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The fight to ban loot boxes

Photo By: Epic Games

10-8-2019

Brendan Derry, Business Editor

Gambling is an issue that every government has to deal with at one time or another. In today’s world, technology has influenced nearly every activity we partake in and gambling is no exception. 

It first began with online poker and similar games but the sophistication of online entertainment has progressed rapidly. With video games having the absolutely massive market that they do, it was inevitable that gambling would make its way onto the scene. The appearance of gambling has taken the form of loot-boxes which can be found in many of the most popular games. These virtual crates contain in-game items that can have real monetary value once they are sold on the game’s marketplace. Some games have items worth thousands of dollars that can be bought and sold to other players or cashed out for real money. Loot-boxes will typically have a preview of its contents or a list of the possible prizes an individual may receive. The cosmetic items will not affect the gameplay but instead only change the appearance of part of the game. This may seem like quite a silly thing to spend money on but these prizes can range from a few cents to thousands of dollars depending on rarity and popularity. These factors have created a population of gamers that may not see the dangers of gambling through the veil of video games.

The incentive to place these bets has created a dilemma for governing bodies that monitor gambling and the institutions that enable it. It is obvious that not everyone that plays these games is a child or under the legal age to gamble, but the issue comes when there is no regulation. Most countries do not view loot-boxes as a form of gambling, or at least some do but they haven’t passed any legislation stating as much. Belgium passed legislation in 2018 requiring companies to fix their loot-box systems or do away with them entirely. This was in response to a committee looking into this as a form of gambling that targets children. Once their findings were presented, it became clear that there was really no difference between this and any other form of online gambling. The outcry that brought about this change is being replicated and other countries are seeking to remove loot-boxes as well. 

The UK has had a number of government officials get behind the idea of banning this gambling system to protect young people from a loophole into the factually addictive activity. This isn’t such a radical notion as every other institution that facilitates gambling is heavily regulated to protect those under the legal age, as well as those that are susceptible to the addictive potential. This concern has been voiced in numerous European countries and the United States has also had its fair share of discussion. It comes down to a simple point for most proponents of the ban. If the government that regulates these activities cannot provide evidence that loot-boxes are somehow different than the already regulated forms of gambling, then they are responsible for putting a stop to it.

One popular game, Rocket League has used loot-boxes for years but come December, they will be rolling out a new system to ensure they remain out of the spotlight in this debate. It is a preemptive change and a number of other games are doing the same. This is likely due to the negative press they may get if they wait until the legislation becomes a serious talking point. It would be very easy to single out one popular game as a villain but the truth is most of the top games have a loot-box system incorporated. It was surely a simple decision for game developers as it was clear that this was an unregulated market with money to be made. Many of these changes will also allow games to remain functionally the same without rushed updates as a result of legal requirements. It is not yet clear how different these new systems will be but, as of now it does not seem that most companies will truly be doing away with the loot-box. Instead, alterations are in order because, of course, there is still money to be made. 

The primary concern is young people and it is clearly valid. The effects of gambling are well documented and disguising it as a fun game is not new either. Of course, parents have a responsibility to ensure gambling doesn't take place but how can this be done if people don't see loot-boxes for what they are?