This past week the Dutch gaming commission, Kansspelautoriteit, ruled that loot box mechanisms from four games identified out of ten selected for a study violated local laws and offered up the chance to gamble and play games of chance to young children and teens, something which is illegal in the Netherlands. Kansspelautoriteit at the time said that they have given the publishers and developers of these games until 20 June 2018 to fix the issue and remove the crates from their titles entirely, or otherwise neuter the system’s flaws that allow goods to be traded for money.
Weeks before Kansspelautoriteit took up the challenge of this study, the Belgian Gaming Commission announced that they were going to look into the issue as well, spurred on by complaints from gamers who were not happy with EA’ decision (at the time) to heavily weight the Star Wars Battlefront 2 multiplayer around the purchase of loot boxes to earn Star Cards. Their report has just been released, and it’s a second strike against the growing trend to throw loot boxes into popular games.
In a statement to the press by Belgian Minister of Justice, Koen Geens, the Belgian Gaming Commission (BGC) this week completed its study into the issue after Geens received complaints from gamers and the parents of gamers who were concerned about the recent loot box trend in new games, particularly Star Wars Battlefront 2. The BGC’s study took as long as the one run by the Netherlands, but concentrated on four games and their impact on players.
The study was focused on the loot box mechanisms, their addiction potential, and whether buying them would help players gain an unfair edge or benefit financially – turning them into games of chance, essentially. The criteria was that there needed to be a game element to the mechanism, a bet that could lead to a profit or loss, and that chance had to play a role in the game’s outcome; random chance, and not the player’s ability to manipulate the outcome. The commission picked Star Wars Battlefront 2, Overwatch, FIFA 18, and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive as their study targets, and found that, with the exception of Battlefront 2, the other games’ loot box mechanics contained a system that technically forms a game of chance (technically being used in the scientific form here).
The commission noted that EA’s immediate changes to Battlefront 2 did affect the study’s outcome in their favour, and that the upcoming changes to the Star Card system did not put them in the same category as the others. You’ll recall that almost two days before the game’s launch, EA made the decision to lock out Star Card purchases using crystals bought with real money, as a mitigation against the severe backlash the company was facing.
The BGC cautioned that the inclusion of loot boxes in videogames afforded easy access to minors and young teenagers who were under the legal gambling age limit, and that this violation of the laws put the developers and publishers at risk of fines of up to €800,000 (approx. R12 million) and possible jail time of up to five years. Both Geens and the BGC called on the developers and publishers to enter into a dialogue with the Belgian government to discuss and fix the issue, and to work together to regain compliance in the eyes of the law.
“Mixing games and gaming, especially at a young age, is dangerous for mental health,” said Geens. “We have already taken numerous measures to protect both minors and adults against the influence of, among other things, gambling advertising. That is why we must also ensure that children and adults are not confronted with games of chance when they are looking for fun in a video game.”
Further, the BGC has outlined how loot boxes as they typically appear in videogames may violate the law and technically constitute a game of chance. The requirements are:
- Emotional profit forecast: uncertainty in the contents of a loot box is linked to profit forecast
- A player may think that the purchase of a loot box has an advantage, which is not always the case
- Confusion of fiction and reality: well-known real people promote the most expensive loot boxes (in this case influencers who play these games and produce loot box opening videos)
- Use your own coin system: for a real amount, players can buy in-game coins
- There are near-infinite methods to deposit money on player accounts (no holds or limits on what players may spend)
- Hiding from the player the odds of the random generator
“Paying loot boxes are not an innocent part of video games that present themselves as games of skill,” said Peter Naasens, director of the BGC. “Players are tempted and misled, and none of the protective measures for gambling is applied. Now that it is clear that children and vulnerable people in particular are exposed to them unprotected, game manufacturers but also parties such as FIFA, for example, are called upon to call a halt to this practice. ”
Meanwhile in the Netherlands
I contacted the Dutch Gaming Commission (Kansspelautoriteit) to ask about the study, and enquired about the games that had been examined and analysed. They finally replied yesterday evening. These were their responses:
Q: The study mentions ten games that were selected according to their popularity. Which games were selected, and which of these games corresponds to the loot box ID number mentioned in the tables used in the study?
A: We do not disclose any further information about these games.
Q: Were the publishers and developers of these games notified of the study’s findings before publication on 19 April 2018? If so, have any responded to the Netherlands Gaming Authority?
A: We do not make any statements about ongoing investigations.
Q: The Gaming Authority found that four of the ten games selected violated local laws. How applicable is this study’s findings to other EU countries?
A: This study findings could be applicable to other EU countries as the elements that are used to determine whether a game is a game of chance, namely chance and prize, are used in other European countries too.
Q: With the study’s focus on popular games, it is possible that much less popular titles that also flout local laws were not examined. What should Dutch citizens do if there are other games which similarly violate the law?
A: The Gaming Authority advises parents and children not to buy loot boxes
Q: In cases where the Netherlands Gaming Authority is not able to work with the game publisher/developer to remove the ability to sell the contents of loot boxes before 20 June 2018, will these games be banned from being sold to Dutch citizens?
A: From 20 June 2018, the Netherlands Gaming Authority may instigate enforcement action against providers of games of chance with loot boxes that do not adhere to this norm. This enforcement is not restricted to the providers that were included in the 10 games.
Q: In cases where games with loot boxes that are highly addictive are included, but cannot have their contents sold for real money, what is the procedure there? These titles will not violate any gambling laws, but will be a serious concern when it comes to addiction. The press release mentioned that games providers need to remove “addiction-sensitive elements” from their titles, but in cases like the Steam or Google Play stores, where hundreds of these games exist, how will enforcement be possible?
A: The Netherlands Gaming Authority calls on providers of this type of loot box to remove the addiction-sensitive elements (‘almost winning’ effects, visual effects, ability to keep opening loot boxes quickly one after the other and suchlike) from the games and to implement measures to exclude vulnerable groups or to demonstrate that the loot boxes on offer are harmless.
To date, it has not been able to establish that providers of the games implement control measures to exclude vulnerable groups such as minors and to prevent addiction. The Netherlands Gaming Authority puts the protection of vulnerable groups, such as minors, first.
With the current laws and regulations the Netherlands Gaming Authority keeps monitoring these parties. Their behavior is taken into account in future contravening of the law and related activities that fall under the Betting and Gaming Act.
Although the representative did not disclose the games in the study, the four that were found to have violated Dutch gambling law were identified by a Dutch news site called NOS, which revealed the offending titles as FIFA 18, DOTA2, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, and Rocket League.
The reason for this, according to NOS, is that the commission chose to not identify the games mentioned in the study under the condition that the responsible developers and publishers removed or fixed the loot box mechanisms that existed in their titles.
If this is not done by the 20 June 2018 cut-off date, the Kansspelautoriteit would reveal the titles immediately, and ban their sale at the same time.