Belgian Gaming Commission rules some loot boxes are illegal gambling

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 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.

43 Comments

  1. napoleonic says:

    I still don’t expect widespread changes unless US authorities object.

    I think that view is naive, honestly. If the EU as a whole rules that loot boxes have to change, there will be widespread changes. Just look at the huge effects of EU investigations into anti-competitive behaviour and data privacy in the last few decades – and that’s only considering our own techie sphere, there are other examples too. The big hitters won’t just abandon selling games in the EU, and it’s the big hitters where loot boxes are the most serious problem.

    • Mezelf says:

      What effects? Amazon has taken over virtually all internet purchases, local companies are getting absorbed left and right into multinational giants and privacy has ceased to exist thanks to Google and the US intelligence agencies.

      • napoleonic says:

        The prime example is the EU’s punishment of Microsoft for breaching competition law, for which it has been fined billions of dollars. Similar judgements have been meted out to Intel and other tech firms. Amazon is a new kid on the block in tech-giant terms: give the EU time, they’ll get to Amazon sooner or later.

        As for privacy, the GDPR comes into effect in less than a month. This is a hugely significant piece of legislation that will massively impact privacy laws in the EU and have ripple effects all around the world.

        The EU has a bigger population and a bigger economy than the US. In global economic terms, it is the EU that counts most, not the US.

        • tekknik says:

          the “ripples” felt from GDPR are companies doing cost analysis of continuing business in the EU (3 companies i consult with have already decided to pull out) and the realization that the EU has just put a massive muzzle on small businesses and innovation. as far as games go you gotta be on some kinda drug if you think the gaming industry is going to give up the massive profits coming from loot boxes just to cater to the EU countries. regional lockouts are coming, just wait and watch.

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      I suspect loot boxes will continue in the US, and anywhere they’re not banned. WoW has always had a completely different subscription system in China, right? Change the business model depending on the region.

      You might even be able to get around gambling laws without changing much. There are ways you could reveal the contents of a loot box before purchase without really altering the incentives for players to buy a lot of them.

      • Baines says:

        Blizzard, in order to dodge China’s laws on loot boxes, changed how Overwatch “sold” loot boxes there. Instead of “selling” loot boxes directly, they sell in-game currency but throw in “free” loot boxes based on how much currency you buy.

        What is arguably even sadder is that Korea, which has a similar “must publish the odds” law as China, ended up fining three companies earlier this month for posting misleading information about odds, posting false information about odds, and lying about items only being available for a limited time period.

      • napoleonic says:

        Sure, but changes that affect billions of people around the world but not the mere few hundred million people in the US are still “widespread changes”, which is what the article talked about. Many non-EU countries throughout EMEA and APAC align their business regs with the EU because it is one of their biggest trading partners. If the EU calls time on loot boxes, that will be big global news for the gaming industry.

      • ColonelFlanders says:

        The only reason they cow tow to China is because their population is greater than that of Europe and the US combined, and that’s a hell of a market to be in. It’s more than likely that publishers will just stop releasing games in Belgium, since it will cost more money to dick around with the development than it will return them in sales.

  2. Fry says:

    Let’s hope this doesn’t expand much beyond Europe. As much as I dislike loot boxes, I reeaaaally don’t want the US Congress getting involved in regulating video game content.

  3. Jahandar says:

    CS:GO is an adult game rated for adults only, so why is the Belgian government treating adult citizens like children?

    The fact that they treat adult games and children games the same means this is not about protecting the children.

    • Premium User Badge

      Aerothorn says:

      This would be a good argument if children were prohibited from playing CS:GO, but they aren’t, and counterstrike is (and always has been) full of adolescents.

      The equivalent would be hanging a sign above a casino saying “WE RECOMMEND THIS CASINO FOR ADULTS” but not actually restricting children from going in and gambling.

    • Lord Byte says:

      Because it’s not AO in the EU (in fact that doesn’t even exist).
      Because you can buy it on steam and the only check is that you pinky-swear that you’re 124 years of age.
      Because everyone knows no shop-keeper ever asked the 5 year old for their ID selling them an AO game, unless it has boobs on it.
      Because lootboxes are a cancer and it’s not just about protecting kids but everyone who has an addictive personality (or a moment of weakness).

    • kud13 says:

      They aren’t.

      They are treating all CS:GO players as exposed to unlicensed (and unregulated) gambling.

      In this particular case the publishers are basically acting similar to criminals running unlicensed casinos.

      If they explicitly advertise to kids (anything rated under 18), they are more culpable, but even those offering unlicensed gambling only to adults (Valve in this case) are still guilty.

      The simplest way to rework the system for those companies that work with cosmetic loot only would be to make sure all loot rewards are equally likely (i.e, eliminate “rares” ). But at that point they might as well just implement cosmetic microtransactions with no randomness involved.

    • SaintAn says:

      Because loot boxes and microtransactions are designed to not just take advantage of children, but also take advantage of adults with the minds of children. It’s wrong to allow weak people to be taken advantage of no matter how much you worship a corporation.

      • Kohlrabi says:

        It’s also a worthwhile endeavour to grow up and take responsibility for your actions, or help people grow up and take responsibility of themselves. Banning “harmful” things will not help members of society grow up into responsible adults.

        • mitrovarr says:

          Is that your blanket excuse for allowing people to prey on each other with no intervention?

          • automatic says:

            I think that’s not his point. Not everything that is potentially harmful to vulnerable people is exploitative or harmful to all the people. I hate this kinder egg loot box mechanics and don’t like it to be on any game I play. I know it is designed to prey on vulnerable people. Regardless, it’s usually the government that uses blanket excuses to prey on society every time something like that presents as a threat. Maybe that’s not the case now, because we’re talking about huge game companies making tons of cash on an environment ppl use to escape reality, but his argument is valid.

        • LexW1 says:

          Actually, it will and this is extremely well-demonstrated. People who aren’t protected from things to at least some degree are much more likely to become victims and addicts, and to end up in a life situation that they cannot break out of – often a cycle of addiction. This is extremely easy to demonstrate by comparing countries which protect people to those that don’t, and even within countries that protect people, the places where the protect people adequately and smartly, and where they do essentially nothing.

    • FuriKuri says:

      It’s not rated adults only. Very few games are. Even if it was, that’s a US rating system and wouldn’t apply in Europe.

      I looked but couldn’t find a PEGI rating for it, the only thing I could find is that CS on XBOX has a PEGI-16 rating.

      • malkav11 says:

        No console or major PC game vendor is willing to sell AO-rated games, so nobody is willing to put out a game that would be AO-rated. It’s too bad, because there ought to be space for games that are properly for adults but aren’t porn. And there isn’t.

    • napoleonic says:

      Gambling for adults is regulated, at least in the EU. They will have to get a gambling licence, institute strict age checks, and conform to the same rules as casinos, betting shops, etc.

  4. thesoupcan says:

    Eh… I still think they will find loopholes to shove loot boxes. The last thing publishers want to do is adapt.

  5. tellingporkies says:

    “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.”
    Does this mean Belgian XCom players will no longer miss a 95% chance to kill a flanking sectiod?

    • Horg says:

      No, you see in XCOM, each action generates an outcome of equal value whatever the result. If you hit, you lean that your choice was tactically sound and gain the satisfaction of victory. If you miss, you gain the knowledge that you don’t expose a soldier to a counter flank for anything less than 100% shot accuracy : |

  6. Carra says:

    So they’re against gambling but at the same time the Belgian National Lottery makes millions by organizing lotteries and selling scratch cards.

    Gambling is fine as long as the money flows into our treasury.

    • KingFunk says:

      That’s not a good argument. Consider if someone was apprehended by the authorities for selling drugs that are covered under existing legal frameworks governing the control of medications. Is it hypocritical because you can get the same drugs on prescription and the government takes a tax cut? No – the difference is between regulation with a concern for public well-being and no regulation with the only concern being profit.

  7. p2501 says:

    €800,000 (£574k)

    Hate to be pedantic, but it is closer to £700k.

    June 2016 and all that.

  8. BlankedyBlank says:

    I’m surprised they’ve taken umbridge at Overwatch’s loot boxes – are they not the same as Battlefront II’s? You can earn them through playing, and the contents cannot be traded and so have no ‘market value’, which would seem to push them onto the acceptable side of their new words.

  9. liam1234 says:

    I’m from Belgium …
    And don’t get me wrong i hate lootboxes as much as everybody else with a sense of finances and business practises, But this is very f*ucking hypocritical of my government. They are running gambling ads like crazy all over the TV here.

  10. Ham Solo says:

    Those who doubt this will have any impact on major games, just let me remind you in what country the EU parliament is at home. Belgium. It will take time, but it will come. This time the big publishers have pushed too far with their predatory marketing.

  11. AskForBarry says:

    The biggest issue for me is when the gambling aspect is forced upon me. I don’t want to gamble, but there are more and more games that is nagging me to buy their idiot crates.

    I don’t mind if someone would want to choose gambling as an activity, but then this type of activity needs to stay separate from other types of activities.

    The size of the issue correlates with how often I need to choose not to gamble when playing a game.

  12. johnlemon says:

    “Mixing games and gaming, especially at a young age, is dangerous for mental health,”
    Didnt know that games and gaming is unhealthy

    (sarcasm intended, you misspeled gambling dumbass)

  13. Flyabledog says:

    Hey, I guess they should ban all trading cards as well because A. “You can make profit or Loss” and B. “Its an element of chance.”
    Honestly CS could just slap an AO rating but that would be absurd.
    Perhaps they should ban our “existences” as well because every day we are gambling our lives. this whole thing is out of context and stupid, i understand that gambling has been AO for some time but come on, how am i suppose to trust a rating company who would kindly slap stupid rating for profit in certain age groups

Comment on this story

HTML: Allowed code: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>