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EA Says Loot Boxes Are Just 'Surprise Mechanics'

'Fortnite' developer Epic Games told the House of Commons that it does not operate a 'sweatshop where managers are standing behind people with weapons forcing people to work.'

by Matthew Gault
Jun 20 2019, 2:32pm

The United Kingdom’s House of Commons grilled representatives from Electronic Arts and Fortnite developer Epic Games for two and a half hours on June 19. It didn’t go well for Epic and EA. When MP Brendan O'Hara asked if loot boxes were ethical, EA took issue with the term itself. “We don’t call them loot boxes,” Kerry Hopkins, Vice President of Legal and Government Affairs for EA, said. “We look at them as surprise mechanics."

Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media, and Sports Committee grilled EA and Epic on a wide range of topics—from crunch, to game addiction, to loot boxes, to hate speech—and EA and Epic spent the inquiry dodging questions, avoiding responsibility, and admitting to not always following the law. Along with Hopkins, EA’s UK County Manager Shaun Campbell, Epic’s Director of Marketing Matthew Weissinger, and General Counsel Canon Pence sat for questioning.

When the discussion turned to loot boxes, a topic that EA’s Star Wars Battlefront II caused legislators worldwide to pay attention to and compare to gambling, Hopkins refused to call them loot boxes. “People enjoy surprises … it’s been a part of toys for years,” she said. “We do think the way we’ve implemented these kinds of mechanics is quite ethical and quite fun. They aren’t gambling and we disagree that there’s evidence that shows they lead to gambling.”

“You have no ethical qualms?” O’Hara asked.

“We have no qualms that they’re implemented in an unethical way,” Hopkins said.

In another lengthy exchange, PM Ian Lucas asked EA and Epic a series of questions about how the companies verify the ages of players. EU law requires that companies establish the age of their players before allowing them access and collect their data. Epic explained that the responsibility of age verification is on the platform holders, not Fortnite. “At a high level...we intend to collect the minimal amount [of personal information],” Pence said. “We don’t believe…we need age to deliver what’s been requested by the account holder.”

“So you don’t think it’s necessary to comply with data regulations and laws by establishing the age of the people who play your game?” MP Lucas asked.

“We don’t,” Pence said.

Another running theme was duty of care—the idea that companies such as EA and Epic have a legal obligation to protect users from the harm their products may cause. In the UK, game companies don’t have that duty, but Parliament is considering laws that could change that.

“Do you agree that you have a duty of care to the people who play your games?” MP Lucas asked Hopkins.

“If you’re asking me if we have a duty of care under law, I can say there’s not a law yet,” Hopkins said. “I do think we have a duty to our players and we take that responsibility very seriously, but legally I don’t think this is the place to discuss whether there’s a legal requirement.”

“We’re the House of Commons,” MP Lucas said. “This is exactly the place.”

MP Clive Efford asked Epic about working conditions for its employees, pointing to recent investigations where employees said they’d been forced to work 100 hour weeks on Fortnite. “I’m aware of the article,” Weissinger said. “I’m not aware of anyone that’s been forced to work.”

“Mr. Pence,” Efford said. “Is this not something you’d respond to, if it were a calumny [slander]?”

“I’m aware of the article,” Pence said. “Certainly, this is not some sweatshop where managers are standing behind people with weapons forcing people to work...it’s absolutely not true that anyone is or has ever been forced to work a 100 hour work week.”

No one that we know of in the games industry has been forced to work 100-hour weeks at the end of the barrel of a gun. The force is more subtle than that. Bosses encourage the long hours by claiming its good for the company and framing crunch as a natural part of the development process.