The heated conversation around loot boxes is unlikely to die down anytime soon, and one question raised is whether loot boxes represent a form of gambling. If so, loot boxes could potentially be subject to regulation. So far, there's not much reason to to expect meaningful change anytime soon; organizations, both in and outside of government, are keeping their distance.
The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), which assigns content ratings to video games sold in the US and acts as an independent self-regulatory body for the industry, told Kotaku it "does not consider loot boxes to be gambling."
Here's the ESRB's full statement:
"ESRB does not consider loot boxes to be gambling. While there's an element of chance in these mechanics, the player is always guaranteed to receive in-game content (even if the player unfortunately receives something they don't want). We think of it as a similar principle to collectible card games: Sometimes you'll open a pack and get a brand new holographic card you've had your eye on for a while. But other times you'll end up with a pack of cards you already have."
This analogy is a little shaky. When I buy a pack of cards for Magic: The Gathering, those cards have value outside the game. I can sell the cards to someone, they can accrue monetary value over time, and there's no chance the creators of Magic are going to suddenly shut down the servers that allow me play the game. If I want to buy a particular Magic card, I can hop on eBay and spend to my heart's content. That's not possible with loot boxes, which rely on players pulling the slot machine over and over.
A few days later, Wccftech reached out to the ESRB's UK equivalent, the Pan-European Game Information (PEGI) organization. PEGI followed in the foosteps of the ESRB, except it put the onus on gambling commissions to make a determination on whether loot boxes are materially different and require regulation:
"In short, our approach is similar to that of ESRB (I think all rating boards do, USK in Germany as well). The main reason for this is that we cannot define what constitutes gambling. That is the responsibility of a national gambling commission. Our gambling content descriptor is given to games that simulate or teach gambling as it's done in real life in casinos, racetracks, etc. If a gambling commission would state that loot boxes are a form of gambling, then we would have to adjust our criteria to that."
This is called kicking the can down the road.
Loot boxes make game publishers a lot of money because, despite how many upvotes angry threads get on places like reddit, they work. If loot boxes didn't impact a game publisher's bottom line, they'd disappear before any slow-moving organization could get involved. Moreover, the ESRB and PEGI are not meant to be aggressive, consumer-focused regulatory bodies. Taking a stand that would hurt the financials of the game companies that allow the ESRB and PEGI to exist would not be in their best interest.
Taking the hint, reddit user Artfunkel got a member of the UK Parliament to submit a few questions to Karen Bradley, the UK's secretary of state for digital, culture, media, and sport. This prompted an official, if ultimately underwhelming, response.
"The government recognise the risks that come from increasing convergence between gambling and computer games," read the statement from Bradley. "The Gambling Commission is keeping this matter under review and will continue to monitor developments in the market."
(The full statement can be read here, but the website has been acting funky.)
While admitting that "protecting children and vulnerable people from being harmed or exploited by gambling is one of the core objectives" of the Gambling Commission, it wasn't ready to take a position on loot boxes. It left open the door for regulation, but at the moment, there doesn't seem to be any serious movement for change.
Bradley pointed out the Gambling Commission had "successfully prosecuted the operators of a website providing illegal gambling facilities for in-game items which was accessible to children," which is likely alluding to the FIFA Ultimate YouTube creators charged in the UK earlier this year for enabling children to gamble online . It's a step in the right direction, at least.
There are other ways to be heard in the UK, however. A petition to Parliament has reached more than 10,000 signatures, which means a formal response is required by the government. At 100,000 signatures, it would be considered for debate in Parliament. The petition is currently at 12,621 signatures, and can attract signatures until April 2018.
In an era in which it feels like political institutions are constantly failing us, these responses might not offer much hope, but there's reason to keep pressure up. At the very least, you can remove your finances from the equation, and not participate in buying loot boxes. Those dollars matter. Beyond that, the longer this conversation about loot boxes carries on, the more toxic it becomes. It's unlikely to eradicate loot boxes from video games, but even giving publishers pause about whether they want to endure the endless negativity in pursuit of a few extra dollars is a start.
Finally, if you're looking for some excellent but sobering reading on loot boxes, Kotaku's Heather Alexandra recently wrote this essay, where she unpacks how games helped her discovering a dormant gambling addiction.
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