Yesterday, the Belgian minister of justice, Koen Geens, announced the result of an investigation that the country’s Gaming Commission conducted into video game “loot boxes”, a mechanic that lets players pay real money for a chance at winning virtual items. It found that three popular games – Overwatch, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Fifa 18 – were in violation of gambling legislation. This is a significant finding, because controversy over loot boxes has been raging for at least six months: are they actually a form of gambling? Worse, are they a form of gambling that is particularly appealing to children?
Belgium’s Gaming Commission has decided that, yes, they are, and the publishers in question should remove loot boxes from their games or face fines. (EA and Blizzard, publishers of two of the games in question, did not respond to requests for comment on how they plan to comply; a Valve spokesperson said that the company is “happy to engage with the Belgian Gambling Commission and answer any questions they may have.”) There might be no financial incentive to buying loot boxes – you never win any money – but they are still a game of chance. “A dialogue with the sector is necessary,” said Geens: “It is often children who come into contact with such systems and we can not allow that.”
Often when governments get involved with trying to legislate over video games – as President Trump threatened to do after the Florida school shooting in February – it comes from a place of moral panic, and a lack of understanding of games themselves. A spurious causal link is drawn between video games and violence, or truancy, or mental health problems in young people. Despite decades of research showing no correlation between violent games and violent behaviour, and despite the fact games are played and enjoyed by hundreds of millions of people without social collapse.
In the case of loot boxes, though, the Belgian government is spot on. There are better ways to make money than applying gambling principles to video games that ought to be harmless fun.
Loot boxes exist because video-game development on a large scale is an increasingly expensive business. The development costs of blockbuster-style games have increased tenfold in 10 years, according to data compiled by industry veteran Raph Koster, with budgets now running into hundreds of millions of dollars. Players, however, are reluctant to accept price increases; a newly released game still costs £50-£60, pretty much the same as it did 15 years ago. Pricing hasn’t even kept up with inflation.
There are better ways to make money than applying gambling principles to video games that ought to be harmless fun.
To address the shortfall, video game publishers have devised various ways of enabling players to spend extra money. For instance, DLC (downloadable content) offers virtual cosmetic items to customise a character, new story chapters to play through, or extra maps to battle upon – all optional. It has also become customary to offer a “season pass” to players – pay an extra £10 to £30 or so, and you’ll have access to all the extra content that’s released for a game over time. Online modes keep people playing for months or years rather than weeks, and players can pay to customise a character or buy a new car or in-game apartment – usually with either real money, or in-game money that takes time to earn.
Loot boxes, however, are a fairly new invention – one that crossed over from free-to-play smartphone games, which have traditionally been less scrupulous about wheedling money out of players (and, perhaps consequently, been more successful at doing so). With a loot box, you pay for a chance to obtain a virtual item – usually with real money. It’s a slot-machine style system where, although you’re guaranteed to get something on every spin, the chance of getting what you actually want is vastly reduced.
This works on the same part of the brain as any game of chance; the dopamine hit is enjoyable, but potentially addictive, and hard to resist. Players quite regularly spend hundreds on loot boxes – just ask players of Fifa Ultimate Team, who can buy Team Packs in the hope of unlocking a coveted player.
The Belgian report found several issues with loot boxes: the rewards are uncertain, causing an emotional reaction; players can be misled into believing they are buying an advantage; popular YouTubers and other celebrities promote them; the actual chance of receiving particular items is often hidden from the player. The exposure of these chance mechanics to children was a particular concern.
“Mixing games and gambling, especially at a young age, is dangerous for mental health,” said Geens. “We must ensure that children and adults are not presented with games of chance when they are looking for fun in a video game.”
Gamers everywhere would welcome the removal of these insidious inventions. There is nothing worse than feeling forced to spend money to keep up in a video game, especially when spending money doesn’t even guarantee you the item that you want. Adults might find it easy to resist the appeal of new gun skins in Counter-Strike, or outfits for Overwatch characters, but for the teens who predominantly play these games, that perspective may be lacking.
One need only look to Fortnite, one of the most popular games in the world right now, to see things done right: in Fortnite you can pay about £8 for a Battle Pass every few months, which unlocks fun new challenges and lets you earn all the new stuff you could want, just by playing.
Games are getting more and more expensive to make, but the video games industry should not need to employ the tricks of the gambling industry to plug the gap. If the Belgian government’s decision leads to a Europe-wide ruling on loot boxes, hopefully publishers will be forced to come up with better ways to monetise their games – and players might have to get comfortable with the idea of paying more for them in the first place.
• This article was amended on 26 and 27 April 2018 to include a statement from Valve and to correct the spelling of Koen Geens’ last name.
Source: The Guardian