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Loot boxes should be regulated under gambling laws, Children's Commissioner recommends

The Children’s Commissioner for England, an official but independent role advocating for children’s rights and interests, has recommended that the government control loot boxes under gambling laws. This week the Commissioner’s office published a report into the experiences of kiddywinkles who play games online, with a few action points. After talking with kids, it recognises a lot of good they get from games but is wary of the pressures they can feel, particularly when money gets involved. And so the report calls for tighter legal controls on loot boxes and other microtransactions.

The report is fairly level-headed about online games, recognising that they are social experiences which can strengthen friendships and are, y’know, fun. But it’s concerned about peer pressure, bullying, how long some play, and spending on loot boxes and other microtransaction bits in games like Fortnite and Fifa.

The report calls for the government to amend the Gambling Act 2005, which doesn’t recognise digital game items as having “money’s worth” and so doesn’t cover them. The report responds:

“However, this argument ignores the fact that items won through loot boxes can be cashed out on illegal third party trading sites. Furthermore, the argument fails to recognise the value placed by children on winning certain items, even when those items cannot be cashed out for money – simply winning the game, is enough to persuade some children to spend enormous sums. Gambling laws need updating to reflect the reality of children’s experiences of spending money within games.”

Gamemakers volunteering to disclose loot box odds (like much of the North American industry plan) isn’t enough, and laws should intervene. “It is unavoidable that there are powerful economic interests to keep players opening loot boxes,” the report says. The industry can’t be trusted to self-regulate.

Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee also called current laws inadequate for the current digital reality with in September.

Games shouldn’t let children buy anything other than cosmetic items, the report also recommends, though even those can cause trouble for the kiddywinkles. It quotes ten-year-old Fortnite player Nina, “If you’re a default skin, people think you’re trash.” Oh, my heart.

The Commissioner further recommends that downloadable games should be subject to the same legally-enforced age restrictions as games sold in shops. That would require far-reaching and unlikely laws. Given that the UK government recently ditched wildly impractical plans to mandate age verification for porn, I’d be surprised if they picked the idea up again for this lesser moral panic.

The report touches on plenty more I’ll not get into. You can read a summary over here or the full report in this here PDF.

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Alice O'Connor

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When not writing news, Alice may be found in the sea.

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