Belgium commission declares loot boxes are gambling

battlefront-2-loot-crates

Following the Star Wars Battlefront 2 microtransaction debacle, last week the Belgium Gaming Commission launched an investigation into whether loot boxes came under their purview. VTM news (beware of the sloppy Google translation) have now reported on their conclusion, which is a resounding ‘yes’.

Elsewhere in the world, Hawaiian politicians have spoken out, calling for legislation to end the sale of loot boxes to minors. So, will we be seeing greater restrictions on what games companies are allowed to sell any time soon? It’s complicated, but probably not.

First, let’s jump back to Belgium. The gaming commission has declared that “the mixing of money and addiction is gambling”. It’s odd that it doesn’t stipulate the role that chance has to play, though that can be explained by the way they’re talking directly about loot boxes. Belgium’s Minister of Justice Koen Geens added that “mixing gambling and gaming, especially at a young age, is dangerous for the mental health of the child.”

They’re emphatic statements, and Geens’ ultimate goal is to ban in-game purchases in all circumstances where the buyer doesn’t know exactly what they will get. He’s aware that such radical changes to legislation won’t happen any time soon, however: “It will require time, because we need to go to Europe with this. We will absolutely try to forbid it.”

It’s early days, and UK digital entertainment lawyer Jas Purewal is sceptical about the ultimate significance of the Belgium Gaming Commissions findings. He points out that Belgium still has “no considered policy position, no stated strategy” and that “gambling authorities move slowly on the whole”.

He summarises: “TLDR – don’t read much into Belgium news yet. Even if somehow it happens, I don’t think it would actually change very much at all. Only if this becomes a concerted international movement against video games gambling would things change. The chances of that happening seems very low.” (Thanks, Eurogamer).

The chances of an international movement forming against gambling in games may be low, but it doesn’t seem impossible. Recent comments from Hawaii State Representative Chris Lee, denounced Battlefront 2’s practices as “predatory”. Here are the highlights from the press conference he gave on Monday November 21st.

His statements focus on the impact that gambling can have on minors.

“This game is a Star Wars-themed online casino designed to lure kids into spending money; it’s a trap. This is something we need to address to ensure that particularly kids who are underage, who are not psychologically and emotionally mature enough to be able to gamble – which is why gambling is prohibited under 21 – are protected from being trapped into these cycles which have compelled many folks to spend thousands of dollars in gaming fees online.

We’re looking at legislation this coming year which could prohibit the sale of these games to folks who are underage in order to protect families, as well as prohibiting different kinds of mechanisms in those games. We’ve been talking with several other states as well – legislators there who are looking at the same thing. This is the appropriate time to make sure these issues are addressed before this becomes the new norm for every game.”

Agreement over whether loot boxes constitute gambling is far from unanimous. In response to questions from a Cambridge MP about loot boxes and gambling laws, the UK Gambling Commission pointed to a paper from March this year that lays out the governments stance on gambling within games.

Those responses don’t directly address the actual selling of loot boxes by developers, though in response to a petition the UK Government clarified that in instances “where prizes are restricted for use solely within the game, such in-game features would not be licensable gambling”. That ties in to how UK law stipulates that gambling requires the possibility of spending money and gaining nothing, as Eurogamer found in their excellent investigation into the matter. The same stance is held by the relevant agencies in the US and Canada.

Personally, I’d argue that the possibility of either receiving something you want or don’t want from a loot crate makes the decision to buy one a gamble, and I can’t see how the psychological mechanisms at play would be significantly different if there was also a chance of receiving nothing. It sounds like the Belgians agree with me, but the future of loot boxes in games is still uncertain.

51 Comments

  1. Swyyw says:

    Fake news :p

    From the Belgian state media this morning : link to rtbf.be

    Edit with a quick TLDR translation:
    – the gambling commision has not concluded its inquiry yet, the president of the commission told the RTBF this morning
    – “the mixing of money and addiction is gambling” was a statement made at the beginning of the inquiry, not its conclusion

    Therefore don’t expect to find too much information on the details of the commission’s report (as it’s not released yet).

    • Mordaedil says:

      I mean, that doesn’t mean the article is fake news, that just means people don’t read.

      • Swyyw says:

        Just a little tongue-in-cheek, not meant as an attack on this fine publication.

        A possible explanation for the confusion (identified in the article I linked to, admittedly in French instead of Dutch this time, which might not help much to clarify the situation), is that the quote about money and addiction *sounds* like a conclusion, in the roughly translated VTM article.

    • Bull0 says:

      They didn’t make a ruling, so nothing has been retracted. But keep lobbying for kid-friendly gambling, I guess

      • Swyyw says:

        It looks like my reply is attracting snarky comments, it seems I’ve not made my point clearly, and somewhat ironically, hitting a language barrier.

        It’s not my intent to undermine this story, the statement of our Justice Minister on his intent to legislate on this matter is quite a strong signal, and that alone is newsworthy.

        However today a large number of gaming websites have reported on this Belgian ruling that did not in fact happen. As the article from the Belgian public media I’ve linked to explains (I invite you to read it using Google Translate, the translation is actually quite good for this article) (it’s the Belgian equivalent of the BBC if you wish), this false news item probably stems from a translation mistake in the interview with Justice Minister Koen Geens and is being reported erroneously all over gaming news.

        The title of this RPS article ‘Belgium commission declares loot boxes are gambling’, as well as the first and third paragraph are simply factually wrong and premature.

    • Splyce says:

      I’m not sure if you’re from the States or not, this is a UK based site after all, but calling something “fake news” with your first two words of a comment is actually a serious allegation that is loaded with connotations, even if you put a smiley face after it. It suggests you think the authors are intentionally misleading people. Granted, this is just video game journalism and not anything serious, but making that phrase a cute part of the lexicon is something I, for one, take seriously.

      • Swyyw says:

        My implication was not that the authors were trying to be misleading, sorry if that was how it was perceived. I saw this news item pop up on pretty much every gaming website but did not bother to comment until now. This is only a factually wrong piece of information spreading from gaming website to gaming website, because nobody has checked with the sources (admittedly that can be difficult and is probably not the standard for gaming news). If RPS is guilty of it, then so is PC Gamer, Gamasutra, etc.

        I’m not some industry lobbyist, in fact I have a lot of faith in this gambling commission (Belgian here), it is composed in part of academics who seem to know the subject quite in-depth (not out of touch grey-haired politicians), and I suspect there’s a good chance their report will be quite enlightened, specific, and perhaps harsh on the current practices of the industry. I believe there is a body with similar sensibilities currently working on the same issue in the Netherlands. These practices have been in their crosshair for a while.

        But I’ve seen people on other websites speculate all over the place because of this piece of news, (EDIT: based on the phrasing of the supposed conclusion from the belgian commission) on its potential negative effects, what the effect it would have on TCGs, etc. (which already have laws specificly addressing them in Belgium) if we redefine gambling. This IMO is harmful and premature speculation, until we have a detailed report to talk about.

      • ScubaMonster says:

        Oh lighten up. I’m from the States and I’m not a Trump fan, but I’ve seen plenty of people use “fake news” in a humorous context. There’s no reason to take this as a serious attack on RPS’s journalistic integrity.

      • ScubaMonster says:

        Plus, this information is coming from other sources, not RPS directly, so it wouldn’t even be an attack on them in the first place.

    • ScubaMonster says:

      I totally understood what you meant and that your comment was tongue-in-cheek humor not to be taken seriously. Not sure why others aren’t getting it. I guess people are overly sensitive to Trump so they are automatically triggered when they hear the phrase “fake news” regardless of context or intent.

  2. seroto9 says:

    I love how politician says ‘It’s a trap!’

  3. Shiloh says:

    Personally, I’d argue that the possibility of either receiving something you want or don’t want from a loot crate makes the decision to buy one a gamble

    Schrödinger’s loot box.

    • LexW1 says:

      He’s right though. Most lootbox systems lead to a scenario where you feel like you “got nothing” – even though literally you got something – which is at least extremely similar to just outright losing money in gambling, psychologically.

      • Masked Dave says:

        While you are correct, legislating that “getting something you didn’t want” for your money counts as gambling means that things like sticker collections packs and random toys in cereal boxes / Kinder eggs would potentially count as gambling too.

        I can understand why people don’t want to do that.

        • Masked Dave says:

          Hell, that would also potentially including buying the “season pass” for a game and then discovering the DLC is shit and you aren’t interested.

        • Archonsod says:

          They get around it because the random toy/stickers inside are a free gift; you’re paying for the cereal/chocolate. If Kinder were to include a coupon where you could send money off to receive a free toy instead then they’d hit similar issues.

          • Premium User Badge

            DuncUK says:

            Not so with Panini stickers, unless you’re claiming you pay for the foil packet they come in. I was into quite a few of those sticker books when I was a kid, I remember repeatedly buying packs only to get a bunch of stickers I already had. Those would be consigned to your deck of “swaps” but even then you’d often end up with duplicates of those.

            I never believed their claims that the odds of getting any sticker in a pack was identical, at my school with 10 or so collectors we frequently all had the same swaps and lacked the same stickers.

            tl;dr – fuck Panini.

        • saravis says:

          I feel like for it to be gambling there needs to be a varying “market” value for the items that you can get. As far as I’m aware there’s no difference in the value of stickers in a sticker pack. So every time you buy a sticker pack you’re getting precisely what you pay for; more stickers of the same value. A lootbox is different because there’s a large variation in the items that you get, particularly with some items being more rare to acquire than others. For example, legendary skins in Overwatch are particularly difficult to acquire and will likely result in a player spending more than the skin is worth.

          Now, I do realize establishing market value for digital goods, is and has been a difficult thing to define, but I do feel a good first step is looking at the rarity of acquiring items. If there is a variance in rarity for items in a lootbox, that means that there is a variance in the value of said items and thus its gambling.

    • unacom says:

      You, sir made my day!

  4. Ooops says:

    If any small territory like Belgium (I’m Belgian myself, small is not derogatory) decided to ban the practice, I suppose publishers would simply cease to release their games in those small markets rather than revise their very efficient whale-milking machinery.

    • LexW1 says:

      Perhaps with the first one or two territories, especially if they’re highly distinct ones, but if this keeps going on, I think they’ll have to reconsider their approach more broadly.

      It wouldn’t be the first time companies made changes to the way games are monetized to please governments. For example, Diablo 3 didn’t have the RMAH in South Korea because it was considered to be gambling. Whilst that was a more obvious case, in a sense, because you could actively remove money from the game (albeit at a harsh cut), it was a major developer making a major change to a flagship game. Later on, of course, they removed the AH and RMAH entirely.

    • GameCat says:

      They want to push the bill for whole EU. And Europe (European Union precisely) is obviously a huge market, so there’s no way even big publishers would abandon it.

      • Ooops says:

        They want to but until then, Belgium still has laws regarding the matter. If the competent authority rules that it is in fact gambling, it has to be regulated. The authority can’t simply look the other way and do nothing until the European authorities decide to (maybe) do something about it.

    • unacom says:

      Yes, but if you take a country like Germany -which has a strict law against online-gambling- it´s getting quite hard to just give up that small market.

    • Archonsod says:

      Size of the territory isn’t really important, the fact it’s attracting legislative attention is. If the Belgian commission did conclude loot boxes constituted gambling I’d expect most of the big publishers would start making changes just to head off the risk of further scrutiny.

  5. wombat191 says:

    And the evil empire developed a micro transaction super weapon that was defeated by a plucky group of rebellious citizens. Irony much?

  6. aircool says:

    I’d say that it is gambling because most of the loot may as well be nothing, but I guess that’s how they can argue against it being gambling.

    I’m also not sure on whether the UK would have to tax winnings if it was considered gambling. Perhaps because of the complication of taxing virtual loot, the government are quite happy to look the other way.

    I have no problem with micro-transactions for vanity items. But loot boxes, season passes, day one expansions and pre-order bonuses rub me up the wrong way. What was wrong with the old way of doing things, earning XP to unlock specific items with no randomisation involved at all.

    I expect a full game, with access to everything (even if they’re progression related) from day one. I’m happy to buy expansions, but no season pass crap because you’re basically paying up front for unknown content.

    • mike22 says:

      Just an FYI that gambling winnings aren’t taxed in the UK*, you might be thinking of the US.

      People in the UK don’t (generally) file self assessment returns so there’d be no mechanism to collect it anyway.

      * In a round about way the tax is collected from the gambling companies

  7. LuNatic says:

    The Gambling and Alcohol Commission in Victoria, Australia, Has recently declared lootboxes to be a form of gambling as well.

  8. Freud says:

    I very much doubt some randomness in how you acquire abilities or equipment in games turn them into games of chance. If it was, Diablo 3 is gambling. It’s still very much a game of skill at it’s core.

    It’s just politicians jumping on a bandwagon here. Not that I mind attention drawn to predatory practices in gaming, but I just don’t see these games ever being classified as gambling.

    • BaronKreight says:

      You know what is an obstacle for esports growth in Japan? That’s right, gambling laws. Check it out, it’s real.

    • Lim-Dul says:

      It’s not about randomness in games in general. It’s about the connection between randomness and money.
      In Diablo 3 you don’t pay for each loot drop.

    • Bull0 says:

      Do you honestly see no difference between randomised loot tables as a game balance feature in RPGs, and offering players a chance to pay for rolls?

      • Freud says:

        Gambling laws are about games of chance. Where the outcome is dictated by randomness. Slot machines. Lotteries.

        Can you seriously claim that Star Wars Battlefront 2 is a game of chance and not a game of skill with a straight face?

        If they are going to get to predatory practices in video games they will do so through consumer regulation and not gambling laws.

        • Bull0 says:

          Battlefront 2 itself is not a game of chance but the loot boxes – the bit we’re concerned about – obviously are. That’s my point.

        • Hmm-Hmm. says:

          This seems rather disingenuous.

          I’m certainly not a lawyer but one would assume gambling laws are about gambling whether or not they are found in games of chance.

          If an aspect of an otherwise not gambling-related game looks, feels and tastes like gambling – why, it might just be gambling.

  9. Herring says:

    BRB, I’m going to the local fete to kick over the tombola stand while screaming about protecting the children.

  10. Lyrion says:

    Hell, Carnaval is like gambling aswell then. Because you can never be to sure if you are going to get enough points fishing the right duck to get a teddy bear as a gift. No one ever speaks about those but they are still organised yearly make big money of ripping people and children off…

    • Chiselphane says:

      I don’t know how the UK handles it, but in the US carnivals avoid this in 2 ways. One is they classify as many games as they can as games of skill, not chance. The second is if it absolutely cannot avoid being classified as chance, they use the ‘prize every time’ lure. So in your example of the duck game, a legit game would guarantee a prize no matter what the result was.

      For the chance games, in theory it works. In practice it goes one of three ways:
      1: The most common is there are multiple ‘levels’ of buy-in, where the amount you pay to play determines the prize you get. You are basically just buying a toy off the carnie while your kid plays the game.
      2: Games that run to the true intent; where you actually get a prize dependent on your luck. These are more likely to be found at an amusement park.
      3: You get a carnival that doesn’t give a shit and runs as crooked as they can for as long as they can get away with it.

  11. Captain Narol says:

    The AAA game industry badly needs to change their practices to make them more ethical.

    That has definitely more chances to happen if state powers step him to set some rules of conduct.

    Go Belgium, go !

  12. malkav11 says:

    I think there’s certainly some question over whether things like lootboxes meet a given legal definition of gambling, but from a practical perspective of course they fucking are.

    If you are exchanging actual money for a random return, whether or not the possibilities include no return at all, you are gambling. That doesn’t change if the options all theoretically have the same cash value, or if someone else controls the value through the secondary market, or whatever. It also doesn’t matter if you’re first exchanging the real world money into some sort of proprietary currency first. The gambling is the exchange of money for a random output. Those other things certainly modify how predatory and exploitative the gambling is, but they don’t change its fundamental nature as gambling.

    How the law should interact with that, I leave to smarter minds than mine. But let’s please not pretend things aren’t what they clearly are just because they aren’t literally a slot machine.

    • Freud says:

      Are you gambling when you put a coin in a toy vending machine? No. You are just buying a random toy.

      Lootboxes are the same.

      For it to be gambling, there has to be a win somewhere. If you could cash out the stuff you get in a loot box, it would be gambling. Now it’s just buying a mystery box and selling mystery boxes is very much legal.

      • Bull0 says:

        Even if that were the defining characteristic (jury is out), you can totally cash out the stuff you win in a CS GO loot box, for example, so it doesn’t even work as a defence

      • malkav11 says:

        Yes, you are. You are paying money for a random return. The type of return is not material to whether it’s gambling. The cash value of the return, if any, is not material to whether it’s gambling. They are modifiers as to the type and outcome of the gambling, but it’s all gambling. I am not arguing whether it is legal or not, because that is the province of individual laws and legal arguments in court. I am saying that de facto, it is gambling.

  13. Vandelay says:

    Although I definitely think that this is something that should be looked into and I certainly think that we don’t want what Battlefront 2 is doing to become the normal, I do have slight concern that deciding loot boxes are gambling could in the end damage gaming. Of course, the likes of what EA/Dice have done with BF2 are parasitic and should be discouraged, there are other games where these practices don’t effect the gameplay and very well might be games that just couldn’t exist without loot boxes.

    Star Wars multiplayer game was going to make billions without this nonsense. Could we be so sure that Blizzard wouldn’t have taken the risk on a quirky shooter with a new IP? Would Valve be able keep Dota entirely free to play, with zero requirements to pay for heroes or game changing abilities?

    Both those have pretty innocuous implementations of loot boxes and no one really complains about them. That would be pretty irrelevant to the law makers if they decided that these systems were gambling.

    Fortunately, it seems that people have seen sense and the implementation of loot boxes in BF2 has had a big impact on sales (as well as, potentially, EA’s hold on the rights to make Star Wars games if they don’t sort it out.) I can’t see EA wanting to repeat this fiasco again.

  14. RayEllis says:

    All that will happen if loot box gambling is outlawed in games is that publishers will use it as an excuse to put up the price of games. That, and the “fixed prize” lootboxes they might still be allowed to sell will contain increasingly miserly rewards that require a regular investment of cash to maintain.

    Getting rid of lootbox gambling won’t magically cure the game industry. It will just make it ever more underhanded.

    • mitrovarr says:

      It really doesn’t work that way. As far as what game companies charge, they charge as much as they think consumers will pay. The absence of lootboxes will not make consumers accept higher game prices – if they charged more, people won’t buy them, and they know that. It’s the same thing with making in game rewards more miserly – if games reward players less, they won’t enjoy or addict them as much. They’d lose players, so they won’t do that either.

  15. Premium User Badge

    Aerothorn says:

    PC Gamer has already corrected their story with a painfully defensive, unapologetic update – I’m hoping RPS can do the same and be classy about it :)

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