Does anybody actually like loot boxes? If you’re not a keen video gamer, you might not understand that question, in which case this article probably isn’t for you. However, if you did understand the question, we imagine your answer to it was a firm and resounding ‘no.’ Nobody likes loot boxes save for the people who insist on including them within video games and make money every time a paying customer engages with them. Having paid full price for a brand new video game, a customer is entitled to expect the ‘full experience’ from whatever they’ve just bought, but loot boxes make that almost impossible.
If you’ve been lucky enough never to encounter loot boxes before, here’s the basic lowdown on how they work. A game will provide players with the opportunity to buy the contents of a locked box. That box might contain a new character, new skills, new costumes, or other in-game rewards. The player has no way of knowing what’s inside the box until they’ve paid for it. The box’s contents might turn out to be as good as useless, but the player is not entitled to a refund. There’s a word for that process, and it’s ‘gambling.’ To many regulatory bodies and concerned citizens around the world, there’s no difference between paying for a loot box and paying to play online slots at a website. We sympathize with that argument – after all, a player has no idea whether or not they’re going to win anything playing online slots until they’ve already spent their money and spun the reels. There is still one crucial difference, though; online slots websites are highly regulated and are available to be played only by adults. Loot boxes appear in games that are played by children.
The existence of loot boxes has long been a contentious subject because of all the reasons we’ve outlined above, and some countries have already taken action against them. One of the most notorious video gaming companies for including loot boxes within their games is Electronic Arts, which relies on loot boxes to fund their ‘Ultimate Team’ modes in their popular ‘FIFA’ soccer series each year. The company was shocked last year when the Government of Belgium decided that the loot boxes inside the “FIFA 19” game constituted gambling and banned them outright. Electronic Arts vehemently disagreed with the ruling but ultimately altered the game’s format in Belgium to avoid falling foul of the new rule. Square Enix had a similar experience with its 2019 “Kingdom Hearts” and “Final Fantasy” games and ultimately decided not to publish them in Belgium at all.
At the time, this wasn’t seen as a big deal to video game development companies. Not being able to sell games – or, at least, not being able to sell full versions of games – in Belgium wasn’t seen as a big deal because Belgium isn’t a major market for anybody. It’s nice for any company to have the money that comes to them through Belgium, but losing access to Belgium isn’t a dealbreaker. If a larger video game market like the United States of America, the United Kingdom, or Japan were to suddenly declare loot boxes to be illegal, it would be a far bigger problem. Unfortunately for the companies that still rely on loot boxes to make cash, a ban has just become a distinct possibility in one of those markets.
After several years of contrasting rulings on the nature of loot boxes and the nature of electronic gambling in general, the United Kingdom appears to be ready to decide that loot boxes shouldn’t exist within games that are available to children and ought to be banned completely. After an extensive review, the country’s House of Lords concluded in July this year that the existence of loot boxes in video games violates the country’s 2005 Gambling Act, and that a ban was appropriate. The country’s Gambling Commission disagrees. To them, gambling is only gambling when the object being gambled for has a monetary value. They say that digital items can’t have a monetary value, so no gamble has occurred. It sounds like they’re on shaky ground, and their opinion is about to be put to the test.
The House of Lords does not, in isolation, have the power to create laws in the United Kingdom. The House of Lords can make recommendations, but it falls to the House of Commons to create laws and implement them. The Commons has examined the report from the Lords and has now opened up an eight week consultation period with the British public, asking for their views on loot boxes. The survey isn’t just interested in finding out what gamers think about loot boxes either; it also wants to find out how parents have been affected by their children engaging in loot boxes within games. Most of us have seen stories on the news in the past about a parent getting a credit card statement and finding that their child has spent huge sums of money on a game without their knowledge. Stories like that, backed up with evidence, may now become the deciding factor in whether the country allows the practice of including loot boxes within video games to continue.
After the eight week consultation period is up, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport will consider the responses and decide upon an appropriate course of action. If a ban does follow, it may not happen until 2021. The United Kingdom currently has an exceptionally busy legislative agenda thanks to the ongoing pandemic and the impending separation from the European Union, and so other non-priority matters aren’t receiving much – if any – legislative time. That might result in a temporary reprieve for loot boxes, but it’s unlikely to be anything more than a stay of execution. The weight of public opinion is undoubtedly behind a ban on loot boxes, and that will be reflected in the survey responses. Once they’re banned in the United Kingdom, it becomes a lot harder for companies to make a case for them to continue in the United States of America, Japan, or anywhere else. Loot boxes might have made a lot of loot for gaming companies for a very long time, but it seems as if their days of banditry are approaching an end.