, Peter Naessens of the Belgian Gaming Commission suggests that some members of the industry have welcomed the decision as a way to level the playing field with free-to-play games.

All this may sound troubling to fans who will be worried about the effects on their favorite franchises and any loss or limiting of availability, excitement and competitiveness. But it’s worth considering that the UK is a big market — one that surely not even the biggest video gaming juggernauts would want to fall behind in, when there’s always a competitor around the corner.

It’s all in the game…

Despite debate over the UK government’s position on outlawing loot boxes, transformation may eventually fall to gaming companies themselves. In an industry renowned for its adaptability and innovation, there are already examples of fresh ideas being tested. Perhaps anticipating a gradual switch to the Belgium position, some games are now ‘reading the room’ and reacting to consumer concerns.

Always ahead of the curve, games available in Apple’s App Store have apparently required loot boxes to communicate the odds and likelihood of a player bagging a specific ‘prize’, since 2017. While, Google’s Play Store has reportedly also taken this approach.

As for big-name games, the ever-popular Fortnite recently took the step of deciding to reveal the contents of its loot boxes ahead of purchases, placing the power and decision back into consumer hands.

And in another attention-grabbing industry move, developer Psyonix has revealed plans to introduce ‘Blueprints’ that will give greater clarity to loot box features in its game Rocket League, via an update before the end of 2019. Watch this space.

Overall, where some game developers are already turning their backs on the traditional loot box format and playing with the mechanics of the feature, it seems others are sure to follow. The odds now seem to be stacked against the companies sticking to their guns and, as nobody wants to be left behind, it looks increasingly as though loot boxes will be reimagined rather than be completely scrapped, or face tough penalties and potentially even tougher PR.