When is gambling not gambling?
That’s the question that continues to be posed to the UK government after they effectively buried their head in the sand over video game ‘loot boxes’ last year.
These so-called games of chance, which can be accessed by children playing games like FIFA and Fortnite, require a player to effectively gamble on the contents of their box. If they don’t get the results they want, many buy more boxes until they do.
The UK government last year decreed that it would be ‘premature’ to regulate loot boxes as a gambling product, and ministers instead effectively called upon the games industry to self-police itself. Good luck with that approach….
The cat has been put firmly amongst the pigeons by an unlikely source. The Austrian High Court has declared that FIFA loot boxes violate the country’s gambling laws, and ordered the game’s developer, EA Sports, to refund all outstanding orders.
So will UK ministers retract their heads from the sand and follow a similar path?
What are Loot Boxes?
There’s a game mode in the FIFA series called Ultimate Team, where gamers look to improve their squads by purchasing player packs and revealing a Lionel Messi or a Kylian Mbappe to add to their team.
Of course, there’s only a limited number of players available in the game, and so some gamers are left out of pocket with a squad that would struggle to give Accrington Stanley a run for their money.
Indeed, EA Sports now publish pack probabilities to offer a little more transparency, and the chance of securing a player rated 84+ (Messi and co) is around 4.2%. Assuming it takes 25 purchases to reveal the Argentine legend, it would have cost the individual a cool £25. Now imagine how much it would cost to build that dream starting eleven….
This creates a buying motivation on the part of the individual, and so it’s not uncommon for some to show similar ‘addictive’ traits that are akin to those with problematic gambling behaviours.
Lots of games now use loot boxes as an additional revenue stream, with gamers keen to upgrade their avatars with must-have weapons, gadgets and skins – despite their being no guarantees that they will get what they want when the content of their box is revealed.
Research has found that 70% of young gamers surveyed had purchased a loot box at some point, while as many as 31% report buying at least one loot box every week.
What Has Austria Said About It?
A group of Austrian gamers took Sony, the publisher of FIFA, to court having spent hundreds on Ultimate Team player packs.
The court agreed that this form of loot box infringed their rules on gambling, ordering Sony to pay back the group. Their ruling came after it was decided that because a player pack can be worth more or less than the amount paid for it, it constitutes gambling on a positive outcome.
It’s thought that the ‘fine’ was relatively small scale, but even so this is not the first time a group of plaintiffs has won when attempting to sue a games developer over their loot boxes.
It should be said that Austria has stopped short of an outright ban on loot boxes, but the Netherlands and Belgium have instigated a full-on prohibition in their respective countries already.
Will the UK Ban Loot Boxes?
As per the government’s response to the same question in 2022, the answer is probably not.
Mind you, since their press release in July, in which they played down the likelihood of regulating loot boxes, there’s been a catalogue of changes within the government. Nadine Dorries, whose time as a frontline MP seems rather fantastical now – almost like a bad dream turned premonition – formulated the previous response.
The government’s White Paper on the gambling industry is due any day now (again), and it’s not thought that loot boxes and FIFA player packs will be part of its legislative changes.
The Gambling Commission has also played down its own role, stating that because loot boxes are not part of the previous Gambling Act regulation, they don’t have the powers to act.
However, they did prosecute two individuals for running a ‘skins gambling’ site – which basically allowed children to bet on sports using their FIFA coins.
So, for the time being at least, it seems unlikely that loot boxes will be banned in the UK. But if more countries do prohibit them, the pressure on the government will increase accordingly.