Loot boxes may still be making video game companies oodles of cash but they may become more trouble than they’re worth. Opposition to this aggressive form of in-game monetization has moved beyond angry internet forums and into actual governmental bodies around the world. Court houses, legislative branches, and even entire systems of government are taking time to address the imminent threat of unregulated gambling mechanics in video games that prey on children and those with addictive personalities.
Belgium is at the forefront of world war loot box. The Belgian Gaming Commission (BGC) determined that loot boxes constituted gambling in a report released in early 2018. The report was requested at the behest of Minister Justice Koen Geens who said: “Mixing games of chance and gaming, especially at a young age, is dangerous for mental health. We have already taken numerous measures to protect both minors and adults from the influence of, among other things, gambling advertising. That is why we must also ensure that children and adults are not confronted with gambling when they are looking for fun in a video game.”
The report additionally noted that fines and jail time were applicable to the offending loot box predators. “Paying lottery tickets are not an innocent part of video games that present themselves as a game of skill,” said Peter Naessens, Director of the Gaming Commission. “Players are seduced and misled by this and none of the protective measures regarding gambling is applied. Now that it is clear that children and vulnerable people in particular are exposed to this [without protection], the game manufacturers, but also parties such as FIFA, for example, are called upon to stop this practice.”
The industry is not taking this well. Publishers have either removed the gambling mechanics within their games like EA did with FIFA or pulled entire titles with loot boxes like Nintendo did with mobile games like Animal Crossing Pocket Camp and Fire Emblem Heroes. More recently, GameIndustry.biz discussed the report with the lobbying group Flemish Games Association (FLEGA) spokesman David Verbruggen while at Nordic Game 2019. According to Verbruggen, the industry is being unfairly targeted by the government.
“Framing is maybe too harsh a word, but it feels that way; it feels like we’re being framed,” Verbruggen told GameIndustry.biz. “Then we’re asking ourselves, ‘Why?’ What does the commission want to achieve? Do they want more money for their operations? Do they want to fund the state treasure chest? It’s also about taxation. It’s about gambling licenses. It’s about money. You will have to pay the gambling commission to be able to continue to do paid loot boxes. I’m not talking about a moral dilemma here.”
Verbruggen seems to be engaging in a “what about-ist” argument here. While there is always reason to fear government corruption and misuses of power, those concerns of how “it’s about money” ring hollow when being vocalized from a corporate lobbyist representing Belgium’s video game publishers, developers, and service providers.
Verbruggen additionally criticized the BGC for disallowing video game stakeholders from assisting in the compilation of the report. “We found it really disturbing that they closed the door in front of us,” said Verbruggen. “When the report came out, we talked to the BGC and we said, as an industry we have to be responsible and have to maybe do more to help parents with these issues and protect minors, and we proposed a lot of things. They just said ‘no, we’re going ahead with prosecution anyway.’”
Verbruggen revealed a kernel of truth in this quote. The industry does have a responsibility to be more ethical in its business practices. Unfortunately, video game publishers acted irresponsibly in implementing loot boxes, over indulging in this lucrative unregulated gravy train for as long as possible. EA and Activision had every opportunity to fix the predatory systems in games like Star Wars: Battlefront and Overwatch, but those companies and the industry as a whole has demonstrated that they are unwilling at worst or unable at worst to self-regulate.
Now, for better or worse, governments are stepping in to examine the ethical application of loot boxes. Even the United States, a capitalist haven, is pushing the debate via a bipartisan bill titled “The Protecting Children From Abusive Games Act” that is making its way through the U.S. Senate. The video game industry neglected its responsibility to the public. Now the industry will suffer the consequences via regulatory red tape and bad press.