Loot Boxes Are Still A Problem

Today, BBC News have run another article about children emptying their parents’ bank accounts thanks to buying loot boxes without their parents’ permission. The loot boxes in this particular situation are in FIFA 19, and are by far one of the worst I’ve seen for targeting children.

The article explains that the kids spent £550 of their parents’ money on “player packs”, which are loot boxes that unlock specific players for use in online multiplayer matches. These players are essential to being able to win in multiplayer games because your starting squad if you don’t have specific players with specific skills is atrocious. According to the children’s father, his kids “still never got their favourite player” despite spending so much money.

Recently, EA (who publish FIFA, a game that comes out annually and which children keep demanding to have the latest version of because of a social need to keep up with their friends) tried to claim their loot boxes are “surprise mechanics” akin to a Kinder Egg. They are not. Loot boxes are scratch cards with especially low yields on the most-wanted items, as I explained to Bolton Council when I brought a motion to the council to pressure the Gambling Commission into action on these child-targeted gambling systems.

Loot Boxes aren’t anything new and they aren’t limited to EA games. Call of Duty in 2018 tried to create a “Social experience” around loot boxes by encouraging players to watch other players use these electronic scratch cards – and they set this “social experience” on the beaches of Normandy during D-Day. I said at the time that this was shameful and I stand by that.

Several countries have declared loot boxes to be gambling, and several have either outlawed the practice or severely restricted it. EA are trying to fight this (because loot boxes bring in millions of dollars in revenue for the companies using them to wring as much money out of their customers as possible). It is far past time the UK either severely curtailed the free-for-all loot box craze in gaming; or banned it entirely.

For my part, I would not be against an outright ban. However, if the Gambling Commission were to prefer to verge on the side of restriction, I suggest the following curtailments be considered:

  1. No game containing a loot box mechanic, or similar virtual gambling mechanic, to be legal to sell to a child; in physical or digital form.
  2. No loot box mechanic, or similar virtual gambling mechanic, to be legal if the chance of winning a/the “big prize” item is less than 10%.
  3. All probabilities of winning all items to be displayed on-screen during the purchase of either a loot box/other loot box-like mechanic or, in the case where loot boxes/other loot box-like mechanics, are employed in a way where the box is given for free and a key or similar item must be purchased to open it, during the purchase of the key/similar item.

That last curtailment is particularly concerning to me. I’ve played games that employ loot boxes before, and several of those games give you the loot box for free, because you can’t open the box unless you buy a key to do so. This is enticement of the next order, in my view. Psychologically, having the loot box puts you part of the way toward opening it; which makes it more likely that you will buy the key. I won’t go as far as to say this practice is evil, but it’s getting close.

Loot boxes are gambling. Gambling can be addictive. Why have we let these gambling mechanics become so prevalent in games, especially games either targeted at or played in a large part by children? Society has been negligent; it’s time we cleaned up our act.