In a few weeks, FIFA 20, the next iteration of EA’s wildly popular football simulation franchise, will hit consoles with a raft of new game modes. But for many players, it will be all about FIFA Ultimate Team, where they can assemble their own roster of stars by buying or unlocking packs of mystery players – one day you could get Lionel Messi, the next it could be Phil Jones.
These probability-based ‘loot boxes’ have become an increasing feature of all kinds of games over the last decade, both in triple-A titles like FIFA and as the financial bedrock underpinning free-to-play titles like Fortnite. However, they’ve often been criticised for introducing young people to what many consider a form of gambling, and today a government committee has recommended restricting the sale of loot boxes to children.
The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee spoke to representatives from the games industry, as well as players and academics to assess the extent to which children were being drawn into addictive behaviour by the loot boxes on offer in some games. According to a 2018 Gambling Commission survey, 31 per cent of 11 to 16-year-olds have paid money or used in-game currency to open loot boxes. The contents of these boxes are dictated by chance, and they usually remain a mystery until after the player has decided to pay for them.
“In order to compete, players feel like they need to buy hundreds, if not thousands, of £s worth of packs in order to get the best players,” said one gamer interviewed for the DCMS report. “Children are especially vulnerable because they lack the maturity to understand that these purchases are manipulative, and their parents may not understand that these purchases are entirely unnecessary.”
Parents report their children racking up huge bills on loot boxes after accessing stored credit card information, and the DCMS report spoke to gamers who spent thousands of pounds a year in games such as FIFA and Runescape. “Loot boxes are particularly lucrative for games companies but come at a high cost, particularly for problem gamblers, while exposing children to potential harm,” Damian Collins, an MP and the chair of the committee said in a statement. “Buying a loot box is playing a game of chance and it is high time the gambling laws caught up. We challenge the Government to explain why loot boxes should be exempt from the Gambling Act.”
So what would it mean for games developers and gamers if this recommendation were to become law? Potential clues can be gleaned by looking at Belgium. In 2018, the Belgian Gaming Commission examined the use of loot boxes in four games – FIFA 18, Star Wars Battlefront 2, Overwatch and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive – and concluded that they did count as a form of gambling.
Although the use of loot boxes isn’t technically banned by the law in Belgium, the report meant that games that wanted to include them needed to apply for a gambling license, or risk large fines and potential prison time. Instead of doing this, some developers have decided to pull their games from sale or download in the country, or have disabled loot box features.
EA Sports, which publishes the FIFA series, held out until January of this year before finally capitulating and blocking the purchase of in-game currency FIFA Points in Belgium. Players can still buy loot boxes in Ultimate Team, but only with points that they’ve earned through achievements in the game itself. EA had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.
It’s too soon to tell whether the change in the interpretation of the law has had much of an impact on users in Belgium. Some e-sports players in the country have complained that the move puts them at a disadvantage compared to their international rivals. David Verbruggen of the Flemish Gaming Association, which represents the games industry in Belgium, says that newspapers were soon publishing advice on how to get around the restrictions, by using a VPN to pretend to be playing from Germany, for instance. He questions whether gambling legislation was the right tool to use to try and restrict the use of loot boxes, and believes consumer protection laws should have been used instead.
Peter Naessens, general director of the Belgian Gaming Commission, says his organisation’s move was welcomed by some in the gaming industry, who were concerned that the continuation of loot boxes would mean everyone in the industry being forced to adopt a free-to-play model. Loot boxes are clearly lucrative – in 2016, EA’s CFO Blake Jorgenson revealed that the company makes around $650 million (£527m) a year just from the Ultimate Team mode.
The games industry has taken some steps to address criticism – any games on Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft consoles will soon have to publish details of the payout rates of their loot boxes, for instance. However, Naessens says the games industry should have done a better job of informing parents that games such as FIFA – which they may have grown up playing earlier iterations of themselves – have evolved to adopt a loot box mechanic.
The DCMS report draw similar conclusions. “It is unacceptable that some companies with millions of users and children among them should be so ill-equipped to talk to us about the potential harm of their products,” says Collins. It recommends that loot boxes should be regulated under the Gambling Act, and that appropriate labelling and age rating be applied to the packaging of games with loot boxes that don’t reveal their contents in advance.
But there will be many challenges before this can become law – not least the fact that we don’t really have a government at the moment, and that even when we do, committee recommendations are often ignored. “The main difficulty will be the pressure from an industry who is well funded, and who has capital to organise political lobbying,” says Naessens. It’s quite possible that a ban on loot boxes in the UK will never happen.
The other problem is an effective age-verification system. It’s trivial for children to access games with an 18, and Verbruggen questions whether an age-based system for loot boxes would even be possible. “How are you ever going to enforce something like this?,” he asks. One potential solution that Naessens suggests is a system based on purchasing physical cards at newsagents in order to purchase in-game currency, in a similar manner to the proposed porn block that was supposed to be introduced in the UK in July.
Like much government digital policy, the proposed changes are well-intentioned but may ultimately prove unworkable. However, if restrictions on loot boxes are successfully introduced, it could have a profound impact on game modes like FIFA Ultimate Team – although it could help restore some pride for those of us now used to getting roundly beaten by the younger generation.
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