UK government responds to loot box questions (vaguely)

Playing the loot

The UK government has responded to two questions posed by a Cambridge MP about loot boxes and gambling laws. It is a very very very very boring answer, and says basically nothing apart from highlighting current regulations about gambling. That’s not much of a surprise, although the speed at which the government has “answered” suggests an awareness that the issue of loot crates is smoldering upon the floor of the industry, like a flaming paper bag with a poo in it. Something might have to be done about it, sure, but nobody wants to volunteer their boot.

The questions and replies can be found here and here. Although it’s the same answer for both questions. Originally Daniel Zeichner, Labour MP for Cambridge, asked the government what steps they planned to take “to help protect vulnerable adults and children from illegal gambling, in-game gambling and loot boxes within computer games.” He also pointed out differences in the gambling laws of the Isle of Man, suggesting a model of reform for current UK laws.

The questions were directed at Tracey Crouch, minister for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Her department has responded dryly. They point out a paper already released by the Gambling Commission and repeat the current rules about requiring a gambling licence.

Where items obtained in a computer game can be traded or exchanged outside the game platform they acquire a monetary value, and where facilities for gambling with such items are offered to consumers located in Britain a Gambling Commission licence is required. If no licence is held, the Commission uses a wide range of regulatory powers to take action.

This is a simple re-statement of where the law draws a line, but also a wordy way of reminding everyone of past government action in the videogame industry. The implicit reference is to controversies like the gambling of CS:GO skins through third-party websites, and the recent case of the FIFA-playing YouTubers charged with gambling offences for using the in-game currency of FIFA coins. That the Gambling Commission recently took up arms in this way is also the most likely reason EVE Online banished its player-operated casinos which used the in-game currency of ISK.

However, the minister’s answer says nothing about the selling of loot boxes by developers themselves.

“The government recognise the risks that come from increasing convergence between gambling and computer games,” the statement adds. “The Gambling Commission is keeping this matter under review and will continue to monitor developments in the market.”

In short, the statement is saying: here’s the law, we’ve got the rules we need for now. But it also doesn’t directly address the issue of the original questions, which the questioners themselves say they expected. The problem is unlikely to disappear, as loot crates and microtransactions find their way into more and more games, like Wardor and Star Wars: Battlefront II. The Gambling Commission has shown a willingness to invade videogameland before, like I say. It’s possible they will again, but not right now.

30 Comments

  1. gtdp says:

    Even if there was political will to make big changes to how loot boxes are regulated any time soon (which it doesn’t seem like there is), there’s precisely 0% chance that anything would actually change in the next couple of years anyway, while the colossal bureaucratic shitstorm of Brexit continues to completely dominate political life.

    • MiniMatt says:

      You, you’ll eat your chlorinated chicken and open yer loot boxes, and you’ll like it.

    • wz says:

      > “political will to make big changes”, “doesn’t seem like there is”

      Small change only. Only change needed is focus on gambling loss.

      Law is old. Created with old-world examples in mind, before age of digital interaction.

      Oldworld: The rewards gambling institutions used to drive gambling loss are all exchangeable. Have non-0 value recognised by others gamblers can trade for. Old laws targeted these institutions. If casino game rewards were personalised song sung by singers, limited value to peers.. would have caused lawmakers to rethink wording initially.

      Digital reality: can stop exchange by stopping account selling&item trading with outside. Underground blackmarket trading? Authorites stepped in e.g. CS:GO skins gambling.

      Rewards are recognised by peers in digital & real-world interactions. Shiny jewelry, expensive goods = status. Skin cosmetics, rares = status. Useful goods = power & time. SWBF2 power items, RNG grindsaving = power & time.

      Gambling loss is the same. The problem is the same. Introducing new laws deals with the problem in 2017, the same as when old laws were introduced.

      An anti-gambling clause should be standard industry practice on developer contracts. Coders, artists, designers on games like EA’s SWBF2 Star wars movie tie-in cash-grab didn’t choose careers to support gambling. Didn’t choose games to make lives frustrating, or miserable. CEOs can put pressure on lower ranked developers: mortgages to pay, kids, job security, career opportunities, relocate for new job. Needs a global developer representative body & regional bodies: collective bargaining. United creators are everything, divided almost nothing.

      Current status of video game gambling loss depends on laws for each independent region. Need to take up with gambling authorities to see status & government if needed.

    • oliseo says:

      Two things.

      1) Brexit was the process of a democractic vote, you have to respect the outcome even if your’e against it, the alternative is a path that leads to fascism.

      2) Politicians love excuses so they don’t have to do what they’re employed to do, don’t give them any more by using “brexit” all the time.

      Thanks.

      • Nolenthar says:

        Never, ever forget democracy brought Hitler into Power. Don’t ever confuse democracy and populism. Brexit is everything about the latter, and little to do with the former, thank you.

        • 7vincent7black7 says:

          I sincerely hope people like you will flourish in future societies so that people like Hitler never gain power again.

          • Premium User Badge

            Risingson says:

            I know you don’t give a fork about us second rate citizens but a vote that affected directly eu workers in UK and where we could not vote is everything but the voice of the people or democratic.

            EDIT: every time a british comes with the condescending “it’s democracy, sorry, fork yourself” I… ok, I’ll leave it.

  2. MiniMatt says:

    although the speed at which the government has “answered” suggests an awareness that the issue

    I’d be a teensy bit wary of reading anything into the apparent speed of response – I *think* the guidelines are to get responses back from parliamentary questions within a working week – link to parliament.uk – and DCMS are regarded as one of the more responsive.

    As you identify, they may not be terribly satisfactory responses, but responses nonetheless.

  3. Mix says:

    Two questions:

    1) Since items obtained from Overwatch loot boxes can’t “be traded or exchanged outside the game platform,” doesn’t that mean it doesn’t meet the government’s definition of gambling? I only ask because of the article’s header image.

    2) If randomized real-world value is considered gambling, wouldn’t Magic the Gathering and other CCG’s fall into that category? Why is it a problem with digital loot boxes when the same thing has existed in physical form for decades?

    • something says:

      Re:2, MtG et al started life as what they are. Hence, no one who buys them has any reason to suddenly be angry about them being a bit gambly. But for that, CCGs might have faced the same scrutiny long since.

    • dahools says:

      Regarding the first. People sometimes sell accounts if you can’t sell the item on its own. Can’t speak for overwatch. Never played it.

      Regarding number 2 generally I think card/sticker collection games before were easier to monitor by parents. Online not all parents are technologically proficient enough to stay on top off.
      Also another way to look at it, just because something has been like that for ages doesn’t make it right?

      Personally I want games with this (feature?) in, to be identified on the box and not sold with a 3+ rating on it. My opinion is this mechanic shouldn’t be aimed at vulnerable people with a under developed willpower ie. Children.
      It will help parents make better informed decisions about what they buy their children and allow them exposure to in video games.

      • ResonanceCascade says:

        Yes. If PEGI and the esrb would do their jobs and put higher ratings on games with monetization schemes that exploit children, lawmakers wouldn’t even be looking at this issue. This is easily solved with self-regulation.

  4. Premium User Badge

    Nauallis says:

    Furious uproar about monetizing addiction. Government dodges question. News at 11.

  5. Freud says:

    It’s not gambling. It’s just selling a mystery boxes. It’s not against the law to sell you these products.

    Doing it in full price games are of course cynical and greedy but we already know what these publishers are made of.

    Just vote with your wallet.

    • Flappybat says:

      That’s rather missing the point. The argument is there should be regulations. You can make a reasonable case that the odds should be shown or that it’s exploitative of children and should incur a minimum age rating. We have a lot of regulations that are designed to protect people from themselves. Games are hit with a higher age rating for smoking or alcohol use to avoid influencing children.

      Voting with your wallet is misguided as loot boxes are not aimed at the typical consumer. They are intended to take a lot of money from a small amount of the audience. Most consumers do not buy lootboxes.

    • oliseo says:

      It’s “not gambling” in the same way uber isn’t a “taxi company” I suppose.

    • Sian says:

      Not gambling? Loot boxes work just about the same way as slot machines do: You feed them money so you can pull the lever to see if you get a payout. The only difference is that lootboxes at least always contain something, but I’d wager (Ha!) that psychologically the two aren’t so different.

      • Menthalion says:

        How about slot machines that always payed out 5 units of currency, be they cents, dollars, $10, $100 or $1000 bills for a $1 buy-in ? Of course these would be weighted immensely to the lower end.

        This would be the same as loot boxes according to some, since I am always guaranteed to get 5 units of currency. I don’t think you’d get a lawmaker to agree on any such slot machines though.

        It’s all a question of value. And in this day and age even coin is just as valuable as the thought of value we assign to it. User data, advertising, digital content, even when re-hashed on twitch or youtube, all have value.

    • Menthalion says:

      Neither here nor there if it’s ‘not gambling’ now. Gambling is what the law describes as is, and laws can and should be adjusted as times go by.

      There never were advertising laws until the impact of advertising reached critical mass. There used to be no laws on gambling, bribery, corruption, and no forms of trading standards. Hell, there used to be no code of laws at some time, period.

      But that doesn’t mean one should never have been made. It’s a prerequisite for Trade, Monarchy and The Republic.

  6. Rindan says:

    I’m a bit confused. What exactly is the problem with loot boxes, besides the fact that they shit up game play? Don’t get me wrong, I hate loot boxes, but I’m not sure having a guy who remembers when his town first got a TV should the one to legislate a fix by force of law.

    Is the problem that you people are worried that other people are spending so much money on loot boxes that it is ruining their lives? Exactly what is the size and scope of this problem that it needs to be fixed by simply banning the practice for everyone? Even if you decide that the problem is big enough that the government should be stepping in, shouldn’t the proper response be to regulate the people with a gambling problem, rather than all of humanity?

    This is like banning alcohol because some people will be drunks. It sucks that there are drunks, but just because one person can’t keep their shit together doesn’t mean I should be kept from a drink. The drunk needs to be kept from the pint, not me. Likewise, the people with a gambling addiction need to be kept from gambling, not the rest of us without a problem.

    • April March says:

      Your objection could very well be phrased as “my right to have a little fun trumps someone else’s right not to have their life completely destroyed because of a psychological issue they have little if any control over”.

      • Rindan says:

        You could make literally the same statement about video games, or anything really. Everything that is pleasurable is addictive to someone. Your smartphone is most certainly more addictive than gambling. Gambling just happens to be one of the older vices and so there is institutional and cultural hatred of it that is deeper than many other more modern vices.

        Some people are horribly addicted to video games to the point that it ruins their lives. Hell, I went through a period in my life when I would say I was addicted to video games and it was having a noticeably detrimental impact on my life. Does our right to have a little fun playing video game trump someone’s right to not have their lives destroyed by the same thing? Certainly society could exist without video games. We would almost certainly be better without them. Still, I bet you think your right to play video games should win out, and I’d agree.

        Further, I didn’t say my rights trumped anyone else’s. I just said that if the problem is truly so big that a government fix is needed, the “fix” should be targeted at the people with the problem, not all of humanity. If we are going to keep people from gambling, and do it against their will, then how about we just keep the people with a problem from gambling? It doesn’t make any sense to prevent literally everyone from doing a thing that only harms some. Just because some people have drinking and driving problem, doesn’t mean we ban everyone from using cars. We ban people with a drinking and driving problem from using cars.

        • PseudoKnight says:

          These systems are specifically designed to exploit vulnerable peoples. That doesn’t describe smartphones or games in general.

          • Rindan says:

            It’s not designed to exploit vulnerable people. It’s designed to get you to spend $20 on vanity skins. Some people with an addictive personality might somehow managed to spend more than they should, be less than a ruinous amount.

            It’s nutty to say that we can’t have a mystery box because some people have a serious psychological condition where they spend more than they should on something stupid. Hell, it isn’t even the dumbest thing you can waste money on. You could do something really stupid, like buy a car or house you can’t afford.

            I personally think it is crazy to even want to use the government to keep people from spending too much on Overwatch skins when there are real issues in the world to deal with. The money spent to enforce such an insanely stupid and easily violated law could have gone to better mental health services to ACTUALLY help people with a problem. It isn’t like someone who can’t help but spend a $1000 on Overwatch skins isn’t going to find another crazy way to spend their money. They have an actual serious problem that needs medical attention, not all of society covered in nerf so that they don’t hurt themselves.

            If you really are so worried about those people that you think the force of government should step in and prevent these people from wasting their money, which is a stupid because they actually need medical help, but if you really want to do that, you should just do it with the people with an actual problem. I’m a normal healthy human. I can manage to buy the right amount of loot crates for me without government help. Thanks, but the help isn’t needed. The government can go help the people that need it and leave me be.

          • Herring says:

            While I think Loot Boxes should be regulated, that’s not strictly true.

            There were plenty of dev interviews with Blizzard about how they used psychological techniques to maximise the addictive impact of quest descriptions in WoW for example, or the opening of chests in Diablo 3.

            Similar stuff was used by the old coin-op developers to get that “one more go” action going on.

            If there’s any kind of financial incentive to keep you clicking, people will use everything they can to keep you clicking.

            Unless they’re prevented by law.

          • Sheng-ji says:

            “I’m a normal healthy human. I can manage to buy the right amount of loot crates for me without government help.”

            Firstly, you’re an asshole, because there’s nothing abnormal about people with mental health issues and little shriveled pricks like you who describe yourself as “normal” for not having a disease that does not discriminate, actively make life more difficult for them.

            That aside, great, you are able to gamble, drink and smoke to your hearts desire, despite these industries being some of the most heavily regulated in the world. You can, right now walk down to the shops, buy a bottle of whiskey and be completely ketchuped within half an hour. Government regulations barely infringe on your rights, maybe, if you’re a youth, you may have to remember to take your id.

            So what’s the big problem with regulation, a system that is designed to allow you to buy as many or as few loot boxes as you desire, while safeguarding the vulnerable?

            (And by the way, the odds are almost certain that you will face mental health issues in yourself or your loved ones in your lifetime. Lose this attitude before then, if you don’t wish to cause pain)

          • Sheng-ji says:

            “It’s not designed to exploit vulnerable people.”

            Just to pick up on this point: Why then are the companies bending over backwards to exploit a loophole in Chinese law which stated that they had to declare their odds, a measure which is _only_ of any help to vulnerable gambling addicts, while not affecting the experience for literally everyone else. Why are they doing this? Could it be -gasp- that these loot boxes actually are designed to exploit the vulnerable?

          • Rindan says:

            The vast majority of humanity can buy zero to handful of loot boxes and call it a day. It is not normal for someone to spend vast amounts of money on loot boxes. You can be upset about that, but the fact of matter is that if someone has such an addictive personality that they can financially ruin themselves with Overwatch skins, they have a real problem, and that real problem almost certainly extends well beyond Overwatch skins. Addiction to the point where you actually manage to ruin yourself financially with loot boxes is an actual medical problem. It isn’t a personal moral failing. It’s something that needs to be treated with medical treatment.

            If I crack my head or my brain chemistry changes or whatever, I end up with a gambling compulsion so strong that I’ll buy mystery boxes into financial ruin, for the love of god, do not legislate them away tell me I’m cool now. That obviously isn’t going to work. Have a system of mental health that can treat and deal with such problems. I want mental health services, not to cover society in nerf foam.

            You bring up alcohol like it is a counter example. That amount of absolutely shit and counterproductive legislation that has utterly failed to stop any drinking could be stacked to the moon. We can laugh at the stupidity of marijuana prohibition if you want too.

            I’m not against regulation. Regulation is fine. Cigarettes are actually addictive, regulate the shit out of them. Hell, booze is pretty dangerous too. Sane and reasonable regulation backed by evidence and a sense of proportionality on that is a-okay too. I’m even okay with a little gambling regulation if it’s sane. The hysteria over loot boxes is not sane. A tiny fraction of the population that needs actual medical intervention that can already financially ruin themselves in far more effective ways is not a reason to regulate fucking mystery boxes for everyone else.

    • Menthalion says:

      It’s not only a question if people should be able to gamble or not. It’s if they can calculate their chances, and if these chances can’t be manipulated.

      I’m all for people having the freedom to decide if they gamble or not. I’m not OK, and neither are most governments, with giving everyone a license to organize gambling without monitoring if they stack their cards, weigh their dice, have magnets on their roulette wheels, all which are infinitely easier to fudge digitally.

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