Brace yourself. It is once again time to talk about boxes. When questioned yesterday by the UK government's Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, the vice president of EA's legal and government affairs insisted on describing loot boxes as "surprise mechanics". I read her language choice as partly a doomed attempt to move away from the stigma attached to loot boxes, and partly to do with an as yet un-passed US bill attempting to legally define the term, with the intention of banning both them and pay-to-win mechanics.
It also ties into her argument that loot boxes are more akin to Kinder Eggs than slot machines. Not that she'd ever mention the latter.
The session was held as part of the DCMS Comitee "inquiry into Immersive and Addictive Technologies". EA's Kerry Hopkins made her comments in the context of a two and a half hour session where she, EA's UK Country Manager and two representatives from Epic Games faced a barrage of trap-laden questions designed to trip them up. That doesn't make the comments any less silly.
You can see the full recording here. They start talking about loot boxes at 15:43:16, and I'd suggest watching a little more than just the clip below. Partly because it's way more interesting than you'd think, and partly to get a better idea of the context.
EA's VP of legal and government affairs refuses to use the term 'lootboxes' in favor of 'surprise mechanics', compares them to Kinder Eggs, says they are not gambling and 'quite ethical'https://t.co/IbRqMwvJea pic.twitter.com/bJ8t3Fkib6
— Nibel (@Nibellion) June 19, 2019
"I think we all agree that a company like yourselves should have a code of ethics", began Scottish National Party MP Brendan O'Hara. "We've heard a lot of evidence in this committee... that loot boxes are closely linked to problem gambling, particularly among adolescents... do you consider loot boxes to be an ethical feature of your games?"
"Well first we don't call them loot boxes-" the VP started. O'Hara interrupted: "Whatever term you wish to apply to them, do you consider them ethical?".
"So we look at it as surprise mechanics. But I think it's important to look at this. If you go to a store that sells a lot of toys and you do a search for surprise toys, what you'll find is that this is something people enjoy. They enjoy surprises. It's something that's been part of toys for years, If you go to — I don’t know what your version of Target is — a store that sells lots of toys, and you do a search for surprise toys, what you’ll find is that this is something people enjoy. They enjoy surprises. And so, it’s something that’s been part of toys for years, whether it’s Kinder Eggs, or Hatchimals, or LOL Surprise. We do think the way that we have implemented these kinds of mechanics in FIFA — [which] of course is our big one, our FIFA Ultimate Team and our packs — is actually quite ethical and quite fun. Enjoyable to people."
When asked if she was "equally comfortable" with loot boxes in other EA games, she stated that: "For all of the games that we have on the market that have a randomised content mechanic, a surprise mechanic, a loot box - I have no qualms that they are implemented in an unethical way."
Course she doesn't.
My view is that Kinder Eggs do constitute gambling, but in an innocuous form. So do charity raffles. What's ethically relevant, at least once we step back from the legalese, isn't necessarily whether something constitutes gambling - it's the harm that gambling has the potential to cause. Very few people get addicted to surprise toys or raffles, but plenty do to slot machines. If the addictive properties of loot boxes have more in common with those of slot machines than Kinder Eggs, then they should be regulated by government bodies - as indeed slot machines are.
Part of the reason the VP's comparison fails is to do with ease of access. It's far, far harder for parents to accidentally facilitate a child's excessive consumption of surprise toys than it is for them to unwittingly let them make excessive purchases in an in-game store. There is a socially-imposed (not to mention practical) limit on the number of Kinder Eggs you can walk out of a supermarket with. Not so for digital currency you can buy from your bedroom.
Besides that, there's the obvious. While there's plenty of room for debate about the exact nature, extent and harm of a loot box's addictive properties, nobody can reasonably claim that those of Kinder Eggs don't pale in comparison. Every facet of loot box design revolves around leveraging human psychology into getting people to spend more money. The same might be said of Kinder Eggs, but again, context is key. Loot box designers have far more opportunity to manipulate, from the distribution and properties of rewards themselves to the myriad, microscopic details of their presentation.
Kotaku's Heather Alexandra has excellently covered all this in much greater detail than I will here, drawing on the personal compulsion she's felt towards loot boxes.
On a separate note, I found what happened just before EA's comments extremely interesting. Epic Games chief lawyer Canon Pence was asked how they regard their duty of care to their players. He brought up how it's hard to say what constitutes playing "too much" Fortnite, pointing out that you'd have the same difficulty deciding what constitutes watching too much football. His questioner's immediate riposte was to bring up how the World Health Organisation doesn't classify watching too much football as a disorder.
I hadn't thought about the impact of the WHO's classification in situations like this. I really like it - it provides a quick and easy way of highlighting the potentially addicting qualities games posses compared to other activities. The questioner points out that Epic gather information that could be used to intervene when players are playing excessively, but isn't, and compares that (indirectly) to an alcohol company failing in their duty of care by not putting 'drink responsibly' labels on their products. Overall, I think that's a valid comparison.
At the same time, the brief exchange (beginning at 15:36:00) also demonstrates the classification's pitfalls: at one point the questioner states that WHO "define gaming as a disorder", which is obviously inaccurate. I'm pleased to see it being used as an instrument to hold companies to account (despite that being far from the WHO's goal) but cringe at seeing it wielded too bluntly.