Loot boxes in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Overwatch, and FIFA 18 are games of chance and do violate Belgian gambling regulations, the country’s Gaming Commission has declared. Their loot boxes will need to be removed, the Commission says, or the operators could face hefty fines and potentially prison time. This is a big development as governments view loot boxes and their ilk with an increasingly critical eye. The Commission started investigating loot boxes in four big games last year following Star Wars Battlefront II’s fiasco, though ironically Battlefront II is the only game whose loot boxes they deemed not gambling – after its recent changes, anyway.
The loot boxes must go from these three games, the Commission said in yesterday’s announcement (as I understand it through my rusty French, basically non-existent Dutch, and Google translation), and from any other games whose system qualifies as a game of chance. The Commission uses four parameters to identify a game of chance: having a game element, a bet that can lead to profit or loss and there’s an element of chance.
The games’ operators might also face prison sentences of up to five years and fines of up to €800,000 (£700k) – or double that amount if minors are involved. FIFA 18 has a PEGI age rating of 3 and Overwatch’s is 12, making them double-naughty, though CS:GO’s is 18.
The Gaming Commission don’t seem to be actually taking action yet, simply raising the possibility. I’m sure Valve, Activision, and EA will fight this tooth and nail.
Battlefront II is what kicked off this investigation but EA have reworked its loot boxes since then. While CS, Overwatch, and FIFA all sell loot boxes for money, in BF2 they’re now earned in-game by playing. The Commission are appeased by that change.
“Mixing games and gaming, especially at a young age, is dangerous for mental health,” Belgian minister of justice Koen Geens said in the announcement. “We have already taken numerous measures to protect both minors and adults against the influence of, among other things, gambling advertising. That is why we must also ensure that children and adults are not confronted with games of chance when they are looking for fun in a video game.”
Seems he wants to open a dialogue with developers, game operators, and the Commission to advance the discussion.
The Gaming Authority in the Netherlands also recently declared that some loot boxes in four out of ten (unnamed) games they examined were games of chance, and should be removed.
They didn’t object to all forms of loot boxes, only those whose items could be transferred, which they say gives items a market value. They reject the defence advanced by some that such loot boxes aren’t games of chance because they always give some item, never nothing.
“This argument is not valid,” they said. “The in-game goods differ and have different market values if they can be traded. It is beyond doubt that the real winner is the person who wins the major, valuable prize with a high market value.”
Which, yeah, is a particular nuance that I’d not fully thought through myself. That is particularly a problem with PC gaming, where items from many games can be sold through the Steam Community Market (or sold for real cash, not store credit, through unofficial channels).
I still don’t expect widespread changes unless US authorities object (edit: or indeed the wider European Union, Alice you big doof). The Entertainment Software Rating Board, the North American industry’s self-policing ratings body, has rejected criticisms of loot boxes, though it has introduced vague labelling for game boxes to indicate in-game purchases. Some US senators are sniffing around loot boxes, prodding the ESRB for answers, but no firm action is underway yet.