Govt urged to crackdown on 'gambling' loot boxes in games like FIFA

11 September 2019, 12:23 | Updated: 12 September 2019, 09:37

Loot boxes that have seen players rack up huge bills in popular games like FIFA should be recognised as a form of gambling and banned from being sold to children, according to a damning new report.

Following a lengthy inquiry into "addictive technologies" that included evidence from the studio behind online multiplayer phenomenon Fortnite, the digital, culture, media and sport committee (DCMS) has said that more measures are needed to protect vulnerable people.

The abundance of loot boxes in many games played by young people is top of the agenda, with calls for them to be regulated by the government under the Gambling Act and banned from being sold to children.

What are loot boxes?

Loot boxes are a stash of mystery in-game items, tempting players with the chance that any of the crates and packs they buy could contain something of huge value.

In the case of football game FIFA, made by Electronic Arts (EA), they are trading card-style packets that can be bought with either real money or a digital currency earned by playing.

When did they become a problem?

Star Wars: Battlefront II - an online shooter timed to the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi in December 2017 - is seen as a watershed moment for loot boxes.

Before it hit store shelves, fans found out that the only way they could unlock new weapons and abilities was to buy loot boxes - not knowing exactly what they would end up with.

This was condemned as "pay to win" and led to publisher EA turning off the ability to spend money in-game. Not long after, loot boxes were completely banned in Belgium and subject to restrictions in the Netherlands.

Belgian justice minister Koen Geens said last year: "It is often children who come into contact with such systems and we cannot allow that."

In the DCMS report, chairman Damian Lewis MP 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.

"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.

"Gaming contributes to a global industry that generates billions in revenue.

"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."

The DCMS report says loot boxes "were found to be integral to major games companies' revenues", and said there was further evidence that they "facilitated profits from problem gamblers".

The committee heard evidence that the trading card-style loot box mechanics in FIFA, which is popular with youngsters, had resulted in one gamer spending upwards of £1,000 a year.

The report recommends that loot boxes that contain the element of chance not to be sold to children - and instead be earned through in-game credits.

But the Gambling Commission has so far been reluctant to classify loot boxes as a form of gambling as they do not offer cash prizes - so a change in the law would be needed.

If the UK government takes up the advice to recognise loot boxes as gambling, the DCMS says games sold in the UK should also be labelled to make customers - notably parents - aware.

Console makers Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo recently pledged to force game publishers to disclose the likelihood of particular items being discovered in loot boxes, but right now video game packaging only sports an icon warning of the potential for extra purchases, which do not always involve an element of chance.

One person told the DCMS their adult son had built up more than £50,000 in debts by buying "microtransactions" in the multiplayer game RuneScape.

Developer Jagex has acknowledged players "can potentially spend up to £1,000 a week or £5,000 a month" on extra items and features.

Away from spending, the DCMS report says the industry must do more to prevent gamers being lured into "excessive play-time" after the World Health Organisation designated "gaming disorder" as a disease.

More effective age verification tools are also needed, according to the DCMS, to prevent children playing titles that are unsuitable because of strong violence or other mature content.

The committee also took aim at some of gaming industry figures who gave evidence to the inquiry, accusing them of often being "wilfully obtuse in answering questions about typical patterns of play".

Some representatives were found to have "demonstrated a lack of honesty and transparency".

An EA spokesman told Sky News the company was "closely considering the findings of the DCMS report" - but did not agree with all of its conclusions and recommendations.

"While we don't agree with all of the conclusions and recommendations in the report, we do take our responsibilities to players of all ages very seriously," they said.

"We have an ongoing commitment to player safety and well-being whenever they are playing our games or engaging in our communities. We will continue to look at how we can contribute to productive research and solutions for the topics raised in this report, and we look forward to continuing our ongoing dialogue with the UK government."

Dr Jo Twist, CEO of the video games industry trade body Ukie, said: "The video games industry has always, and will continue to, put the welfare of players at the heart of what we do.

"We will review these recommendations with utmost seriousness and consult with the industry on how we demonstrate further our commitment to player safety - especially concerning minors and vulnerable people."

The DCMS also heard evidence from social media companies, including Snapchat, before filing its report, and highlighted a need to crackdown on "deepfake films" that distort the appearance of people.